Published September 21, 2020

Enrique Salmón, author of Iwígara: American Indian Ethnobotanical Traditions and Science, is head of the American Indian Studies Program at California State University–East Bay, in Hayward, California. His own Rarámuri family has always gathered, grown, and used plants for many medicinal and cultural purposes. Get to know Enrique in this Q&A and then join us on Thursday, September 24 at 12pm ET to hear him discuss his work on SHELF LIFE: The Kinship of Plants and People—Enrique Salmón on Iwígara.

Festival: What motivated you to become a writer? 

Salmón: I really do not think of myself as a writer. However, I do consider myself a teacher and one of the ways to teach is through writing about what I know. I write in order to help non-native people learn about, explore, and better understand how indigenous people perceive ourselves and our relationship to our landscapes, animals, and especially plants.

Who or what are some of your creative influences?

I am inspired by all the arts and by things such as a hummingbird zipping in and out of the stream of water coming from a hose when I am watering my garden. My writing voice has shades of N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, Gerald Vizenor, Rudolfo Anaya, Gary P. Nabhan, and Nancy Turner. If one listens closely the sounds of Miles Davis, Yo Yo Ma, Carlos Nakai, and Los Lobos can be heard. My written words can probably be re-formed to reflect facets of Mayan Murals and paintings by Navajo painter, Allen Mose.

What was your favorite part about writing your latest book?

When I embarked on writing this book I had not written any ethnobotanical sort of work for around twenty years. As I began the research and then the writing I felt like I was celebrating a family reunion with several old friends and relatives whom I had not visited with for quite some time. It was like coming home.

Do you have any sources of inspiration that you come back to while writing? 

My family, especially my mother and her parents. It was they who introduced me to my beliefs and to my relationship to plants. I am constantly hearing their voices, smelling their scents, and recalling their images as they talked about and interacted with plants.

Describe how a book changed your life or perspective

N. Scott Momaday’s, The Names. I had read Momaday’s, The Way to Rainy Mountain and House Made of Dawn, but it was not until I absorbed The Names when I began to understand how I, as a native person, could express what I know and how I believe to non-native readers.

What is something that you’ve read recently and would recommend to others?

There There, by Tommy Orange. One of my pet peeves as an American Indian Studies educator is when I read a student’s essay where they refer to native culture and knowledge in the past tense. So many people think that we are either extinct or that we no longer practice our spirituality, our agroecology, or our relationships to our landscape. In There There, Tommy introduces the reader to what it is like to be a native person today and in an urban setting.

What are you working on next? 

I just completed a co-authored and fascinating white paper with people from the First Nations Development Institute entitled, “Recognition and Support of Indigenous California Land Stewards, Practitioners of Kincentric Ecology.” Yes, it sounds a little dry, but it interestingly explores how contemporary native Californians are managing their lands based on centuries old land management practices and how western ecologists and land managers can learn from that.

I would like to write something similar to Iwígara, but focused on food plants. Another idea is to put together something like, An Iwígara Companion. It would be more about how to interact with, gather, and prepare the plants highlighted in Iwígara.  

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