Indigo plants grow abundantly in the fertile black sandy soil on the ancestral homeland of the Tuscarora Confederacy in coastal and Eastern North Carolina. The plant grows as a shrub with spreading branches between three and six feet tall. The leaves are slightly hairy and are separated into leaves opposite each other. The indigo dye comes from the leaves. The plants can also be grown as a cover for other crops and makes an excellent fertilizer. The plants produce pea-like flowers and pod fruit in small clusters.
Indigo grows all over the world and is the oldest natural dye. In many cultures the color blue represents royalty and divinity. Numerous beliefs and myths are associated with indigo as a healing medicine. In agricultural communities indigo is believed to repel insects and snakes. Indigo is the only natural source of blue dye. Indigo creates various shades of blue ranging from sky blue to blue-black. It is colorfast (want fade or wash out), and can dye both cellulose (vegetable) and protein (animal) fibers. The Latin generic name Indigofera means “indigo bearing,” and the species name tinctoria or tinctorium means “used in dyeing.” The history of indigo goes from ancient Egyptian burial tombs to today’s blue jeans and has led to the rise and fall of empires.
Indigo dye can be obtained from a variety of plants in several families as follows:
- Indigofera suffruticosa belongs to the pea family and is found in the Southern United States and in South and Central America.
- Lonchocarpus cyanescens found in West Africa also belongs to the pea family.
- Indigofera tinctoria is native to China and India.
- Isatic tinctoria also known as Woad is in the mustard family and is found in the Middle East.
- Polygonum tinctorium known as Dryer’s Knotweed is a member of the buckwheat family.
Indigo is a healing medicine for both Algonquin People and for the black earth of our ancestral homeland in Eastern North Carolina. The process of indigo dyeing has historically been taken away from people of color to glorify others. During the Antebellum period prior to the Civil War, planters in South Carolina had vast indigo plantations and imported hundreds of kidnapped West Africans as slaves with historical knowledge of indigo cultivation and processing. They considered indigo to be “Blue Gold.”
Traditionally, people in Eastern North Carolina used every part of the indigo plant, just like the hemp plant. The water used to soak fresh plants is rich in nitrogen as is recycled to water crops. The soaked indigo plants are also nitrogen rich and are used as mulch. Indigenous cultures should keep the medicine of indigo scared. What others take let them take, because the medicine is in the beauty of the oxidizing transformation, which reveals visual patterns on the cloth. The manifestation of these patterns can represent visual images making the process healing and transformative on a spiritual level. It’s born out of a connection with natural dyeing and the black sandy soil of Eastern North Carolina. This connection cannot be taken, stolen or reproduced by others. That’s our gift from Creator through our land to us, so that we will always know who we are as a culture, and where we belong as a people.