Puhpohwee for the People
A narrative account of
some uses of Fungi
among the Anishinaubeg*
book review by Mara Penfil
Maybe I should start out by saying that inter-library loans are my absolute favorite! This short and illuminating book, Puhpohwee for the People, is the fifth and last book in a series dedicated to the study of Ethnomycology put together by the infamous Vice President of J.P. Morgan & Co. and radical Ethnomycologist, Mister Robert Gordon Wasson. There are two editions of this book; the first, from 1978 with an unadorned, pale yellow background that would draw the attention of only the most agog reader. Twenty years later the second edition debuted with a colorfully vibrant and inviting cover featuring a young Ahnishinaubikwe girl holding a basket full of mushrooms tightly in her arms.
If you search online for this book you will soon discover that it is certainly out of the price range of this 23-year-old aspiring ethnomycologist; used copies of the first edition (only 44 pages thin) range from $50-$70 while used copies of the second edition (expanded to 70 pages) are $195 and a new copy is a whopping $500!! I wish my budget could include a rarity like this but alas I had to succumb to the use of the superlative community resource: The Library. Though my library had neither edition of Puhpohwee for the People in their immediate possession, I was able to attain both through an inter-library loan and thereafter digest the abundant wealth of knowledge for free. I highly recommend you do the same.
Keewaydinoquay Peschel, author, medicine woman, botanist and educator was an elder of the Ahnishinaubeg, the indigenous Algonkian group who were exonymically named by the French as Ojibwé. I find incredible interest in Keewaydinoquay’s history and her writing as she not only speaks fondly of the fungi I hold so dear to my heart but she is as well from my home land of Michigan whose beauty I can assure you holds the truths of my soul. Keewaydinoquay’s story-telling is a warm and comforting nostalgia of experiences; you can feel the love of her memories and her learnings through each word she so intentionally chooses to share.
Her voice as an ethnobotanist is authentic and pure; the language which is used to describe plants and fungi by the Anishinaubeg is that of her own native tongue. She is able to provide insight that an outsider looking in would inherently not be able to describe with such authenticity. “The word Puh-poh-wee is an old Algonkian term that we would do well to rejuvenate,” she promptly tells the reader from page one, “It means ‘to swell up in stature suddenly and silently from an unseen source of power.’ It is particularly suitable when referring to fungi but the verb is certainly not limited to that use.” The Anishinaubeg names for many native species of mushrooms as well as the Anishinaubeg words used to describe their cultural purpose and value are speckled throughout the text. The book concludes with a lengthy glossary of terms of which I desire to learn each and every one.
“The word Puh-poh-wee is an old Algonkian term that we would do well to rejuvenate,” she promptly tells the reader from page one, “It means ‘to swell up in stature suddenly and silently from an unseen source of power.’ It is particularly suitable when referring to fungi but the verb is certainly not limited to that use.”
Allocated between five chapeters (the second addition has a sixth), this conspectus highlights several aspects of fungal use among the Anishinaubeg through Keewaydinoquay’s family stories, first-hand experiences and supportive academic research. From food to medicine and survival from battling tribes, there is something fascinating on every page. Recipes from her own mother’s kitchen and secrets revealed from her herb-mother’s teachings are insightful and undoubtedly inspire trials by modern mycophiles.
Of particular interest she shares a story from many generations past of a wicked jossakeed (shaman) who corrupted the use of the oshtimisk wajashkwedo (fly agaric, Amanita muscaria) to lure women into his home, rape and murder them. This is an important story because it brings to light how people (men) with power based on their authoritative positions in community have taken advantage of others (women) for centuries and is a theme that sadly crosses cultural divides with ease. Moreover, I would like to point out that I have heard this story repeated many times today, Shamans taking advantage of women during ceremony. It is not every Shaman and not during every ceremony but women be aware! Please do your research and know your spiritual leader(s) before finding yourself in vulnerable situations like these!
On a happier note, other featured fungi include the multifaceted qualities of Ozush-kwado-wuk (giant puffball, Lycoperdon giganteum) in smoke form to subdue the spirits of wild bees while gathering honey and in powdered form as a powerful haemostat; the black smut fungus (Ustilago maydis) of mondahmin (maize) as her herb-mother’s secret medicine to facilitate childbirth; and the inky cap (Coprinus atramentarius) through her oh-so-very humorous family story entitled, My Reverend Grandfather Challenges Coprinus, in which her grandfather sets out to prove to her grandmother that it is indeed safe to drink spirits with this mushroom– did I mention it doesn’t work out so well?
As a personal narrative, ethnological history and all around resource guide, Puhpowhee for the People has something for every mycophile to enjoy. Though it may prove difficult to attain if you have limited income or are out of the Anishinaubeg region (where it is more likely to find at local libraries) I recommend taking the extra few minutes to search for this beautiful tale.
“I come, a True Daughter of the Crane, bringing this offering, and I pledge My Life and My Sacred Honor that whatever I learn of the Blessed Plants shall be used for the Puhpohewin of The People…”
Keewaydinoquay Peschel (1919-1999)
All illustrations are by Keewaydinoquay and are from the 1st and 2nd editions of Puhpohwee for the People:
Peschel, K. (1978). Puhpohwee for the people. (First ed.). Cambridge, Mass.: Botanical Museum of Harvard University.
Peschel, K. (1998). Puhpohwee for the people. (Second ed.). DeKalb, Illinois: LEPS Press, Northern Illinois University.
*Alternative spelling: Ahnishinaabeg, meaning ‘The-People-Who-Came-From-the-Place-Beyond-Where-the-Sun-Rises’
Currently living in the Northern Great Lakes Bioregion, Mara Penfil is a community organizer who merges traveling, education, and volunteer work to further the food, social and environmental justice movements. With a growing zeal for all things fungal, she spends her time with various mycelial networks across the country working to build mycological interest, understanding and community. Mara’s passion to blend social and environmental justice efforts led her to co-found Female & Fungi, the online presence for the ever growing Womyn’s and Trans’ Mycological Community.