How Far Can a Dandelion Seed Fly? Ask a Native American

Valerie Goodness

Stories about dandelions have been told by Native Peoples of Turtle Island for thousands of years. For example, there is an Ojibwe legend about the South Wind falling in love with the dandelion. There are plenty of songs and stories sung and told from Grandma, Mother and Auntie to their Daughters as they use a digging stick to collect the delicious and medicinally important plant. I have heard many stories about the Indigenous peoples’ relationships with dandelions, but when I read a Canadian science article claiming mosquitoes, bees, earthworms and dandelions never existed in the Americas prior to the Mayflower landing in 1620. I almost snorted. Some western science agriculturalists are a funny breed of scientists. Let it be known that western science, in and of itself, is compartmentalized. This compartmentalization opens the door to agenda, politics and profit motives. This is very different than holistic traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) from empirical science by Indigenous peoples. TEK looks at the bigger picture and the connections within the communities, human and non-human relationships. Sometimes exclusion of other knowledge happens in western science. No matter how much western scientists scoff at this, the evidence is overwhelming that politics and agenda does find its way into western science where profit or patent/publishing/property rights are involved; especially Agriculture science. One must be vigilant in discerning the difference between science fact versus contrarian myth or hyperbola. Politics are supposed to be removed from science but when corporate science can own food knowledge, the stakes can become pretty threatening. Intellectual property theft is one such way western science agriculture giants make money. Biocolonialism is the settler colonialist and colonialist theft of other people’s natural resources and intellectual property of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). Big Ag agenda has insisted, on occasion, that all prior knowledge of food and medicine has less value or be excluded in contemporary agriculture science. The number one way lands were taken from the Indigenous people, by colonizers and settler colonialists was by claiming to be the only expert in agriculture thereby dispossessing Indigenous rights to their own fertile soils and water. There are ways to weed out (pun intended) the agendized western science version versus fact.

My first example is the misinformation about dandelions. Meredith Kueny, from Cornell University, writes that dandelion seeds can travel more than 500 miles on the wind. If the nearest European country (Russia) is 55 miles from Alaska (America); then why would dandelion seeds wait for a ride on the Mayflower? Meanwhile the Bering Strait at its narrowest point, between Cape Dezhnev in Russia and Cape Prince of Wales, Alaska, was supposed to have been crossed by humans 10,000 years ago (Don’t get me started on the absurd claim that all Indigenous people of Turtle Island, came from monolithic beings crossing the Bering Strait), why wouldn’t a seed have hitched a ride or blown across prior to 1620? Many climate changes over millions of years would have allowed for this. We then cannot dismiss hurricanes that have crossed the Atlantic from Africa to the Americas then back to Western Europe for millions of years or the jet stream where wind, over the Pacific Ocean, can blow over 250 miles per hour from Europe to the Americas and back.

Indigenous peoples of the Americas have been saying that dandelions are Native to the Americas; with many Native knowledge keepers intuitively calling chicory its nearest relative. Like chicory, sunflowers, daisies, asters, and Jerusalem artichokes all are considered among the Asteraceae family of North America along with dandelions. http://www.wildflowers-and-weeds.com/Plant_Families/Asteraceae.htm.

Support for Indigenous knowledge of dandelions comes from Memorial University’s Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Site which writes that the Innu lands of Newfoundland and Labrador used dandelion pre-contact. Emory Dean Keoke and Kay Marie Porterfield writes, in their “Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World” that the Inca and Aztec used dandelion to clean their teeth. That means dandelions were in South America probably at least 600 years before the Mayflower landed on America’s East Coast. The Sioux Chef, Sean Sherman, Oglala Lakota, from Minnesota's First "Pre-Contact" Restaurant, claims dandelions were a common food of Indigenous peoples of North America and serves his customers savory dishes with dandelions as a favorite. http://sioux-chef.com/ The Tuscarora called dandelions, sturgeon, (in their own language) because they bloom when the sturgeon begin to run. Daniel E. Moerman and the University of Michigan have written several books on Native American culturally significant foods and medicinal Native species plants. According to Moerman at least 17 Tribes used dandelions as food while 16 used them as medicine. Our best evidence, that dandelions are Native to the Americas, would be the USDA Plant Database which lists the common dandelion as Native and Introduced.

Do you see, now, how nonsensical it is to believe that dandelions were only introduced by those who carried these seeds on the Mayflower? The wind has been the disperser of these seeds long before there were humans. If dandelions were naturalized, it happened long before European colonizers came to America. I’m not saying people did not bring plants, like dandelions, from Europe on the Mayflower. What I am saying is that it is irresponsible to say that only then were dandelions introduced. That goes for bees, mosquitos and earthworms as well.

