Thíŋpsiŋla: The Edible Bounty Beneath the Great Plains


[Photograph: Getty Images.]

Looking out over the huge expanse of untilled herbal grasslands that make up the Northern Great Plains, it’s transparent that wild sport is considerable however fit to be eaten plant life isn’t. In the eighteenth century, as the Lakota other folks moved west out of the fertile Minnesota forests the place they cultivated corn, squash, and wild rice, towards the dry shortgrass prairies, this offered an issue: their nutrition, in large part reliant on the large buffalo herds, used to be resulting in protein poisoning, which led to kidney failure and in the end loss of life. Trade with their japanese Dakota cousins and with Missouri River-based tribes like the Arikara introduced in a very powerful farmed carbohydrates, however one exceptional wild tuber top in diet C, calcium, and iron helped the Lakota fill their dietary hole as their nomadic empire grew to surround maximum of the Northern Plains*. And whilst it used to be inarguably as soon as the maximum vital greens in the nutrition of the Plains nomadic other folks, its intake now could be one thing of a rarity.

Thíŋpsiŋla**, or timpsila, is understood via English-speaking settlers as the prairie turnip, or Psoralea esculenta. This starchy taproot is located 4 inches underneath the soil throughout maximum of the Great Plains. According to Deanna Eaglefeather from the Antelope group on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, the plant prefers dry patches and grows very best on the higher 3rd of prairie slopes. The roots had been dug up the usage of antlers or sticks, after which braided in combination and hung to dry to permit for long-term garage and higher portability. It may just then be floor right into a flour or rehydrated in soups. Eaten uncooked, it has an inoffensive starchy style, very similar to a potato, however a pleasantly comfortable texture compared to extra acquainted tubers, like turnips. The flour used to be maximum repeatedly used to thicken wóžapi, or wojapi, a candy berry sauce comprised of tart chokecherries or different seasonal fruit. Today wóžapi is served like a heat jam with bread, nevertheless it used to be historically eaten immediately off the fireplace as a carbohydrate-loaded stew.

Freshly harvested timpsila

[Photograph: Alan Bergo.]

“Timpsila is a standard meals, a large a part of my ancestors’ nutrition,” says Keenan Weddell, a lawn assistant at the Sicangu Food Sovereignty Initiative on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, house of the Sičháŋǧu Lakota other folks. “Before giant farms, this plant on my own may just feed many of us… Grandmothers mentioned those turnips level in opposition to each and every different, so that you’ll all the time know the place the subsequent one can be.”

The significance of thíŋpsiŋla to Weddell’s ancestors is mirrored of their language and figuring out of the bodily global. Its etymology displays the transition from wooded area to grassland: thí- approach prairie, and psiŋ refers to the wild rice that may have prior to now been the staple starch in the Minnesota woodlands. Ethnobotanist Linda Black Elk prefers the English identify “breadroot” as a extra correct translation. The Lakota names of maximum root greens offered via European settlers are some variant of thíŋpsiŋla: “orange thíŋpsiŋla” for carrot, “white thíŋpsiŋla” for turnip, “purple thíŋpsiŋla” for beet, “violet thíŋpsiŋla” for rutabaga, and many others. The lunar month more or less similar to June is Thíŋpsiŋla itkáȟča wí, “the moon when the thíŋpsiŋla seed pods mature,” which is when the tuber is ripe for selecting.

Some harvest the root ahead of the plant vegetation, whilst some wait to permit the seeds to be dispersed to create the subsequent era of vegetation. Harvesting rituals range, however maximum come with an providing of tobacco and a prayer. Corey Yellowboy, a Lakota language and tradition teacher at the Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, says that the first root of the season will have to be eaten uncooked and chewed slowly with specific gratefulness to the Great Spirit, Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka. After taking the root, maximum will go back the plant to the hollow it got here from, with some putting it root-side first whilst others go back it the wrong way up, planting the seed pods to make sure a bountiful harvest for the subsequent era.

Braided timpsila on a wooden surface

[Photograph: Alan Bergo.]

Weddell additionally handed alongside the tale wherein thíŋpsiŋla figures prominently: A Lakota lady married a celebrity and left Earth (makȟá) to are living in the Star Nation (wičháȟpi oyáte), a global similar to ours however above the clouds. One day she went out to dig thíŋpsiŋla, underneath strict directions to simply dig the small roots and to depart the better ones on my own. She used to be curious, on the other hand, and picked a big one—and in the gaping hollow in the floor, she may just glance all the approach right down to Earth and notice her previous family. She used to be with kid from her celebrity husband however overlooked her circle of relatives, so she started to braid an extended strand of thíŋpsiŋla to climb backpedal. Her fingers slipped and, as she fell to Earth, she gave delivery to a son who used to be stored via meadowlarks and raised as one among their very own. The meadowlarks gave the kid again to the Lakota other folks, who named him Star Boy, however he too overlooked his circle of relatives in the Star Nation. He returned to be with them, and become the Morning Star.

The finish of the nomadic way of life and the confinement to slightly barren reservations used to be each completed and strengthened via making a dependence on executive commodity meals, thru the removal of bison and the flooding of fertile river bottomlands via dam tasks***. Traditional staples had been changed via dangerous possible choices, equivalent to fry bread and processed cheese merchandise. Today each Lakota reservation is classified by the USDA as a food desert, signifying a loss of get entry to to wholesome and inexpensive meals. One of the best dependable resources of untamed meals nonetheless to be had is the thíŋpsiŋla. A 2019 survey carried out via the Sicangu Community Development Corporation displays that regardless of its cultural importance, it does now not seem to be a not unusual, on a regular basis meals, and the stage to which it’s ate up often varies relying on each and every circle of relatives.

This is the place grassroots organizations like the Sicangu Food Sovereignty Initiative are available in. They file an greater pastime amongst each elders and formative years in holding conventional meals wisdom and abilities, equivalent to harvesting, holding, and cooking with thíŋpsiŋla. As Weddell says, “We view the revitalization of conventional Lakota foodways as an issue of important significance in construction meals sovereignty this is rooted in Lakota tradition.” This group and others love it on different Lakota reservations are running arduous to percentage conventional wisdom round meals with group participants by the use of shareable assets, in-person wild harvesting, and talent percentage occasions—younger individuals just lately snacked on a meat and thíŋpsiŋla stew and a wild mint tea as they realized to make quite a lot of salves all the usage of foraged substances.

“It’s vital to stay those conventional meals with us to assist our other folks go back again to sovereignty,” Wedell says. And, as he issues out, timpsila existed ahead of the idea of meals sovereignty. The tuber additionally belies a easy fact: Despite being categorized as a meals desolate tract as a result of the loss of supermarkets, the prairies are ample in nutritious meals resources—if what to search for and the place to seem; and in the event you’ve been taught admire the bounty that exists simply underneath their floor.

*Hämäläinen Pekka. (2019). Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power. Yale University Press.

**Ulrich, Jan. (2014). New Lakota Dictionary Pro V.1. Lakota Language Consortium.

***Lawson, M. L. (2009). Dammed Indians Revisited: The Continuing History of the Pick-Sloan Plan and the Missouri River Sioux. South Dakota State Historical Society Press.

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