As a child growing up in the small rural community of Milks Camp by the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, Megan Schnitker’s parents provided a wealth of knowledge about traditional Lakota culture.
As a maker of natural medicines and a teacher of the natural history of the Lakota people, she frequently attended family and community events led by her father, a hereditary chief originally from nearby Pine Ridge.
“I grew up traditionally in Lakota Culture,” Schnitker said. “My mom and dad grew up in it.”
Her mother ran a cultural-based recovery program ever since she can remember, integrating Lakota culture with drug, alcohol and violence prevention. When Schnitker found herself in recovery after overcoming an addiction as a young-adult, she began working there, helping design the curriculums for after-school programs teaching kids about coming-of-age ceremonies. They brought in elders who were well-educated in the traditions and history of the Lakota people.
The only thing missing from the curriculum at the recovery non-profit was the incorporation of natural medicines found in the upper Midwest that had been used for centuries by her ancestors. So Schnitker took a class on native plants and their medicinal uses at Sente Gleska University in Mission, South Dakota.
That was 13 years ago. Ever since she’s been on a lifelong mission of research, accumulating knowledge from elders and sharing what she learned with people throughout the Midwest; making teas, soaps and salves from native plants with medicinal properties passed down generation after generation.
“I love to teach and make things at the same time,” Schnitker said. “All the classes I teach are basically hands-on.”
Expanding her reach
Four years ago, Schnitker’s uncle, Dave Brave Heart, an organizer for Mankato’s annual Wacipi, or powwow, held every year at Land of Memories Park in Mankato, invited her to come to Mankato to lead presentations on medicinal plants to 5th, 6th and 7th graders.
She met her husband-to-be here and has lived in Mankato ever since, teaching classes at places like Rock Bend Alternative Learning Center in St. Peter and the Blue Earth County Historical Society. Schnitker has traveled as far as Omaha to lead classes on traditional Lakota culture and frequently makes trips back to South Dakota to interview Lakota elders about those traditions. She volunteers her time for some classes, others on a sliding fee-scale, and the gas money and lodging was beginning to add up.
Then her husband Ethan said, “Why don’t you just sell what you make?” As a stay-at-home mom it made perfect sense. Their home, designed as a duplex, had an extra kitchen where she could experiment with different recipes.
In 2018, she founded the Mahkato Revitalization Project, with the ultimate goal of making children’s books about traditional plants funded through the soaps, salves and teas she makes.
“I have all these plants mapped out but nobody really has the old stories that go with them and how people came to use them a long time ago in our culture,” she said. “Lakota Made helps fund that with gas and travel, materials, and meeting with elders.”
She said the ingredients are easy to find and easily overlooked, but their value is immeasurable.
“There are natural plants that come from my backyard basically,” she said. “I make teas, tinctures, soaps, medicinal salves, and tonics from natural medicines.”
The ingredients range from wild plantain, yarrow, and white willow bark to jewelweed, echinacea and mint. Some have pain-relieving properties while others are used to treat poison ivy and stinging nettle, a plant that causes an itchy rash if touched, but that surprisingly can be made into an antioxidant-rich tea. Schnitker said it also makes a great side dish when boiled and infused with butter, salt and pepper, as a substitute for spinach.
The Lakota-made products she sells, along with the establishment of the non-profit Mahkato Revitalization Project, have led to more opportunities for teaching and also helped her narrow down the scope of what she hopes to accomplish in the long run.
“One of the biggest things I want to do with the Mahkato Revitalization Project is to get these books going for kids in Lakota and Dakota languages,” she said.
“There’s not a lot of native herbalists. In order for us to preserve that, I want to write these books. There’s a few people who have put stuff down into books but there’s not a lot of children’s books and that’s where the culture needs to be taught — for the younger generation.”
While she primarily sells her products online, a visit to Vagabond Village led owner Natalie Pierson to suggest she sell her products there.
On display since June, Pierson said there’s been a great deal of interest from customers. Starting in October, Schnitker will be offering classes at Vagabond Village as well.
“She’s going to offer a class once a week; a five dollar drop in,” Pierson said. “She’s going to be teaching about the different types of plants; how to locate them, what they look like, their purposes and then talk a little bit about her process.”
Along with the children’s books on the horizon, Schnitker said her long-term goal is to establish a cultural center in Mankato and has been scouting out locations.
“That’s the big dream,” she said.