“The connection to who we are as a people has everything to do with the plants.”
—Tongva cultural educator, Craig Torres
On 04-18-17 in a slideshow presentation of our book, The Ethnobotany Project: Contemporary Uses of Native Plants; Southern California and Northern Baja Indians, Rose Ramirez and I discussed the contemporary uses of 12 native plants, including yerba mansa, bladderpod, wild cherry, creosote, elderberry, and agave, all of profound importance to the intellectual, spiritual, and cultural vitality of California Indian people.
Our many consultants on both sides of the border consider the native plants their teachers, and they’re dedicated to passing on what they know to others. They’re eloquent defenders of the land, its sacredness for Native people and its importance for all species who inhabit it. All have a fierce devotion to the revitalization of native foods, medicines, culture and community as part of the larger cultural revitalization sweeping California.
Cahuilla/Apache elder Lorene Sisquoc describes a reciprocal relationship with the plants and the land. “The plants are waiting for us to come take care of them so they can take care of us. In Temalpakh, Katherine Saubel writes that the word for an oak grove, meki’i’wah, means ‘the place that waits for me.’
Sisquoc adds: “It’s our responsibility to take care of the land, to get out there and gather, to sing songs, tell stories, do ceremony, share our laughter and our language. To preserve our oral traditions by passing our knowledge to our kids and grandkids. It’s important that they start learning very young. Taking care of the plants helps make our families healthy. We’re working hard to heal our communities by deepening our connection to the land.”
Our collaborators promote an ethic of gathering and cultivating native plants in a manner that is sustainable, and they stress the importance of preserving native plants, plant communities, and the land for the future generations of all species.
For Tongva cultural educator Craig Torres, his profound sense of responsibility and compassion for other species extends to the oaks, mesquite, cholla, chia, sage, stinging nettle, and creosote.
For Torres, “Plants are not just ‘cultural resources.’ Plants are our relatives. They’re to be treated with reciprocal respect as relatives in the web of nature, in the circle of life. Plants enable us to survive and to maintain a sacred balance on this particular place on Mother Earth. In Tongva sacred oral narratives, it is we humans who were the last created. We were given responsibility and obligation to maintain a sacred balance for all life on Mother Earth.”
We have the opportunity to learn from people whose ancestors were here for thousands of years, who knew how to protect and honor the earth. We hope is that the The Ethnobotany Project can offer hope, inspiration, and healing for all of us.
Below: Tongva elder Barbara Drake thanking her student, Petee Ramirez, for his gift of an elderberry medicine tube that he created while taking her workshop at Idyllwild Summer Arts.