Plant People

Rob Efird, Seattle University

This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Reviewed Teaching Collection

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This page first made public: Oct 9, 2012


This integrated outdoor-learning, research and reflection exercise gives students a first-hand familiarity with local native plants and their significance in local native societies, and engages them in a reflective writing exercise on the value of urban parks. In doing so, they acquire an appreciation for Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and the importance of combining knowledge and direct experience in order to cultivate sustainable behavior and stewardship.

Learning Goals

As the lackluster popular response to our current environmental crisis demonstrates, scientific information is insufficient to motivate sustainable behavior. What is needed, rather, is some form of direct experience that transforms abstract ideas into concrete realities. This assignment combines information from readings and in-class lecture/discussion with "fieldwork" that grounds this information in direct experience.

It is intended to address the dangerous "disconnect" between humans and non-human members of their local environments which manifests itself in lack of knowledge, lack of experience, and consequent lack of affective attachment and stewardship. By providing students with examples of Traditional Ecological Knowledge, engaging them in direct experiences with native plants outdoors, and incorporating written and oral reflection upon their "fieldwork," the assignment aims to foster the knowledge and direct experience which, combined, encourage stewardship and sustainable behavior.

Context for Use

Our current widespread alienation from, and ignorance of, our non-human neighbors stands in stark contrast to the intimate relationship that has traditionally existed between native peoples and native plants of this region. By providing students with examples of Traditional Ecological Knowledge, this assignment aims to foster the knowledge and direct experience which, combined, encourage stewardship and sustainable behavior.

This assignment is appropriate for a wide variety of undergraduate courses in cultural anthropology or environmental studies

Description and Teaching Materials

Timeframe:The assignment requires at least 2-3 hours of classroom time (split between two meetings) and at least 2-3 hours of independent "fieldwork" outside of class. It can be done in any season, though winter may limit the focus to trees and evergreen shrubs for the plant identification exercise.

The Assignment

This assignment combines information from readings and in-class lecture/discussion with "fieldwork" that grounds this information in direct experience.

Readings, films and in-class lecture/discussions cover both the dysfunctional human-environment relationship characteristic of modern industrialized societies as well as human-environment relations common among native peoples of our bioregion. In particular, students are introduced to the importance of native plants to native peoples of this region, the detailed knowledge of these plants, and the idea that plants-like humans, salmon and other animals-share the status of "people." Fieldwork combines a visit to an ethno botanical garden or plant trail with a "plant search" in a large urban park to identify several plants. The exercise concludes with written and oral reflection upon the fieldwork experience and the potential value of urban parks in fostering sustainability. The desired outcome is a new intimacy with, and attentiveness to, local environments that will in turn motivate an ethic of care and stewardship. Over the course of the exercise, students learn about local examples of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) and the research method of participant-observation, both key concepts in cultural anthropology, as well as the importance of an informed, first-hand "connection" to non-human elements of our ecosystem, which is an effective means of promoting sustainable behavior.

The Learning Activity

This exercise involves five stages. Full bibliographic references for the resources mentioned in the different stages are listed under the resources section.

Stage 1
The exercise begins by contrasting the dominant values and circumstances that shape human-environment relations in the United States and other industrialized nations with those prevalent among native peoples of the Puget Sound bioregion. The activities for this stage include a set of assigned readings and an in-class lecture/discussion of these readings that also features video clips that portray and/or discuss native relationships with non-human elements of their environments.

Assigned Readings:
For U.S./industrialized societies:
Toward a New Consciousness: Values to Sustain Human and Natural Communities, "Foreword" (pp. 5-11) and "Diagnoses" (pp. 17-33).

For native peoples:
Klingle, Emerald City, Chapter One
Suttles and Lane, "South Coast Salish"

In-class film selections:
Selections of cedar gathering from the Katie Jennings' film on taqwsheblu Vi Hilbert, Huchoosedah
Jennings' film on Bruce Miller (subiyay), Teachings of the Tree People
Suquamish documentary Come Forth Laughing

Stage 2
Students should spend about 30 minutes in a local botanical or ethno botanical garden to select, carefully examine and identify three native plants that have been used by native peoples of this region. This portion of the exercise may be amplified through a more focused journaling assignment, in which students carefully record their observations of their three plants. Clare Walker Leslie's books and articles on journaling would be helpful for this.

In any event, these will be the plants that they will search for in the next stage, when they visit a large urban park. They should familiarize themselves with the native uses of the plants by using such resources as Gunther's Ethnobotany of Western Washington, Pojar and Mackinnon's Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, and the online resources under the Ethnobotany subpage of Seattle University's taqwsheblu Vi Hilbert Ethnobotanical Garden ( The garden webpage also lists local botanical and ethnobotanical gardens that students can visit. It is essential that the student identify and explore the three plants in person, and not just online or through books.

Stage 3
With this plant information in hand and mind, students conduct a field site visit to a large, local park to look for their three plants. In Seattle, the most appropriate choices are Seward Park, Discovery Park, and Carkeek Park. The students have two goals during their visit: 1) find at least one of the three native plants that have been previously identified, and 2) conduct participant-observation on the ways in which parks can promote sustainable behavior. During this exercise, which should last no less than an hour, students will reflect upon some questions for their subsequent written reflection: First, is the search for your plants different from previous experiences of plants and parks? If so, how and why do you think it differs? Second, based on your observations of others and your own experience of the park, can large urban parks play a role in changing the unsustainable values described in the Yale report ("Toward a New Consciousness") mentioned above? If so how? Be as specific as possible in your answers to these questions.

Stage 4
Write a three page, double-spaced reflective essay that addresses the questions mentioned in Stage 3.

Stage 5
During the next class meeting, students should share their experiences and reflections in small groups first, then as a class. What did it FEEL like to do the assignment? Does the combination of knowledge and direct experience concerning plants serve as a motivation for stewardship? Why or why not?

Teaching Notes and Tips

When I first assigned this exercise, I was struck by how many students reported experiencing parks and plants in a distinctly different way due to the assignment. Whether your students experience something different from their past, their thoughts and experiences should provide interesting conversation material for a discussion about how we can promote sustainable behavior in our local, urban communities. What role do knowledge and direct experience play in this process?


Student essays should be assessed on the basis of at least three criteria:
  1. Their successful completion of all stages of the assignment.
  2. The detail and relevance of reflection demonstrated in the essay.
  3. The clarity and quality of written expression.

References and Resources

"Come Forth Laughing: Voices of the Suquamish People." The Suquamish Tribal Cultural Center, Oral History Project, 1984

"Toward a New Consciousness: Values to Sustain Human and Natural Communities: A Synthesis of Insights and Recommendations from the 2007 Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Science Conference." (New Haven, CT: Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, 2008) Available online at:

Gunther, Erna. Ethnobotany of Western Washington. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1975)

Jennings, Katie (Director). "Teachings of the Tree People: The Work of Bruce Miller." New Day Films, 2006

Jennings, Katie (Director). "Huchoosedah: Teachings of the Heart." KCTS-9 and BBC Wales, 1995

Klingle, Matthew. Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008)

Miller, Jay. Lushootseed Culture and the Shamanic Odyssey: An Anchored Radiance. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999)

Pojar, Jim and Andrew MacKinnon. Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast. (Vancouver: Lone Pine Publishing, 1994)

Seattle University's taqwsheblu Vi Hilbert Ethnobotanical Garden website:

Suttles, Wayne, and Barbara Lane. "Southern Coast Salish." In Wayne Suttles (Ed.), Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 7, Northwest Coast, pp. 485-502. (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990)