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Take a Hike | Commentary by Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel
| Sunday, Nov 8, 2015

DianneErskineHellrigelEvery year when November rolls around, I think of the stories my parents told me and those I learned in grammar school about Thanksgiving, especially the first Thanksgiving when the British colonists and the Native Americans shared their harvests. This always makes me sentimental about my Native American friends and what they have told me about gardening, harvesting, saving seeds and sharing with others, including wildlife.

I have found no humans who care more than my Native American friends about the earth, preparing it to go forward for many generations ahead.

We tend to farm and farm and farm until our land is depleted. We use lots of chemicals to boost our crops instead of organically replenishing the land.

My native friends, on the other hand, love the land, the soil. They care for their crops as they care for a child. They love their rows of plants as a mother would love her progeny. They sing to their crops because they believe the plants like to hear them sing. They tell stories of “Onenha, The Corn” and “Corn Woman” or “Corn Mother.”

"Corn Mother" by Thelma Lujan, Taos Pueblo. Collection of Leon Worden.

“Corn Mother” by Thelma Lujan, Taos Pueblo. Collection of Leon Worden.

One of my favorite stories is called “The Bean Woman,” which is really about companion planting. Beans, corn and squash are the traditional three. The story of Bean Woman is about the bean, crying out, “Who will marry me?” Many come to answer her plea, but she sends all of them away: the great hunter, bear man, lion man and deer man cannot provide what she is looking for. Then Corn Man answers her call, and she accepts his proposal.

This is why you always see, in the traditional native garden, a bean vine wrapped around a corn stalk in a loving embrace. Squash is also an important companion plant in this native garden, known also as the “Great Three Sisters” traditional garden. The squash plants provide shade for Bean Woman and Corn Man.

Another story told to me as a child was “The Grasshopper’s Song.” This is about a grasshopper that is singing in a field filled with many succulent vegetables, almost ready to harvest. A coyote passes by and inquires as to who owns the field. The grasshopper tells Coyote Woman that the field is his, and it is his song that makes the vegetables grow so well.

The coyote demands that the grasshopper teach her his song, which he does. However, they coyote cannot remember the song and keeps returning time and time again but still cannot remember it when she leaves the field.

deh110815gThen a boy passes by and learns the song from the grasshopper. The boy learned all the gardening wisdom from the grasshopper, and returned home to teach his parents. The grasshopper gave the family the field, which they then cared for.

When harvest time came, they harvested lots of wonderful things, but they were always grateful to the grasshopper and let him live in the field. They shared their harvest with the grasshopper, giving him all the food he needed, listening to his song and saving seeds for the following year – which was great advice from the very smart grasshopper.

Each of the stories teaches the listener about saving seeds for the following year; about respect for wildlife, from the little grasshopper to the lion or bear; about sharing with neighbors, caring deeply for the land, and of the circle of life.

One tradition I love is that when they plant the field, they always leave extra grain out for the wildlife that will come to visit. A bag of cracked corn will entertain the garden pests (raccoons, crows) and keep them out of the garden without harming them. They believe that in order to receive something, they must give something back. Selfishness is not a trait of Native Americans.

deh110815aCrops that are native to North America are sassafras, tomato, potato, squash, corn, pumpkin, beans, cotton, cranberry, chili, garlic, tobacco, peanut, pecan, blueberry, strawberry, avocado, wild rice, Jerusalem artichoke, sweet potato, butternut, chestnut, hazelnut, beechnut, black walnut, hickory nut, cassava, sunflower seeds, red and green pepper, prickly pear, gourd, goosefoot, amaranth, wintergreen and certain mints. They also ate yucca root, Indian rice grass seeds and buckwheat groats, as well as many medicinal plants that are grown in and around Santa Clarita.

This year for Thanksgiving, I plan to utilize many of these Native American foods at my Thanksgiving table. Probably most tables in the United States will have cranberries, potatoes and sweet potatoes. Others will have chestnuts, maybe a butternut squash soup and pumpkin pie. But I might add something like corn bread stuffing with wild rice and hickory nuts. I think a hazelnut torte might be a nice addition to the pecan pie, and a Jerusalem artichoke souffle might be a nice, light first course. Some stuffed squash blossoms would make a lovely appetizer, too.

This Thanksgiving, we should all give thanks to the indigenous peoples, to our friends and families, to our loving family members who create such wonderful banquets for us every year, and for this land that we need to hold closer to our hearts and care for like the Native Americans did. It’s part of the circle of life. We are so lucky to have it.

Happy Thanksgiving. I plan to give thanks all month.



Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel is executive director of the Community Hiking Club and president of the Santa Clara River Watershed Conservancy. Contact Dianne through communityhikingclub.org or at zuliebear@aol.com.


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1 Comment

  1. Melissa says:

    I always enjoy reading your column, not just interesting, but informative too. Thank you for your hard work and research.

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