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Cover image of Iwigara
Iwígara: The Kinship of Plants and People. Image courtesy of Timber Press.

EDITOR'S NOTE: In Iwígara: American Indian Ethnobotanical Traditions and Science (Timber Press, 2020), ethnobotanist Enrique Salmón shares a collection of descriptions, teachings, and traditions about eighty native plant relatives.

What sets the book apart from other plant guides is that each plant description is framed with a story. When I was reading it, I imagined myself sitting with Enrique—perhaps on a porch or near a campfire—listening to his personal recollections from childhood and other teachings he’s learned through the years. We are grateful to hear the story behind these stories from Enrique in his own words. —MC

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Ofrenda Magazine (OM): Tell us a bit about Iwígara, the book: How do you typically describe it? What prompted you to write it? 

Enrique Salmón (ES): Actually, I did not come up with the idea to write the book. It was an editor at Timber Press who reached out to me to suggest the idea. Years ago, the press had published a book by Daniel Moreman called Native American Medicinal Plants. I have a copy of the book in my personal library. It is a great resource if you are looking for information on how Indigenous tribes use certain plants or what the plants’ native names are. It is very extensive but reads more like a dictionary.

Timber Press was wanting something more than just the names and uses of plants. They had seen my previous book, Eating the Landscape (University of Arizona Press, 2012). In that book, I presented American Indian agriculture using lots of story and Indigenous perspective. Timber Press was hoping that I could approach Indigenous plant knowledge in a similar way. I suggested that I focus on a smaller number of plants, sharing them from an Indigenous perspective through story. They agreed, and I immediately contacted my American Indian and Ethnobotanical network of friends and colleagues from across the country and asked them to give me a list of ten plants that they felt were the most important ones from their region or culture. From the various lists that I received, I came up with the eighty plants that are in the book. Each plant is unique, and each plant entry, I hope, reflects the spirit and soul of the plant.

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OM: The title is special: Iwígara. Can you share a bit about what the word iwígara means and how it relates to the phrase you coined, kincentric ecology?

ES: The word iwígara comes from my Rarámuri language. It has several meanings, but most simply, it alludes to the idea of interconnected and overlapping cycles of shared breath, life, and energy. My people, like so many other Indigenous peoples, believe that we are directly related to everything around us. We share life energy, such as breath, with all the animals, insects, rocks, and plants. They are our kin, our relatives.

When one makes choices with a landscape based on the concept that everything around you is a relative, then the land management practices that emerge from that realization tend to be sustainable. Practices connected to managing the land become more of stewardship and ministering to the land. This is the central concept of kincentric ecology.

When people read about or hear me explain kincentric ecology, they often assume that I am speaking about reciprocity. However, reciprocity assumes an exchange that resembles commodification. This is very much a Western concept. Kincentricity is not an exchange. It is a responsibility to our human and non-human relatives, to the ancestors of those relatives, as well as to our descendants.

I am often bothered by non-Native people and organizations who so easily misappropriate Indigenous land management practices. I am bothered by their imperative to identify “models” for everything. It demands that there is a single “Indigenous” agricultural model. It’s as if 10,000 years ago, all our ancestors from across the continent sat down one day to decide how they were going to go about farming. Besides, models such as permaculture or regenerative agriculture are ultimately Euro-American frames applied to Indigenous practices.

The larger implication of this thinking is that interested individuals can pick and choose which agricultural model they want to follow—or that they can mix and match all of them. It reminds me of what Wintu leader Caleen Sisk-Franco once said about how non-Native peoples approach religion and spirituality. She said that, to them, religion is like the cereal aisle of a grocery store: everyone can pick and choose their favorite one. However, there is only one box of Wintu. Indigenous ways of interacting and relating to our local lands are not something that we choose one day and then change our minds about the next. We are our lands, we are the rain that nourishes the land, we are the rocks, we are the salmon that spawns in the rivers, and the eagles and bears that feed on those fish. We are the pollinators. What we do to them, we do to ourselves.

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OM: The theme of this issue of Ofrenda is nepantla, which has been associated with concepts of “between-ness,” being of two places, borderlands, and liminality. Are there any plants from your book that come to mind in relation to this theme?

ES: It would be too easy to focus on peyote with this question or maybe even tobacco, but the plant that I feel best relates to this concept is cattail—Typha latifolia, Typha angustifolia, or Typha domingensis. Many people reading this will recognize that cattails are water plants: they sprout, germinate, and live in water, or at least, very wet soils. They can be used for food, for medicine, and even for weaving clothing, baskets, sleeping mats, and roof thatching. But most of your readers probably do not realize that cattails occupy space that exists between this and other spiritual dimensions.

The Western Apache spread a mixture of cattail and corn pollen onto the forehead of young women who are engaging in their puberty ceremony. I do not want to go into too many culturally sensitive details, but for four days the young women are imbued with the energy of the Apache legendary figure Changing Woman. In short, it was Changing Woman who played an important role in the emergence of Apache people and culture. Therefore, for a few days, these young Apache women occupy Changing Woman’s as well as their own dimensions.

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OM: We might say you’re a nepantlero as an ethnobotanist. How do you navigate between the worlds of Western ethnobotany on one hand and Rarámuri and other traditional knowledges on the other? How do you balance or blend the two?

ES: I embrace Trickster consciousness. It is a recognition of the gray space inherent in everything. Polar opposites exist only because of the gray space that binds them. Our [U.S.] society largely admits to the existence of two genders, but there are at least four other kinds of genders that exist between male and female. There are yin and yang, but there is also the wu chi of the universe that holds the yin and yang in their space. There is dark and light, but if all we could see was dark, how would we recognize light? It is that gray area in-between that is more important.

Unfortunately, our society fears the gray. We are taught to gravitate to only the light, to see only two genders, and to maneuver away from the unknown and unexplainable areas of the universe.  Trickster occupies the in-between space because that is where most of the universe resides.  Therefore, it is not a balancing act for me to be both academic and traditional. I feel secure and steady.

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OM: You’re a person of many talents—scholar, professor, writer, musician. What’s next up for you? What upcoming projects are you excited about?

ES: I am thinking of writing a book focused on kincentric ecology. To date, my writing about that topic can be found in the 2000 Ecological Applications article by the same title, a few paragraphs in edited books, and a couple of written online lectures that I have composed for my students. I am thinking I will identify the specific themes, ideas, and concepts from the original article and expand on them as individual chapters. Much of the materials in each chapter would come from my experiences with my tribe and with other indigenous communities that I have worked with in North America, Alaska, New Zealand, and Africa. I plan to continue teaching for at least a couple more years, but I will continue to do presentations, talks, and contribute to edited books.

Regarding my music, during this pandemic, I have been able to really concentrate on my cello and classical guitar playing. I can almost get through the Bach Cello Suites without too many errors. I am composing a cello/guitar sonata that I would like to record one of these days, but I am also looking forward to making music with my jazz trio again and with my blues buddies.

Visit Ofrenda's Bookshop to find Iwigara and more books from our contributors.

Visit Ofrenda's Bookshop to find Iwigara and more books from our contributors.

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