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Uses of Plants by the Hidatsas of the Northern Plains

Gilbert Livingston Wilson

Publication Year: 2014

In 1916 anthropologist Gilbert L. Wilson worked closely with Buffalobird-woman, a highly respected Hidatsa born in 1839 on the Fort Berthold Reservation in western North Dakota, for a study of the Hidatsas’ uses of local plants. What resulted was a treasure trove of ethnobotanical information that was buried for more than seventy-five years in Wilson’s archives, now held jointly by the Minnesota Historical Society and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Wilson recorded Buffalobird-woman’s insightful and vivid descriptions of how the nineteenth-century Hidatsa people had gathered, prepared, and used the plants and wood in their local environment for food, medicine, smoking, fiber, fuel, dye, toys, rituals, and construction.

From courtship rituals that took place while gathering Juneberries, to descriptions of how the women kept young boys from stealing wild plums as they prepared them for use, to recipes for preparing and cooking local plants, Uses of Plants by the Hidatsas of the Northern Plains provides valuable details of Hidatsa daily life during the nineteenth century,



Published by: University of Nebraska Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-x

List of Illustrations

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pp. xi-xiv

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pp. xv-xviii

...Gilbert Livingston Wilson (1869– 1930) was, in many respects, an anthropologist well ahead of his time. Anthropology in the first few decades of the twentieth century was highly focused on collecting any cultural information that could be salvaged from American Indians who had lived in and...

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pp. xix-xx

...Tom Thiessen read through the manuscript and, noting that he had a few comments, went on to fill numerous pages with good advice of both the obvious (which had escaped me) and the obscure (about which I had never thought). Kristen Mable at the...

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pp. xxi-xxxvi

...Gilbert L. Wilson’s ethnobotanical project had its origins in his collaboration with Professor Josephine Tilden of the Botany Department at the University of Minnesota. At her behest, in the summer of 1916 Wilson collected examples of plants used by the Hidatsas and the purposes...

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Editor’s Note

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pp. xxxvii-xlii

...I have retained Gilbert Wilson’s writing and philosophy throughout. Although some minor editing has been necessary, each account is essentially presented as Wilson recorded it. I have relied on two sources. One is the material in his notebooks, which were transcribed on the spot from comments...

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1. Plants That Are Eaten

Michael Scullin

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pp. 1-56

...A book that is, in many respects, an ethnobotanical treatise must, I think, deal with those plants the author or editor considers to be the most important: plants that provided wood and plants that were grown in gardens. Buffalobird- woman and Gilbert Wilson have given us an extraordinarily detailed...

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2. Plants That Can Be Eaten

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pp. 57-68

...In some prairies these small trees dot the landscape. Being very thorny, they are little browsed. The small, red fruits look appealing, but as Buffalobird- woman makes clear, they are nowhere near as desirable as they look...

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3. Plants That Are Sweet

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pp. 69-100

...As one reads through this book it is apparent that sweetness is frequently mentioned. For example, one reason for the gathering of prairie turnips was because they are sweet, and Buffalobirdwoman was quite emphatic about that. Cactus fruits are sweet, ripe currents are sweet, and so on. But...

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4. Plants That Are Good to Chew

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pp. 101-106

...This is a gum found in a crack or broken place in the small branches of a pine tree in Montana. I remember my father climbing a tree and scraping off the gum with a knife. I spread a saddle skin under the tree and the pieces of gum fell on it. The gum was brown as it came from the tree...

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5. Plants That Smell Good

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pp. 107-124

...These plants produce seed that was much used for perfume. I gathered the plants about the middle of August. The seeds should be about ripe then. The seeds are brown when dead ripe and are at their best, but the plants should be gathered while the seeds were a little green though they were...

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6. Plants That Have Medicinal Uses

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pp. 125-138

...This plant grows always in the timber in the hills and has white blossoms. It is not very abundant, though hardly a rare plant either. The Crows eat this plant. It is plucked when about 15 inches high. The fire is pushed away and the plant is laid on the hot ashes and rolled about with a stick so it will not burn. When [the plant is] well baked, the one cooking...

