Native Plants, Native Peoples: Ethnobotany of the Puget Sound Bioregion

Liz Fortenbery, Tacoma Community College


This is an assignment in which students learn about some of the native plants of the region, their traditional uses by native peoples, and their names in the indigenous language(s) of the region. Students learn to use ethnobotanical, ethnographic, and linguistic sources; go on a plant walk with people knowledgeable about native plants; and, work in groups to create materials that other people on campus can learn from (posters, plant information sheets, plant walk guides, plant labels). The goal is that students gain a small glimpse into a native knowledge system and the relationship between people and plants, and begin to develop or strengthen their own relationship to native plants and the Puget Sound watershed.

Learning Goals

The "big idea" from anthropology that the assignment aims to get across is respect for traditional ecological knowledge and how the vocabulary of indigenous languages reflects detailed awareness of the environment.

The "big ideas" from sustainabilitystudies are in the "habits of mind" category: humility - a sense of our place in nature, a sense of respect for the wisdom of another culture - and environmental care - a rediscovery of the natural world around us and a sense of responsibility for it.

The rationale/purpose of this assignment is for students to gain enough knowledge so that they can recognize some native plants and understand some of their traditional uses. Glimpsing the depth and detail of traditional knowledge of native people about this environment can be an important and humbling learning experience for students, particularly as they compare this knowledge with the lack of same in the dominant culture. It can increase respect for other cultures, and it can increase curiosity and a desire to learn more about both the plants and the cultures that have known them. Furthermore, as students begin to recognize and care about native plants, by extension they may begin to learn about and care about native ecosystems. An unplanned but welcome outcome has been that students seem to exhibit a greater sympathy for native concerns around resource rights and language preservation, and are more deeply engaged in class discussions on these social justice issues after having done this assignment.

Context for Use

This assignment is most appropriate for sophomore-level anthropology courses and a class size of 25-35. I use different variations of this assignment in an anthropology course on Indians of North America, a linguistic anthropology course, and a cultural anthropology course. Different courses emphasize different aspects of the assignment (e.g. language is a more prominent focus in linguistic anthropology).

Timeframe:Three to five 50-minute class periods, spread over the course of the quarter, plus 2-3 hours outside of class.

Possible Use in Other Courses: This assignment could be adapted for a botany class; Native American studies; linguistics; environmental studies; or Northwest or Native American history.

Description and Teaching Materials

Because I am using variations of this assignment in different classes, I include different scenarios for the different classes below. The various components of the assignment variations can be mixed, re-ordered, and adapted in many different ways, according to the interests of the teacher. For me, this is an on-going project, where each class can benefit from and build upon the work of the previous classes.

Indians of North America class - initial assignment

Preliminary: Students complete a reading unit on adaptation to environment with case material from several distinct North American culture areas, so they are primed to think about the depth of people's environmental knowledge as compared to their own. The class then begins a unit focused on Northwest Coast and Plateau culture areas, and this ethnobotany assignment begins then - around the fifth week of the quarter - and is completed at the end of the quarter.

Learning Activities

  1. Plant walk: One class period. The class takes a walk in a nearby natural area to look at native plants (at Tacoma Community College we were able to stay on campus and visit TCC's restoration ecology site). With a class size of more than 30, it helps to have at least two people knowledgeable to identify plants and talk a bit about traditional uses (a member of TCC's biology faculty has been able to accompany us). Plant field guides should also be available for students to use.
  2. Individual research: Two to three hours outside of class. Each student chooses one plant to research in more detail. The main focus of their research is to learn about traditional uses of the plants by native peoples of the region. I put the plant guides and a number of other ethnobotany resources on reserve at TCC's library. (For the actual assignment see attachment: Student Handout: "Ethnobotany Assignment").
  3. Group learning and poster presentation: Two to three class periods. Later in the quarter, students meet in groups for a class period, teach each other about their plants, and plan how they might do a poster presenting their group's collective information. I select a day in the following week when students work in groups during class creating their posters. I supply poster board and basic materials, and students supply pictures, information, references, and other materials to make the design spiffy. Groups may be asked to do formal presentations of their posters, or the posters can be displayed in the classroom for the rest of the week, so students could look at each other's posters before and after class. (Our posters from this class are now on display in a research classroom of the TCC library).
  1. Individual research: judged on completing requirements: at least two credible sources, engaging with the idea that people knew the plant and had developed uses for it.
  2. Poster: Individual grade based on group participation and peer editing/quality control. Group grade based on accurate information, references, credible sources, creative or professional appearance.
  3. Short essay question on final exam: knowledge of at least two plants and their uses, and/or a reflective essay on the significance of a selected plant to native people of the region.

