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Alma Hogan Snell
Crow tribal historian, educator, and herbalist
by Thomas J. Elpel
I first met Alma Snell in the early 1990's when she was giving a presentation about native foods called "A Taste of Heritage" at Montana State University in Bozeman. I had been studying wild edible plants all of my young life, so I was thrilled to meet Alma and learn from her.
Alma was raised by her grandmother Pretty Shield, medicine woman of the Crow Indians. Pretty Shield taught Alma the old ways of the Crow people, skills like how to harvest and prepare wild foods. Other children had their mothers to look out for them while they played, but Alma was being tutored on how to survive. She became what the Crow people call a "grandmother's grandchild".
Prior to meeting Alma, I always imagined that events in history--such as the Battle of the Little Bighorn--happened in the far distant past, so I was astonished to learn that her grandfather Goes Ahead was a scout for general Custer in the battle. Suddenly the past did not seem so far away.
Renee and I visited Alma and her husband Bill on the Crow Reservation. On plant walks we found the Indian turnip (Psoralea esculenta), wild grapevines, and wildflowers. While my family always collected chokecherries for syrup and wine, Alma showed me the traditional Crow way of crushing the cherries pits and all, to get the nutritional benefit of the almond-like nuts inside. The crushed chokecherries were dried in the sun to destroy the cyanide content, and in Alma's modern adaptation, coated in chocolate to make cherry chocolates.
We read Frank B. Linderman's book Pretty-shield shortly after we met Alma, and later read it to our kids. It is a great story for junior and adult readers about Pretty-shield's experiences growing up in the old ways.
We were thrilled when Alma came out with her own book, Grandmother's Grandchild, continuing the story about the transition from the old ways to the new, and the challenge of living in two different cultures. I love the title of Alma's book for personal reasons, since I too am something of a grandmother's grandchild. All I ever wanted to do as a kid was to go to my Grandma Josie's house. Together we went on walks in the fields where we learned to identify wildflowers and collected wild herbs for tea.
Both Pretty-shield and Grandmother's Grandchild are quality reading material for adults or older kids, especially as material to read aloud as a family. Alma's newest book, A Taste of Heritage reveals her culinary wisdom about harvesting and cooking with native foods, as well as healing with native plants. Alma Snell died on May 5th, 2008 at the age of eighty-five. She will be greatly missed by hundreds of people.
-Please scroll down the page to see Alma Snell's books.-