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Ethnobotany from a Native American Perspective: Restoring Our Relationship with the Earth

Volume 1 Number 19 - December 1999

Dr Thomas M. Alcoze





Ethnobotany is, quite literally, the study of the relationship between plants and human beings, a body of knowledge central to Native American traditional knowledge and world view.  Native concepts, rituals, and language are all evidence of the sustaining relationship of plants to humans. The Native American metaphor of plants as the ‘hair of Mother Earth’ provides us with the basis for an instructional model to help students learn the personal, emotional, cultural, and scientific dimensions of ethnobotany so that we can restore our relationship with the earth and understand that when we take care of plants we nurture ourselves.

The purpose of this article is to present a persuasive argument for the careful, thorough study of ethnobotany.  I offer a Native American perspective as an alternative to a purely academic perspective and as an appropriate and critical position concerning the centrality of ethnobotany in our lives.  I offer examples of indigenous wisdom and ritual to construct a model to help us understand our relationship to the earth.  The model guides us to step out of the dominant society perspective and help students explore and extend the Native American perspective in the study of ethnobotany.  The focus of this article is not Why study ethnobotany? but rather, How can we not study ethnobotany?

Ethnobotany, a Holistic Concept In native peoples' understanding of the world, is not isolated in the way it is isolated in an academic understanding of the world.  The knowledge of plants and their sustaining relationship to humans is known and central to Indigenous world views, not compartmentalized in a body of knowledge which one can choose to study or not.  Native people strive to understand the needs of plants and so examine where they occur, why they occur there, and how they can be accepted as gifts.  Native conservation knowledge includes practices that encourage plants to continue in places where they thrive in order to provide their gifts in the future.  Understanding plants and their growth includes an understanding of habitat and weather, water cycles and wind, and nutrient cycles and the soil.   In short, a native perspective looks for connections between plants, soil, light, and animals to understand how they function together as a whole.

Gaining Insight from the Parts of Mother Earth

Ethnobotany is, quite literally, the study of the relationship between plants and human beings.  It is the body of knowledge that requires us to consider how the lives of plants and humans are inextricably bound together as a systematic whole.  From a biological perspective, the energy of the sun that is available to us as human beings is captured first by plants through the process of photosynthesis.  Everything required to sustain our lives comes through plants.  Our continued survival depends on the transformation of sunlight into living matter by plants.  We release the energy of the sun contained in plants when we burn fossil fuels, eat plants or animals, and live in houses made with wood.

The understanding of the relationship between humans and plants is clearly displayed in the world views, ceremonies, and rituals of many Indigenous people.  In Native American traditional knowledge all plants are considered to be the ‘hair of Mother Earth’.  Traditional knowledge teaches that people are united in a personal way with the plant world.  A greater understanding of all native plants yields a greater understanding of the body of Mother Earth and is essential to maintaining a relationship with the earth.

A clear example of our relationship to the essential nature of plants is seen in the sweet grass (Hierochloe odorata) ceremonial smudge, a medicine ritual of Indigenous people in North America used to create and maintain harmony in the community.  Traditional knowledge among people of the Ojibway Nation asserts that sweet grass represents all plants and symbolizes the ‘hair of Mother Earth’.  The long straight leaves of sweet grass and its fragrant aroma enhance its use as a medicine.  The Ojibway gather sweet grass near streams where it grows in abundance. They offer tobacco to the spirit of the plant which will give its healing power to the people. Then, one by one, each blade of grass is picked at soil level.  When enough is collected for the ritual, they prepare it so as to preserve the essence of the plant.  The next step is to carefully braid the grass, using a three-strand braid.  The three strands represent the balanced integration of mind, body, and spirit: the intended focus for the medicine. The braid represents a collective whole.  

The Ojibway begin a ceremony by burning one end of the sweet grass braid with fire.  The smouldering sweet grass, or smudge, has a pleasant, sweet-smelling aroma that pervades the circle of people and provides a catalyst for them to put aside any negative thoughts or concerns and to focus as a group on the positive goal the group intends.  From a spiritual perspective the healing essence of the 'hair of Mother Earth' is transferred through the smoke to the people. The role of the sweet grass then is to bring harmony to the people so they are in balance with the rhythm of the earth and its energy.  The medicine causes them to work together as a whole: a collective with one common purpose.  This is one of the many cultural beliefs that Native Americans use to promote and maintain a positive awareness of the connection between people and the environment.

People thirst for a relationship with the earth.  We recognize a need for the healing medicine of the earth and have a desire to bring it into our lives.  However, human society has become so disassociated with the ethno AND the botany of our lives that we overharvest the same plants we need to maintain us, heal us, and restore our relationship with the earth.  Today the harvest of many wild plants has accelerated to unsustainable levels.  This need to connect on a personal level with plants has resulted in the sale of sweet grass throughout the world, in gift shops and speciality stores.  This is a good example of the ethno part of ethnobotany, yet the lack of knowledge about conserving and caring for this medicine has caused it to become rare; where it was once common.  A comprehensive understanding of ethnobotany provides valuable insight that can further our knowledge of how to accept the benefits and gifts from plants and extend our understanding and responsibility to the earth.