Linguistic Anthropology class - extension of initial assignment

Preliminary: Students have completed a unit on the relationship between language and culture, and how cultural knowledge is coded in vocabulary (ethnosemantics). This ethnobotany assignment begins at the end of that week - the second week of the quarter, and continues until the end of the quarter.

Main Learning Activities

  1. Group research: One to two class periods. Class meets in the research classroom at the college library, where I have assembled a dozen or more print sources on ethnobotany, ethnography, and languages of the region. Students work in groups of four or five, each group learning as much as possible about two plants they are assigned. For each plant, they have to fill in an information sheet with the uses of the plant and also the native names for the plant. (See the attached Information sheet Student Handout: "Coast Salish Ethnobotany Project". Because of the standard format, these information sheets can be catalogued for future use by other classes.)
  2. Studying plant names in the Lushootseed language: One to two class periods. After the first component of the activity, the focus of the class turns to the "nuts and bolts" of linguistics so that students understand better how languages work, from their sound systems to their word structure and syntax. When that is complete, the groups return to the Lushootseed names for the plants they researched. They make sure they can pronounce the names, they study the structure of the name (when possible), and how the name would be literally translated, morpheme by morpheme. This can give insight into how native people have thought about the particular plant. Option: students prepare plant labels in Lushootseed.
  3. Plant walk and group presentation of their learning:One to two class periods. With the help of at least one other guide, the class takes a walk to look at native plants they've been researching. When they reach "their" plants, students report on uses and names. Option: if the walk takes place in a campus area and/or with permission of the area's stewards, students may place their prepared labels with the plants.
  1. Information sheets: completeness; participation.
  2. Plant walk presentation: knowledge, interest, awareness of language
  3. Short essay question on final exam: knowledge of at least one plant, its traditional use, its name in Lushootseed, and what its name means. And/or a reflective essay on the name and significance of a particular plant in the Lushootseed knowledge system.

Cultural Anthropology class - further extension

Preliminary: students have been working on a unit on language and culture when I introduce the topic of Lushootseed ethnobotany in the third week of the quarter. Students then work on a cultural ecology unit, learning how people use cultural knowledge to help them adapt to their environment. At this point, students will have a chance to learn from what previous classes have done.

Main Learning Activities

  1. Plant walk: one class day.
  2. Group research on two native plants: one class day. [Or skip this step and use the plant research done by previous classes]
  3. Research on ethnographic context: two to three hours outside of class. For the cultural anthropology class, this is a more in-depth component than in the other classes because they should be developing a stronger sense of what to look for in an ethnographic profile. Each group will decide on one of the plants they have researched that has significance in multiple areas of daily life. Each individual group member will then research on area of life in depth (tools, food, clothing/shelter, healing, religion, politics, kinship/marriage, birth/death/puberty rites, etc.), so as to better understand the context in which their selected plant plays a role.
  4. Group posters/presentation preparation:one class day and perhaps two to three hours outside class. Group members come together with their individual research, and prepare a poster or PowerPoint demonstrating the significance of a particular plant in the different areas of life.
  5. Presentations: One to two class days.
  1. Plant information sheets: completeness and group participation.
  2. Individual ethnographic research: thoroughness, insight, source citation.
  3. Group poster/PowerPoint and presentation: coherence of the whole; depth of understanding exhibited; professional/aesthetically pleasing.

Ethnobotany Assignment (Microsoft Word 30kB Oct24 11)
Coast Salish Ethnobotany Project (Microsoft Word 33kB Oct24 11)

Teaching Notes and Tips


Though the assignment could be done in several class periods all at once, I prefer spreading the activities out because it allows students to develop interest over time, and allows me to tap into an on-going connection with the topic and tie it to other curriculum topics over the course of the quarter. It also allows for flexibility of scheduling (e.g. a good-weather day to be selected for plant walks, a time after exams to do in-class work on posters/documents/library, and flexibility in terms of guest speakers or working with other faculty).

