The Kinship of Plants and People

Enrique Salmón explores indigenous food culture and health in his new book 'Iwígara'

Eighty humble plants and the wisdom of North American indigenous people add up to simple yet magnificent insights in Enrique Salmón’s new book, Iwígara: American Indian Ethnobotanical Traditions and Science.

A professor and head of the American Indian Studies Program at Cal State East Bay in Hayward, Salmón is a Rarámuri of the Sierra Tarahumara. His expertise lies in ethnobotany, agriculture, nutrition, ecology and the interconnectivity of culture, landscapes, biodiversity, applied conservationism, climate change and American Indian ethnicity and identity. His first book, Eating the Landscape: American Indian Stories of Food, Identity, and Resilience, explored multiple indigenous cultures in the Southwest United States and Northern Mexico. Weaving together concepts involving environmental stewardship, large and small agricultural systems, and food practices with personal narratives about small-scale indigenous farmers and foodways, Salmón advocated principles supporting food sovereignty and prioritizing sustainability and resilience in the future cultivation and delivery of human food sources.

In a phone interview from his home in San Leandro, Salmón says interest in indigenous culture and people during his lifetime has ebbed and flowed. “When I was younger, there was no interest. People in the 1950s and ’60s assumed we were all gone,” he says. “Then the civil rights movement happened and [the group known as] Indians of All Tribes occupied Alcatraz island in 1969. There was a resurgence of interest. All these hippies started showing up on reservations and wanted to learn American Indian spiritual preferences. That went on for a while until Hollywood decided to make Dances With Wolves and a couple of other films with native people in them. Then things went silent until Standing Rock and the pipeline protests. Suddenly, again, there’s interest in supporting native efforts to demand environmental justice.”

The on-and-off timeline now cruises through a period in which he says increasing interest in sustainable food, environmental justice, land management and sovereignty means the extensive knowledge of indigenous people commands considerable attention and respect. “Even the James Beard Foundation is hosting webinars with native speakers about native food, agriculture and economics,” he says. “There’s growing support in native interests.”

The Rarámuri concept of iwigara, he writes in an introduction to the new book, “channels the idea that all life, spiritual and physical, is interconnected in a continual cycle [and] expresses the belief that all life shares the same breath. We are all related to, and play a role in, the complexity of life.” Which means all people, along with indigenous communities, are members of the same large ecological family.

Because of that, as the book outlines the science-based medicinal and nutritional applications of 80 food plants, Salmón also includes each plant’s indigenous culture and wildcrafting through stories, myths and spiritual history. Vivid descriptions of each plant’s identifying features and harvesting techniques accompany the beautifully designed edition by Timber Press. Numerous and varied photos and illustrations provide stimulating visuals to each page.

“The book wasn’t my idea. Two years ago, Timber Press reached out to me to write it,” he says. “They wanted something of interest to their readers that would bring these plants to life. I tell stories so I suggested I didn’t have the time to write about several hundred plants, but I can focus on those plants most interesting to indigenous people. I reached out to my ethnobotanical network and asked for a list of 10 plants they thought were most important. From that list I just started writing.”

Among the lists was one from Abenaki herbalist Judy Dow, who listed plants indigenous people would need to know about how to live off the land in New England. Salmón says the plants were “less about high powered medicines and more about things you eat like blueberries, for the oxidants, and other plants used for basket weaving.” Westerners look for what plants can do for them, he suggests, but for Dow, the real story is about how indigenous people for thousands of years have related to plants and their habitats.

“If we take the most conservative view about American Indians it’s about 40,000 years. If we expand that, people like myself—native scholars—believe we’ve been here 100,000 years,” Salmón says. “That means we’ve been interacting and understanding these landscapes for 40 to 50,000 years. Compare that to Western researchers who have only been studying it for hundreds of years. The stories about Native People have been cut off.”

Indigenous truths expressed in songs and storytelling are complex, but crucial. Through shared knowledge and understanding, Salmón believes the listener finds ways to connect to the story and the storyteller. “It expresses our inner truths,” he says. “We find commonality through it. We find community, something we so need right now.”

To emphasize his position—that the advent of computers and the internet is wonderful because it makes it easier to explore the natural world online, but pales in comparison to live interactive experiences—he says, “There are so many sites where you can get a picture of a plant. Even the USDA has an incredible database. But none of that compares to sitting within a pine oak forest and smelling the trees or walking on the beach and feeling the wind. When you are separated from insects, the smell of the air, it’s easier to look at the natural world as an object, as a thing you’re not related to. It’s easier to separate our actions from it: Whether or not we buy a gas guzzling SUV, whether we recycle or buy locally or not. In the abstract, nature doesn’t have an impact on us and our choices don’t impact it. The reality is everything we do has an impact on the natural world. Just look at the wildfires we’re having in the West.”

More troubling than debates about too much screen time, global warming and climate change are the current politicization and questioning of science itself. “Science is not something you believe or not,” he says. “It’s like the air. It’s not faith-based. No one is going around asking if oxygen is real. Science is wondering how the world operates, asking questions, conducting studies, coming up with recognized truths and answers. How does the heart operate? What is that star up there? It’s not something you believe or not, but politics has made science a faith-based thing. It boggles my mind.”

Climate deniers, he points out, use on a daily basis what science has created: medicine, computers, airplanes and other things that are the result of science. “Now, they question the validity of science itself? It’s dangerous.”

Disregard and longtime inequities for indigenous people, along with other people of color, he says plays into the disproportionate impact of Covid-19. “Social erasure of native peoples is coming to the forefront,” he says. “They are financially underserved and there’s a lack of healthcare and access to education. Native communities are the last to receive PPE’s at the clinics. This [current] administration has cut funding and there’s historic underfunding. The virus is running rampant.”

All of which makes Iwígara a perfect ethnobotanical resource and its messages a rare symbol of hope. For example, respectful harvesting will sustain plants like North America’s birch trees, from which the bark is valued for its many antibacterial properties, waterproof covering used in the building of canoes, application as a derivative involved in manufacturing xylitol—a sugar substitute—and material for the making of baskets and other artwork. Or open space preservation and informed land management will ensure the blazing orange California Poppies continue to decorate East Bay hills. The Chumash people believed the souls of the dead were plucked out by ravens in the afterlife. Replaced with a poppy in each socket, sight is restored to the visionless soul. Less fantastic, boiled components of poppies relieve coughs and headaches, soothe burns, scrapes, stomachaches and even kill lice.

Salmón sees in his students at Cal State energized future leaders who will become tomorrow’s scholars, educators and advocates for indigenous rights and environmental justice. Continuing to tell the stories of indigenous people during the divisiveness of our political climate—and the real life dangers of taking for granted our connection to the natural world—he insists has never been more important. “That’s the way I teach: students find personal connections to the stories I tell and we create community.”

About his next book he says he is “waiting for the right thing to come along.” Perhaps it will be a narrative cookbook, featuring American Indian foods and recipes. Or, a novel based on his father’s life. “He was one of the native people who fought in Patton’s army in Europe,” Salmón says. “He came up from Mexico just to join the war. It would be fiction and I have notes, but I haven’t started writing it yet.”

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