Here’s a post about yucca by Danny Running Bear, who directs the native arts program at Terrasante Village near Tucson, Arizona. Danny is a regular contributor to the Food Conspiracy Co-op’s “Community News.” Yucca is an important crop to native peoples, and is used as food and in products like clothing, rope and even shampoo.
At the climax of Kinaalda, the four-day-long Dineh beauty way becoming-woman ceremony, a chosen woman washes the hair of the girl reaching her first moontime. The shampooing not only brings out the shine of womanhood in the maturing girl’s long black hair; it is also a reminder of her purity and of her bond with the plant world.
This shampoo is prepared from the root of the yucca plant. Yucca, in its many varieties, grows throughout the U.S. southwest—in our area, mainly in the hills and mountains. It’s the one with the radial cluster of bayonet-shaped leaves, which eventually shoots up tall flowering stalks.
To make shampoo or soap, the root of yucca is dug up fresh and pounded on a mano and metate until the sudsy juice flows out. If the root is dry, it is first soaked in hot water until it swells up.
For human beings to go on, the spirits must be fed. Ceremonies like Kinaalda are their delicious food. And if girls are to become clearheaded, strong women, empowered to carry on hozhone, the beauty way, they must have a proper soap with which to purify themselves. In order to have this, humans must take care of the yuccas.
I’itoi—Elder Brother, creator being, wily medicine man, who yet dwells in a cave in the sacred mountain—stands in the entrance of a labyrinth. Depictions of this “man-in-the-maze” appear throughout the nation of the Tohono O’odham, the ‘desert people’ of southern Arizona. One of the things his travels through this labyrinth represents is our journey through life: with its twists and turns, dead ends and backtracks—eventually reaching the center, the portal to the next life. One of the places the man-in-the-maze motif frequently appears is in world-class Tohono O’odham baskets.
These striking, sometimes watertight baskets are woven from yucca leaves (as well as beargrass). I’itoi often appears in red, the natural color of the banana yucca roots woven in to create his likeness. (Devil’s claw, another of our desert plants, forms the black maze).
Without fire, humans might still survive. But life would be cold, the night dark, food bland, and there would be no smoke to carry our prayers on. Once again, it’s yucca to the rescue. In the U.S. Southwest, an ember is traditionally born by drilling one stick into another. The flowering stalk of yucca is used for these firesticks.
There is a group of stars in the heavens to remind the people of this precious gift of fire and our ability to make it. It is within the constellation Anglos call Orion. The Ute people of the southwest instead see firesticks. The three equally spaced, equally bright stars (Orion’s belt) are the ember-holes in the stick-drilled-into, or fireboard—the female part. Directly into the middle hole, at an angle, goes a straight line of fainter stars (Orion’s sword). This is the spindle stick—the male part—which drills into the fireboard. According to the native conception, the female and male come together to bring fire into the world. The firesticks are plain to see in our winter night sky.
Clothing and rope also sustain us. The fibers of yucca leaves are twisted into cordage and woven into sandals and other clothing. Net carrying bags, hunting bowstrings, and trap triggers are some of the many other items traditionally made from yucca fibers. The leaves are pounded when green to take out the fibers which are then twisted into cordage or yarn; if dry, the leaves are soaked for a time in hot water before further processing.
Paintbrushes are also created by pounding the end of a yucca leaf. Traditional pottery and other objects are decorated using these brushes.
The fruit of the banana yucca is roasted then eaten. It tastes a bit like squash. The sweet shoots of the flowering stalk are also edible.
As a folk medicine, yucca root tea is drunk for arthritis and other inflammations.
The flowering stalk of yucca—in particular, the sotol variety—makes a very strong yet very lightweight and handsome walking stick or cane. A sweet-sounding flute can also be made from the hollowed-out flowering stalk.
These same stalks can also be used to build indigenous shelters such as wickiups and guatos. Finally, the coal-black seeds make nice beads for necklaces and bracelets.
This completes our tour of the yucca superstore. We have seen many attractive and useful items in each department: cosmetics, clothing, food, pharmacy, musical instruments, building materials, art supplies, housewares, camping, jewelry and more.
But aside from Native Americans, some wild animals and insects, a handful of ethnobotanists, and a sprinkling of oddball desert-dwellers, who could care less about yucca? How could a knife-sharp plant growing in the burning desert possibly sustain the rest of us?
This is how: on the backs of the legends and in the spirit-nourishment of the ceremonies; through the craftspeoples’ soul-designs woven into the baskets and painted on the pots; in the hypnotic sight of her mystical shape, black against the purple desert twilight; in the twinkle of the ancestors’ campfires burning in the night sky; in the glow of a young woman, proud with her responsibility to keep the old ways; in the sound of a flute’s heart-lifting song drifting across the universe….
In all these ways, and many more, yucca can help us remember the world.
As long as we can remember the world, we will never forget how to care for her. And if we care for her, she may be willing to continue to shelter, feed and clothe our spirits as well as our bodies for many generations to come.