Echinacea Gold Rush

This section is compiled by Frank M. Painter, D.C.
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FROM:   Better Nutrition ~ July 22, 2004

By Kimberly Lord Stewart

When the cold winds of winter are barely a memory for the Native Americans who live in Poplar, Montana, a flourish of the Yah’pehu, or Echinacea angustifolia, plant emerges from the new prairie grass. The arrival of this long-cherished herb should be a welcome sight, but Curley Youpee, a Sioux tribal leader at the nearby Fort Peck Reservation, knows that once the flower blooms, this lonely corner of the state will be overrun by herbal company employees and root diggers hoarding Montana’s purple gold.

Since the mid-1990s, Youpee, director of Fort Peck’s Tribal Cultural Resource Department, has been trying to save the plant from being overharvested. But every year, he watches his people sharpen their digging tools as they wait for the plant to bloom. And once buyers post freshly painted signs offering the latest market price for echinacea, the mayhem really begins. To Youpee, each root pulled from the ground weakens the land and the spiritual significance and healing properties of the plant. The constant digging also chips away at his relationship with other tribal members on the reservation.

Rush to Profit

For centuries, tribes in the region have cherished the plant’s spiritual and healing power, curing ailments ranging from snakebites to sunburn. Youpee, a traditional Native American healer, uses the plant as his ancestors did. “To our people, echinacea is used as a blood purifier to cleanse the body before healing can begin,” he says. “But we don’t hold the spiritual significance of echinacea above or below any other herb. It has always been important, as are many others, to my tribe, the Sioux, and the Assiniboine and Navaho people.”

About seven years ago, herbal companies discovered that the land Youpee calls home is Mother Nature’s pharmacy, rife with millions of pounds of native echinacea and its valuable root. They also found a severely depressed economy, with unemployment rates double, and even triple, the national average. The herbal companies took full advantage of their discovery, and tacked signs on every telephone pole offering to buy roots from diggers desperate for money. Since then, every summer from dawn to dusk, root prospectors from outside the reservation, and even the state, join local Native Americans in their rush to dig up the plants. Some even destroy private property in their efforts to get to them.

When the “purple poaching” first began, Youpee was sympathetic to the financial needs of his people. But he soon began to see the frenzy it caused and the resulting pockmarked land as signs that the sacred plant was being stripped from the hearts of his people. “With unemployment rates as high as 70 percent, I understand that digging the root means food on the table—how can I argue?” he says. But he adds that his role as a public official and traditional tribal member and healer made the conflict all the greater. “I was really torn as to what to do.”

As the reservation’s cultural director, Youpee, 51, preserves as many traditional tribal practices as he can. On a daily basis, he wears his lightly graying hair in braids, but for ceremonies he takes great care preparing his hair and traditional costume. For decades, it was forbidden for Youpee and other tribal members to hold pow wows or practice spiritual dances such as The Sundance. But in the late 1960s, tribal leaders began reintroducing forgotten ceremonies to the reservation.

Feeding Frenzy

Youpee says the battle to save the echinacea plant has been his biggest challenge yet because it divides two segments of his community—the traditional leaders, who care about the erosion of the land and the tribe’s cultural heritage, and the remaining majority, who’ve never known the old ways but need money earned from selling the plant.

Youpee’s first attempt to stave off the damage was to educate the community about the long-term damage echinacea poaching could cause. He posted signs informing diggers about the importance of sustainable harvesting, in which they fill in the holes and replant seeds. In addition, he created classes to teach his people about echinacea’s spiritual significance and medicinal properties. But no one came because they were too busy digging for roots, Youpee says. The herbal companies’ promise of money to satisfy hungry stomachs and empty wallets was a stronger force than tribal, cultural and conservation concerns, so the pillaging continued.

As the rest of the world learned about the healing properties of echinacea, demand for the herb increased. The level of poaching rose to millions of dollars, with one company buying up an average of 1,200 pounds of roots a day at $8 per pound. Additionally, University of Montana research estimated that in one summer, four commercial buyers purchased more than 700,000 pounds of roots. Herbal companies even held contests to find the biggest root, offering market prices plus a $100 bonus. The Wotanin Wowapi, tribal newspaper for the Fort Peck Reservation, published a picture of the 38-inch winning root, and wrote about a 6-year-old, second-place winner, who claimed to be “heavy into rooting.” Clifton Cheek, root buyer and one of the contest sponsors, was quoted as saying, “We will be buying roots until the ground freezes up, and we will buy at all times of the day and night.”

