Published November 3, 2020

On September 24, as part of our Shelf Life series of virtual events, Ethnobotanist Enrique Salmón discussed his new book, Iwígara: The Kinship of Plants and People, which includes the belief that all life-forms are interconnected and share the same breath; with Lilia Fuquen. Read the full transcript below or watch the recording of the event here:


“A beautifully illustrated and philosophically uplifting guide to indigenous North American plant use…this lovely compendium will strike a chord with many a nature-loving reader.”—Publishers Weekly


JANE KULOW: Welcome to Shelf Life from the Virginia Festival of the Book, featuring live-streamed author events every Thursday. I’m Jane Kulow, Director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities.

Thanks for joining us.

A couple of notes before I hand the program over to our speakers. Please share your questions on Facebook or Zoom. I’m sorry, we’re unable to offer live captions today. We will add captions to our archived video. If you haven’t already read today’s book, we hope you will. For details about how to buy it from a local bookseller or check out a copy from your library, visit where you can also explore the full schedule of upcoming events. Now I’m pleased to introduce today’s speakers.

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.

Lilia Fuquen is a consultant in community engagement, working at the nexus of food systems and foodways.

She’s been intrigued by the relationship between food and community since she grew up living above her mother’s cafe and spending time on her family’s farm in Columbia, South America. Lilia has spent the past six years engaged in storytelling through workshops and radio, and is dedicated to celebrating the stories around traditional, contemporary, and emerging foodways.

Today’s featured book is, “Iwígara, the Kinship of Plants and People, American Indian Ethnobotanical Traditions and Science.” Iwígara includes the belief that all life-forms are interconnected and share the same breath. Enrique shares the ways plants are used in this treasury of knowledge about the natural world, a treasury that has been passed down for millennia by native cultures. Enrique and Lilia, welcome, please tell us more.


LILIA FUQUEN: Hello! Enrique, it’s great to see you.


LILIA FUQUEN: So this book, it’s brand new. Is it already out or is it coming out shortly?

ENRIQUE SALMÓN: I think the coming out date was September 15th. So it still has a new book smell. 

LILIA FUQUEN: It does, and it’s so beautiful. This book, even the texture of it, is this beautiful matte and soft texture that kind of, it’s for some reason, it brings a sense of nostalgia throughout the whole thing. But I was hoping that you could set the context for us since you have this beautiful dedication at the beginning of the book. Would you be willing to start with that for us, please?

ENRIQUE SALMÓN: Well, I dedicated this book to, to me, the people that had the most, given me the most inspiration for being connected and wanting to know more about plants, and that was my mother and then her mother. And so I dedicated this book to my grandmother, Maria, and then my mother Esperidiona.

They taught me so much about plants and about life. And that’s a lot of what I’m trying, hoping that people get from the book as well. That it’s more than just knowing the names of these plants and what they’re used for. I’m trying to tell the entire story of these plants so that they become models for our own being, our own lives. And I thought that the the Diné Night Chant was a fun thing to add there as well, because again, it demonstrates how American Indians incorporate all life-forms including plants as examples of how to be and how important they are to our identity and our relationship to everything around us.

LILIA FUQUEN: And that speaks to the, so the title of the book is “Iwígara, The Kinship of Plants and People,” And I think that that is a concept that’s not common outside of indigenous cultures, generally, the sense of kinship. What does that mean to you, a sense of kinship between plants and humans.

ENRIQUE SALMÓN: Iwígara is this idea that comes from, it’s a word that comes from my people, Rarámuri, other people call us Tarahumara and it has several layers of meaning. The root word IWI, essentially means or refers to cycles, cycles of existence, the whole cycle, of birth and life and death. Wigara is more of like the, sort of the verb of, that idea of IWI, it refers to a way of moving through life.

And we move through life with iwígara. We are reflecting that whole concept, of life and birth and, and life and death and so on. And it doesn’t end there that when we pass this existence, this dimension of reality, we move on to other dimensions of reality. We become part of the larger scope of the entire universe, kind of reminds me of Carl Sagan, who, you know, tried to remind people, we’re all stardust. We start that way and we go back that way. And when we pass, we become, there is one species of butterfly, they go around. And we revisit all our cycles of living. And then we move up into the night sky into what people call the Milky Way, and so as I tell my students, for example, if you ever wanna see how many Rarámuri wherever ever been just look up at the clear night sky at the Milky Way. And there we are.

LILIA FUQUEN: Oh, wow, and is that, so can you, for those of us who are not familiar with the Rarámuri,


LILIA FUQUEN: Thank you, can you tell us where your homeland is?

ENRIQUE SALMÓN: Well, if you, get on Interstate 25, going South through New Mexico and go all the way to El Paso, Texas, make your way across the border. And then about another 250 miles South, and the, the state of Chihuahua, you come into the Sierra Madres of Mexico, the spine of Mexico this large long mountain range. And then that’s where my people are. It’s, we occupy still, to this day, a canyon system that’s in Spanish is known as the Barranca del Cobre, and in our language, we call it Urique, which means bear’s claw, because it kind of looks like a bear dug into the earth. If you look at it from above, and it’s a thousand feet deeper than the Grand Canyon, and you could fit three Grand Canyons in it.


