Ethnobotany: At the Intersection of Nature and Culture

By Milwaukee Public Museum

Huron H. Smith Ethnobotany Collection

Bridging the human/nature divide for over a century, the Milwaukee Public Museum is devoted to the scientific study of natural history and human cultures. This exhibit focuses specifically on six American Indian tribes in the Upper Great Lake region and their traditional knowledge and use of plants.

Huron H. Smith fieldnotes, book 5 pages 5 & 6 by Huron H. SmithMilwaukee Public Museum

Traditionally, natural history museums have separated “nature” from humans and human cultures. Ethnobotany, the scientific study of the traditional knowledge and customs of peoples’ use of plants, lies at the intersection of nature and culture. Over a century ago the Milwaukee Public Museum’s Curator of Botany, Huron H. Smith, encouraged by then Museum Director Samuel Barrett and Anthropologist Alanson Skinner, undertook a progressive and integrative ethnobotanical research program that bridged this human/nature divide.

Huron Smith and motorcycle by Milwaukee Public MuseumMilwaukee Public Museum

Huron H. Smith

Huron Smith came to the Milwaukee Public Museum to head the newly formed Botany Department in 1917. A specialist in dendrology (the study of trees), he received degrees from De Pauw and Cornell Universities, and spent time as an Assistant Curator of Botany at the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, IL before coming to Milwaukee.

Huron Smith examining specimens by Milwaukee Public MuseumMilwaukee Public Museum

Smith’s research

Beginning in 1921 and continuing until his untimely death in 1933, Smith conducted studies on the use of plants by six American Indian tribes in the upper Great Lakes region. 

Huron H. Smith fieldnotes, book 5 page 1 by Huron H. SmithMilwaukee Public Museum

Smith visited and interviewed members of the Menominee, Meskwaki (Fox), Ojibwe, Oneida, Potawatomi and Ho-Chunk tribes. He took meticulous notes and recorded information on plant use and preparation, as well as general observations on community life and language.

Huron H. Smith fieldnotes, book 5 page 9 by Huron H. SmithMilwaukee Public Museum

Preserving knowledge

Smith’s work was conducted at a time when knowledge of the many uses (food, household goods, medication, etc.) of the local flora was still common among the tribal members. Up to the mid-twentieth century, U.S. Government policies intentionally sought to erode traditional knowledge through cultural assimilation. Smith’s notebooks preserve a portion of the languages and plant uses that were freely shared by the Native people who collaborated with him.

Quercus alba, HH Smith 8329 (1921-04/1933-05) by Huron H. SmithMilwaukee Public Museum

Scientific specimens

Huron Smith was trained as a botanist—a scientist who studies plants—and, in addition to collecting notes on their use and traditional names, Smith gathered scientific specimens for the Milwaukee Public Museum’s Herbarium. A herbarium specimen consists of a plant or part of a plant that has been pressed flat and dried, then mounted on a sheet of archival paper with a data label indicating the plant’s scientific name, location where it was collected, collector, and date of collection.

Mr. John V. Satterlee (1921-04/1933-05) by Huron H. SmithMilwaukee Public Museum

Menominee

Huron Smith’s first ethnobotanical field trips were to the Menominee Reservation in 1921 and 1922. The Menominee are the oldest known continuous inhabitants of Wisconsin. They remain exclusively a Wisconsin tribe and still reside on a portion of their homeland (Lurie 11, 2002). The original territory of the Menominee extended north to Escanaba in Michigan and south to Oconto in Wisconsin. At their greatest extent, the Menominee controlled most of east central Wisconsin as far south as Milwaukee.

Achillea millefolium, HH Smith 6268 (1921-04/1933-05) by Huron H. SmithMilwaukee Public Museum

Milwaukee Public Museum Herbarium (MIL) specimen B50291.2. A gathering of Achillea millefolium, collected by Huron Smith (collector #6268).

Asclepias tuberosa, HH Smith 6272 (1921-04/1933-05) by Huron H. SmithMilwaukee Public Museum

Milwaukee Public Museum Herbarium (MIL) specimen B50295.1. A gathering of Asclepias tuberosa, collected by Huron Smith (collector #6272).

Potamogeton natans, HH Smith 6276 (1921-04/1933-05) by Huron H. SmithMilwaukee Public Museum

Milwaukee Public Museum Herbarium (MIL) specimen B50299.1. A gathering of Potamogeton natans, collected by Huron Smith (collector #6276).

Nymphaea odorata, HH Smith 6278 (1921-04/1933-05) by Huron H. SmithMilwaukee Public Museum

Milwaukee Public Museum Herbarium (MIL) specimen B50301.1. A gathering of Nymphaea odorata, collected by Huron Smith (collector #6278).