Plant walk

Although fall and spring might be better seasons for this because all the plants will be identifiable by foliage, there are quite a number of plants that are easy to identify even in winter, so season should not be a deterrent. But weather might be! Doing this walk on a warmish sunny day is essential, I think, to get buy-in from skeptical students for a first time. Any natural area/park that is nearby and has a lot of native plants will do. It's nice if you don't have to arrange a fieldtrip and can just go out when the weather cooperates. Depending on class size, it's really helpful to have at least two knowledgeable leaders and break the class into smaller groups so students can all hear and be engaged. It is also important to have enough plant guidebooks so a small group of students can share and consult as they walk - five or six books for a class of 30 is good.

Use of class time for group projects

If students come well-prepared, the poster-making is do-able in a 50 minute period. However, as many students were not so well prepared, we used about half of the next class period working in it. The group meetings and poster work could certainly be done outside of class, but sometimes it is a challenge for students to find agreeable times to meet outside of class. I also liked to be able to circulate, make suggestions, and answer questions. It was also easier for me to tell which members of the group were really working on the project. For the group research in the library, I thought it was a wise use of class time, so I could help students learn to use the print resources.

Making sure enough resources are available

One bottleneck that occurred in the linguistic anthropology assignment was that our library did not have sufficient language resources (bad planning on my part). So that is an issue I am more aware of now. For plant walks and for in-class research in particular, it is important to make sure there are enough copies of some of the essential sources. For my purposes, the most essential print sources for which my class needed multiple copies were Bates et al Lushootseed Dictionary (for linguistic anthropology), Gunther's Ethnobotany of Western Washington (all classes) and Pojar and MacKinnon (all classes). Our library now has enough of these sources for the assignment.

Inclusion of community partners

So far, I have not done a very good job doing advance planning with potential community partners (e.g. experts from local tribes). The perspectives of native experts can be a very valuable addition to the assignment.

Inclusion of campus partners

The ideas of people from biology, environmental science, history, art, and so on can really enrich this assignment and extend it into a broader campus initiative

Variations/Extensions on this assignment

Because this is an on-going project, I expect to change and extend this assignment in many ways over time. Some things I would like to do:
  • Incorporate more reflective writing by students on their experience with the assignment.
  • Include guest talks by native experts.
  • Include art and stories in the source material students draw upon - or produce - to help them understand the significance of native plants.
  • Use this assignment as a springboard for some service projects related to native plants
  • Have students create a walking guide for the campus that names and describes the plants and their uses.
Please share your suggestions/criticisms. I'd be pleased to discuss the project further with anyone who is inspired to adopt/adapt parts of this assignment.


See Description and Teaching Materials above for how I assess each activity.

References and Resources

Community partners - tribal experts on language or ethnobotany.

Campus partners - faculty/staff of biology/environmental science depts.; library staff helping to assemble appropriate research material and ordering what's needed.

Natural area for plant walks - an area that is on/close to campus and easy to access.

Ethnobotanical gardens - there are several in the area that could be included in a fieldtrip or individual student research.

Websites - (Most of these provide ethnographic background and context to help deepen what students learn from the assignment. I remind students to consult these sites several times during the quarter.)

Dailey, Tom. (n.d.) Coast Salish Villages of Puget Sound. Retrieved Feb. 19, 2009. This site includes a very interesting map of village locations around Puget Sound and gives students a geographic orientation.

Nisqually Tribe. (2006). Sq'wali absh. Retrieved April 6, 2009.

Puyallup Tribe of Indians. (2007-2009). Retrieved April 6, 2009.

Squaxin Island Tribe. Retrieved May 5, 2009.

Since I teach in Tacoma, our local focus is southern Puget Sound. The official websites of the Nisqually, Puyallup, and Squaxin Island Tribes offer an important perspective on the history, culture, and current events and concerns of these southern Puget Sound tribes.

