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Yakamas work to preserve, cultivate native plants

By Philip Ferolito
Toppenish, Washington (AP) 3-09

Lavina Wilkins grew up gathering various berries and other native plants along the Yakima River.

Raised by her grandmother in the Parker area, the Yakama tribal member learned firsthand the inseparable link between the land and her people.

“The Creator provided us everything we needed to survive,” says Wilkins, now a tribal elder and manager of the Yakama Nation’s language program. “We have made use of all these things.”

For countless generations, the Yakamas have used various native plants for food, medicine, tools and shelter – even to bury their dead.

But over the past 150 years, sprawling hop fields, apple orchards and vineyards have chiseled away at the 1.2 million-acre reservation, encroaching on the habitat of many native plants.

Some plants were entirely wiped out. Others, such as dogbane, black currant and large sage, continue to experience smaller yields each year.

“Farming has hurt a lot,” Wilkins says. “But the farmers don’t realize it because no one (publicly) upholds the value of what we’re doing.”

Although much traditional food and medicine are still gathered from plants, many tribal members have lost touch with other natural foliage and their uses.

Now, Wilkins and a handful of other Yakamas in her native language department have embarked on an effort to save diminishing native plants that are integral to their culture.

But the task is twofold: Find ways to protect the plants from annihilation and pass on knowledge about them to future generations.

Recently, the group began gathering dogbane – a weedlike plant used to make twine, rope and medicine. The group’s members are now teaching a class on how to spool it into twine.

“Everything has a reason, and we’re slowly losing everything,” says Wilkins, her graying hair pulled into a barrette, with small woven basket earrings dangling from her earlobes. “That’s why me and my staff are trying to preserve and teach our younger generations.”

Standing in nearly a half-foot of snow in a field just west of Toppenish, HollyAnna Pinkham snaps small branches from a long dogbane stem.

She piles the stems while leaving the smaller branches with seed pods at their ends on the ground.

“We don’t take everything,” she says. “You have to leave something so it will grow again.”

She pops open one of the pods and pulls from it white fluff similar to cotton, where seeds are blanketed.

“They will fly all over – the wind will take it,” she explains about the seeds.

Nearby, Christopher Paul Jr. grips the handles of his loppers and cuts dogbane stems at their base.

Careful not to clear an entire area, he lops off only a few stems before moving to another spot.

“You don’t want to take all of them because you want them to grow back,” says Paul, clad in a gray hooded sweatshirt and black ball cap.

A few years ago, he helped the Wanapums build their tule-mat longhouse, a tribal church, near the Wanapum Dam on the Columbia River. Now, he and his wife, Martha, are teaching the art of making twine from dogbane.

“When my kids get older, I’m going to teach them the same way,” he said of his five young sons.


Pulling the bark from the outside of one branch, Pinkham reveals an inner bark that is ground into a medicinal powder used to treat poison ivy and other ailments.

“But you have to know how to use it,” she says, explaining that when the plant is green it produces a toxic sap that can make you sick.

Dogbane, called tax’us (pronounced tuk-hus) by the Yakama, has been known to possess toxic levels high enough to kill a horse or a cow. Farmers usually destroy it.

Despite its toxicity, some of its properties are used to treat heart problems.

During winter, the plant takes on a reddish color, and that’s when to harvest it, Pinkham says.

Pointing to a different plant nearby, she explains how dogbane is mixed with other plant properties to make medicine. She says many plants share soils and complement one another when making medicines.

Twine from the plant is used for basket weaving and to make tule mats, which are used to place traditional food on during sacred ceremonies and to bury the dead. It was once used to build fishing scaffolds, make fishing nets and tule-mat lodges.

“It holds our foods, it protects us, it’s used to bury our dead,” she says. “It’s more than just a weed. It’s a part of our life, part of who we are.”

Usually, tribal members keep much of their culture from outsiders for fear that it will be used in the wrong way or for commercial reasons. That also, in part, has kept some elders from passing on their cultural knowledge to younger generations, Wilkins says.

“And that’s my cry,” she adds. “How else are we going to let our younger generation know if we keep hush-hush about it.”

Huckleberries – a traditional food of the Yakamas – became a point of contention a few years ago after commercial pickers began overharvesting berries and destroying bushes with their picking tools.

But last year the Yakamas were influential in getting stiffer state requirements for commercial huckleberry pickers. Now they have to acquire special permits to sell berries, and wholesale buyers have to keep records of whom they buy from and how much.

Pinkham, who testified in Olympia on behalf of her tribe over huckleberries, says she would like to see more laws protecting other native plants.

Meanwhile, Wilkins continues to work on various grants to pay tribal members small stipends so they can harvest native plants and teach others about their use. She recently received a $5,000 state grant to gather dogbane and hold a class on twine making.

“It wasn’t for very much, but we’re going to make good use of it,” she says.

Previously, she received a $40,000 grant to hold a class on making tipins, an ancient needle made from the stems of large sage and used to weave baskets and tule mats.

She hopes to preserve areas on the reservation where threatened plants can be grown without any interference.

“That’s a dream,” she says. “There is so much that we have to do, so much that we have to work on ... to renew our identity as aboriginal people of this country.”