Alternate Names: Dogbane, milkweed, honeybloom, bitter root, black hemp, hemp dogbane, lechuguilla, westernwall
Warning - Indian hemp can be toxic if ingested without proper preparation.
Ethnobotanic: Indian hemp is harvested for fiber. The stems are cut in the fall; they are then split open and the long, silky fibers removed. The fibers are then twisted into string, which provides cordage. String, thread, rope, baskets, snares, netting, and clothing were made from the bast fibers of the Indian hemp plant because they are so silky yet strong. Cordage was then used to make tump straps, belts, netted bags, hairnets, and ceremonial regalia (capes, skirts, and head-dresses).
The fiber was particularly useful in making fishing and carrying nets, for string and for ropes, and to some extent for weaving rough cloth. In California, Indian hemp and milkweed are used somewhat interchangeably for cordage. The Luiseño of southern California for their dance regalia used Indian hemp; the golden eagle or other feathers are tied to netting for the dance skirt for men (Merriam 1955). The wild hemp was also used by the Chemeweve for snares for otter and rabbits (Ibid.)
Dogbane is very important to tribes in the Columbia Plateau in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho for basketry. The Quinalt, Kalispel, Nez Perce, Spokane, Umatilla, Wasco, Wishram, Yakima, and Klikitat used dogbane for cordage and basketry.
Families use the native twine to tie together the frames for their winter lodges. They used it to sew cattails and tules into sturdy mats to cover these frames and to serve as carpeting, furniture, beds, and utensils. Dip nets, set nets, and seines were made of dogbane. The nets were strong enough to hold the giant sturgeon caught in the Columbia River.
Of all the important uses for Indian hemp, the itatamat , or "counting the days" ball, was perhaps the most significant for the people themselves. From the time of her marriage, a woman would record a calendar of her life's events by tying knots on a length of hemp as important events occurred. She marked births, deaths, and other extraordinary days with beads, shells or other talismans. When the ball got too large to handle easily, she started a new ball.
Flat twined bags ("sally bags"), round twined bags and basketry caps were made with dogbane. Soft bags were made using twine from Indian hemp or milkweed decorated with cornhusk imbrication. Basket bottoms and top margins were of woven cedar bark. These soft bags conform to the shape of a load of roots of camas or other plants.
Later explorers reported that the Nez Perce and other tribes stored berries, roots, and nuts in bags about one by two feet, and used larger bags up to three feet long for clothing and other personal effects. Early visitor to the Mid-Columbia also described piles of filled bags in the corners or hung along the wall in native homes. One weaver estimated that it took two to three months to twine a large root-storage bag.
As a medium of trade, barter, or wager, the bags in the early days were considered only the wrapping or container for the dried roots they held. The largest of the bags would hold just under a half-bushel or nearly four dry gallons of camas or bitterroot bulbs. Now, the bags themselves are highly valued as trade items. The flat twined bags have been widely traded to other tribes, such as the Crow and Blackfeet of Montana.
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