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7. Plants Used for Fiber

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pp. 139-160

...Spreading dogbane or Indian hemp has milky sap like milkweed, but the flowers are somewhat different, and the pods are long and pencil thin. In the fall the foliage turns a bright yellow, making the plants stand out from the surrounding vegetation...

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8. Plants Used for Smoking

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pp. 161-194

...As recently as the mid- 1990s, this species was thought by some botanists to be extinct. At that time I had it growing in my garden, having obtained some seeds from an Iowa schoolteacher who grew Indian crops. I once received a phone call from a taxonomist who had somehow heard of my garden...

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9. Plants Used for Dye and Coloring

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pp. 195-200

...This plant grows abundantly on the prairie on this reservation. It was used in old times for dying red, though I never used it myself. In my time we had come to use whitemen’s dyes a good deal. We used to take whitemen’s cloth and cut it up into pieces to make dye for porcupine quills. Thus we made green...

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10. Plants Used for Toys

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pp. 201-208

...thinks means to strike with a glancing blow, and ki is a diminutive. The players take turns throwing a dry and peeled young willow or boxelder stick. In throwing, the forefinger is hooked over the smaller end and the sticks are thrown the greater end first. These are thrown against the ground...

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11. Plants Used for Utilitarian Purposes

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pp. 209-248

...Cordgrass is a coarse grass often found growing in thick stands where soils are wet most of the time. It can easily reach 5 to 6 feet (2 m) in height and has a sandpapery feel on the top of the leaf. Roofing and reroofing earthlodges required great quantities of this grass. Buffalobird- woman later refers...

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12. Plants Used for Rituals orwith Ritual Significance

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pp. 249-276

...and of the Native American world throughout the entire range of these plants. Pasture sage from my garden has been a part of Dakota weddings, funerals, powwows, dedications, and sweatlodge ceremonies. Sage has its mundane uses as well— see the example of killing fleas in this chapter and the section on wild plums in chapter 3. It is a prominent element of the plains...

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13. Sources of Wood

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pp. 277-302

...The Hidatsas, living as they did in the Northern Great Plains, were faced with the fact that many resources used by their ancestors from the east and more or less taken for granted were either different, scarce, or absent. The most valuable plant resource, and one that was consumed in vast quantities, was wood...

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14. Uses of Wood

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pp. 303-330

...Gathering firewood was an activity, like hunting or hauling water, that never ceased. Each household used large quantities of wood just to cook meals and, in the winter, to provide some heat for the winter lodge as well. The two factors most heavily weighted in determining the location of a winter village (besides gaining shelter from the incessant winds of the plains) were...

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15. Arrows

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pp. 331-356

...Even during the period covered here, roughly between 1850 and 1900, bows and arrows were still very much part of Hidatsa culture. Making flint arrowheads and stone axes became a lost art almost immediately when iron arrow points, knives, and axes became widely available in the first decades...

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16. Earthlodges

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pp. 357-392

...In reading about the earthlodge, one should keep in mind that the lodge was more than shelter. It was both microcosm and macrocosm of the Earth and the universe as perceived by the Hidatsas. The interior of the lodge was always oriented, in the minds of the occupants, to the cardinal directions no...

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17. Miscellaneous Material

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pp. 393-412

...Baskets were still being made and used at the time the Wilson brothers were at Fort Berthold, and Frederick did a detailed study of their manufacture, which included his trying his hand at making one. A historical account of the origins of Hidatsa (and Mandan and Arikara) basket making was published...

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pp. 413-418

...Hidatsa uses of plants were to a very large extent defined by the period during which they were being collected— in this case, from 1845, when they settled at Like- a- Fishhook, to Wilson’s fieldwork between 1906 and 1918. This was a period of calamitous change in the form of disease and intensive warfare with...


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pp. 419-426


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pp. 427-432

E-ISBN-13: 9780803267749
E-ISBN-10: 0803267746
Print-ISBN-13: 9780803246744

Page Count: 352
Publication Year: 2014