Mankato – As a child growing up in the small rural community of Milks Camp, near 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 told the Mankato Free Press. "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 curricula 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 nonprofit was the incorporation of natural medicines found in the Upper Midwest that her ancestors had been using for centuries. So Schnitker took a class on native plants and their medicinal uses at Sinte Gleska University in Mission, S.D.
That was 13 years ago. Ever since she has 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. Her mission has turned into both a nonprofit called Mahkato Revitalization Project and a business, Lakota Made.
"I love to teach and make things at the same time," Schnitker said. "All the classes I teach are basically hands-on."
Four years ago, Schnitker's uncle, Dave Brave Heart, an organizer for Mankato's annual Wacipi, held every year at Land of Memories Park in Mankato, invited her to come to Mankato to lead presentations on medicinal plants to fifth-, sixth- and seventh-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, charges on a sliding-fee scale for others. The gas, money and lodging was beginning to add up, though.
It was her husband, Ethan, who suggested she sell what she makes. 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 recipes.
In 2018, she founded the Mahkato Revitalization Project, with the 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 stinging nettle also makes a great side dish when boiled and infused with butter, salt and pepper, as a substitute for spinach.
The products she sells, along with her nonprofit, have led to more opportunities for teaching and also helped her narrow 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," she said. "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 Schnitker primarily sells her products online, a visit to Vagabond Village led owner Natalie Pierson to suggest she sell her products there.
Customer interest has been great since her products went on display in June, Pierson said. Starting in October, Schnitker will be offering classes at Vagabond Village as well.
"She's going to offer a class once a week; a $5 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. She has been scouting out locations. "That's the big dream," she said.