Leading the Fight

Overwhelmed by the root rustlers, Youpee met with tribal leaders to seek support by limiting the digging. But they were hesitant to forbid their people to make much needed money. “I really trusted the traditional community to back up my efforts,” Youpee says, “but only a few have done that.” As the echinacea poaching increased, Youpee felt more and more alone.

He finally sought support from outside the reservation, befriending people from a variety of Montana groups, including herbalists, chambers of commerce, county commissioners, fish and wildlife agencies and the state natural heritage program.

From these alliances, productive dialogues and strategy-building began. Eventually a grassroots group formed called Friends of the Echinacea, which lobbied the state to pass legislation to prevent the plant from being stolen from state and private lands. Even after much negative pressure from those who were profiting from poaching, Governor Marc Racicot, in April 1999, signed a bill making it a crime to dig up echinacea from state lands for commercial use. The bill also included a 3-year digging moratorium during which to study the environmental impact of widespread poaching of echinacea and of nine other threatened herbs. Other states, including South Dakota, Missouri and Kansas, followed suit, passing similar laws to protect echinacea.

The bill’s passage gave Youpee and Friends of the Echinacea enough breathing room to do research. From the seed studies and core samples taken during the moratorium, “We learned that the plant is pretty hardy,” Youpee says. “We don’t think that it can be completely annihilated, but the quality that practitioners look for is certainly diminished because the root sizes are smaller each year.”

Personal Consequences

For Youpee, the reaction to the bill from tribal members was hardly a pat on the back. Before the legislation passed, he heard many complaints from people blaming him for taking away their livelihood. Afterward, cool comments turned into cold shoulders.

“When I met people on the street, they would turn their backs and walk away,” Youpee says. “Everybody was threatened by me. Buyers started telling root diggers that Curley Youpee was trying to send them to jail.”

In addition, when echinacea market prices dropped from $8 a pound to $2 a pound because of a glut, many on the reservation blamed Youpee.

“People thought I was solely responsible for everything,” he says. He often woke in the morning to find trash and cases of empty beer bottles thrown in his yard, which he assumes came from angry diggers. Even his two teenage children heard snide comments about their father at high school. “It was very hard for me to believe that it even reached the school level of our community,” he said.

At six-foot-one, Youpee’s height and broad shoulders—his physical presence as big as the blue Montana sky enable him to take it in stride. He says he never felt threatened for his safety, but in his gentle voice you can hear the emotional impact that the hostility has left on his soul.

“People now think I am against all echinacea digging,” he says. “But in reality, I only wanted regulations and zoning limits to protect the plant, the land and the quality of life in the community.”

Youpee tries to get this message across when, every summer, he and his family collect echinacea, chokecherries, turnips and licorice for personal use and for his practice as a traditional Native American healer. “We only collect what we need and can store,” he says.

But he gets angry looks from fellow tribal members who do not understand the difference between poaching and ethical harvesting, or the importance of honoring the plant’s spiritual and medicinal values. “Now they make us feel guilty when we harvest,” he says.

Recurring Problem

During the summer of 2002, Youpee noticed echinacea prices once again rising, and herbal companies were again offering $8 a pound for roots.

Youpee says this makes it more difficult to enforce the new laws, a job shouldered by the Bureau of Land Management that covers a wide swath of land.

Many people in the community instead use Youpee as the conduit for enforcement. “People are now snitching on each other,” he says, “or they try to use me to bring sanctions against one another.” Youpee says the solution to echinacea poaching is not law enforcement but education and development of a plan to harvest the plant commercially.

Some traditionalists, himself included, believe harvesting will take away the “natural spirit of the plant,” he says. But he adds that there may be ways to create economic development opportunities through cultivation and still protect the plant’s inherent spiritual significance.

“We need to give traditional people a sense of the future without being threatened by modern ways,” he says. “We also need to remove any desire for revenge against people who are perceived as taking away diggers’ livelihoods,” Youpee says.

He plans to develop seminars to teach tribal members about the latest medical research as well as the spiritual traditions of echinacea. Later Youpee hopes to find economic solutions to reduce the disparity between the unscrupulous middlemen, who’ve benefited from echinacea poaching, and his people, who have only been exploited by it.

For instance, although root diggers make $8 a pound for their backbreaking work, the finished product can sell for as much as $100 a pound. “Tons and tons of echinacea roots have left the reservation, but very little of that money goes back into the reservation or the diggers’ pockets,” Youpee says.

The irony is that the tribal income generated from echinacea, known for its healing properties, could, in the end, unite the community and heal the emotional wounds that divide Youpee from his people.

But regardless of the outcome, he is certain he did the right thing: “I believe I stuck my neck out, but my concerns for the environment and eroding cultural traditions outweigh my fears.”

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