A Folk History of Squaw Bush


When I purchased a ten-acre parcel of property bordering La Verkin Creek in the early 1970s, Farrell De Mille, the previous owner, introduced me to a stand of squaw bushes is along the fence line on one side of the lot. As he picked off small lumps of dried exudate from the stems, he enthused about their chewing gum qualities, saying that when he returned home his wife would extract the gum from his mouth and claim it as her own. I figured, it must be pretty good stuff to claim that addiction. Through the years, my interest has grown in realizing the plant’s widespread distribution and I have read of its multiple uses by Native Americans and pioneers.
This attractive plant, with its pale yellow flowers, red berries and toothed, three-lobed leaflets, grows in canyons, foothills and deserts of the Great Basin, Colorado Plateau and Mojave Desert. In the sand dunes of the latter, isolated hummocks of squaw bush are held in place despite the constant winds. Numerous branching roots penetrate the soil and when the active dunes move on, the stranded root bound plants form pedestals of earth.
Native Americans have many uses of the plant. The duty of collecting the stems for basket-making and picking the fruit for food nearly always fell to the squaws, hence probably where the name squaw bush originated. Three-lobed leaves gives the bush the scientific name Rhus trilobata. Other common names include desert sumac, skunk bush and lemonade berry. Pueblos call it lemita and the Paiutes call it shuv or suh’uhv’. Native American names for the berries are e-ees’ and ee’see.
The bright red berries soaked in water make a refreshing “lemonade.” Dried and powdered, the berries were stored for winter food. “Only the sweet bushes were picked with each bush being owned by a particular family. Other people would not pick from them without permission.”1
Because of their availability and toughness, the slender withes of the shrub were used by the desert people for basketry. “With the possible exception of the various willows, squaw bush is the most widely used shrub in the making of Indian baskets. The warp is formed from the peeled branches, and for a weft and sewing material in the weaving of coiled baskets. The branch usually is split into three pieces, the bark and brittle tissue next to the pith are removed, leaving a flat, tough strand. It has been employed in this manner by the Apache, Panamint, Paiute, Navajo, Hopi, and Coahuilla Indians. The latter, who lived in San Diego County, California, gave a deep black color to the strands of the three-leaf sumac by soaking them for about a week in an infusion of the berry stems of elder (flor de sauz). Among the Zuñi Indians, the stems with the bark removed are used in making the fine ‘Apache’ and other baskets, and the bark-covered stems are employed to form the patterns in the weave.”2 Such baskets were durable and would hold water and hot stones for cooking. Specimens of similar basketry made from Rhus trilobata were recovered from Danger Cave (5,000–11,000 years old) overlooking the Great Salt Lake Desert. 3
In A Few of the Things that Happened in My Younger Days, (written when she was 83 years old in 1959), Susette Hafen Leavitt recalls her experiences with squaw bush when she was a young girl:
We also used to go up to what we called the “Big Rocks” to gather gum. I imagine its two and a half or three miles up thru the [Santa Clara] creek on the west end of town. There are a lot of what we called squaw bushes on both sides of the creek. Don’t really know why they were called squaw bushes, unless it was because the squaws used to go and cut the willows from the bushes and make baskets—this they did a lot. They would trim the leaves off the willows and tie them into large bundles and carry them on their backs to their wicki-ups, then they would peel the willows and split them and weave them into baskets. This they did year after year. They would bring them here to town and sell them for flour and potatoes and what else they could get along with a little money. They wove them into different shapes, some were round and some were oval shaped, some large and some small. The large ones we used for clothes baskets and the small ones for work or sewing baskets. They would last for years with care, I think they were found in every home.
We went gum hunting quite often—the boys and girls. We didn’t have cars to go in either. The gum projects out on the limbs of the squaw bushes in small amounts, some time we would find pieces as large as a small pea, but most were smaller pieces. But was it good! I could chew some today. It is real white as most of you know. We used to stay and go thru those bushes from one end to the other. Sometimes we would be lucky enough to get a large chew—some got more than others. We would chew it until our jaws ached. Then we would lay it in a dish up in the cupboard or in a small tin box and chew it again the next day. It would stay good for days and never lose its flavor. Then eventually it would crumble and we knew it had been chewed long enough. 4
It wasn’t all baskets, lemonade and chewing gum, this desert plant also was used extensively by both Native Americans and pioneers in the treatment of a variety of medical disorders.
Sumac-berry juice is high in vitamin C, and long before the word vitamin was coined, Native Americans knew that it was good for colds, fevers, and scurvy. All parts of the bush are good for home remedies. The “berry-aid” tames fever. Leaf infusion is supposed to be stronger than “berry-aid,” while inner-bark and root-bark decoctions are considered the most powerful
Sumac is an astringent, antiseptic, and tonic. It’s used for diarrhea, dysentery, asthma, urinary infections or irritations, sore throats, chronic gum problems, and cold sores. The Native Americans would chew on the roots to ease swollen or infected gums, and to stop bed-wetting. They applied compresses to burns and cuts to stop bleeding and bring down swelling. They also mixed the dry berries half and half with tobacco, to smoke in peace pipe ceremonies. It’s supposed to dilute and improve the smoke’s odor. The whole plant also provides a tan to reddish-brown colorfast die. The Indians also used the ground berries, mixed with clay, as a poultice on open sores and arrow wounds. 5
To early St. George resident Charles Cottam, squaw bush tea was a life saver in the treatment of his baby’s canker:
Years ago, a baby girl was born to us, our third child. We had used certain products in the past but our old remedies failed us. Our baby was hungry and tried to nurse but couldn’t for she had a very sore mouth. She would cry because she was so hungry. The baby had suffered for hours and we were almost frantic. It seemed that we were powerless to relieve the little tot in her suffering.

