October 25 and 26 was the 5th Annual Indiana Master Naturalists Gathering, and my first opportunity to attend. It was held this year in various locations around the Lafayette area. What a great experience! The theme was “Nature and Humans: A Journey Together.” Friday we met at Indiana’s newest state park, Prophetstown, which includes a Native American Village. We rotated through three stations. The first one was to make a “Talking Feather.” A talking feather is a feather that one holds when one wants to speak. When one is finished the feather is passed to another so that person may speak. It keeps people from interrupting and talking over each other. (Maybe they need one in Washington?) Only Native Americans are allowed to possess feathers from a raptor, so craft shops take turkey feathers and dye them to look like eagle or hawk feathers, so we palefaces could create our own talking feathers. We wrapped the end of the quill with colored yarn, added a loop of deerskin, some smaller feathers, and a long piece of deerskin decorated with a few beads of our choosing. Although there were a few samples, we were admonished that we needed to create our own talking feather which reflected our own style.
The second station was inside a reconstruction of a medicine house or council house. It was built of logs with an open door at each end and a fire in the middle. It was really smoky, even though there were openings in the roof to let the smoke escape. A naturalist from the state park told us about the natural foods that Native Americans in our area ate when Prophetstown was a village of 900 or so. Acorns were a staple. Cooking them removed the toxins which otherwise would make one sick. They were also ground into a flour and used extensively that way. We were each given a small cluster of native hazelnuts. They are smaller than commercially grown hazelnuts, but very good. We were shown how to crack them open using a “nutting stone,” a fist-sized stone with an indentation to hold the nut. A second stone was then tapped on the nut to crack the hull and we each got to try the technique. A faster way to hull the nuts was with a large branch pounding the nuts in a hollowed out log. This mixed the shell with the meat, but then everything was put in a pot of water and boiled. The meats floated because they contained fats and oils, whereas the shells sank to the bottom, so the edible meats could be skimmed off the top. The water was retained as a kind of broth or tea, so there was virtually no waste at all. We were each given a sprig of mountain mint. We stripped off the leaves and put them into a tea kettle to steep over the fire while the presenter continued her talk, and at the end we each had mint tea to taste.
Plants were also used for many other purposes. Swamp milkweed stems were stripped for their fiber that then could be twined to make ropes or could be woven into baskets or bags. Stinging nettles were stronger, and if harvested after two frosts they don’t sting. Pokeweed berries were used for a purple dye, black walnuts made a dark brown dye, and goldenrod made a yellow dye. Tinder fungus, which grows exclusively on birch trees, had two purposes. The outside could be used to make a tea, and the inside was placed in a fire to create long lasting embers that could be placed between two mussel shells and then carried from one place to another to create a new fire more quickly. Ironwood was used to create hooks for hanging pots over fires. The leaves of bee balm could be crushed and the fragrance they released was inhaled to open up bronchial passages. Prairie cone flower (Echinacea) was used as a cold medicine.
Our third station was wigwam building. The partial skeleton of a wigwam was already constructed, and each group got to add to it. The bark was stripped from a long straight branch and then tied around the framework with twine. Later reed mats were tied around the frame to create the walls. The wigwams are at the state park as a demonstration of the construction methods used by the former inhabitants of the area.
After all that, there was a dinner cooked by some students from the Purdue Native American Cultural Center. We had a frybread taco made with bison, beans and vegetables. It was delicious! The evening ended with a return to the council house for a fire ceremony performed by two Native American elders. There were blessings, singing and stories. What an entertaining and educational evening.
And that was only Friday. Next week: Saturday’s events.