Plants as Medicine: Lenape Healing Traditions Continue Today
Curtis Zunigha, co-director of The Lenape Center, recently joined Columbia Nursing to discuss the history, culture, and traditional healing practices of the Lenape people, Manhattan’s original inhabitants, and to provide an overview of medicinal plants that grow in the greater New York City area.
Understanding the therapeutic power of these plants requires much more than just “picking up this green thing over here and putting it in a tea,” Zunigha told attendees. To fully develop one’s powers as an herbal healer, he explained, it’s necessary to cultivate a connection with the spirit world, just as the Lenape have for millennia.
Zunigha is an enrolled member of the Delaware Tribe of Indians, the Lenape’s modern-day descendants. His April 9, 2021, talk was part of Columbia Nursing’s ongoing commitment to honoring the Lenape. On Indigenous People’s Day (October 12), 2020, the school launched a statement acknowledging “the traditional, ancestral, unceded territory of the Lenape People on which we learn, work, and gather today,” and pledging to “support and defend all marginalized people of this land who have been stripped of their rights to self-determination.” The statement is posted permanently on Columbia Nursing’s web site and can be read at major events. The school has also dedicated a section of its roof garden to growing medicinal plants used by the Lenape and other Native Americans.
Led by the Office of Diversity and Cultural Affairs, the school previously hosted a three-part Original Well-Being lecture series by Hadrien Coumans, co-founder and co-director of the Lenape Center, a Manhattan-based non-profit dedicated to continuing the Lenape homeland through community, culture, and the arts.
Zunigha began his talk by showing a map of the Lenape’s ancestral lands, which stretched from the foothills of the Catskill Mountains to the Delaware Bay, including what’s now New York City, all of New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, western Connecticut and part of Delaware. This homeland, which the Lenape call Lenapehoking, had been their home for some 12,000 years. After being forced out by European colonists, and pushed further and further west, most descendants of the Lenape now live in Oklahoma, where Zunigha is based, and Ontario. While their numbers are greatly reduced, there are still people who follow the ancient healing traditions, he said.
“Lenapehoking is more than just a map of the land,” he added. “Lenapehoking is the land, it’s the waters, the rivers, the lakes, even the ocean, all of the cosmos, all of our connection with the earth, the waters, the sky, the animals, all life, the mountains, the ancient ones, the ones that have the ancient memory, all of these things, to the Lenape have a spirit.”
The Lenape, whose name means “real person” or “original person,” lived in communion and harmony with all of these spiritual elements, and had strong faith in their ability to connect with the spirit world, he added. “Certain people used their ability to have their connection with the spirits, that way of traversing in the cosmology, in the spirit world, to obtain the power and the authority to become healers.
“Ceremony was an integral part of this holistic lifestyle,” Zunigha said. “When they went out to pick medicines, they didn’t just go out there and start grabbing, they had to take off with a purpose. Oftentimes just going out foraging and gathering was preceded with prayers and songs, even today.”
For 30 years, Zunigha has been going on medicine walks with Lenape/Delaware elders, learning the ceremonial process of gathering plant medicines, preparing them, and using them in healing. He recalled a group of women getting ready to collect cedar during one of his visits to a Delaware reserve in Ontario. “Before they ever go out, they gather together, bring their woman power together, and sing a song, consecrating this effort to go out and gather this cedar for ceremonial purposes, for healing,” he said. “They’re asking for the spirit power to come within them as they go out and connect with the spirit power of the cedar, so that they can bring it back and use it for healing purposes. That holistic way of connecting with all of the spirits is what makes that healing power so powerful.”
Cedar, along with tobacco, sage and sweetgrass, are important medicinal plants that may be burned or used in other ways, Zunigha said. The smoke can be used to purify a person, a house or the land. “Tobacco is one of the first medicines, and it represents the truth, and it represents the original connection with the creator,” he added.
Zunigha also described several common plants with medicinal properties that can be found in the Northeast, and how they are gathered and used, typically as teas, salves or poultices. Many medicinal plants can also be used in cooking.
Anyone interested in finding out more about plant medicine should start by studying the healing properties of these plants, and learning to identify them in the wild, Zunigha said. “Get out there, talk to those trees and plants, put yourself out there and ask them to come to you,” he added. “You’ll be surprised when you turn that corner and walk around that tree and bam, there’s that plant right in front of you.”
Here are the plants he mentioned along with their uses. For more information, Zunigha recommends Northeast Medicinal Plants: Identify, Harvest, and Use 111 Wild Herbs for Health and Wellness by Brooklyn-based wildcrafter and herbalist Liz Neves.
Bark makes a tea for treating coughs and colds, twigs and leaves can be used to make an astringent wash or poultice. Birch bark decoction is a cleansing tonic for the liver. Elders recommend harvesting bark from the east side of the tree, which receives the morning sun, giving it more medicinal power.
“The pollen from the cattail can be applied to wounds to stop bleeding,” Zunigha said. “It can be ingested to stop internal bleeding and menstrual pain. It’s a blood cleanser.” Mashed cattail roots make a poultice for treating blisters, boils, cysts, stings and infections, while the brown flower can be used to make a tea for treating diarrhea. “The roots of the cattail can be boiled and steamed and sliced up in salads. It can even be pounded into a flour,” he added.
Dandelions are rich in minerals and vitamins, and can be used to make a nutritive tea that treats the liver, cleanses the blood and clears skin conditions. The plant also acts as a gentle laxative to normalize digestion and elimination.
Sassafras can be made into a springtime cleansing tonic, and the root can be used as a blood thinner to reduce blood pressure, while powdered sassafras leaves can be used to thicken sauces, soups and stews. The sassafras leaf is the symbol for the Lenape Center.
The white part of the sumac root can be used to treat toothache and canker sores. The bark, leaves, and fruit are an astringent useful in childbirth and menstruation.
The fruit has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and cardioprotective powers, and also provides dietary fiber for a laxative effect. The juice is rich in vitamin C and E, iron and niacin, and can be used to make grape dumplings.