It is springtime, the plants are beginning to awaken and remind us of their beauty. They are unfolding from their winter slumber, stretching and growing and changing colors. As I walk along the trail, I can feel the sun on my shoulders. Warming me up, shaking off the last of winter’s chill. The smells in the air of damp earth, green vegetation and a faint smell of sweetness from the wildflowers. My eyes search the vegetation as I converse with myself about the plants I see and register them in my mind. “This one for tea, that one for offering, that one you can use for flour.” Of course, most of the species I see are mysteries to me and I am unsure of their usage.
Being in the wild, there is no ‘hustle and bustle,’ no intrusion of nervous energy from being around crowds of people. There is only the now, the present. Standing in the middle of vegetation that has been here, understanding that our ancestors may have stood in the same place centuries prior and gathered medicine and magic.
I have always found peace in the wild, the land still untamed and full of indigenous species.
I understand the parallel between us. When the developers get a hold of land, they tear it up, build on it and plant species from other countries that they find aesthetically beautiful. Replacing the indigenous with invasives, ignoring the magic that the natives provide and ignoring their beauty.
We have been taught by mainstream America that the Natives are of little value and that the European, and plants from other countries, are preferred. One summer, my work held an event for the reservation community and we gave away native plants. Sages, Sycamores, Oaks, Buckwheat, and other indigenous species from the local landscape. The people who attended laughed and asked, “Why do we want those weeds in our yard?” I laughed myself at their question. If you do not know the value of something, it will appear to be worthless and will be replaced with something that has the standard of popular opinion or popular beauty. Again, another parallel. Historically, this can be seen in our culture, language and beauty.
When I was a child, I lived with my Masani, my grandmother. She was my maternal grandmother’s sister. She taught me so much about the value of our cultural ways through practice even though she was a Christian and did not practice the religion. I remember driving along on the bumpy dirt road in the truck and she had my grandpa stop and pull over. It was evening and you could smell the water in the air from the irrigation ditch that ran along the road and flooding the hay field. The weather was nice and cool. She showed us the wild asparagus growing along the irrigation ditch. She said it was food and I understood at that moment that the land provided hidden treasures if you know what you are looking for. She was excited and I became excited too. Later, she would point out the plants used to make Navajo tea and the different plants that can be used for dye on wool yarn. I will forever cherish these moments with Shimasani learning about the hidden things in life that are there if you take the time to look. These years were medicine to me.
I am inspired by nature and Indigenous women. Both created on this land, both important and provide for the people, both continuously fighting to be seen and resisting being replaced by others from outside Turtle Island.
I love to capture the native plant’s beauty in photos during my nature walks. Taking photos of the tall oaks that provide acorns that can be used, or photos of the beautiful wild cucumber who has many uses. Capturing the elusive Indian Potato who grows solitary in sandy soil with its long stem and beautiful purple flower all the while hiding its fruit underneath the earth. I enjoy sharing their beauty and sharing what knowledge I have about the plant, whether it be edible or whether the plant has other cultural uses.
In the past 15 years I have seen the revival of native plant knowledge. There are now books that have been published locally and also public groups of people who meet to gather plants. There are classes offered that share how to gather and prepare native plants for food or making baskets and other traditional items. In the past, the knowledge was only shared among families.
One of my favorite plant species is the black sage. I shared with one of the Elders about this plant and how it smelled so sweet and how it was my favorite.
She laughed, her dark brown eyes disappearing and her silver hair shaking, such a beautiful sight. She said that this plant was used to make love spells.
I laughed too.
I love capturing the beauty of Native Women in my digital illustrations. As a child, I don’t remember ever seeing them on TV or movies. My eyes would search looking for representation. The message was blond hair, blue eyes. I was only seeing Native beauty in my family and community. Now, it is a beautiful sight to see! The representation is still not where it can be but it is a long way from my childhood. I remember seeing the beautiful Tantoo Cardinal on the big screen, and then later Irene Bedard in Smoke Signals. Now we can see Native actresses, singers, designers, performers and all types of entertainers and the list could go on.
As I scroll through my social media a photo will stand out to me, almost like it is whispering to me. It speaks of strength, confidence, an unwillingness to fall into the white beauty narrative that I grew up with. She stands there in all her Indigenous Beauty for us to see, to be inspired by, to hold as a shield or even a mirror. Her magic weaving through the photo and onto my ipad, capturing a moment and creating art.
Much of the symbolism I use in my art is the moon, stars and plants. Like the connection I have with nature, I also feel a connection to the night sky.
I feel like if you listen closely and quiet your mind, you can hear the stories of our ancestors.
It isn’t clear but softly, like a whisper fading. Much like when I was child I would hear my grandparents visiting with their friends and speaking their language but I could not understand the full conversation. I would only grasp a few words here and there. As I listen in the night, I feel the same impressions and faint distant memories fill my being.
It is much like blood memory, something deep within our being. Perhaps, as the scientists say, in our DNA. Impressions, vague understandings of our songs, our stories, of how plant usage reminds us of the past. Of our ancestors calling us back to who we are, to the medicine and the magic.
– tiffany wolfe
Tiffany Wolfe is a Navajo/Ogalala Lakota artist, just a Tó’dích’íinii (Bitter Water) girl who was born for a Lakota cowboy. She works in the environmental field by day promoting Mother Earth’s protection and is an artist by night, making beautiful pieces for Mother’s people. Always trying to uplift and give motivation, she firmly believes that you can do anything you dream of. Tiffany and her artwork can be found at @wolfelikehme