By Marit Gookin
In the parks and backyards around Fremont County, small, dark berries that stain the hands and clothing of pickers purple are starting to ripen, and people are bringing their picking buckets and step ladders out of storage and dusting off their canning equipment. Chokecherries have been an iconic food of the American West since time immemorial; for some families in Fremont County, picking and processing chokecherries is an essential yearly activity to close out the summer and welcome in the fall. For several years in the 2000s, Lander even had an annual Chokecherry Festival.
“One of the most important traditional plants for the Eastern Shoshone people is the
chokecherry tree with its luscious berries. They grow in abundance on the Wind River
Reservation due to perfect growing conditions. They need moist, but well-drained soil, and
many full days of sunshine,” wrote the Eastern Shoshone Cultural Center in a document about the significance of chokecherries in the area. “The Eastern Shoshone people have a sacred song and dance specifically to express gratitude to the Creator for blessing them with chokecherries.”
This year, however, some have observed that there seem to be fewer chokecherries. “This year, everybody’s like ‘where are the chokecherries?’” commented Eastern Shoshone Cultural Center Administrative Assistant Robyn Rofkar. Last year was something of a bumper crop, with more chokecherries, it seemed, than could be picked, even in a place with such a high demand as Fremont County. This year, there are fewer berries to be seen.
“Typically why fruit doesn’t set,” explained Giff Sprout, owner of Sprout’s Greenhouse outside Lander, “there are a few possible reasons.” Two common factors that can result in fewer fruit are a decrease in pollination or a hard freeze while the plants are in bloom; Sprout said that these are likely not a factor for chokecherries this year, as chokecherries are easily pollinated and this spring, while cooler than usual overall, was also fairly mild. A third, more likely contributing factor, is that “some fruit are cyclical. If they have a lot of fruit one year, they might have less the next year.”
Another possible reason for fewer chokecherries in town (if not out of town), Sprout continued, is “critters eating them … A lot of stuff in town was impacted by winter foraging.” Chokecherry plants outside town are less likely to have been impacted by winter foraging for a variety of reasons, he said. This factor could certainly play a role in a perception of fewer chokecherries if the plants in town are producing less because they’re recovering from being eaten by deer and other animals during the winter.
A bitter, somewhat astringent fruit, chokecherries are sometimes eaten on their own but are more frequently processed with sugar, meat or other foods to mediate their intense flavor. Chokecherries are used in a variety of applications, from traditional Native American foods such as pemmican and chokecherry tea to farmers’ market staples like jelly. The Wind River Food Sovereignty Project is working on offering cooking classes to teach people about all of these possible applications.
“That’s a real traditional food for our people here,” noted Food Sovereignty Project Co-Director Kelly Pingree. “[We’re] teaching them how to use [chokecherries] so they’ll get that into their lives and use it often.” Pingree added that in addition to the jellies seen at other farmers’ markets around the area, one vendor at the Wind River Farmers’ Market has been selling chokecherry gravy (doorump goetsaap).
Canning is probably the most popular preservation method for chokecherries; when canning, it is important to make sure that all of the jars and lids are carefully cleaned, that the appropriate amount of sugar is used and that the cans are properly sealed. While home canning is popular and less intimidating than it may first appear, improperly canned food can be a health hazard. Many commercially available pectins include a chart with directions and measurements, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture also offers a free guide to home canning, available online at https://nchfp.uga.edu/publications/uga/2019_ProcessingJJ.pdf.
Whether you’re making tea or slathering chokecherry jelly on your biscuits, chokecherries aren’t just tasty; they’re also good for you. Like many other staple foods of traditional Native American diets, the chokecherry is a powerhouse of nutrition. “Chokecherries are not only delicious but are full of nutrients for a healthy diet. They have natural medicine that helps with headaches, upset stomach, common cold symptoms, and body aches. Just recently scientists have discovered that chokecherries contain compounds that specifically can help cure cancer,” explained the Eastern Shoshone Cultural Center. The berries of the chokecherry tree contain antioxidants, and the inner bark of its wood is a natural antiseptic due to the presence of antibacterial cyanamid sugars.
Not all parts of the chokecherry are good for you; many parts of the chokecherry plant contain varying amounts of cyanide, and the pit of the berries in particular is potentially toxic, similar to cherry pits. Although some traditional processing methods included the smashed pits of the berries, for safety reasons modern methods recommend making sure to separate the pits from the fruit. Luckily, this is fairly straightforward as the pits of the chokecherry plant are relatively large.
The Eastern Shoshone people traditionally plant chokecherries in pairs, explained the Eastern Shoshone Cultural Center, “to grow strong together for the people … Just as we believe that in our own lives that we are not here to walk the earth alone, we are strengthened by our roots and are stronger when connected with others.” This idea of chokecherries being something that can bring people together persists to this day throughout Fremont County and Wyoming, as friends, families and neighbors come together to pick and process chokecherries – and share the tasty rewards of their labor as much as the purple berry juice stains on their hands and aprons.