Mat sewing materials (1921-04/1933-05) by Huron H. SmithMilwaukee Public Museum

Meskwaki (Fox)

The Meskwaki originally lived east of Michigan along the Saint Lawrence River. The tribe may have numbered as many as 10,000 but European conquest reduced their population and forced them west through Michigan, Wisconsin and into Iowa. Huron Smith met with members of the Meskwaki Nation in 1923 in Tama, Iowa.

Achillea millefolium, HH Smith 8335 (1921-04/1933-05) by Huron H. SmithMilwaukee Public Museum

Milwaukee Public Museum Herbarium (MIL) specimen B54397.2. A gathering of Achillea millefolium, collected by Huron Smith (collector #8335).

Fragaria virginiana, HH Smith 8336 (1921-04/1933-05) by Huron H. SmithMilwaukee Public Museum

Milwaukee Public Museum Herbarium (MIL) specimen B54398.2. A gathering of Fragaria virginiana, collected by Huron Smith (collector #8336).

Dryopteris carthusiana, HH Smith 8338 (1921-04/1933-05) by Huron H. SmithMilwaukee Public Museum

Milwaukee Public Museum Herbarium (MIL) specimen B54400. A gathering of Dryopteris carthusiana, collected by Huron Smith (collector #8338).

Toxicodendron radicans, HH Smith 8341 (1921-04/1933-05) by Huron H. SmithMilwaukee Public Museum

Milwaukee Public Museum Herbarium (MIL) specimen B54403. A gathering of Toxicodendron radicans, collected by Huron Smith (collector #8341).

Tramping wild rice (1921-04/1933-05) by Huron H. SmithMilwaukee Public Museum

Ojibwe

Also known as the Chippewa, the Ojibwe are one of the largest tribes in North America. Ojibwe communities stretch from the Saint Lawrence River in Canada across northern Michigan and Wisconsin to Montana and Saskatchewan (Ritzenthaler 743, 1978). Huron Smith met with members of the Ojibwe during three separate trips. The first was made in 1923 to the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in Vilas County, WI. The next, in 1924, was made to the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota. His final trip was made to the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in Bayfield County, WI; Bad River Chippewa Band in Ashland and Iron Counties, WI, and the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in Sawyer County, WI.

Comptonia peregrina, HH Smith 8481 (1921-04/1933-05) by Huron H. SmithMilwaukee Public Museum

Milwaukee Public Museum Herbarium (MIL) specimen B54543. A gathering of Comptonia peregrina, collected by Huron Smith (collector #8481).

Typha latifolia, HH Smith 8489 (1921-04/1933-05) by Huron H. SmithMilwaukee Public Museum

Milwaukee Public Museum Herbarium (MIL) specimen B54551. A gathering of Typha latifolia, collected by Huron Smith (collector #8489).

Achillea millefolium subsp. lanulosa, HH Smith 8483 (1921-04/1933-05) by Huron H. SmithMilwaukee Public Museum

Milwaukee Public Museum Herbarium (MIL) specimen B54545. A gathering of Achillea millefolium subsp. lanulosa, collected by Huron Smith (collector #8483).

Mr. Dan Denny and his wife making basket rims (1921-04/1933-05) by Huron H. SmithMilwaukee Public Museum

Oneida

Huron Smith met with the Oneida in 1929. He set up his field station in the yard of Mrs. Electa Powless whose father, Solomon Skenandoah [Skenadore], helped Smith learn the Oneida language names for plants. The Oneida are one of the five original tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy. At the time of European contact, they controlled land in central New York between the Mohawk tribe to the east and the Onondaga tribe to the west. The Oneida eventually divided into three groups in New York, Ontario, and Wisconsin. 

Erigeron strigosus, HH Smith 9378 (1921-04/1933-05) by Huron H. SmithMilwaukee Public Museum

Milwaukee Public Museum Herbarium (MIL) specimen B68235. A gathering of Erigeron strigosus, collected by Huron Smith (collector #9378).

Fagus grandifolia, HH Smith 9389 (1921-04/1933-05) by Huron H. SmithMilwaukee Public Museum

Milwaukee Public Museum Herbarium (MIL) specimen B68246. A gathering of Fagus grandifolia, collected by Huron Smith (collector #9389).

Achillea millefolium subsp. lanulosa, HH Smith 9372 (1921-04/1933-05) by Huron H. SmithMilwaukee Public Museum

Milwaukee Public Museum Herbarium (MIL) specimen B68229. A gathering of Achillea millefolium subsp. lanulosa, collected by Huron Smith (collector #9372).

