Ethnobotany of Western Washington
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
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." 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.
- OLYSTICHUM MUNITUM
PRESL. SWORD FERN.
- 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.
- TSUGA HETEOPHYLLA
- 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
- GAULTHERIA SHALLON
- 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
- SAMBUCUS CALLICARPA
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.
from Ethnobotany of Western Washington:
The Knowledge and Use of Indigenous Plants
by Native Americans, by Erna Gunther
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
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. "The book has
been reprinted many times, and was reissued in 1973," with
additional material, they note.
- Ethnobotany of Western Washington: The Knowledge
and Use of Indigenous Plants by Native Americans, Erna
Gunther, University of Washington Press, Seattle,
- Women Anthropologists, Ed. by U. Gacs, A.
Khan, J. McIntyre, and R. Weinberg, University of Illinois
Press, Urbana, p. 133.
Gunther: A Personal Memory," by Bill Holm.
Gunther (1896-1982)," V. E. Garfield and P. T. Amoss,
American Anthropologist, 86(2), 394
- Information provided by
William R. Seaburg is gratefully acknowledged.