As we were trying to pacify the baby, an elderly neighbor came in. She examined the babe and said, “Her mouth is full of canker sores. No wonder she can’t nurse. I’ll tell you what to do to cure it. I have never seen it fail. I have even seen it cure black canker.” (I don’t know what she called black canker.) “Have Walter go on the red hill just behind the Sugar Loaf. There he will find a patch of squawberry bushes. Have him take some of the young tender leaves. You should pour boiling water over the leaves and let them steep. Do not boil them. Pour off the clear liquid and sweeten it with honey, when it has cooled enough drip a drop at a time into the baby’s mouth. Before you expect it, this will appease the baby’s hunger and she will go to sleep.”
We were very skeptical but were so desperate that we would try almost anything that might possibly work. I procured the leaves. My wife made the tea as instructed. The child went to sleep after having but very little tea. When she woke, she nursed and the sores in her mouth healed rapidly. Since then we have raised a large family. This medicine has been a standard cure. It has never failed us. 6
A caution, “Although you can see the edible species’ berry clusters much of the year, they’re good to use only in late summer and early autumn. Touch the bright red ripe fruit with your finger, then touch your tongue. You’ll notice the strong, tart taste of ascorbic acid—vitamin C—and possibly oxalic acid. (Avoid prolonged overuse of any sources of oxalic acid—they may interfere with calcium absorption, and cause urinary-tract stones in predisposed persons.) In a draught year, the flavor persists well Into late autumn, but heavy rain washes the acids into the ground.” 7
Squawberry condoms were even developed. Almost every culture develops strategies to keep young boys away from promiscuity and indulging in sexual activity at too early an age. Hopi Sun Chief Don C. Talayesva relates his experience as a youngster of eight years.
While at work in the kiva the old men gave detailed accounts of their successes with women. We listened to these tales with eyes and ears wide open. They said there were magic songs by means of which a clever man could draw a woman to him against her will but that every word had to be pronounced correctly. Several of the old men were said to have this power. One of them shook all the time and had to move from place to place because the power was so strong in him.
I was about eight when old Tuvawnytewa of the Water Clan told us the story of the maidens with teeth in their vaginas. He said: “Once some beautiful girls lived in a house near Masau’u’s home on the southeast side of the mesa. The Spider Woman, who lived near by, warned her grandson to stay away from these girls, for they were dangerous. But one day the boy wandered near the mesa wall and spied a maiden in a striped Hopi shawl with her hair fixed squash-blossom style, which made her charming. She stood by the rock where there was an easy way up, and beckoned to the boy. When they had talked together for a while, she invited him into her house, saying that she had some sisters who wished to see him. The boy had to leave then but promised to return soon. Hastening home, he found the Spider Woman sitting by the fire and told her about the beautiful girl. ‘Well, my grandson,’ said she, ‘you have not listened to me, I have warned you that those girls are dangerous. They have sharp teeth like a saw that can bite through anything. When once they embrace a lad, he is lost.’
“But the boy seemed eager to keep his promise. Finally the Spider Woman said, ‘Well, you must have some protection. Here are some wild lemonberries. Let’s make a paste of them.’ She ground the berries, mixed the meal with water, and made dough, out of which she molded a penis sheath, fitted it to her grandson, and said, ‘Now don’t let this slip off. Perhaps it will set their teeth on edge and wear them down.’
“Thus prepared, the boy went back. The girl was waiting and wondering why he was late. When he climbed the ladder with her to the second roof, he found forty pretty girls peeping through the door, all of medium size and light complexion. As he entered they clapped their hands for joy and fed him piki and watermelon, urging him to eat a plenty so that he would be strong. The girl who had enticed him to come said, ‘Well, I have brought you here for pleasure, I will have you first.’ All the other girls retired to another room. The vaginal teeth bit on the lemonberry sheath but soon they were worn smooth. This girl went out and another came in. When all had their turn the first girl came back and said, ‘My sweetheart, you must have some strange power. Hitherto we have ruined our boy friends, but now all that is over.’ The brave boy excused himself, stepped outside, threw his sheath behind a stone, and returned. When he had finished with them all again, they praised him and gave him a large bundle of piki to take home.”
Whenever old Tuvawnytewa repeated this story, he would add, “You should beware of girls, If you must have one, then first collect lemonberries and take them to the Spider Woman.” 8
Wes Larsen
References:
1. Van Martineau, La, The Southern Paiutes, K.C. Publications, Las Vegas, nv, 1992.
2. Curtin, L.S.M., Healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande, Southwest Museum, Los Angeles, ca, 1974.
3. Strong, Emory, Stone Age in the Great Basin, Brinford & Mort, Publications, Portland, or, 1969.
4. Leavitt, Susette Hafen, A Few of the Things That Happened in My Younger Days, Typescript Copy, 1959.
5. Brill, Steve, Edible and Medicinal Plants, Hearst Books, ny, 1994.
6. Cottam, Charles Walter, The Autobiography of Charles Walter Cottam; Privately published, 1968.
7. Brill, Ibid.
8. Simmons, Leo W., Sun Chief, Yale University Press, 1942, pp. 77–78.