The near-extinction of mouse beans along the Missouri River is a metaphor for the devastating impact of US development of tribal lands.
“The songs the Lakota women sang to the mice rang through the forest,” an elder told Linda Black Elk, ethnobotanist and science education instructor at Sitting Bull College on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. (An ethnobotanist studies how people of a region or culture use plants native to their homeland.)
The elder almost cried as she recalled walking with her mother in the now gone cottonwood forests to gather mouse beans from the rodent’s caches, according to Black Elk.
Meaty, filled with protein and low in fat, mouse beans were once an important, reliable food source for the Oceti Sakowin peoples, Lakota, Dakota and Nakota living along the Missouri River. Their near-extinction in that environment is a metaphor for the devastating impact of U.S. development of tribal lands on Native peoples and cultures.
Mouse beans — makatomnica in the Lakota language — are also called hog peanuts, a perennial climbing plant that grows in areas from the Great Plains to the Northeastern U.S. The seeds or beans grow in small disparate pods, making their harvest time consuming. According to the USDA, amphicarpaea bracteata or the hog peanut is commonly found in moist woodlands like the cottonwood forests that used to exist along the Missouri River in South and North Dakota near the homelands of the Oceti Sakowin. The mouse bean’s habitat in the region, however, was largely destroyed by the four Pick-Sloan Flood Control Act dams built along the river from 1946-1966.
The Pick-Sloan Project was grand in scale and goals. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed four dams to tame the vast Missouri River, thus reducing flooding and improving commercial agriculture and ability to build more highways. For citizens of the 23 reservations along the 700-mile stretch of river in North and South Dakota however, the project was devastating. With their homelands soon to be underwater, over 3,500 families were forced to leave the valley. The Oahe Dam destroyed more Native land than any other public works project in the United States. Ninety percent of the timber and bottomland belonging to the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Nations were destroyed, according to a recent article in ICMN.
These families were cut off from home gardens that had thrived in the gumbo soil along the Missouri River, but the loss of access to traditional wild plant foods and medicines was far worse. The unique gumbo soil of the region creates a challenging environment in which only a few specially adapted plants are able to thrive. Plants that do well in such environments depend on the cycle of flooding provided by the river.
The impact of this loss of the river’s ecosystem on culture and health continues to take its toll. For instance, rates of diabetes soared among tribes along the Missouri River after the dams were built and continue to plague communities today.
Since traditional food sources such as mouse beans were no longer available, Native folks had to rely much more on processed foods, like those from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Commodity Program, which supplied fatty canned meat, white flour, sugar and lard for decades to tribes.
More insidious than the immediate loss of land and access to food, however, was the impact of the new landscape on culture and Oceti Sakowin society.
The story of the mouse bean’s demise is a poignant distillation of these losses.
After moving to the area and beginning her job teaching ethnobotany at Sitting Bull College, Black Elk of the Catawba tribe, grew intrigued by the stories elders told her of mouse beans and the complex role the food source played in tribal life.
According to tribal elders, rather than laboriously picking individual beans on the wandering, leggy plant, women would instead dig up the large caches of beans gathered by mice on the floor of cottonwood forests along the Missouri River.
Gathering the beans was a ceremony in which the women first sang beautiful songs to the mice of their intent to take some of the rodent’s harvest. In the songs, the women asked for the mice’s permission to open their caches and reassured them that they would leave enough beans for them to survive the winter. The songs also included words of thanks and honoring for the animals. The mice were gifted with bits of dried meat and fruit in exchange for the beans.
There were also songs and teaching stories, now almost forgotten, about women who took more than their share from the mice or failed to leave appropriate gifts. The songs warned of bad luck that might befall these women.
Hearing these stories, Black Elk grew determined to learn all she could about the plant. She chose mouse beans as her research project for the PhD in Ecology and Environmental Science she is currently pursuing at the University of Montana.
Trying to grow mouse beans, however, proved to be daunting. She soon learned that the beans needed to be gently scored, as they are when mice gather them with their teeth, in order to germinate. At last her germinated seeds sprouted and began to grow; she transplanted the seedlings near cottonwood trees on the reservation. They seemed to grow well but at a certain point would disappear, pulled out of the ground by an unknown hand. It was a mystery.
She soon learned through the moccasin telegraph, the informal gossip system on the reservation, that a group of elder ladies were digging up the beans and eating them.
Black Elk found and spoke to the women.
“They cried over memories of gathering and eating the beans as children. Their craving was so great that they dug up the few beans I’d planted,” she recalled.
It was then that Black Elk realized the depth of the emotional and cultural connection with traditional indigenous foods.
The realization underscored the importance of teaching her students the cultural stories and teachings associated with learning about the native plants in their world.
“I teach them far more than the means to simply identify a plant. In our ethno-botany classes at Sitting Bull College students learn about the cultural protocols for gathering and using plants for food and medicine,” Black Elk said.
In Black Elk’s classes, students learn to harvest only what they need and to do so in a way that ensures the plants continued survival.
Black Elk was shocked to learn that despite their relatives’ comparatively recent history of harvesting and eating native plants, few had eaten fresh vegetables from a garden.
“I’ve had students whose only experience eating corn was from a can,” she noted.
Black Elk requires students to prepare a dish from native plants as part of their final grade.
“They really get into the whole process and come up with great recipes and ways to use the plants,” according to Black Elk. She is working on putting together a book of the student’s recipes.
“I teach them that their ancestors saw their world as one enormous garden from which they could harvest what they needed to survive,” she said.
Black Elk tells her students that they are all descended from scientists. “Our ancestors had to be scientists in order to learn not only to live but also how to thrive in the harsh environment of the Plains.”
Students are empowered by this knowledge and are excited to learn about their ancestor’s skills “The class is very popular at Sitting Bull College; we always have full enrollment,” Black Elk noted.
For Black Elk, teaching ethnobotany at a tribal college contributes to a paradigm shift in which Native peoples are reconnecting with the earth’s processes and relearning the interconnected nature of life.
She tells her students that the indigenous knowledge and survival skills of their ancestors may also come in handy sometime soon.
“What if we lose the food stamp programs in this uncertain political climate?” she asked.
“We’ll be happy we don’t have to go to the store to find something to eat.”