Mr. Henry Ritchie (foreground) and dugout canoe (1921-04/1933-05) by Huron H. SmithMilwaukee Public Museum

Potawatomi

Like the Chippewa bands, Potawatomi bands are spread over a wide area. Between 1789 and 1867 through 43 treaties, the Potawatomi were forced to cede their lands between Wisconsin and Ohio. Most Potawatomi were forcibly removed west but some remained in their ceded territory and were referred to as “strolling Potawatomis.” Some of the “strolling” Potawatomis who remained in Milwaukee and Waukesha counties migrated to Forest County, WI to avoid forced removal west (Lurie 9, 2002). Huron Smith met with the Forest County Potawatomi in 1925.

Tsuga canadensis, HH Smith 8889 (1921-04/1933-05) by Huron H. SmithMilwaukee Public Museum

Milwaukee Public Museum Herbarium (MIL) specimen B54877. A gathering of Tsuga canadensis, collected by Huron Smith (collector #8889).

Clintonia borealis, HH Smith 8895 (1921-04/1933-05) by Huron H. SmithMilwaukee Public Museum

Milwaukee Public Museum Herbarium (MIL) specimen B54883. A gathering of Clintonia borealis, collected by Huron Smith (collector #8895).

Betula papyrifera, HH Smith 8906 (1921-04/1933-05) by Huron H. SmithMilwaukee Public Museum

Milwaukee Public Museum Herbarium (MIL) specimen B54894. A gathering of Betula papyrifera, collected by Huron Smith (collector #8906).

Mr. George Monegar and Fanny White (granddaughter) cleaning Culver's root (1921-04/1933-05) by Huron H. SmithMilwaukee Public Museum

Ho-Chunk

The Wisconsin Ho-Chunk are spread out through more than ten state counties as dispersed households or settlements. This unique pattern resulted from resistance to forcible removal subsequent allotment of forty to eighty acre homesteads after 1874. The Ho-Chunk are the only Wisconsin tribe who were able to benefit from a federal policy of offering homesteads as an alternative to reservations (Lurie 13, 2002). Huron Smith met with members of the Ho-Chunk during most of the summer of 1928. Smith camped at the family farm of Ulysses A. White near Wisconsin Rapids.

Comptonia peregrina, HH Smith 9184 (1921-04/1933-05) by Huron H. SmithMilwaukee Public Museum

Milwaukee Public Museum Herbarium (MIL) specimen B66675. A gathering of Comptonia peregrina, collected by Huron Smith (collector #9184).

Osmunda claytoniana, HH Smith 9179 (1921-04/1933-05) by Huron H. SmithMilwaukee Public Museum

Milwaukee Public Museum Herbarium (MIL) specimen B66670.1. A gathering of Osmunda claytoniana, collected by Huron Smith (collector #9179).

Acer rubrum, HH Smith 9172 (1921-04/1933-05) by Huron H. SmithMilwaukee Public Museum

Milwaukee Public Museum Herbarium (MIL) specimen B66663. A gathering of Acer rubrum, collected by Huron Smith (collector #9172).

Ethnobotany of the Forest County Potawatomi (1933)Milwaukee Public Museum

Dissemination

Some of Smith’s work was published in a series of papers (Smith 1923, 1928, 1932, 1933) prior to his death and a fifth paper on this collection was published by Kindscher & Hurlburt in 1998. The sixth, reviewing his work with the Oneida, remains as an unpublished manuscript.

Milwaukee Public Museum - Wisconsin's Museum of Nature and Culture (2020-02-19/2020-02-19) by Christopher D. TyrrellMilwaukee Public Museum

The intersection of nature and culture

Ethnobotany, by definition, explores the intersection of nature and culture. We recognize the plant specimens depicted above have intrinsic value as they once were living beings that shared their planet with us. Huron Smith’s work was an important attempt to record indigenous knowledge about these plants. The people who shared their knowledge with Smith helped to preserve tribal information for future generations. Smith’s work stands as a testament to one person’s earnest desire to record knowledge before it was forgotten. Nearly a century later, the Milwaukee Public Museum is still endeavoring to preserve indigenous life ways through research which can be shared with the world.

Credits: Story

Lurie, Nancy Oestreich. 2002. Wisconsin Indians. Wisconsin Historical Society, 98 pgs.
Ritzenthaler, Robert E. 1979. Prehistoric Indians of Wisconsin, 2nd revised ed. MPM Popular Science Handbook 4.3. Milwaukee Public Museum, 48 pgs.
Special thanks to: Alyssa Caywood, Neil Luebke, Nancy Lurie, Greg Post, Dawn Scher Thomae, and Chris Tyrrell

Credits: All media
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