Ethnobotany of Western Washington

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Wherever possible, UW anthropology professor Erna Gunther would go on a walk with a member of a Native American tribe to pick the plant specimens that she was studying. It wasn't always possible, though. Some of the "informants," as she called them, who participated in her study of the ethnobotany of Western Washington, were too old for that and often bedridden. And so she would bring the plants to them, freshly picked, if feasible.

She tried to arrange to speak with both a man and a woman from the same tribe. Women knew the food and medicinal plants, and were more likely to give information on charms and potions; men knew the materials in nets, fishing gear, and wood working.

This work of Gunther's, conducted in the 1930s and first published in 1945, "was an innovation, since at the time there had been no ethnobiological investigation of the Northwest culture," according to a biography in "Women Anthropologists."footnote 2 Many consider it her most popular work.

Gunther is recognized for a full six decades of scholarship in anthropology, mainly focusing on the culture and art of the Native Americans of the Northwest Coast. She directed the UW Department of Anthropology for 25 years and the Burke Museum on the UW campus for 31 years.

The rhizome is peeled and baked in a pit and eaten by the Quileute with fresh or dried salmon eggs. Young, curled leaves are used by the Swinomish, who chew them raw and swallow them for sore throat or tonsillitis. The Quileute use the chewed leaves to cure sores and boils, while the Cowlitz wash sores with an infusion of the boiled rhizome. The Quinault boil the roots and wash hair in this water to cure dandruff. The spore sacs are scraped off the leaves by the Quinault and put on burns.

The Klallum, Lummi and Makah boil the bark for a red-brown dye. The Quileute chop the bark fine, boil it, and apply the juice to spruce-root baskets to make them water-tight. The Quinault mash the bark and salmon eggs to get a yellow-orange paint for dip nets and paddles.

Wherever the berries of the salal are used, they are mashed and dried in cakes, often put on split cedar boards or on skunk cabbage leaves. These cakes are soaked to prepare them for eating and are dipped in whale or seal oil. The loaves of salal berries prepared by the Lower Chinook weigh as much as 10 to 15 pounds. The Quileute pick the whole twig with the berries still on, and, dipping it in whale oil, pull it through the mouth to eat the berries while they are still fresh. The Klallam chew the leaves and spit them on burns. The Quinault chew the leaves to relieve heartburn and colic.

The berries are always steamed on rocks and put in a container which is stored underground or in cool water. They are usually eaten in winter. The leaves are pounded fresh and put on an abscess or boil by the Makah. The Cowlitz grind the leaves and put them on a sore joint to reduce the swelling.

--Adapted from Ethnobotany of Western Washington:
The Knowledge and Use of Indigenous Plants
by Native Americans
, by Erna Guntherfootnote 1

In the early 1920s, she published on the First Salmon Ceremony, a ritual welcome of the first salmon run of the year. The Seattle World's Fair exhibition of Native American culture she planned and prepared is "now recognized as a primary factor in the worldwide recognition of Northwest Coast Indian Art," writes Bill Holm, curator of Northwest Coast Indian Art at the Burke Museum.footnote 3

Gunther's work on ethnobotany is still extensively consulted today. "Her work is a foundation on which all subsequent ethnobotanical research in the area has been based," wrote UW Professor Viola E. Garfield and Pamela Amoss in a biography of Gunther in 1984.footnote 4 "The book has been reprinted many times, and was reissued in 1973," with additional material, they note.

  1. Ethnobotany of Western Washington: The Knowledge and Use of Indigenous Plants by Native Americans, Erna Gunther, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1973.
  2. Women Anthropologists, Ed. by U. Gacs, A. Khan, J. McIntyre, and R. Weinberg, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, p. 133.
  3. "Erna Gunther: A Personal Memory," by Bill Holm.
  4. "Erna Gunther (1896-1982)," V. E. Garfield and P. T. Amoss, American Anthropologist, 86(2), 394 (1984).
  5. Information provided by William R. Seaburg is gratefully acknowledged.

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