Friday, November 26, 2010

Homestead Assists with Oil Spill Cleanup to Conserve Resources

The third week in September began like most other weeks at Homestead National Monument of America. Monday was spent cleaning the Palmer-Epard Cabin and the Freeman School and Tuesday I worked on various projects while providing visitor services at the front desk of the Heritage Center. Wednesday was different though. I received an email from the National Park Service Emergency Incident Coordination Center asking if I was available to go to Gulf Islands National Seashore the following Monday as a responder to the Deep Water Horizon oil spill. After speaking to the Chief Ranger and Superintendent it was agreed that I should definitely do what I could to help.

by Jason Jurgena
Museum Curator
Homestead National Monument of America

The Gulf Islands National Seashore, which is made up of twelve units, is partially located in both Mississippi and Florida. These units have a diversity of plants, animals, and marine life, as well as sites of historical and cultural value within their boundaries. The mission of the National Park Service (NPS) includes preserving these resources for future generations. During the three weeks that I worked on the project I was at the Perdito Key, Fort Pickens, and Santa Rosa units in Florida.

Tar balls from Bayside
When I arrived it had been exactly five months since the the drill rig Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank, killing 11 crewmembers and leaking oil into the Gulf of Mexico from an uncapped well. I wasn’t there during the early cleanup efforts and therefore can’t really say what conditions were like. When I arrived the beaches looked superficially clean, but upon closer inspection I could see many marble sized tar balls on the surface. I also saw, during my time there, that some larger tar balls were still just under the surface and some crews were working in waist deep water because they were finding them there as well. Fortunately, by the time I arrived, wildlife with oil on it was no longer being found but we continued to keep watch for oiled, distressed, or dead wildlife.

Before I arrived, more than 600 NPS employees from more than 135 different parks and units had participated in coordinating and assisting with the cleanup efforts. While I was there I worked closely with many U.S. Fish and Wildlife (FWS) employees also there in response to the spill. Many other agencies have staff involved in these efforts such as the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement but in my time at the incident I worked mainly with FWS and other NPS employees.

Sandshark cleaning the sand of tar balls at night.

My role in the project was that of Resource Advisor. What that meant was that it was my job to work with the cleaning crews while they were at the park to make them aware of what plant and animal life was in the area, how to recognize it, and how to best protect it. When I was working on the day shift my job would start before the sun would come up when I would speak to the work crews before they disembarked the busses and continued until all personnel and every last piece of equipment was off the beach at the end of the day. Due to the time of year, work could not begin in the morning until the beaches had been checked to be sure no sea turtle hatchlings were still making their way to the water. During the time I was on the night shift to monitor the mechanical cleaning of the beaches I would see both the sunset and sunrise. Other natural resources that need to be protected are the plant life that facilitates the formation of sand dunes, which in turn provide habitat for many of the animals living in this ecosystem. Also there are endangered shore birds such as the Piping Plover that nest on these beaches and in these dunes. Areas of sensitivity would be marked so special care could be taken while working in or near these areas.

Due to my background in archeology I was also there to protect archeological sites and areas of historical significance. I would generally work in areas where there were known archaeological sites so that these resources could also be protected for future generations. I was also there to monitor all work being done near these areas in the event that a new archeological discovery was made.

Turtle nest
 So far I have made it sound like the Resource Advisors are there to protect the park’s natural and cultural resources from the workers who are there to clean it up and I want to make it clear that this is not the case. I found it to be a partnership and once the workers were aware of the park’s resources they did everything they could to help protect these resources. Most of the workers on these crews live in the area and consider these beaches to be their own. I witnessed many occasions where the foreman had to tell workers to take a break or to have lunch because the workers would have continued cleaning all day if they could. I haven’t heard how long the cleanup efforts will continue but if I am requested to go back again in the coming months I would be happy to do whatever I can to help.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Why the World Requires a Bread Basket

Field where the Bread Basket of the World begins
 The economics of homesteading is difficult to quantify in precise numbers, but late in the nineteenth and early twentieth century agriculture was a primary source of U.S. wealth. The United States is called the “Bread Basket of the World.” This simply means that the grain belt of the country provides grains and grain-based products to all corners of the globe. Previously, I had written about the increase in transportation and agricultural technologies that made physically moving the grains around the world possible, but what were some other forces at work that turned the Great Plains into an agricultural giant? The focus here is to begin thinking about what was happening in the United States and the world, and why did the world require a bread basket?

