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  • Writer's pictureRandi R. Byrd

Elder and Berry: When Our Medicines Meet

Updated: Oct 6, 2019

A shift and remembering is happening everywhere across North Carolina’s Indian Country. You will not read about it in policy changes that impact the community, you will not see it on billboards to promote powwows, yet, it is even bigger and understood more widely. It transcends and includes all age groups, religious leanings, and politics. Like the very water within our bodies, a commonality that we all share, and the water we are dependent upon for survival, there is a remembering that is unfolding, and there seems to be no divisive nature about what is compelling us all towards it.

Almost silently, it is most visible in the small daily choices— in the kitchen, in the way people choose to take that detour on their walk to a neglected snaky ditch or make a sudden pull off on the side of the road near a creek bridge, and in the ways there are more pictures of plant curiosities than selfies in the hands of our people. What would we call this time we are in? What could be so powerful as to change such choices and have a ripple effect of influence among those within their connected circles? These small daily choices will not make the 5 O’clock news, but it is the biggest news around.

Sometimes it takes the form of elderberries. Most often, we focus on the berries themselves, their scientific virtues—how the berries boost the immune system and strengthens the body’s ability to fight off viruses such as the flu and bacterial infections. We discuss different recipes of syrup and explore other ways to incorporate the berries into baking and other edible treats, like gummies, muffins and pancakes. We compare using different proportions of the same natural additive ingredients like cinnamon, nutmeg and honey and make small batches to determine personal preferences. We share the experimental makings with our friends and family and give the jars away as gifts to loved ones and visitors from far away. Is it not an ultimate expression of hospitality and care—born of the water and land into our hands and hearts and into another’s heart, hands and body to be made stronger and more able to take on the world, because we care about them?

We learn the lifecycle of the plant from a time of tenderness to maturity, how the foliage appears and can be distinguished along the roadsides like a neon light in the darkness once you understand her leaf canopy, whereby a year ago seemingly no one knew her face. Now, a household name and family member. Her stems and umbrella of deep violet-burgundy abundance might as well be printed in a 5x7 and set out on a nightstand beside the other family photos, like a long lost cousin reunited. You can already anticipate someone out there is conspiring a way to have her show up on the table in some form for Christmas dinner.

How community folks who were once strangers or mere acquaintances, find they have a common desire and will reach out via messenger to ask for a little tip for preparing to make medicine—“I should remove the stems, right?” When the answer comes back, “yes,” they laugh it off that they’ll have to start the whole process over again because they just through the whole lumps in to boil, but it’s all in good nature and there is a joy for even having to start over, a lesson embraced through comedy and forgiveness in the stumble of learning to reconnect to old ways. Knowing the destination and the journey will be worth it, the berries gave us a reason to connect to one another and come to share something of truth together. The berries reconnect, more than cellularly.

As purple stained cuticles around our fingernails give clues, they are only part of the underlying story we are living. That one can buy elderberry syrup from the store, but it would be absent of the intent Creator has us find again… that “we are each other’s medicine,” as Mr. Greg Jacobs reminds us. We focus on the tangible berries, but is it the berries or are the berries teaching us to see something else, unlocking a knowledge? A particular kind of flavor that cannot be packaged and sold—a flavor of community, a conversation among family and friends walking with buckets and knives in hand, and knowing someone cares about you, the waterways, the land, and the gentle handling of each step until she finds her way to your lips to tell you this story of thousands of years, a story that you can now continue...

Idalis Jacobs, 21, from the Coharie Tribe expressed that learning about elderberries has been for her like a journey through time. “I kept thinking about the fact that these elderberries have been around for so many years. Just as I’m here harvesting them, so did my ancestors all those years ago and I can see all of that time as I’m doing it myself. One other thing I’ve come to realize is that you really don’t collect the elderberries by yourself. You always go with someone. You can’t do it by yourself and I wouldn’t want to. The whole process is meant to be with other people.”

A powerful awareness now resonates within her as she shared that, “We have everything right here at our feet. There is no need to buy this natural medicine because we can make it ourselves, especially where we are here in my community because it is growing everywhere.”

We went on to marvel at the openings and connections noticed and she shared that even family members who were not able to make elderberry syrup themselves due to health reasons have asked if she could bring them some. She chuckled reflecting on how people have responded to her. She recently posted something about learning to make elderberry syrup with some photos of the canning process. She said people were really shocked, maybe because she is a young person interested in these old ways and everyone wants to be part of the action with her now. “Being a young person in my community, I really feel that it’s important for me to learn these ways so that I can help pass them on to younger generations. The more we can learn how to make natural medicines and recipes, it will help us to live a healthier, abundant life.”

“It’s about Spiritual Medicine! I can feel an excitement inside me when I start to handle the elderberries and do the different steps of turning them into medicine. It just starts building. I can’t explain it. It boosts my sense of who we are when we learn to make our natural medicines. It really IS who we are.”

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