Ethnobotany: Uniting Science and Spirit

Unique Course Combines Science and Cultural Knowledge

Sun breaks through the fir trees and people, from children to tribal elders, encircle the smoking campfire. A fine mist of frosted breath and steaming coffee fills the air as several campers crack open books and jot down notes for class.
This camp-out, not far from the banks of the Klamath River near Orleans, Calif., is part of Cal Poly Humboldt’s annual Ethnobotany course, also known as Anthropology 485. The unique program is a partnership between Humboldt’s Department of Anthropology, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and members of the Karuk Tribe, including several basket weavers and herbalists.
During the three-day, two-unit course, students from a variety of majors meet with instructors from tribal and land-management agencies. The two groups provide an approach to land management that makes sense for the area and the cultural needs of tribal groups. One goal is to introduce students to groups and ideas they might not find in a traditional classroom setting.
“It’s an opportunity to meet some amazing people,” says Humboldt senior in Cultural Anthropology, Alexis Pereira. “You have a chance to learn something about the environment, a chance to meet people who’ve grown up locally and a chance to network with people doing research. And it’s a lot of fun.”


Traditional Ecology Meets Modern Science

Speakers from both the tribe and the state agencies set the stage for the course’s lessons and experiences.
“This new kind of forestry, called eco-management, is important,” says Humboldt graduate student and course instructor Kathy Barger McCovey. “If you don’t know the members of the community, then land managers don’t really know what they’re managing for.” Barger McCovey is also a Karuk medicine woman and forester.
Ken Wilson is one of the founders of the Ethnobotany course, which emerged from a state-run program a decade ago. Wilson, a retired state archaeologist and tribal liaison, agrees that cultural resources are a significant aspect of modern land management.
“It’s important to work with tribal communities and government agencies. It’s important to get the word out about how to manage the botanical resources important to tribes. And it’s really rewarding to get the two together,” he says. “Traditional ecology and modern science are interrelated.”
Soon the students break out into workshops throughout the site. One of the most telling lessons comes from the preparation of the acorns and the Indian Potatoes.
Clumps of dirt and roots sit in scattered piles at the Indian Potato station. Students sift through the earth to uncover the scattered, walnut-sized vegetables. With proper management, the students learn that these potatoes grow larger and more abundantly. However, firs have largely shaded out these full-sun seeking plants.
Acorns are another traditional food source withering in the long shadows of un-managed firs. The oak trees that provide the acorn flourish in full sun. However, past policies of fire suppression have allowed young fir trees to surround oaks and eventually grow to block out the sun.
Fire suppression has also led to a dense and tangled understory, impenetrable and unusable to many humans and animals.
“A lot of area is not being used to its full potential,” McCovey says. She cites a study about how native people of Orleans, Calif. utilized fire. “The Pnomnic people used fire to manage the landscape. Indian women set fires in a two-mile radius. The result was a fine grain mosaic of vegetation.”
“We need to understand how important these plants are individually and as groups,” she says. “And we need to understand Native American people and communities as essential parts of the ecosystem.” Revitalizing that relationship is at the core of Ethnobotany.


Traditional use

A rotating group of five students sits on sunny spot making a natural dye used to color traditional baskets. Using nearby stones to grind soft chunks of the red-orange elder bark to a fine dust, students learn about the traditional process of stripping bark without harming the tree.
Another nearby group lays out rows of four-foot hazel shoots and pounds them flat with rocks to remove the internal vascular bundles. After carefully peeling the fibers, students learn how they are used for basket weaving and how proper land management affects that use.
Rentz has studied the effects of fire ecology on bear grass and hazel—plants traditionally used in Karuk basket weaving.
“Is there really a difference in plant materials after they’ve been burned? My studies show that fibers that haven’t been burned don’t have the plasticity,” she says.
As the sun begins to set, the whole camp prepares the evening potluck. Fire-hot rocks are dropped into a pot of soaking acorn meal to create a soup. Indian Potatoes and a handful of mushrooms picked from the native plant garden are placed over the fire next to salmon and eel fished from the nearby Klamath River.
Once every camper has a full plate, everyone gathers to hear traditional Karuk tales told around the fire.
“Storytelling is a way to pass lessons down from generation to generation,” Pereira says. She also says it is a good way of sharing cultural understandings with students. “It’s important to keep an open mind because there are different ways of knowing and understanding things. I feel really grateful to this community for opening its doors to us. I’m definitely going to do it again.”