Looking out over the vast expanse of untilled natural grasslands that make up the Northern Great Plains, it’s clear that wild game is plentiful but edible flora isn’t. In the eighteenth century, as the Lakota people moved west out of the fertile Minnesota forests where they cultivated corn, squash, and wild rice, toward the dry shortgrass prairies, this presented a problem: their diet, largely reliant on the massive buffalo herds, was leading to protein poisoning, which caused kidney failure and eventually death. Trade with their eastern Dakota cousins and with Missouri River-based tribes like the Arikara brought in crucial farmed carbohydrates, but one remarkable wild tuber high in vitamin C, calcium, and iron helped the Lakota fill their nutritional gap as their nomadic empire grew to encompass most of the Northern Plains*. And while it was inarguably once the most important vegetables in the diet of the Plains nomadic people, its consumption now is something of a rarity.
Thíŋpsiŋla**, or timpsila, is known by English-speaking settlers as the prairie turnip, or Psoralea esculenta. This starchy taproot is found four inches beneath the soil across most of the Great Plains. According to Deanna Eaglefeather from the Antelope community on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, the plant prefers dry patches and grows best on the upper third of prairie slopes. The roots were dug up using antlers or sticks, and then braided together and hung to dry to allow for long-term storage and better portability. It could then be ground into a flour or rehydrated in soups. Eaten raw, it has an inoffensive starchy taste, similar to a potato, but a pleasantly soft texture in comparison with more familiar tubers, like turnips. The flour was most commonly used to thicken wóžapi, or wojapi, a sweet berry sauce made from tart chokecherries or other seasonal fruit. Today wóžapi is served like a warm jam with bread, but it was traditionally eaten straight off the fire as a carbohydrate-loaded stew.
“Timpsila is a traditional food, a big part of my ancestors’ diet,” says Keenan Weddell, a garden assistant at the Sicangu Food Sovereignty Initiative on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, home of the Sičháŋǧu Lakota people. “Before big farms, this plant alone could feed many people... Grandmothers said these turnips point towards each other, so you’ll always know where the next one will be.”
The importance of thíŋpsiŋla to Weddell’s ancestors is reflected in their language and understanding of the physical world. Its etymology reflects the transition from forest to grassland: thí- means prairie, and psiŋ refers to the wild rice that would have previously been the staple starch in the Minnesota woodlands. Ethnobotanist Linda Black Elk prefers the English name “breadroot” as a more accurate translation. The Lakota names of most root vegetables introduced by European settlers are some variant of thíŋpsiŋla: “orange thíŋpsiŋla” for carrot, “white thíŋpsiŋla” for turnip, “red thíŋpsiŋla” for beet, “violet thíŋpsiŋla” for rutabaga, etc. The lunar month roughly corresponding to June is Thíŋpsiŋla itkáȟča wí, “the moon when the thíŋpsiŋla seed pods mature,” which is when the tuber is ripe for picking.
Some harvest the root before the plant flowers, while some wait to allow the seeds to be dispersed to create the next generation of plants. Harvesting rituals vary, but most include an offering of tobacco and a prayer. Corey Yellowboy, a Lakota language and culture instructor at the Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, says that the first root of the season should be eaten raw and chewed slowly with particular gratefulness to the Great Spirit, Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka. After taking the root, most will return the plant to the hole it came from, with some placing it root-side first while others return it upside down, planting the seed pods to ensure a bountiful harvest for the next generation.
Weddell also passed along the story in which thíŋpsiŋla figures prominently: A Lakota woman married a star and left Earth (makȟá) to live in the Star Nation (wičháȟpi oyáte), a world just like ours but above the clouds. One day she went out to dig thíŋpsiŋla, under strict instructions to only dig the small roots and to leave the larger ones alone. She was curious, however, and picked a large one—and in the gaping hole in the ground, she could look all the way down to Earth and see her old relatives. She was with child from her star husband but missed her family, so she began to braid a long strand of thíŋpsiŋla to climb back down. Her hands slipped and, as she fell to Earth, she gave birth to a son who was saved by meadowlarks and raised as one of their own. The meadowlarks gave the child back to the Lakota people, who named him Star Boy, but he too missed his family in the Star Nation. He returned to be with them, and became the Morning Star.
The end of the nomadic lifestyle and the confinement to relatively barren reservations was both achieved and reinforced by creating a dependence on government commodity food, through the elimination of bison and the flooding of fertile river bottomlands by dam projects***. Traditional staples were replaced by unhealthy alternatives, such as fry bread and processed cheese products. Today every Lakota reservation is classified by the USDA as a food desert, signifying a lack of access to healthy and affordable food. One of the only reliable sources of wild food still available is the thíŋpsiŋla. A 2019 survey conducted by the Sicangu Community Development Corporation shows that despite its cultural significance, it does not appear to be a common, everyday food, and the degree to which it’s consumed regularly varies depending on each family.
This is where grassroots organizations like the Sicangu Food Sovereignty Initiative come in. They report an increased interest among both elders and youth in preserving traditional food knowledge and skills, such as harvesting, preserving, and cooking with thíŋpsiŋla. As Weddell says, "We view the revitalization of traditional Lakota foodways as a matter of vital importance in building food sovereignty that is rooted in Lakota culture.” This organization and others like it on other Lakota reservations are working hard to share traditional knowledge around food with community members via shareable resources, in-person wild harvesting, and skill share events—young participants recently snacked on a meat and thíŋpsiŋla stew and a wild mint tea as they learned to make various salves all using foraged ingredients.
“It’s important to keep these traditional foods with us to help our people return back to sovereignty,” Wedell says. And, as he points out, timpsila existed before the concept of food sovereignty. The tuber also belies a simple truth: Despite being labeled as a food desert because of the lack of supermarkets, the prairies are abundant in nutritious food sources—if you know what to look for and where to look; and if you’ve been taught how to respect the bounty that exists just beneath their surface.
*Hämäläinen Pekka. (2019). Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power. Yale University Press.
**Ulrich, Jan. (2014). New Lakota Dictionary Pro V.1. Lakota Language Consortium.
***Lawson, M. L. (2009). Dammed Indians Revisited: The Continuing History of the Pick-Sloan Plan and the Missouri River Sioux. South Dakota State Historical Society Press.