From the Desk of C. Thomas Shay: The Making of an Ethnobotany

C. Thomas Shay is a senior scholar in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Manitoba. He is the author of Under Prairie Skies: The Plants and Native Peoples of the Northern Plains (Nebraska, July 2022).

Writing Under Prairie Skies was a labor of love for a land I know well. The founding ideas for the book came after I had taken a number of undergraduate courses in botany at the University of Minnesota, including plant ecology and especially “Plants Useful to Man: A Cultural Course in Botany.” These courses opened my eyes to new ways of thinking about humans and the botanical world. When I did my dissertation research on a bison kill site in northwestern Minnesota, I realized that to understand past plant uses at the site, I must first evaluate the area’s current flora. Granting some continuity in that flora, I compiled tables of the species useful for food, etc. in each nearby habitat. Later, together with my wife Jennifer, a botanist, I conducted botanical surveys around a number of sites in Manitoba and adjacent Saskatchewan.

The need to understand the plant resources available thus guided my early research for the book. Student assistants compiled a spreadsheet of the total flora of the northern plains, then noted those used by regional groups. This tally, along with the seed and charcoal finds from archaeological sites across the region, became the starting point of the book.

I also wanted to tell people about the most common plants and describe their uses. As we delved into uses for such plants as wild sage, chokecherries, prairie turnip, cattails, and stinging nettles, it soon became clear that Native oral tradition was the key to understanding.

Writing about societies vastly different from my own proved challenging. For help, I reached out to a network of experts both Native and non-Native. Over two dozen Native voices helped shape the book, but especially those by Edward Benton-Banai, Nicolas Black Elk, Wendy Geniusz, Basil Johnston, and Robin Wall Kimmerer.

As work progressed, the book’s contents naturally fell into three parts. Part One sets the scene, going back thousands of years to when the glaciers sculpted the land. This is followed by a review of the region’s variable weather, showing some of the challenges faced by early inhabitants. Then I take the reader on a virtual “tour” to explore a variety of habitats from Saskatchewan to Iowa. In Part Two, I describe some history about the tools that archaeologists use and what we currently know about early plant domestication. Part Three covers the many plants used for food, crafts, medicine, and spiritual life. In Chapter Eight, I ask: “Do you think you could build and furnish your home using only local natural materials?” I quickly assure the reader that, “Native people did this for generations.”

Their legacy is everywhere. Modern roads follow their footpaths, the names of every state and province in the region are derived from Native languages as are those of many rivers, lakes and towns. Moreover, physical traces of Native heritage: a bison jump, spiritual sands, a sacred cave, and a rock alignment, for example, can still be seen. And we must remember that the people themselves still exist, keeping their traditions as best they can, often under adverse circumstances.

I sincerely hope that Under Prairie Skies will help shine a light on their impressive accomplishments.

Join author C. Thomas Shay this Friday, September 23, for a book talk discussing Under Prairie Skies.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s