“Kumeyaay Ethnobotany” Q&A with Michael Wilken-Robertson

To celebrate the release of the Spanish edition of award-winning Kumeyaay Ethnobotany, enjoy the following question and answer with author Michael Wilken-Robertson.

Q: I thought the Kumeyaay Indians lived in San Diego County area. Are there also Kumeyaay in Mexico?

A: Yes, long before the US and Mexico existed, the Kumeyaay territory extended throughout the areas known today as San Diego County and northern Baja California, Mexico. Only recently in their history, a border has divided their territory into two different countries.

Q: What kind of language do the Kumeyaay speak?

A: The Kumeyaay language belongs to a larger family of languages that is found in southern California, Arizona, and northern Baja California. These are ancient Native American languages that have ancient roots in this land, going back thousands of years. Today there are only around 70 fluent speakers of the Kumeyaay language in Baja California. And of course, the Kumeyaay living in Mexico also speak Spanish while those in the US speak English.

Q: Many of the Kumeyaay consultants that you worked with live in remote ranches in the hills of Baja California, Mexico. How can their knowledge be relevant to people living in California?

A: Although the Baja Kumeyaay might seem to live far from California, many of the native plants they use will be familiar to people of southern California because they are part of the same bioregion. Anyone who is an outdoor enthusiast or fan of native plants will recognize most of the same plants used by the Kumeyaay. Also, many of the ways that native people have used the plants are very similar from Santa Barbara to northern Baja California, making them into foods, medicines, tools, construction materials, and ceremonial items.

Norma Meza Calles of Nejí sifts acorn meal. Photo by Deborah Small

Q: Many of the elders that you have worked with over the years have passed away. What is happening with the transmission of this knowledge?

A: Some of the younger people continue to learn and use this knowledge. But many leave their communities to seek work in the cities. It is my hope that this book will inspire current generations to feel pride in their culture and help to preserve some small part of the vast indigenous plant knowledge for future generations.

Q: In the past, Kumeyaay people were hunters, gatherers, and fishers. How do they make a living today?

A: The Kumeyaay have adapted to the many changes in their lives since the arrival of non-Indians to these shores. Today the Kumeyaay villages have diverse economies where people might make a living as cowboys, maintaining rural roads or other governmental programs, through agriculture, or working in nearby cities. Some very talented artists also have found that using the skills passed on from their ancestors, such as basketry and pottery, can be useful ways of making a living. Many Kumeyaay supplement their income by gathering acorns and other plants for food and using plant medicines, which helps keep ethnobotanical knowledge alive.

Q: How do the Kumeyaay from different sides of the border interact?

A: It has been increasingly difficult for them to do so since the border was created. In the past they would often travel north or south to attend tribal gatherings, funerals, and traditional games and other cultural events. Today the traditional artisans and cultural specialists are often invited to teach their skills at US reservations, at museums, universities, and special events, but they require special border crossing permits.

Q: You describe the uses of 47 different native plants in the book. What were some of the most surprising things you learned about the ways they have been used by the Kumeyaay?

A: The most surprising thing to learn was just how vibrant the knowledge was among some of the Kumeyaay I worked with and how profound their knowledge of their environment continues to be. Some specific things I learned were how to make drops to remove a tick from your ear, how to gather and cook caterpillars for eating, how to make an effective stomach medicine from what many might consider a common weed (California Buckwheat), and how plants can be gathered in ways that actually help the plants flourish.

Author Michael Wilken-Robertson with IBPA Award. Photo by Sunbelt Publications

Q: How did you end up spending so many years of your life working with the Kumeyaay and other tribes of Baja California?

A: As a boy growing up in southern California, I always wanted to know more about the native people who had lived for thousands of years in this land. I was very lucky that my grandfather was from Mexico and was good friends with many native Baja Californians; he introduced me to them from the time I was a kid. I eventually developed my own relationships with them over the years, based on activism and advocacy that I was able to do along with my research. This helped build trust, and I have been honored to have many friendships and adventures over the years. As a person of Mexican heritage myself, I hope that I have been able to make some kind of contribution to the history, culture, and people of our beautiful land.

Q: Why did you feel it was important to publish a Spanish edition of your book Kumeyaay Ethnobotany?

A: Most of my fieldwork was done in Baja California, Mexico, where many Kumeyaay people still use the plants described in the book in their daily lives. The consultants who generously shared their knowledge with me asked me to help preserve it for their descendants and future generations to learn from. Although many of them are now gone, I hope that with this book I can fulfill that request. I also believe that the more people of Baja California learn about their original native peoples, the more they will recognize the importance of their ongoing place in the history, culture, and present life of the region. The more they learn about our native plants and the ways that humans have interacted with them for thousands of years, the more they will be committed to conserve them, as well as the incredible habitats in which they grow. I am hoping the book will be used to educate Baja Californians in schools, libraries, and of course in the indigenous communities themselves.

Ko’alh speaker Teresa Castro Albañez makes fiber skirts from Mojave Yucca (Yucca schidigera). Photo by Deborah Small

Q: How does this book benefit the Kumeyaay?

A: In many ways. It can serve as a manual that links younger Kumeyaay with the knowledge of their relatives and ancestors, some of whom have now passed on, but many of them still very much alive. It helps to reinforce the recognition of the amazing indigenous cultures that have been developed and passed on for thousands of years in the region. Hopefully, this will help reduce discrimination based on ignorance, which unfortunately continue to affect indigenous peoples of the region. I also hope it will inspire younger generations of Kumeyaay to continue the work of cultural documentation in their own ways, in their own communities. Finally, we will be donating copies of the book to members of the native communities who participated in the study, as well as to local libraries, schools, and museums.

Kumeyaay Ethnobotany explores the remarkable interdependence between native peoples and native plants of the Californias through in-depth descriptions of 47 native plants and their uses, lively narratives, and hundreds of vivid photographs. It connects the archaeological and historical record with living cultures and native plant specialists who share their ever-relevant wisdom for future generations. Winner of the 2019 IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award Gold Medal in the Regional category and Silver Medal in the Multicultural category.