Cheryl Morales started the medicinal garden at the Aaniiih Nakoda College demonstration farm with only four plants: yarrow, echinacea, plantain and licorice root.
After 10 years, the campus garden within the Fort Belknap reservation in Montana now holds more than 60 species growing over nearly 30,000 square feet. She adds new plants annually. This year, she is testing Oregon grape root and breadroot.
Such plants have been used as medicines for generations by the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes who live on the reservation. Echinacea is used to help boost the immune system. Valerian produces a strong sedative that can address nervousness, tension and stress. Licorice root acts as an antihistamine, which treats allergy symptoms.
Like many people in the Fort Belknap community, Morales, 60, is working to teach herself and others the traditional indigenous health knowledge that was largely lost because of federal policies.
“Our ancestors, did they know they were scientists? No. They were just taking care of their body, taking care of their people,” said Morales, who teaches ethnobotany. “All this knowledge, they knew it. They handed it down, and for years and centuries. We took it for granted. And here we are trying to teach ourselves, trying to learn.”
Now the Indian Health Service, a federally funded and treaty-promised health care service, is also starting to embrace such knowledge. The Fort Belknap IHS hospital is seeking job applicants for two traditional practitioner positions — the first positions of their kind in Montana.
The move is surprising because the federal government would essentially be paying for medicine men, or women, to help treat IHS patients, despite punishing such expertise for generations.
D’Shane Barnett, executive director of the Missoula Urban Indian Health Center, said he was able to use the Fort Belknap job listing to create a similar position. Traditional healers at an IHS hospital or an urban Indian clinic could work with illnesses or problems that affect the community in a way that Western-based clinicians might not, he said. Diseases like diabetes and heart disease, as well as problems like domestic violence, require lifestyle changes, not only a clinical solution, he said.
Because traditional healers were forced to go underground in the past, and the community is protective of traditional health knowledge, it can be difficult to determine the qualifications of traditional healers. They are not certified or licensed positions, like those held by other health workers.
Yet the traditional healers working at the Health Center would need to fill many roles to help with physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs of the 7,000 enrolled tribal members. They would educate hospital workers about traditional practices and cultural sensitivity, connect patients with resources, and use traditional native diagnostic and treatment procedures like ceremonies, blessings and sweats.
IHS spokesman Marshall Cohen said a traditional healer would act “as an advocate and liaison.”
This marks a turnaround from the federal government’s history with traditional tribal practices. In 1883, the commissioner of Indian Affairs set up the Courts of Indian Offenses on reservations, which regularly issued rules prohibiting religious dances, ceremonies and practices of medicine men.
At Fort Belknap, many medicine people and spiritual leaders were forced underground to avoid punishment, and many families chose not to teach traditional knowledge to their children. Materials used for religious ceremonies were confiscated, and people were taken to jail and sometimes killed if found to be taking part in any of the activities that the commissioner’s office deemed illegal.
It wasn’t until the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978 that the federal government acknowledged the right of American Indian tribes to practice their religions, speak their languages, visit their sacred sites and use their traditional health practices. But the clampdown took a toll on knowledge passed down for generations by the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes at Fort Belknap.
Previously, around 15 spiritual leaders or medicine men or women would have served at Fort Belknap, each with specific knowledge, said Minerva Allen, 86, an Assiniboine elder who learned how to use plants from her grandmother. Today, there are four traditional medicine specialists at Fort Belknap; three are Gros Ventre spiritual leaders and one is Assiniboine.
Still, the Fort Belknap tribes have fought hard to hold on to what remains of that knowledge.
“For over 180 years, they’ve been trying to blend us in the melting pot of America and make citizens out of us, but we have held on to our own culture, and we have our own identity,” said John Allen, 67, the Assiniboine spiritual leader with medicinal knowledge and Minerva Allen’s son.
He has treated people with physical, mental and spiritual ailments for more than 30 years.
Having a traditional healer at the hospital would help community members better understand their overall health, Morales said. “This would connect them spiritually and reunite that link with our past that has been missing from our culture and traditions.”
She knows firsthand about that missing link. Her great-grandmother Melvina Horn was a well-known Assiniboine plant expert, but Morales’ grandparents were afraid that the government would punish them for using traditional medicine.
Morales remembers how Horn would pick peppermint to make tea when her aunt was sick with a cold. That was the extent of Morales’ medicinal plant knowledge before she attended a National Science Foundation presentation in 2009 on medicinal plants that grow in the Dakotas. She found that many of these plants also grew in Montana. “I wanted to learn more and more and more,” she said.
Today she teaches students in the college’s Native American Studies and Allied Health associate degree programs the lost traditional and cultural ways their people used the plants.
“It helps them to understand their people, how they used it, what they used it for, and gives them a better understanding of who they are,” she said. “Medicine, plants, it’s part of us.”