“Just scrape a little of the bark off,” said Alvin Yellow Owl as his knife slid under the bark of the aspen tree. “Chew on it a little ‘til it’s kind of pulpy—it’ll taste a little bitter—and then put it on your skin. The bark and the sap of the aspen tree contain salicylic acid.” He grinned, “Tree power!”
Salicylic acid is the active ingredient in many commercial dermatological products intended to heal a host of skin conditions ranging from acne and psoriasis to warts and wrinkles. It is also a chemical precursor in the synthesis of aspirin.
For thousands of years, the native peoples of the Americas roamed the continents, hunting and foraging for food and using the plants that grew locally for both healing and ceremonial purposes. Documentary filmmaker Darren Kipp Long Gun and his friend Alvin Yellow Owl, both members of the Blackfoot tribe, are working to revive what Kipp calls “traditional ecological knowledge” about local plants that can be used medicinally and for food.
“Having this knowledge is very empowering,” said Kipp, “because it’s about our relationship to the land and passing that knowledge on. It keeps me connected to my tribe, my community and the area where I live. My ancestors used local plants for trade, indicators of the season, food, paints and dyes, medicine and ceremonies. All those plants are still here—in your front yard, by the river and in the mountains. You don’t have to go deep into the Sawtooths to find plants such as rose hips, yarrow or camas.”
Yarrow, which resembles a fern and has yellow, white or pink blooms depending on the acidity of the soil, can be found from Alaska to New Mexico and is abundant in the Wood River Valley. The Blackfeet call it “aohtoksooki” and use it in smudge sticks as an insect repellent. Applied externally, yarrow soothes scrapes, rashes, poison ivy, stinging nettle and mosquito bites.
Alvin Yellow Owl demonstrated for me: “Pick a little bit, stick it in your mouth and chew it up, then put it on your skin and rub it around. It’s one of the many things in nature we can use.” Considered a “medicinal wonder,” yarrow stems bleeding in minor wounds, can reduce inflammation in the digestive tract, acts as a sedative, and can alleviate toothaches when taken orally.
Master herbalist Darcy Williamson, author of “Healing Plants of the Rocky Mountains,” often teaches medicinal uses of local plants to tribal groups who have a new-found interest in that part of their heritage. “The Shoshone and Bannock tribes wintered in the Fort Hall area during the ‘season of the snowy moon’ and that’s when the knowledge was passed down through storytelling,” she said. “But when the children were forced to go to public schools, the storytelling stopped, the language was forgotten and the knowledge lost.”
Anyone traveling up Highway 20 in the springtime is familiar with the blanket of blue blossoms that give the Camas Prairie its name. The camas plant was a staple of the Native American diet and this area is where the Bannock tribe summered. Boiled or roasted, camas root tastes like sweet potato; the dried bulb can be pounded into flour for bread or mashed to a pulp and used as a sweetener.
The healing plants found in the Wood River Valley area and used by the Shoshone include arrowleaf balsamroot—easy to spot with its bright yellow daisy-like flowers—holly grape, chokeberry, rose hip, and horsemint or wild bergamot (see sidebar). These and others are detailed in herbalist Michael Moore’s book “Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West.” In addition, Williamson offers classes on the subject in both the Sun Valley and McCall areas.