NEAH BAY (December 22, 2004)– A few decades ago, it was common to see varied lengths of pink, yellow, purple, brown and black dyed grasses fluttering on clothes lines outside many houses in Neah Bay. “I would go with my mother to collect the grasses. She would show us her favorite places to gather it,” said Edith Hottowe, Makah tribal member. “At home, we would take number 10 tin cans, mix the commercial dyes and soak the grass,” said Hottowe.
Today, there are fewer tribal members who know how and where to collect traditional plants needed for baskets, food or medicinal use. Places to collect them have also dwindled.
To make traditional plants more accessible to elders and to teach Makah children about those plants, the Makah Tribe created an ethnobotanical, traditional use, garden near the Makah Cultural and Research Center (MCRC).
The garden was a dream of tribal elders when the facility was built more than 25 years ago said Keely Parker, general manager and archivist for MCRC. “They especially wanted it to teach the children about our traditional plants, but they were also afraid that the spraying of herbicides in many of the traditional gathering places was making it impossible to use or eat the plants,” said Parker.
But it has taken more than two decades of volunteer labor and donations for the dream to come to fruition. The garden has been providing traditional grasses, fruit, vegetables and other plants for several years now, but several improvements are pending.
Plexiglas signs describe each plant, the Makah name and phonetic spelling as well as its cultural uses. The plant’s likeness is etched into the sign to allow students to make pencil rubbings for future reference. “We’re working to secure funding to make the signs with material that will withstand the weather here,” said Theresa Parker, MCRC education specialist.
Olympic National Park provided many of the plants for the garden that features three distinct growing areas; bog, open grass and forestland.
A slough sedge, a wetland grass important in basket weaving, is grown in several areas in the garden that are easily accessed by elders. The tribe is experimenting to grow bear grass- notoriously difficult to cultivate and becoming scarce on lands outside Olympic National Park- by trying different soil types. Huckleberry bushes dot the garden as do a variety of trees. Hemlock boughs, for instance, were often used in Makah ceremonial regalia. “My father would wear a crown of hemlock for certain special occasions,” said Hottowe, now in her 70s.
“The garden is really a community effort for both tribal members and our non-Indian neighbors,” said Parker. Ed Wilbur, a Clallam Bay plant expert put several hundred hours of volunteer labor into creation of the garden. He is affectionately called “Bup,” the Makah word for “plant” in recognition of his efforts. Yvonne Wilkie, a Makah language teacher, was instrumental in providing the Makah names for the plants. Some groups make an annual trip to assist the tribe with upkeep of the garden. Students from Pacific Lutheran University worked in garden for the past five years.
“It’s a wonderful resource,” said Parker. “Younger tribal children play a scavenger hunt game to learn the names of the plants; older students come for their high school biology class. For our elders, it provides convenient access to plants they might not be able to get otherwise. They can gather it right here.”
For Hottowe, helping with the garden is a way to honor her parents and late husband, John. “My mother knew so much about these plants. It’s important for us to pass this information on. Both my husband and my father used to say, ‘If you live here, you have to contribute.”
For more information contact: Janine Bowechop, Makah Cultural and Research Center (MCRC) director, (360) 645-2711, Keely Parker, MCRC manager, (360) 645-2711, Theresa Parker, MCRC education specialist, (360) 645-2711, Debbie Preston, coastal information officer, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, (360) 374-5501