Discussing the Plant Humanities: Indigenous Knowledge

The yam, Ipomoea batatas, from Mark Catesby’s The Natural History of Florida, Carolina and the Bahama Islands, Vol. II, Plate 60

In September 2022, Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Library presented a three-day conference on the Plant Humanities, the capstone event for it’s Plant Humanities Initiative that was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.  The initiative included research by a number of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows on topics that explored a broad array of areas linking plants to the indigenous peoples who had discovered their uses, the artists and writers who were inspired by them, and the scientists who studied them.  There was also funding for a project with JSTOR Labs to develop software called Juncture, which allows users to create online presentations that combine text in interesting ways with images, maps, timelines, and charts.  Though it is still being developed, there are a number of essays in this format on the Plant Humanities Lab site, and it’s definitely worth visiting.  I have written about this project before (1,2) but after the conference, I have a much richer perspective on it that I want to share in this series of posts.

I don’t think I’ve ever been to a conference where the talks were so well presented.  The first session was in the late afternoon, not usually a time for maximum focus, at least for me, but all the speakers were wonderful.  In this post, I’ll mention two.  First was Jessica B. Harris, a professor emerita at Queens College in New York who is noted for her research on African-American foods, including her book High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America (2011).  She spoke about the rather complicated connections between two root vegetables, the African yam Dioscorea rotundata with a whitish tuber and the Latin American sweet potato Ipomoea batatas with yellowish pulp.  In the United States, the two are often confused with sweet potatoes inaccurately called yams.  Besides a similarity in form, another reason for this mix-up is that both were used as food by enslaved people, who brought the yam with them from West Africa where it had long been cultivated.  In turn, cross-Atlantic trading carried the sweet potato to Africa and to the southern parts of North America.  Harris did a great job of describing these basics and much more, and she’s written about the “candied yams” of Thanksgiving as a misnomer. 

Robin Wall Kimmerer, like Harris, joined via Zoom.  She is an environmental biologist, a member of the Potawatomi Nation, and the author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (2013), a book that connects her heritage with her science.  This is also what she did in her presentation.  She noted that in her native language, Mshkikineck is the word for plants in general, but it means medicinal plants, because this is how plants are seen in her culture.  Mshkiki means strength of the earth, something plants imparted to the humans who used them.  Kimmerer also said that Native Americans consider plants as persons, as animate beings, a concept that is now more widely discussed in the plant humanities.  As to the sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata) in her book’s title, it is a sacred ceremonial plant among the Potawatomi.

Later in the conference, there were two more presentations about indigenous uses of plants.  Elizabeth Hoover of the University of California, Berkeley discussed her work with Native American food networks and efforts to revive their agricultural practices and heirlooms crops.  Rosalyn LaPier of the University of Montana described her studies on the environmental history of the lands in the Northern Great Plains that were the home of the Blackfeet Nation to which she belongs.  LaPier’s background is interesting.  She has an undergraduate degree in physics and years later, as she became more aware of her culture and its ties to the land, returned to school, earning a doctorate in environmental history.

LaPier is working with tribal members to discover more about their religious understanding of the plant world.  She has interviewed tribal elders of the Blackfeet Nation, focusing on plants that are used in cleansing ceremonies including smudging.  This is a ritual designed to expel negativity from an individual and involves the burning of specific plants.  Religion and plants was a theme that came up in several contexts during the conference and is something that I for one tend to ignore in my conception of the plant world.  This was one of the benefits of the meeting:  it encouraged the participants to broaden their views of plants, no matter from what perspective they were coming. 

In her work LaPier made a list of 40 plants that were employed in smudging in the past and documented how they were used.  Since the Blackfeet now have access to only a small portion of the land they originally occupied, they can no longer find many of the plants with narrow ranges.  Today sage, sweetgrass, and tobacco are most commonly used.  The ritual involves burning the plant material with the person putting their hands over the smoke, collecting it, and then “washing” with it, starting with the face.  In the past, this was often done at the beginning of any religious ceremony as a form of preparation, now it is frequently considered a ceremony in its own right.  LaPier’s presentation on this portion of her nation’s traditions, like that of Kimmerer’s, was infused with the reverence and respect of someone who is an embodiment of an ancient and still living culture.


Harris, J. B. (2011). High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America. New York: Bloomsbury.

Kimmerer, R. W. (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis: Milkweed.

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