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Native Heart

California's Plants Are Special to Its Indigenous People

May 18, 2003|EMILY YOUNG

The expansion of Smith Park in San Gabriel three years ago included a small Native American garden as a reminder of the area's original inhabitants, the Tongva (later renamed the Gabrielinos by Spanish settlers), and how they lived off the land. Mark Acuna of Claremont is the cultural liaison of the Gabrielino-Tongva Tribal Council and an ethnobotanist who helped plan the leafy tribute with landscape designers Anna Armstrong and Richard Walker of Armstrong & Walker Landscape Architecture in Monrovia.

Is a Native American garden the same as a native plant garden?

A native plant garden has plants indigenous to a specific area. Here in the L.A. Basin, those plants are more or less drought-tolerant and require minimal care. But they're typically chosen for decoration. If you're designing a Native American garden, you're not looking for color or show. You're looking for relationships and usage. By that, I mean you have plants to use for food, medicine or construction. You could wind up with the same plants in both gardens, but for different reasons.

What was the significance of native plants to the Tongva before the Spanish established the missions?

Our core belief was and is that everything is sacred, that plants are not separate from us, they are part of us. The idea is to use only what we need to maintain a balance in the environment. In a kind of a mystical way, we are saying: "The plant and I are one." As Europeans arrived in the 1770s, they brought new plants and animal life. Many of the plants were invasive and took over indigenous ones, and the horses, cattle, pigs, sheep and goats forever changed the landscape because of their foraging.

Which plants were particularly important and why?

The L.A. Basin was like a shopping mall to our ancestors. For food, they ate the berries of toyon, or California holly, the plant that gives Hollywood its name. Monkey flower has stalks and leaves that were eaten as a salad. Manzanita provided edible berries as well as seeds that were ground into a flour.

Medicinally, the seeds of California bay laurel were made into a poultice for sores and the leaves were bound to the head for headaches. White sage was brewed in a tea for colds and decongestion and a gargle for sore throats. The leaves, which have a really strong smell, could also be crushed to treat dandruff or used as a deodorizer.

For construction, deergrass was the primary plant for basket making. Willow framed our huts. We burned and pruned California wild rose so limbs could be used as arrows. Fibers were pounded and extracted from the leaves of yucca, also known as Our Lord's Candle, for baskets, cordage, sandals and nets. The list goes on.

Are native plants still integral to Native American culture?

They're still a major part of our life even if we don't have the ability to gather them as we once did. Some of our women have gone to find deer grass sites and been arrested. It's always a struggle, especially since we, the Tongva, have no land and it's difficult to get permits to harvest. Because of that, some of us maintain our own gardens.

The Gabrielinos have permission to take cuttings from Smith Park.

Only specific members of the tribe are allowed to do that, and they mainly gather deergrass for the basket makers of the tribal council. They also pick sages for medicinal and ceremonial uses.

Do native groups see these plants differently from other Californians?

Most non-Native Americans see California flora as weeds. They want flowers year round and would like their gardens to look like Vermont. To Native Americans, a beautiful native garden tells something about this place. It's stark sometimes, blazing sometimes. This is our land, this is Southern California, this is L.A.

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