The Big Green Plant Book

Of the many plant & language resources I use on a near-daily basis, one of my key go-to books is Plants Used by the Great Lakes Ojibwa (by James Meeker, Joan Elias, and John Heim). I think of it as The Big Green Plant Book. Published in 1993 by my local treaty authority, GLIFWC (Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission), it is a compilation of data drawn from historical ethnobotany texts. Each page covers a single plant species, with botanical drawings, range maps, and notes, added by Jim Meeker. Meeker was working for GLIFWC at the time & teaching at his long-time post, Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin. (Meeker and Elias were a married couple, and Heim was a student at Northland – now working at GLIFWC I believe.) I never met Jim, but he is remembered quite fondly around here. Must’ve been quite a guy.

In the introduction to the book, the authors appeal to readers to supply ojibwemowin names where they are missing or unrestored. Unrestored names are those listed in the text (not in bold, usually in parentheses), copied directly from the source texts without being transcribed into modern orthography. They’re difficult to read and understand, nearly impossible to know how to pronounce. I’ve been going through the book and attempting to transcribe as many of them as possible. I’ve also been adding names from other sources that were not included. One roadblock I hit is when there is an unrestored name in a source I don’t have access to (and can’t find the same name recorded in any other source). Often the source texts include a meaning or other details about the plant and its use, giving context clues that help me figure out the root words of the name. Eventually I’d like to get access to all those old sources – but it’s exciting to have found so many additional sources which either corroborate a listed name or supply a name that was missing. Some of these sources were around at the time of publication, and some have been published more recently. Ojibwemowin is a living language, and while there are not many speakers here in northern Wisconsin, there are fluent/first speakers with plant knowledge across Anishinaabe-akiing.

The text is almost 30 years old and I think it’s time for a second edition, not only to expand on the language. Taxonomy has changed a lot, especially in the past 5-10 years with genetic testing. The plant range maps (which cover the ceded territories of Lake Superior Ojibwe in northern Michigan, Wisconsin, & Minnesota) also need updating as more thorough information is now available but also as plants migrate due in part to climate change. And it could include photos, many of which I’ve taken. It’s a project I would love to be involved with, but for now I just keep chipping away at restoring the language. I’m planning to publish my notes online as a little commentary that can be used as an appendix of sorts, adding to the wealth of knowledge in this great book.

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