Alma Hogan Snell
Crow tribal historian, educator, and herbalist
by Thomas J. Elpel
I first met Alma Snell in the early 1990's when she was giving a presentation about native foods called "A Taste of Heritage" at Montana State University in Bozeman. I had been studying wild edible plants all of my young life, so I was thrilled to meet Alma and learn from her.
Alma was raised by her grandmother Pretty Shield, medicine woman of the Crow Indians. Pretty Shield taught Alma the old ways of the Crow people, skills like how to harvest and prepare wild foods. Other children had their mothers to look out for them while they played, but Alma was being tutored on how to survive. She became what the Crow people call a "grandmother's grandchild".
Prior to meeting Alma, I always imagined that events in history--such as the Battle of the Little Bighorn--happened in the far distant past, so I was astonished to learn that her grandfather Goes Ahead was a scout for general Custer in the battle. Suddenly the past did not seem so far away.
I visited Alma and her husband Bill on the Crow Reservation. On plant walks we found the Indian turnip (Psoralea esculenta), wild grapevines, and wildflowers. While my family always collected chokecherries for syrup and wine, Alma showed me the traditional Crow way of crushing the cherries pits and all, to get the nutritional benefit of the almond-like nuts inside. The crushed chokecherries were dried in the sun to destroy the cyanide content, and in Alma's modern adaptation, coated in chocolate to make cherry chocolates.
We read Frank B. Linderman's book Pretty-shield shortly after we met Alma, and later read it to our kids. It is a great story for junior and adult readers about Pretty-shield's experiences growing up in the old ways.
We were thrilled when Alma came out with her own book, Grandmother's Grandchild, continuing the story about the transition from the old ways to the new, and the challenge of living in two different cultures. I love the title of Alma's book for personal reasons, since I too am something of a grandmother's grandchild. All I ever wanted to do as a kid was to go to my Grandma Josie's house. Together we went on walks in the fields where we learned to identify wildflowers and collected wild herbs for tea.
Both Pretty-shield and Grandmother's Grandchild are quality reading material for adults or older kids, especially as material to read aloud as a family. Alma's newest book, A Taste of Heritage reveals her culinary wisdom about harvesting and cooking with native foods, as well as healing with native plants. Alma Snell died on May 5th, 2008 at the age of eighty-five. She will be greatly missed by hundreds of people.
Medicine Woman of the Crows
by Frank B. Linderman. Preface by Alma Snell & Becky Mathews
Pretty-shield, the legendary medicine woman of the Crows, remembered what life was like on the Plains when the buffalo were still plentiful. A powerful healer who was forceful, astute, and compassionate, Pretty-shield experienced many changes as her formerly mobile people were forced to come to terms with reservation life in the late nineteenth century.
Pretty-shield told her story to Frank Linderman through an interpreter and using sign language. The lives, responsibilities, and aspirations of Crow women are vividly brought to life in these pages as Pretty-shield recounts her life on the Plains of long ago. She speaks of the simple games and dolls of an Indian childhood and the work of the girls and women--setting up the lodges, dressing the skins, picking berries, digging roots, and cooking. Through her eyes we come to understand courtship, marriage, childbirth and the care of babies, medicine-dreams, the care of the sick, and other facets of Crow womanhood.
The author, Frank B. Linderman (1869-1938) lived closely with the Flatheads, Blackfeet, Crows, and other Native Americans of the northern Plains for many years. His books include Plenty-coups: Chief of the Crows and The Montana Stories of Frank B. Linderman. 148 pages. 1932, 2003.
My Crow Indian Life
by Alma Hogan Snell. Edited by Becky Mathews
Alma Snell was born and raised on the Crow Reservation in Montana. Her experiences as an ethnobotanist started as a child, soon after her mother passed away. She was raised by her Grandmother, Pretty Shield. Together they spent their time roaming the surrounding foothills digging roots, picking plants and berries for food and medicine. Alma became a "Grandmother's Grandchild", being tutored early in the skills of survival, while other children were out playing games.
In her book, Alma shares her life story about growing up with Pretty Shield and bridging two cultures: one where she communicated with nature and spirits, and another that sent her away to a white man's boarding school and introduced to Christianity. She has learned to meld these two world views into a lifestyle that works. The book is also a love story about her complicated courtship with Bill Snell of the Assiniboine, a people who were once enemies of the Crows. Their love eventually prevailed over the past animosities of their cultures, allowing them a life-long love affair. 212 pages. 2000.
A Taste of Heritage
Crow Indian Recipes & Herbal Medicines
by Alma Hogan Snell. Edited by Lisa Castle
Drawing on the knowledge and wisdom of countless generations of Crow Indian women, the well-known speaker and teacher Alma Hogan Snell presents an indispensable guide to the traditional lore, culinary uses, and healing properties of native foods.
A Taste of Heritage imparts the traditional Crow philosophy of healing and detailed practical advice for finding and harvesting plants--from the key to creating irresistible dishes of cattails and dandelions, salsify and Juneberries, antelope meat and buffalo hooves, to the secret of using plants to enhance beauty and incite love. Snell describes the age-old practice of turning wildflowers and garden plants into balms and remedies for such ailments and injuries as snakebite, headache, leg cramps, swollen joints, asthma, and sores. She shares not only her lifetime of experience but also the invaluable lessons of her grandmother, the legendary medicine woman Pretty Shield.
With life-enhancing recipes for everything from soups, teas, and breads to poultices, aphrodisiacs, and fertility aids, A Taste of Heritage is above all a fascinating cultural document certain to enrich the reader's relationship with the natural world. Bison Books: University of Nebraska Press. ISBN: 0-8032-9353-4. 2006. 191 pages.
Also be sure to check out Botany in a Day for a unique way to learn about plants and their uses.
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