An Instructional Model for Exploring Ethnobotany

I offer ‘The Hair of Mother Earth:  An Instructional Model for Exploring Ethnobotany’ (Fig. 1) as a helpful way to engage students in the study of ethnobotany.  Using the metaphor of plants as the ‘hair of Mother Earth’, the model provides guidelines to explore and extend this native metaphor to the study of ethnobotany.  The framework guides teachers and students, regardless of their educational setting to:

  1. acquire concrete knowledge to support the development of concepts in ethnobotany
  2. use and extend metaphors to compare and contrast the hair of the human body to the 'hair of Mother Earth'
  3. generate authentic student inquiry around issues in ethnobotany
  4. synthesize information in meaningful, personal ways.

I hope that teachers in various settings will design culminating activities that offer students opportunities to extend their exploration of ethnobotany content and demonstrate their knowledge in creative ways that align with conservation practices.

 Ethno Botany 
Level Personal
Guiding Questions
  • What is hair and how does it grow?
  • How do we care for our hair?
  • What do we do to preserve and conserve hair?
  • How is hair different across cultures, regions, ethnicities, time?
  • How do you feel about your hair?
  • What are the rituals around hair?
  • What are some other ways our hair is important to us?
  • What are plants and how do they grow?
  • How do we care for the plants of the earth?
  • What do we do to preserve and conserve plants?
  • How is the cultivation of plants different across cultures, regions, ethnicities, time?
  • How do people feel about plants?
  • What are the rituals around plants?
  • What are some other ways that plants are important to our lives?
  • Interview a barber and beautician.
  • Interview a doctor or nurse who works with patients undergoing chemotherapy and/or people experiencing hair loss.
  • Poll a sample population as to their preferences for hair color, style, etc.
  • Interview a botanist or a horticulturist at a botanical garden.
  • Interview an ethnobotanist or restoration ecologist involved in research.
  • Poll a sample population about their plant preferences, uses, beliefs
  • How is your hair like the plants of the earth?
  • What did you learn?
  • How are the plants of the earth like your hair?
  • What did you learn?

Figure 1.    The Hair of Mother Earth:  An Instructional Model for Exploring Ethnobotany.

A Concluding Rationale

We must teach ethnobotany so that people of all nations can restore the knowledge and understanding that our life - our ‘ethno’ - is directly and irrevocably linked to botany: the plants of the earth.  From this Native American author's perspective, a thorough understanding of ethnobotany provides ways to realize that when we take care of plants we also nurture ourselves.

We, the two-leggeds, have always been invited by the earth to nourish ourselves from her bountiful gifts.  Accepting and using the earth's resources is associated with obligatory behaviors and responsibilities that reinforce conservation and sustainable use practices.  The essence of this behavior is contained in the Ojibway word ‘megwetch’, an expression of thankfulness for life and the creation that nurtures us.  In this expression resides the totality of ecology, conservation biology and ethnobotany, all pathways to restoring our relationship with the earth and understanding our part in the whole of earth's environment. 


L'Ethnobotanique est, littéralement, l'étude du rapport entre plantes et êtres humains, un pôle central du savoir traditionnel et de la vision du monde des indiens d'Amérique.  Les concepts, les rituels, et le langage des indiens sont les preuves des relations soutenues qu'il y a entre les plantes et les êtres humains.  ‘La chevelure de la Terre Mère’, est la métaphore qu'emploient les indiens pour désigner les plantes.  Cette image nous fournie la base d'un modèle instructif pour aider des étudiants dans l'apprentissage des dimensions personnelles, émotionnelles, culturelles, et scientifiques de l'ethnobotanique afin que nous puissions restaurer notre rapport avec le monde et comprendre que nous devons prendre soin des plantes que nous élevons.


Dicho de una forma bastante literal, la etnobotánica es el estudio de la relación entre las plantas y los seres humanos, un cuerpo de sabiduría que es fundamental para el conocimiento tradicional y la visión del mundo de los nativos americanos.  Los conceptos, rituales y lenguaje americanos son pruebas de la provechosa relación entre plantas y humanos.  La metáfora que utilizaban los nativos americanos, las plantas son el cabello de la Madre Tierra, nos provee de una base para crear un modelo de instrucción para ayudar a los estudiantes a aprender la dimensión personal, emocional, cultural y científica de la etnobotánica, de modo que podamos restablecer nuestra relación con la Tierra y comprender el hecho de que cuando cuidamos las plantas, nos cuidamos a nosotros mismos.

About the Author

Thomas M. Alcoze is Associate Professor of Forestry with the College of  Ecosystem Science and Management at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona.  He expresses his Native American heritage (Cherokee) through teaching and research interests associated with traditional ecological knowledge and the application of First Nations' practices to contemporary environmental issues.  The results of his research demonstrate that Indigenous nations of the Americas practiced ecologically sound methods of natural resource management and conservation which are now being incorporated into the fields of ecological restoration, conservation biology, and resource management.  The traditional knowledge and practices of Indigenous people demonstrate a sophisticated and scientific understanding of nature through advanced technological achievement.  

Dr. Alcoze has been a leader in the development of culture based science curriculum materials in collaboration with the Apache, Din‚ Navajo, Hopi and Zuni nations.  This National Science Foundation funded project demonstrates that the future development of First Nations' education depends on how well all children understand that Indigenous ways of knowing are relevant to the study of sciences, ecology, education, environmental ethics, and many other disciplines.  Dr Alcoze's current research projects focus on the restoration and improvement of natural resources on the Paiute reservation in northern Arizona.  This initiative incorporates traditional Native American knowledge with contemporary ecological research.  

Dr Thomas M. Alcoze is an Associate Professor of Forestry with the College of Ecosystem Science and Management, Northern Arizona University, Box 15018, Flagstaff, Arizona 86011-5018.
Email: Thom.Alcoze@NAU.EDU