Nishnabé referred to June as the Dé’men Gises (Strawberry Moon). It also signified the beginning of niben (summer), which translates to “the time of plenty.”
“Strawberries, in particular, ripen a little bit later in the Great Lakes region than they do here in Oklahoma,” said Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s Cultural Heritage Center Director Dr. Kelli Mosteller. “Recognizing June, the height of berry season, is nice because it’s a time where they’re everywhere. By June, you have strawberries all over.”
Citizen Potawatomi Language Department Director Justin Neely pointed out Potawatomi ancestors chose dé’men to represent niben for a reason.
“Obviously, they were an important enough item to our diets or to our lives to where people were like, ‘Hey, that’s the month that we do that.’ … The strawberry has always been an important fruit for us,” he said.
Potawatomi hold strawberries in high regard, and Bodéwadmimwen (Potawatomi language) expresses it. Dé’men translates to “heart berry.”
“That ‘de’ is ‘heart,’ and that ‘de’ is in other words, too. It’s in the word ‘déwégen’ or drum — the sound of that heartbeat. But that strawberry, that dé’men, it’s one of our central fruits,” Neely said.
Potawatomi often use them to break a fast, in ceremonies or to celebrate a woman’s Moon Time. Bears also covet strawberries and come out of winter hibernation to feast on them. For Dr. Mosteller, that adds up to many layers of meaning.
“The strawberry is in the shape of a heart. It has a great importance for women. The importance that it has goes back to some of our clan animals like bears. I think it is that visual cue that everything’s alive again and everything is growing, and abundance is everywhere and that the Creator’s providing,” she said.
Different berries were also one of the few natural, sweet foods Potawatomi enjoyed hundreds of years ago, along with maple syrup and honey. Neely called them “a deserved treat,” especially during celebrations.
“The summertime was when we would get together and have a lot of feasts … between different clans and different groups of people. And I’m sure it was a central part of those dishes that we would eat when we met with different folks from different areas,” he said.
Nishnabé people ate several types of berries because they knew their positive health effects.
Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Eric Rimm led a study about the health effects of strawberries for the Harvard School of Public Health. He told Harvard Health Publishing in 2013 that the research showed, “The sooner people start the type of diet that includes a higher intake of blueberries and strawberries, the better.”
Nishnabé people have been eating them for those benefits for centuries. Neely notes they played an essential role in a much more rounded and healthy diet Potawatomi ate in the Great Lakes, comprised of fruits, nuts, fish, vegetables and wild game.
“(Strawberries) are filled with good nutrients and things like that. I think the more fruits and natural game and nuts and things that we can add to our diet, I think the better off we are to get away from some of that processed food,” Neely said.
Dé’men not only show the shape of the human heart, but they hold nutrients essential to the organ itself. Dr. Rimm’s research followed nearly 95,000 women ages 25 to 42 and their various food intakes for 18 years. As a low-risk segment of the population for heart attacks, they made an ideal sample set.
In the end, “women who ate the fewest blueberries and strawberries were at increased risk of heart attack. Those who ate the most were 34% less likely to have suffered a heart attack than were women who ate the least of these fruits,” Harvard Health reported.
In 2011, the United States Department of Agriculture database noted strawberries’ heightened levels of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals, or plant compounds good for the human body. That includes a group of metabolites called flavonoids, according to Harvard Health.
“These berries are particularly rich in chemical compounds called anthocyanins,” the journal reported. “Research suggests that anthocyanins have several effects on the body. They lower blood pressure, and they make blood vessels more elastic.”
While Johns Hopkins Medicine also agrees with the health benefits of strawberries, they point out the importance of ingesting them at a reasonable level as part of a rounded diet — about 2 to 3 cups a week. Fresh is always better.
Registered dietitian Kathleen Johnson, M.A., R.D., L.D.N., told Johns Hopkins Medicine, “Antioxidants work everywhere in the body, including the heart. … They’re best consumed in real, whole foods — not supplements — especially colorful fruits and vegetables.”
To maintain a healthy lifestyle, the Nishnabé people “ate the rainbow,” including strawberries.
“I definitely think that dé’men are a tribute to that mnobmadzewen — that good life, that good health — that our people would have had pre-contact,” Neely said.
Explore the Cultural Heritage Center’s online encyclopedia at cpn.news/encyclopedia.