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Book Details How Kumeyaay Use Indigenous Plants

The cover of "Kumeyaay Ethnobotany: Shared Heritage of the Californias" is pictured.
Courtesy of Sunbelt Publications
The cover of "Kumeyaay Ethnobotany: Shared Heritage of the Californias" is pictured.

The Kumeyaay Nation was once a vast territory, spanning the U.S.-Mexico border. For thousands of years, native peoples lived close to the land and learned to use indigenous plants for food, clothing, protection and medicine.

Some of that knowledge has been lost to time, but a surprising amount of it has been preserved in the memory of elders and now in a book by Cal State San Marcos anthropology professor Michael Wilken-Robertson.

"Kumeyaay Ethnobotany: Shared Heritage of the Californias" explores the plants the Kumeyaay use to make food, medicine and traditional arts.


Wilken-Robertson is giving a lecture and will be signing books on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at the Bonita Museum and Cultural Center, 4355 Bonita Road. The event is free.

Wilken-Robertson joins Midday Edition on Tuesday.

Book Details How Kumeyaay Use Indigenous Plants
Book Details How Kumeyaay Use Indigenous Plants GUEST:Michael Wilken-Robertson, author, "Kumeyaay Ethnobotany: Shared Heritage of the Californias"

>>> the Kumeyaay nation was once a vast territory, spanning the US-Mexico border. For thousands of years, native peoples lived close to the land and learned to use indigenous plants for food, clothing, protection and medicine. Some of that knowledge has been lost to time but a surprising amount has been preserved in the memory of elders, and now in a new book. Anthropologist Michael Wilkin Robinson is the author of Kumeyaay ethnobotany, shared heritage of the California's. Welcome to the show. >> Thank you, it is great to be here. >> Could you start off by describing what ethnobotany is and what it tells us? >> The easiest way to understand ethnobotany is it is the study of plants and people and their interactions, because it is not just people interacting with clients, plants also use people in many different ways. We want to understand the interaction. >> How do plants is people? >> For example, plants can make themselves attractive to humans or other animals, they can help expand the extension of the area where they live by moving seeds or parts of plants. Plants have a long history of using humans to -- for their own purposes too. >> Tell us more about the range of territory that Kumeyaay people once inhabited. >> The Kumeyaay territory traditionally extended from Escondido in the north talking maybe 300 years ago, down to around central Tomas now Baja, California and east to the deserts, according to some versions out to the Colorado River. So it was a huge territory. Right in the middle of that, only about a couple hundred years ago, an international border was slapped in between those two house of the Kumeyaay region. >> What you are talking about is a wide range of geography and different climates. There must have been a huge number of indigenous plants the Kumeyaay people were familiar with? >> California is one of the most bio diverse places on the planet. What is interesting about this territory is from north to south there is a lot of similarities say from Escondido to Santana Moss. Beautiful, coastal areas and ecosystems adapted to the coast. But as you head east from those areas and you go inland though inland valleys and foothills and up to the mountains and down to the desert, have all these different ecosystems and each one has a different type of plant or vegetation in them. The native people were moving throughout that territory in the course of a year and they had to know every single part. Every plant, animal, climate, soil, everything about it. With that knowledge they were able to live successfully. >> Where their primary plants the Kumeyaay depended on? >> Often we hear acorns with the staple of Kumeyaay people but it is really much more complicated than that. There are years when acorns or pinenuts, traditional foods, simply don't provide a good harvest. People had to know every different possible plant that could be used for food or medicine or whatever they needed. So I would say there's not really just one plant that was really amazing to me too learn, in the research I have been doing, is how much knowledge there is of so many different types of plants. >> Not just food or medicine, there are pictures in your book of agave nets, native people using a coffee, the strings, to make nets and baskets. >> The agave is a real powerhouse, something we see today as a plant with sharp needles we want to keep our distance from. Agave in Baja California grow from the coast to the desert and they can be used for food. Also, as you mentioned, the fibers are really strong, long-lasting fibers, used for making cord, carrying nets, fishing nets, hunting nets, bowstrings. They are such a long-lasting fiber that archaeologists have found examples of agave fiber cordage in caves or excavations, that are 9000 years old. I think that helps us put into perspective the time depth of native people's knowledge of this land. How far back that goes. When you think about many of our ancestors only having been here 100-200 years, that is very little time compared to thousands of years that Kumeyaay people have been attending this land. >> You did most of your research in Baja, California, why was that? >> Have a long family tradition in Baja, California. My grandparents lived there. From the time I was a kid I was going down there, my grandfather was taking us out as he was writing a book on the missions and he had met and introduced me from the time I was a kid. Eventually I got to do some research in the community and worked with Potters and plant specialists. That just spiraled into getting to know more and more of the different native people and I got more and more involved in activism and advocacy work which built a lot of trust and long-term friendships with members of the community. >> To elders in the community's on the ancient traditions? >> Yes there are a lot of elders that still no an amazing amount of traditional knowledge of their environment and oral traditions and technology like basketry, pottery, agave fiber. Thankfully, some of the middle aged and younger folks also learning those things. Not a whole lot, but a few. That is the good part. >> How do you think your research benefits the present day Kumeyaay people? >> There are many different ways I think this research is important. On the one hand it can serve as a manual for a lot of younger people from the tribal communities who have maybe left their communities to go work or go to school in town or somewhere along the way. Many younger tribal folks that lost the connection with the landed the plants. The fact of putting it into a book, not just telling about the plant used in this way but the people that carry on the tradition and how it is part of a much larger relationship and philosophy about how humans interact with the environment. I think all of that can be really important. I would also like to mention some of the proceeds of the book are going toward a scholarship program for native Baja Californians and to support the to CAUTI community Museum which has a program related to telling the story of Kumeyaay history in the area working with local tribes. >> I've been speaking with Michael Wilkins Robinson who will be speaking about his book tonight at the Bonita Museum and cultural center. And went to thank you very much for coming in. >> Thank you. It has been great.