By Mary Siisip Geniusz
University of Minnesota Press (2015)
Review by Elise Krohn
In Plants Have So Much To Give Us, All We Have To Do Is Ask, Anishinaabe author Mary Geniusz says, “It is an ancient Medewiwin teaching that for every problem humankind may have in this life there is a plant that can help.” This book is a powerful tool for those who want to deepen their understanding of edible and medicinal plants.
The author was a long-time student of the late Keewaydinoquay (Kee), an Anishinaabe medicine woman and ethnobotanist, and she honors her through documenting her teachings. Geniusz is an experienced herbalist, native foods forager, and Indigenous scholar in her own right, and she shares empirical knowledge including how she taught her two daughters about plants. Cultural knowledge is often carried from gener ation to generation, and the fact that her daughters Wendy Makoons Geniusz and Annmarie Geniusz serve as this book’s editor and illustrator, respectively, is testament to that.
While references on herbal medicine and native foods are prolific on bookstore shelves today, the information included is often dangerously vague and lacks cultural context. This book is an antidote to that. It includes detailed monographs for over 45 plants with botanical descriptions, Ojibwe and Western scientific nomenclature, traditional stories, and culinary and medicinal uses. Exploration on the “principle virtue” of each plant is especially useful, and will help students to discern unique plant qualities. A recipe section at the end of the book includes many delicious preparations like cattail cornbread, scalloped dandelion greens, rosewater cookies, and violet sherbet. Readers can also learn how to prepare remedies like white pine decongestant, kinnikinnick incense, and peppermint lip balm.
Anishinaabe knowledge systems are woven into the text, including stories about Naanabozho, the Creator. I was easily swept into the colloquial style of writing and found that it reads as if you were listening to a Native storyteller or teacher. The knowledge is both scholarly and engaging.
Educators will find that this book contains innovative teaching methods. Kee was an accomplished educator and taught in a style that integrates student-driven research, direct experience, engagement of the senses, community-based learning, reciprocity, and stewardship. Her students were empowered to develop strong relationships with plants, local ecosystems, their community, and their culture. Kee believed that researching plants from different scientific methodologies and cultural perspectives helps students to gain a greater understanding of the plant. In her worldview, plants are beings with their own histories, stories, beliefs, and ways of life.
This book covers plants that grow in the Great Lakes region, but the vast majority are common throughout the United States and Canada. Students of ethnobotany, medicine, ecology, Indigenous knowledge systems, language, and Anishinaabe culture will find it both informative and entertaining.
Elise Krohn, M.Ed., is author of Feeding the People, Feeding the Sprit and a fellow in ethnobotany and ethnonutrition at the Center for World Indigenous Studies.