Spirit of the berry speaks to us still
Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere provided for their nutrition from a broad harvest of plant and animal sources, which have added a great deal of healthful variety to the world food economy and knowledge of plant use.
American Indians were among the early teachers of Europeans about the nutritional basis of disease. Virgil Vogel's compendium, ''American Indian Medicine'' (1970), referenced the journal of Jacques Cartier's second voyage up the St. Lawrence River in 1535 in search of northern gold after having failed to find the Northwest Passage in an earlier journey. In this first recorded North American treatment of Europeans using Native medicine, Cartier described the ravages of scurvy among the crew of his three ships as they lay frozen in the ice through the long winter months near what is now known as Montreal.
He described their cure, gleaned from an Aboriginal individual whom he had seen only several weeks before passing by on the ice who: ''had bene very sicke with that disease, and had his knee swolne as bigge as a childe of two years old, all his sinews shrunke together, his teeth spoyled, his gummes rotten, and stinking. Our Captaine seeing him whole and sound, was therat marvelous glad, hoping to understand and know of him how he had healed himself, to the end he might ease and help his men.'' Using what was concluded by future editors of Jacques Cartier's journal to be the inner bark and tips of needles of the white pine, this effective antiscorbutic not only saved the lives and careers of Cartier's crew, but was later noted by British naval surgeon and researcher James Lind of Edinburgh (1716 - 1794) in his experiments with scurvy patients.
Scurvy, a fatal disease of severe vitamin C deficiency, is characterized by bleeding gums, loosening teeth and fetid breath; anemia and fatigue; and pain in extremities and joints. The walls of all the small and large blood vessels, as well as other connective tissue such as bone, cartilage, ligament and tendon, virtually dissolve due to impaired collagen and elastin synthesis. Collagen is a strong, insoluble, fibrous protein that is the ''glue'' of connective tissue. Elastin is a protein necessary for the growth of blood vessels.
According to the ''Food and Life Yearbook 1939,'' published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it is possible to be in a sub-clinical state of scurvy. ''In fact even when there is not a single outward symptom of trouble, a person may be in a state of vitamin C deficiency more dangerous than scurvy itself. When such a condition is not detected, and continues un-corrected, the teeth and bones will be damaged, and what may be even more serious, the blood stream is weakened to the point where it can no longer resist or fight infections not so easily cured as scurvy.'' (Klenner, F.R. ''Observations on the dose and administration of ascorbic acid when employed beyond the range of a vitamin in human pathology.'' Journal of Applied Nutrition Vol. 23: 3 - 4  .)
In his classic ''Nutrition and Physical Degeneration,'' a unique study of the effects of the modern ''civilized'' diet on the health of indigenous peoples throughout the world in the 1930s and 1940s, Dr. Weston Price related the following encounter with an individual from a First Nations community in Canada:
''When I asked an old Indian through an interpreter why the Indians did not get scurvy, he promptly said that it was a white man's disease. I asked whether it was possible for the Indians to get scurvy. He replied that it was, but said that the Indians knew how to prevent it and the white man does not. When asked why he did not tell the white man how, his reply was that the white man knew too much to ask the Indian anything. I then asked him if he would tell me. He took me by the hand and led me to a log where we both sat down. He then described how when the Indian kills a moose he opens it up and at the back of the moose just above the kidney there are what he described as two small balls of fat. These he said the Indian would take and cut up into as many pieces as there were little and big Indians in the family and each would eat his piece. They would also eat the walls of the second stomach. By eating these parts of the animal the Indians would keep free from scurvy, which is due to a lack of vitamin C. The Indians were getting vitamin C from the adrenal glands and organs. Modern science has very recently discovered that the adrenal glands are the richest sources of vitamin C in animals or plant tissues.''
Unlike moose and other animals, we human beings lost the ability to synthesize ascorbate, or vitamin C, in our own bodies due to genetic mutation long, long ago in the journey of our evolution. If we understand human evolution to be a process involving genetic, metabolic, nutritional and environmental factors, then this mutation surely served the aims of evolution. Perhaps this was nature's way of weaving our mammalian bodies more intimately into the web of life that we acknowledge today in our ceremonies.
As Homo sapiens, we are now totally dependent on daily dietary intake to meet our considerable metabolic need for this protective nutrient. An individual's age and blood chemistry affects the body's demand for vitamin C. Physiologic stress levels including pregnancy, contraceptive pill use, normal aging, sleep patterns, trauma (pathogenic, surgical, accidental or intentional), exposure to pesticides or other environmental considerations, variations in individual absorption, and inadequate storage or kidney thresholds all increase the body's daily demand for vitamin C.