The United States, torn by the Civil War, was busy piecing the country back together during the 1860’s. During this time the government was trying to populate the western portion of the country by removing the American Indian and offering this land to individuals willing to live on and work the land. While agricultural production increased in the first decades following the Civil War, it took some time for the technology and population on the Great Plains to begin producing a surplus. During the 1860’s agricultural exports averaged a modest $182 million a year. The grain belt was just being born.

Grain belt of the Great Plains
By the 1870’s the grain belt was being settled rapidly, railroads were connecting cities to the farthest reaches of the Great Plains, and agricultural colleges were being built to supply the increased demand for applied technologies. Between the decades of 1870 to 1890 nearly 2 million new farms, double the total number that had existed in 1860, spread throughout the middle of the United States. One million new farms were being created every decade until the 1920’s when expansion finally reached a plateau.

I can only speculate on what factors allowed for the United States to emerge in the 20th century as the world’s leading agricultural superpower. European agricultural production would have been crippled during World War I and World War II as crop fields were turned into battlefields. The explosion of the world’s population that began around the beginning of the 20th century increased demand for agricultural products.

The timing of the Homestead Act is important because by the time these other key events began the agricultural infrastructure of the United States had been established and American farmers were in a position to contribute a large supply to the increasing demand. This is a complex issue that will require more extensive research, but there are some interesting questions to be asked about this history that have relevance to our present society.

The addition of the new farms directly led to an increase in production, but the population was growing as well, so surpluses were being consumed and profits grew proportionally to the number of farms. In order to become the “Bread Basket of the World”, a world market is required. So where did this market come from? Here, I do not pretend to know the answers. The U.S. was seeing the number of farms increase, and the production of those farms was increasing, in the decade of 1910-20 agricultural exports skyrocketed to an average of 1.9 billion annually.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Homesteaders Used Indian's Natural Medicines

Long before our time, American Indian healers, or also known as medicine men, were planting and harvesting plants and herbs on the prairies for medicinal (medical) purposes. Many of us have been prescribed medications for various disorders or illnesses throughout our lives, or have decided to take some natural remedies or dietary supplements for various different reasons.

by SuAnn Saathoff
Southeast Community College

I have taken herbal supplements, without much thought, I will admit, as to the how or why we’ve come to use them, or how we know they work. But, plants and herbs have been used for centuries for their healing properties and continue to be used today. I’m going to tell you a little about the history of the use of medicinal plants and herbs by the American Indians, as well as some of the different plants that are native to Nebraska and the different ways they have been or are being used in medicine.

American Indians used their knowledge of plants and herbs to make not only food or clothing, but medicine to cure people of a lot of the same illnesses we have today. Ginseng, aloe, echinacea, ginkgo, these are products you will find on the shelves of your local supermarket or drug store, but they are medicinal products that have been used to treat a variety of illness for centuries. Kinscher in his 1992 book entitled, Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie, stated his study “documents the use of 203 native prairie plant species, used as medicine by Indians, settlers, and doctors.” The Indians of the region made the greatest use of these plants, by using 172 of these species (Kindscher, 1992).

Kindscher (1992) goes on to say, “Many of these plants were also used by doctors from the time of first settlement (the 1830s in the earliest areas) until the 1930s, Medicinal plants have played a major role in the health and healing system of the Indians” and continue to play a role in medicine today. “Although no exact figures are available, it is estimated that 40 percent of the prescription drugs now sold in the United States contain at least one ingredient derived from nature.”

Above is a little bit of background into how important the prairie resources of plants and herbs were to the Indians, settlers, and to us today. Now let’s examine the different ways the plants and herbs were used to deliver medicine.

