Around 50 years ago, Samish tribal member Rosie Cayou visited a bog on the northern end of Whidbey Island to gather Labrador tea (máqʷəŋ tihíɬč, Rhododendron groenlandicum), a shrub in the rhododendron family that Indigenous groups across the northern United States and Canada use to make medicinal tea.
Cayou’s family had a long history with the site and those plants. “My grandfather had that traditional area from time immemorial,” she says. But this time, she needed permission from the landowner for her gathering. And when Cayou stopped by the bog in subsequent years, she often had to start all over again, seeking permission anew whenever the land changed hands.
Cayou is adept at weaving ties of community and kinship – who shares a birthday, whose grandfather went to school with whose – and repeatedly turned suspicious landowners into fast friends. But the burden of those experiences was part of what inspired Cayou’s new project, the Indigenous Plants Forum.
The Forum is “an informal, tribal-nontribal-intertribal group of people who get together to work on preserving, growing, and sharing the knowledge of traditional plant uses, and also to identify threats to their habitats,” explains Madrona Murphy, staff botanist at Kwiáht, a Lopez Island-based nonprofit research cooperative. Kwiáht is the fiscal sponsor of the Indigenous Plants Forum, and Cayou is the organization’s traditional foods specialist.
Scientific research is increasingly documenting how thousands of years of stewardship by Indigenous groups maintained and increased plant diversity in Pacific Northwest ecosystems. Cayou hopes the Forum will help preserve these human relationships with places and the plants that grow there – knowledge that is being lost.
“It’s something that I’ve wanted to do my entire life,” she says.
One of the group’s aims is to cultivate – in a broad and comprehensive way – the kinds of relationships that Cayou has forged with the succession of tea-bog owners over the years. “A lot of our native plants are being grown on private land,” says Aurora Martinez, who is also a Samish tribal member and Cayou’s niece. “And if we can create connections with landowners, then we can begin to take care of the plants like we did traditionally.”
The group began to take form about a year ago and has toggled between virtual meetings and in-person, socially distanced gatherings as coronavirus restrictions have tightened and eased. The host and location of in-person meetings varies from one month to the next so that members can learn about traditional plants in different parts of Puget Sound.
In June, Martinez and her father hosted a meeting on Samish ancestral lands at Fidalgo Bay RV park. They filled other members in on Samish projects to remove invasive bracken on beaches and plant native cedar trees and discussed the importance of traditional plants found on Samish territory.
The focus on culture sets the forum apart from other native plant groups, says Rory Denovan, a Guemes Island resident and habitat restoration specialist for Seattle City Light. (His participation in the Forum is as a private citizen, not part of his work duties.) “I have absolutely zero knowledge about the spiritual relevance, cultural importance, and traditional uses” of the plants, he says. “I know a lot of plant ecology. So it’s been great just to share back and forth as we try and piece the knowledge back together.”
When the group first got together, Cayou asked members to identify plants of particular concern. These include Pacific silverweed (Argentina pacifica), which grows on Denovan’s family property but is being threatened by invasive reed canary grass; Indian celery (q̕əx̣mín, Lomatium nudicaule), a traditional remedy for sore throats and colds (“You make a steam out of it and inhale the steam like you would Vicks,” Cayou explains); and soapberry (sx̣ʷésəm, Shepherdia canadensis), whose tart berries can be whipped into a foam and combined with other berries to make a concoction known as “Indian ice cream.” The group is working to raise awareness and improve management of soapberry patches in Deception Pass State Park.
Another major focus is camas (qwłaʔul, Camassia spp.), plants in the lily family with edible bulbs and striking stalks of blue flowers in spring, which dovetails with a longer-standing project at Kwiáht. For the past several years, Murphy has been investigating historical camas cultivation by Indigenous groups in the Salish Sea.
She has documented relic camas gardens on small islands in the San Juans and is cultivating a research garden where she is experimenting with ways to incorporate camas into modern gardens and diets, investigating the differences between plants from 18 different islands, and producing bulbs to distribute to local tribes. “One of the main purposes of our garden is to support tribal food and cultural programs that use camas,” she says.
Over the past several months, meetings of the Indigenous Plant Forum have drawn between 20 and 40 participants, and the group seems to be propagating by vegetative spread. Often a person will attend a first meeting, then bring a friend to the next meeting, then that person brings another friend the following month, Martinez says. “And each month we’re just gradually growing by a couple of people.”