August 1, 2002

Drought Hits Tribal Plant Rituals


KEYWORDS: Tribal Plant Ritual Hopi Indians religious ceremonies First Mesa Native Americans wild tobacco relieving stress corn pollen communicating with holy people sacred herbs medicine plants Navajo medicine men culture four sacred peaks ceremonial plants Apache religious leaders Navajo Medicineman’s Association Inc pray for rain sage snakeweed jimson weed Fort Apache Reservation

SOURCE: Associated Press

PHOENIX — As the gatherer of wild tobacco for the Hopi Indians’ many religious ceremonies, Delfred Leslie had never really worried about where he would find the next crop.

The pungent leaves usually abound within a couple of hours of his home on the tribe’s isolated First Mesa in northeastern Arizona.

This year, however, drought and wildfires in the Southwest have taken a huge toll on the natural materials that Native Americans use in their ceremonies.

The staples include tobacco, whose smoke is used for relieving stress; corn, whose pollen is used for communicating with holy people and protection; and many normally resilient trees and plants, whose leaves are used for medicine.

They are simply not around now.

“This whole drought has had a devastating effect on our ceremonies. They’ve been virtually meaningless because of the lack of plants,” said Leslie, as he prepared for the Hopis’ final summer ritual, which normally celebrates a successful harvest.

Hopi spiritual leaders aren’t the only ones affected.

Navajo medicine men in Arizona have had to travel nearly 400 miles to near Alamosa in south-central Colorado for tobacco and other plants.

“We’ve relied on our four sacred peaks in the past for our ceremonial plants,” said Irving James, a Navajo cultural affairs specialist in Window Rock, referring to the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, Ariz.; Mount Taylor in northwestern New Mexico; and mounts Blanca and Hesperus in southwestern Colorado.

“You know your culture is in trouble when you cannot find them there,” James said.

Apache religious leaders also are in difficulty. The biggest wildfire in Arizona history, which destroyed hundreds of homes, also burned across a major section of the Fort Apache Reservation.

Thomas Morris Jr. of Fort Defiance, president of the Navajo Medicineman’s Association Inc., said he recently made a special trip to the summit of Mount Humphreys, the highest point in Arizona and one of the San Francisco Peaks, to pray for rain.

“Even the sturdiest plants like sage and snakeweed and jimson weed are like dead sticks in the ground and haven’t grown for a year,” Morris said.


This article originally appeared at Newsday Online.

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