According to Keoke and Porterfield in their 2005 book, American Indian Contributions to the World, “In order to develop plant-based drugs that worked, they (Indians) needed to understand the different effects that plants had on humans.” Giving a patient too little medicine would not cure the illness, and too much might result in death (Keoke & Porterfield, 2005).

Have you ever stopped to think how many different medicines they’ve [Indians] used in trial and error situations, to cure a certain ailment or illness you might have, before they came to the prescription your doctor has just prescribed for you?

There were many different ways in which plants and herbs were used in order to deliver the medicine. Medicine men or women would dry, grind, or crush roots, leaves, or barks, into oils or powder and would make them into salves/creams, suppositories, pills or medicine they could inject under the skin. They would also boil certain plant leaves, or roots and make tonics or teas to drink (Keoke, Porterfield, 2005).

According to Gilmore in his publication, Uses of Plants by the Indians of the Missouri River Region, some plants were broken into short pieces, and attached to the skin by moistening one end, and then lit on fire and allowed to burn down to the skin. Smoke treatments were also performed by lighting certain plants or herbs on fire and using the aroma or smoke to heal certain injuries or illnesses.

Now that we have looked at some of the different ways plants and herbs were used to make medicines let’s learn about some of the plants native to Nebraska and their medicinal uses.

The plant, purple coneflower, or better known today as, Echinacea, “was universally used as an antidote for snake bite and other venomous bites, stings and poisonous conditions” (Gilmore, 1918). When you have a cold, you might use a vapor rub that contains mint to clear your nose. But you could also take Echinacea, as it helps with infections caused by viruses like the common cold or flu, and is said to also help boast your immune system. This plant, native only to North America, was also the medicinal plant most widely used by the Indians of the prairie. (Kindscher, 1992)

Purple coneflower was also used to treat intestinal worms, by being brewed into a tea. Or the roots were rubbed downward on swollen arms or legs to reduce the swelling (Kindscher, 1992). Another popular medicine comes from tree bark. The bark from an American black willow was used as a pain reliever, because of the salicin (Keoke & Porterfield, 2005). Salicin is the main ingredient in aspirin, which is used for pain relief, as well as an anti-inflammatory.

These are just a few of the different uses types of plants or herbs and how they have been used, or continue to be used. These plants, and others not discussed, have been used for centuries for their healing properties and continue to be used today.

Today we have learned how American Indians used their knowledge of plants and herbs to make medicines to cure people of a lot of the same illnesses we have today. And I’ve also told you about some of the different ways in which plants and herbs were used to deliver medicine. Long before our time, American Indian healers, or also known as medicine men were planting and harvesting plants and herbs on the prairies for medicinal purposes. So, next time you are picking up a prescription or a dietary supplement, imagine that this medicine could have been used centuries ago for the same reason you are using it today.


Cowen, R. (1990). Medicinal plants of the prairie. Science News, 137(14), 221. Retrieved from Health Source – Consumer Edition database.

Dandelion much more than a pest [Sunrise Edition]. (1995, June 18). Omaha World - Herald, p. 3F. Retrieved from Nebraska Newsstand.

Gilmore, M. (1919). Uses of plants by the Indians of the Missouri river region. Bureau of American Ethnology, Thirty-Third Annual Report 1911-1912, Washington Government Printing Office.

Kindscher, K. (1987, May). Edible wild plants of the prairie: An ethnobotanical guide. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas.

Kindscher, K. (1992, October). Medicinal wild plants of the prairie: An ethnobotanical guide. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas.

Keoke, E.D., & Porterfield K. (2005). American Indian contributions to the world. Medicine and health. NY: Facts On File, Inc. Retrieved from NetLibrary.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Homestead Native American Experience

Kevin Locke, named Tokeya Inajin in Lakota, meaning “The First to Arise,” and renowned player of the Northern Plains flute, narrated the prayer in the video below. The poem was shared with attendees of the Native American Experience at Homestead National Monument on July 17, 2010. The event was both an acknowledgment of Indian participation in the homestead experience and a tribute to participants in the 2010 Special Olympics held in Lincoln, Nebraska.