Interdisciplinary project documents indigenous knowledge of native plants

Image of Quercus kelloggii, the black oak, herbarium specimen

The many plants which sprouted from the flat grasslands, rolling foothills and vast mountain ranges of Central California were vital in sustaining generations of the indigenous peoples. These tribes, including the Yokuts and Mono, used their botanical knowledge to live off the lands of the Central Valley and Sierra Nevada Range. The region’s flora collected for food, medicine and crafts were integral to their way of life, culture and language. Now, a CSU STEM-Net project at Fresno State is documenting the indigenous knowledge about the native plants of the Central Valley and surrounding areas. 

The project, titled “Native Plants, Places and People in Central California: Linking STEM Education to Local Cultural and Linguistic Diversity,” is an intersection of linguistics, anthropology and biology. The project aims to compile ethnobotanical information on native plants and how indigenous peoples used them for thousands of years. This includes the native plant names, the areas where they grow, techniques for gathering and methods for preparing materials and foods from the plants. The project provides Fresno State students with valuable research opportunities.

“The goal is to enhance STEM education here at Fresno State, to include in scientific databases local, native knowledge of plants including their geographic distribution, their uses and the vocabulary associated with these plants in native languages,” said Dr. Brian Agbayani, professor of linguistics.

The project began when Professor of Biology Dr. Katherine Waselkov approached Agbayani with the idea that involved ethnobotany and the use of Fresno State’s herbarium, which is a recently digitized biological collection of dried local plants with over 40,000 specimens, some dating back to the late 1800s.  After receiving a CSU STEM-Net grant, students and faculty began working on a comprehensive catalog of traditionally useful plants native to the Central Valley and surrounding areas. From this, they made a checklist of plants with the online database CalFlora to create a pictorial survey tool to interview local tribal members and gather ethnobotanical information.

Recent Fresno State graduate Icarus Bailey who cross references Fresno State's herbarium specimens with words used by the Chukchansi tribe. He stands in front of a wood fence and is wearing a black denim jacket with a hood, and a black shirt.
Icarus Bailey cross references Fresno State’s plant lists with the Chukchansi database.

“Researching and documenting the various plants that our people harvested and used is important since the cultivating and harvesting of local flora is an integral part of who we are as Chukchansi people,” said Fresno State Student Shonna Alexander, who is Chukchansi and Southern Sierra Miwok. 

The cultural aspect of the project is being spearheaded by faculty investigators Agbayani and Dr. John Pryor of the anthropology department. They are using the CalFlora database, a comprehensive online database of all native and non-native plant species occurring in California, alongside the school’s herbarium and the ethnobotanical knowledge of indigenous tribes – particularly working closely with members of the Chukchansi tribe.

Icarus Bailey, a senior graduating with a B.A. in linguistics and a minor in American Indian studies, is one of the student researchers for the STEM-net project. He has been comparing the Chukchansi database of plants to the plant lists compiled at Fresno State.

“Native issues often, if not always, intersect with multiple fields of study. Even issues that are focused directly on language are not isolated to strictly linguistics. Getting to collaborate with other students from other departments that are passionate about Native issues, and working together to combat language loss, erasure and building a future where Native knowledge is valued and used to better our community as a whole is phenomenal,” said Bailey.

The project aims to aid student success and have a social impact on the historically marginalized in the Central Valley, especially those with indigenous backgrounds.

“This project is important to enhance STEM education at Fresno State, and it provides opportunities for students in all these departments to do some important work and get valuable research experience,” said Professor Brian Agbayani. “This also strengthens our ties with the communities in the Valley. As a university, I think it’s important for us to be both supporters and stewards in the region.” 

It’s important to acknowledge that the Fresno State campus sits in the midst of the San Joaquin Valley, a valley rich in the traditions and representation of Native American peoples and cultures. We are grateful to be in the traditional homelands of the Yokuts and Mono peoples, whose diverse tribal communities share stewardship over this land.

Olive green oak leaves and stems with a color palette and scientific description.
An example of a Herbarium specimen. This is a Quercus kelloggii, the black oak, which was one of the most important sources of acorns (made into acorn meal) for Central Californian indigenous people. The tribes in our area still use it today.

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