Archives and oral history shows that long before the Mayflower landed, the marshes and wetlands were mosquito laden. Indigenous peoples only harvested wetland and marsh foods and plants during seasons when the mosquitos were not so bothersome. Even so, wild quinine, (Parthenium integrifolium) a relative of the dandelion, were easily made ready to use. Malaria and Malaria like illnesses were in the Americas pre-contact and was treated by medicine people who had vast knowledge on such matters. Again Moerman writes extensively about Indigenous Native species concoctions of insecticides and mosquito repellant. From feverfew to wild tobacco (Several species of Nicotiana) many plants were used for many millennia to protect Indigenous peoples, of Turtle Island, from biting insects, including mosquitos. Mosquitos were not considered pests as seen by colonists because mosquitos were food for fish and are prolific pollinators. Reciprocity in the natural world includes respecting all genetically connected Native species and their ecosystem services.

Native species American earthworms were common, just not in areas such as forests or drier regions where European earthworms have naturalized themselves. Early Agriculture policies came from Euro-agronomists which were stuck in a way of growing foods that focused on European monocultures with European tools and European foods in non-European soils. Many would say that language barriers prevented early colonizers from learning Native agriculture. Even though there is plenty of proof that the Dutch and French worked on ecosystem conservation ethics with the Haudenosaunee and Huron. Others claim that Native peoples were roaming hunters and gatherers when colonizers and settler colonialists came to America, with no knowledge of growing food or managing lands. The story of Indigenous corn, and other Native American cultivated foods, should easily quiet those myths. The “Shepard Krech” analogy that Native people of Turtle Island were not knowledgeable in ecology, has been disproven by many scientists; western and Indigenous. Dr. Peter M. Groffman, from the Institute of Ecosystem Studies at Millbrook New York, says that there were native species of earthworms prior to contact. In fact he warns that European and Asian earthworms are harmful to America’s forest ecosystems.

While parts of Turtle Island was covered by ice during several ice ages and climate changes over millions of years where Native species of earthworms may have temporarily disappeared; to think that all worms of Turtle Island disappeared since the last ice age, is also irresponsible. Turtle Island consisted of all South America, North America and Canada, so how can this be? And while Charles Mann supports the theory of the ice age disappearance of Native earthworm species in North America, he has been very supportive of Indigenous TEK contributions leaving us to be hopeful that future collaborations can contribute to the research of native species earthworms. It is widely known that from the tip of South America to the North Country and from Maine to Oregon, Native species earthworms and Native peoples shared their communities. I must admit that while earthworms are important for soil health, in agriculture, the fact that thousands of Native species micro and macro invertebrates and bacteria and fungi are ignored, during the earthworm debate, is puzzling. Why be stuck in a colonizing monoculture mindset, where there is only room for one non-Native/introduced species of earthworm?

There are over 4,000 Native bee species in the Americas, some of which are obligate to specific pollen DNA. What that means is that certain bee families, on Turtle Island, only pollinate or feed from certain flowers; blueberries, for example and blueberry bumble bees, as Dr. Beatriz Moisset and Dr. Stephen Buchmann have written: http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5306468.pdf. Introduced European Honey bees are only one of many in the Americas that are generalists. Bee generalists are not as selective, as obligates, for feeding from or pollinating America’s flowers. Before colonizer and settler colonialist arrival to the America’s Native maize were pollinated by Native species pollinators. These relationships coevolved over thousands of years which included their genetically connected Native human neighbors. Think about these relationships over tens of thousands of years to then be altered by introductions of non-Native people, plant, insect or animal species. This is also known as biocolonialism. Not all immigration, trade or collaborative societies of peoples had the ethics of take. Only through colonization and settler colonialism did profit motivated theft of Native agriculture come to be.

We covered mosquitos, bees, earthworms and dandelions and question, together, whether the claims of Euro-exclusivity of these species’ 1620 introduction and naturalization to the Americas are factual. Obviously that answer is no. I would recommend, for future inquiries similar to these, that people might remember this. Are Western notions of agriculture science embraced because it is true or because it is convenient for those claiming ownership over America’s food science? Does Western notions of agriculture science exclude the Indigenous TEK voice, especially involving Native species? Do Western notions of agriculture science set out to protect culturally significant Native species, which are genetically connected to Native peoples, for the sake of these species inherent rights or to own/exclude them? Do Western notions of agriculture science set out to free watershed aquatic systems from western agriculture rights for the sake of treaty protections; or to further contaminate and own them? When a western science agriculture expert claims to be the only expert in feeding Americans or the world, I hope after reading this article, the readers listen to the warning in their hearts and boldly question this self-proclaimed authority. Collaboration between TEK and western science is the answer. TEK and western science must be friends. Finally, there are successful projects where TEK practitioners and/or scholars and western scientists have worked together to protect culturally significant native species foods and medicines. This is what we must work towards.

To all of those that work tirelessly to protect our relatives and our Earth Mother, Wado, in peace and beauty.

Valerie Goodness is of Tsalagi and Ojibwe heritage and is a National Science Foundation PhD Candidate Fellow at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

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