Thrush, Coll-Peter (n.d.). "The Lushootseed Peoples of Puget Sound Country." University of Washington Libraries Digital Collections. Retrieved Feb. 9, 2009 at

This is a nice, short introductory essay to the history and culture of the Lushootseed-speaking people of this region.

Tulalip Tribes of Washington. (2009). "Tulalip Lushootseed." Retrieved June 4, 2009 at
This is the website of the Tulalip Tribes' Lushootseed Department, which "is dedicated to increasing awareness of Lushootseed in the community and beyond, as well as to restoring the language to everyday use within the community." Among the many Lushootseed language resources at this site, there is a nice set of vocabulary domains with pictures, and it includes plants!

Print Sources - I make a fairly large set of print sources available to students for their in-class ethnobotanical, linguistic, and ethnographic investigation. Some of the sources may be redundant, but it gives students more to choose from and they sometimes make unexpected discoveries! The ethnographic material provides an important larger context in which to understand the ethnobotanical information. For the cultural anthropology class in particular, students will need more time with the ethnographies outside of class.

Bates, Dawn, Thom Hess, and Vi Hilbert (1994). Lushootseed Dictionary. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
This is an invaluable source for the linguistic component of the assignment.

Carpenter, Cecilia Svinth. (2002). The Nisqually - My People: the Traditional and Transitional History of the Nisqually Indian People. Tacoma, WA: Tahoma Research Service.
This provides historical and cultural context.

Gibbs, George. (1970, 1877). Dictionary of the Niskwalli (Nisqually) Indian Language - Western Washington.

"Contributions to North American Ethnology" 1:285-361. John Wesley Powell, ed. Washington: U.S. Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region. [Reprinted Seattle, Washington: Shorey, 1970.]
This out-of-print reprint of Gibbs' 19th century linguistic work is a nice supplement for students to compare to the information in Bates, Hess, and Hilbert, but not essential to the assignment.

Gunther, Erna (1973, 1945). Ethnobotany of Western Washington: The Knowledge and Use of Indigenous Plants by Native Americans. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Great source for ethnobotany, also has names for a lot of the plants in various different dialects of Lushootseed and in neighboring languages as well. Nice to compare to Bates et al., and to see some of the differences between northern and southern Lushootseed dialects.

Haeberlin, Herman Karl and Gunther, Erna. (1971, 1930). The Indians of Puget Sound. University of Washington Publications in Anthropology, Volume IV, Number 1.
This old ethnography provides a historical context in which to understand the TEK of the region.

Lombardi, Angel, and the Washington State Historical Society. (1996). Respecting the Knowledge: Ethnobotany of Western Washington. A Resource Guide for the Delbert McBride Ethnobotanical Garden. Olympia: Washington State Capital Museum.
Nice source for ethnobotany, also has names for a lot of the plants in various indigenous languages of western Washington.

Lyons, C.P. (1999). Trees and Shrubs of Washington. Edmonton, AB: Lone Pine Publishing.
Mostly an identification guide that is handy to use on plant walks, but also has some good ethnobotanical information.

Miller, Jay. (1999). Lushootseed Culture and the Shamanic Odyssey: An Anchored Radiance. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
As a more recent ethnography, this source will be of particular importance for the cultural anthropology class.

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

Mostly an identification guide that is handy to use on plant walks, but also has some good ethnobotanical information.

Smith, Harlan I. (1997). Ethnobotany of the Gitksan Indians of British Columbia. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
This is an ethnobotany of a Tsimshian group of the Canadian interior. Interesting for comparison purposes.

Smith, Marian Wesley. (1969, 1940). The Puyallup-Nisqually. New York: Columbia University Press.
This old ethnography provides a historical context in which to understand the TEK of the region.

Teit, James Alexander. (1973). Ethnobotany of the Thompson Indians of British Columbia.
This is an ethnobotany of an interior Salish group of Canada. Interesting for comparison purposes, not only re: ethnobotany but also language, since it is a distant relative of Lushootseed and some cognates can be identified.

Turner, Nancy J. (1995). Food Plants of Coastal First Peoples. Vancouver BC: UBC Press.
Great ethnobotany source for food plants.

Turner, Nancy J. (1998). Plant Technology of First Peoples in British Columbia. Vancouver BC: UBC Press.
Great ethnobotany source for non-food.