Berries are an important food for many animals and people, especially in Ojibwe tradition. Berries are not simply something to sprinkle on cereal—they are one of the four sacred foods in Ojibwe culture.
June is the time the wild strawberries start ripening and begin to appear, glowing like fire in the grass. The heart shape of the berry gave the strawberry the name ode’imin. In fact, the word ode’imin translates to heart berry. Wild strawberries differ from the cultivated strawberries we see in the grocery store. Wild strawberries are small; a wild strawberry the size of a thumbnail would be considered large. And, unlike some of their domestic cousins, wild strawberries are very sweet and have an intense strawberry flavor. I’ve been told by people who’ve tried them that once you’ve had a wild strawberry, you will never forget it!
In the Ojibwe culture, each plant was given a soul-spirit and some believe the soul-spirit of this fruit was unique, unlike any other. It is told that the soul-spirit of the strawberry was that of a being not admitted into the Land of Souls and who was returned to earth complete its term of being in the form of this heart-shaped berry. Other Anishinabeg teachings portray the strawberries as “preserving marital harmony, their heart-shaped form being a reminder to those who may have forgotten, why we live with a loved one” (from Basil Johnson, Ojibwe heritage, taken from “Jiibaakweda Gimiijiminaan, Let’s Cook Our Food” a collection of recipes by Native Harvest, copyright 2003, Morris Press Cookbooks.)
During the summer, when berries were abundant, the Anishinaabeg would eat the berries fresh. They would also gather the berries to preserve for use over the long winter months. Berries were preserved in many ways. In one method, the Ojibwe would weave mats from strips of pine bark, lay berries on the mats and leave them in the sun until they dried. Another option was to mix the berries with maple syrup, pour the mixture onto sheets of birch bark where it was left until it was dry. Sometimes, berries would be made into little patties. Then, in the winter, they would boil these patties, sprinkle them with a little maple sugar and they would taste just as sweet as they had in the summer.
Traditional Native American diets were exceptionally healthy, keeping the body and spirit strong. Many of the berries that Native people gathered, ate and preserved for the long winter months are no exception to this tradition of eating healthy foods. Strawberries, for example, are an excellent source of vitamin C. Just 1/2 cup of sliced strawberries provides 68 mg of vitamin C….that is 75% of the daily amount needed by men and 90% of the amount needed by women! Vitamin C plays an important part in keeping you healthy. In fact, some experts call vitamin C one of the safest and most effective nutrients around. Some of the ways vitamin C helps keep you healthy include:
- It helps boost your immune system to prevent colds.
- It helps cuts and wounds heal.
- It keeps your gums healthy.
- It helps your body absorb iron and folate from plant sources of food.
- It keeps your blood vessel walls strong and so protects you from bruising.
- It helps produce collagen – a connective tissue that holds muscles, bones and other tissues together.