Other valuable indigenous sources of ascorbic acid (vitamin C), as well as iron, calcium, B complex and other phytonutrients, are the berry plants. Wild berries in particular remind us of the geography of our childhood. Indeed, they are a special, loving gift of nature to children and to women. Over 250 species of berries - strawberry, blueberry, red raspberry, chokecherry, currant, elderberry, cranberry, sumac berry and blackberry, to name a few - continue to be gathered in Native America and utilized for their nutritional and medicinal value. Berries are most delicious and healthful when taken directly from the earth, which is to say at their proper time according to natural cycles, mindful of environmental quality concerns and significance of place.
In traditional practice, the act of gathering berries is accompanied by prayer and the handling of tobacco for the purpose of giving thanks, acknowledgement and greetings to the spirit of the plant. Certainly, this act of reciprocity, this consciousness of spiritual connection to the physical landscape, is central to an ecological understanding of nutrition which moves beyond the language of ''minimum daily requirements'' and the many controversies surrounding dose.
Among the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), the wild strawberry is celebrated as the ''leader'' of the small fruits because it is the first berry food to appear in the spring. It is sacred food because we still understand and fulfill our relationship to it as human beings. We remember its protective power in our linguistics and we still share the stories that go with it, the ''mythistory'' if you will, of the berry spirit. The central theme of those stories always has to do with the power of love in healing and in maintaining harmonious relations.
One of our names for wild strawberry is ''heart-berry,'' special among the berry people for its very essence: the way it smells, the way it looks, the way it tastes, the way it makes us feel when we eat it. Even the way it sends out red runners along the ground to reproduce itself inspires us to think of the regeneration of our own families. Why else would traditional women's clothing of the Haudenosaunee depict the wild strawberry and its runners in beaded expression? This is how our families are - sending out new shoots to create new families continuously. It is no wonder that the wild strawberry plant is dug up whole from the field in the fall, stored in a root cellar or other dry, dark place, and utilized by family elders in restoring the blood after childbirth, particularly for recovery from post-partum hemorrhage or cesarean section. The iron and minerals in the berries, leaves, roots and runners of the wild strawberry make this favorite berry plant a valuable blood remedy.
''The spirit is in the blood,'' elder and healer Jo Peters of the California Mono people said. Strengthening and restoring spirit is the reason that strawberry water is a key element of the traditional feast.
Traditional knowledge linking food habits and preparation of decoctions from berry plant parts to human well-being finds sound footing in medicine and nutrition. As with all berries, strawberries are rich in vitamin C, as well as vital minerals. Vitamin C is a water soluble essential nutrient which helps detoxify the body, promote healing and strengthen connective tissue. Vitamin C is necessary for the body to absorb iron and it cooperates with B complex vitamins in maintaining the endocrine system and metabolic function. As an aid in forming red blood cells, vitamin C is necessary for resistance to infection, healing, and the prevention of hemorrhage. It has been used in the treatment of viral diseases such as herpes, the common cold and hepatitis C. It is also used to prevent and heal bacterial infection.
A potent antioxidant, vitamin C is used in the body's immune system to protect against free radicals. Free radicals, unstable molecules which set off a chain reaction of damage to our cells, combine with lifestyle habits like the overconsumption of high-glycemic carbohydrates, leading to high blood insulin levels, in turn inciting inflammatory reactions within the body. Recent research reveals the link between chronic, systemic inflammation - like gum disease - and the development of degenerative diseases including heart disease, cancer, stroke, Alzheimer's and others. Vitamin C stands out among the micronutrients protective of life in its role as an antioxidant.
In combination with blackberry root, wild strawberry leaves have long been known to be an effective remedy for diarrhea. Berries, due to their iron salts, have astringent properties, meaning that they cause constriction of tissue and they arrest bleeding and discharge. In a letter appearing in the 1804 Philadelphia Medical and Surgical Journal, James Anderson wrote:
''Last summer when I was near the settlement of the Oneida Indians (in the state of New York) the dysentery prevailed much and carried off some of the white inhabitants, who applied to the Indians for a remedy. They directed them to drink a decoction of the roots of blackberry bushes, which they did, after which not one died. All who used it agreed, that it is a safe, sure and speedy cure.''
Blueberry traditions of the Anishinaabeg shared by Keewaydinoquay also detail the use of the blueberry ''... for violent continuous diarrhea, dysentery, and derangements of the bowels. Teas, decoctions, syrups and poultices are also used as an astringent treatment for gastric colitis and other stomach conditions.'' (Keewaydinoquay. ''Blue Berry: First Fruit of the People, Collected and Retold.'' 1978 for the Miniss Kitigan Drum; 7th printing, 1985.)
In these many recorded descriptions and oral knowledge, the spirit of the berries continues to speak to us. In the face of the rapidly changing indicators of health in Indian country, we real people need to continue to listen.
Katsi Cook, Akwesasne Mohawk, is a traditional midwife and director of the Iewerokwas Program. She is a columnist for Indian Country
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Posted: September 01, 2005
by: Katsi Cook / Indian Country Today