Mary Siisip Geniusz

Self portrait. Courtesy of Wendy Makoons Geniusz

Native American (Cree/Metis), Ethnobotany

Mary Siisip Geniusz


Mary Siisip Geniusz, born in 1948, was an Oshkaabewis (ceremonial apprentice), and teaching assistant to Keewaydinoquay Peschel, an Anishinaabe medicine woman from Michigan.  Geniusz’s heritage was Cree and Métis; her mother was born at the Pas in Manitoba. Because she lived nearly all her life in Wisconsin (from 1960-2016), she chose to learn from and work with the Ojibwe, a tribe culturally and linguistically related to her ancestral Cree people. Throughout the 1980s, Geniusz assisted Keewaydinoquay in teaching university classes and community workshops. After earning an MLS from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (2004) and completing the requirements for a Master of Indigenous Knowledge from Seven Generations Education Institute, Ontario, Canada, Geniusz taught undergraduate classes and gave lectures and workshops in Anishinaabe ethnobotany throughout the Great Lakes Region.

Like other Anishinaabeg, Geniusz referred to plants and trees as our elder brothers and sisters, whose histories we hear in stories. Through her culminating work, Plants Have So Much to Give Us (2015), she teaches the way she was taught, telling our elder brothers’ and sisters’ stories as learned from Keewaydinoquay, from other Turtle Island cultures, and from her own experiences. She writes, “These stories are necessary in our way; they tell the reader that I have actually used the medicines I was taught to use and what I learned by such usage. One learns something. One utilizes that knowledge, and one then has more knowledge to pass on to another person. Anishinaabe knowledge grows like crystals in rock. The process is slow, and it is beautiful. And sometimes it grows into gems of treasure.”

Story was a frequent topic of Geniusz’s writings, musings, and public lectures. Embracing the Anishinaabe belief that the Aadizookaanag, (our ancient stories and teaching spirits) are cognizant beings who have existed on Earth much longer than humans, Geniusz often said, “Stories are alive and they go where they wish,” a phrase she credited to Keewaydinoquay. Before telling a story, Geniusz made an offering, closed her eyes, then brought together listeners and the Aadizookaanag. Geniusz believed stories, and the knowledge they contained, should be repatriated to Indigenous communities, and not languish, in truncated form, on library shelves, far from the communities in which they once lived. When writing the stories in Plants, she asked the Aadizookaanag to help her, and, the entire time she wrote about them, burned offerings of Kinnikinnick (see Plants for a recipe).  Through Plants, Geniusz revitalizes these living stories and provides a model for future storytellers working with the Aadizookaanag

Among Geniusz’s writings of relevance to folklorists is:

Plants Have So Much to Give Us, All We Have to Do is Ask: Anishinaabe Botanical Teachings (2015)

Wendy Makoons Geniusz