ENRIQUE SALMÓN: Biggest differences is that there are still native people living in and around the canyon system, and it’s a lot greener.

LILIA FUQUEN: Huh, Oh, wow, and now you’re in California and you’re a professor there so you are an ethnobotanist,

can you tell us, how did you come to be an ethnobotanist and what does that mean to you?

ENRIQUE SALMÓN: Well, I didn’t really know what ethnobotany was, until I was working on my master’s degree at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. And up to that point, every time I had an opportunity to write something for a professor, if I had a choice, I would include, I would focus in on plants and I would focus in on American Indians. Cause that’s what I knew. I grew up with this knowledge of plants from my mother and grandmother.

And then I was talking to my advisor at Colorado College and talking about going to work on a PhD. And she suggested, well, you need to apply to universities that have ethnobotany programs. And I said, well, what’s that? She was well you’re an ethnobotanist, that’s what you do. And before I started at Arizona State University, the summer before, I was on an ethnobotany field school with a person who would become my first mentor in ethnobotany Richard I. Ford, from University of Michigan.

In fact, he coined the current definition of ethnobotany, the study of the interrelationships between plants and people. And then after he and I got to know each other, he actually revised it, the study of the direct interrelationships between plants and people, because it’s a little deeper than just knowing what the names of the plants are. So you have to know a little bit more with regards to the whole life cycle of plants and our relationships to these plants. And so in a nutshell, that’s ethnobotany.

One example I give to my students is, I ask them, how many of you like guacamole? And of course, most of them will raise their hand. Although there’s always a couple that don’t like the texture of avocado. I ask them, where does guacamole come from, most of them will know that it’s avocado. But then I’ll ask them, what does an avocado tree look like? And that’s when only one or two hands will go up. And then I ask them, when do you pick avocados? And most of the time they don’t really know. And the direct interrelationship between people and say avocados would be knowing when the avocados are ripe, their whole life cycle and how we relate to that tree. And even what time of year it grows and blossoms and so on. And so that’s the difference.

LILIA FUQUEN: Wow, that’s a lot to pack into one book. How do, how do you collect those stories, those cycles and put them into a package that’s easily accessible to the lay reader? And it’s more, you put more than, in this book, there is a marriage of the scientific, modern Western scientific knowledge and the traditional knowledge through storytelling that is incredibly unique and sets the context for each of the plants. Can you tell us a little bit about how you came up with that format and, how were you able to bring the two kinds of storytelling together?

ENRIQUE SALMÓN: Well, you’re, you’ve used the word a couple of times already. It’s all about story. And, you know, I am a story teller. I don’t go around the country as a storyteller, but that’s how I operate. My students, they think of my classes, less about lecturing. And it’s more that I, most of the classes are just about telling stories and my telling stories, because this is a, storytelling is a very central way that American Indians and indigenous people around the world transfer knowledge through story.

It’s through story, especially in our languages where all our knowledge, especially knowledge about plants, our ecological knowledge is encoded through the story, but the other important and powerful thing about  stories, that through story, everyone can find a relationship to the story, we can find commonalities in no matter what story is being told. It’s a way to create community. It’s a way to create and develop relationships between the storyteller and the listener. And everything has a story. In fact, we all, as individuals, we all live a story.

Now on a daily basis, we begin the day with our story that we want to tell ourselves, and we want other people to see. And so it just makes sense that the book, this introduction saw these different plants as really just these stories and the knowledge and the information that is collected in this book is really my, most of my lifetime of working with plants. And then more recently during like say the last 30, 40 years of learning plant knowledge from other indigenous peoples as well. So it’s a collection of all of that.

LILIA FUQUEN: Wow, as you were putting together. So you selected 80 plants to focus on in this book. How did you decide on only these 80 and as you were doing your research and pulling together the stories, was there any discovery that stood out to you along that journey?

ENRIQUE SALMÓN: Well, to answer the first part of your question, it wasn’t just me who came up with this list of plants. As I was getting ready to decide what to write about, I made contact with, what I call my ethnobotanical network of academic colleagues, and then, native people that I know who know about plants and so on. And I asked them, well, can you send me back a list of the top 10 plants that you think are the most important to native peoples that you work with? Because these are people that were located in the Pacific Northwest, in the Southeast and in New England and also the great Plains and so on and here in California as well.

And it was fun to get that depth of response, from everyone. And it was from that list, those responses that I came up with these 80 plants, cause to me, as I looked through the responses, I  realized that there were some similar plants, but there was enough differences that represent the different geographic regions across North America, that reflect the most important and salient plants for indigenous peoples here in North America. One of the surprises, one of my favorite sort of responses came out of New England because I’ve been in New England. I have worked there, doing retreats in Vermont and so on. I lived there for awhile in Western, Massachusetts, but I really didn’t know any native peoples or ethnobotanists from that region, but I’d still know some folks there, so I asked them, who can I make contact with some of my friends there? And then a couple them came back with the same response,a Abenaki woman named Judy Dow.

And I contacted her and I sent her my question, give me a list of the top 10 plants that you know about. And she was very happy to do that. And it kind of surprised me what her response was. Cause it was less about these, what I think of as like high profile, very powerful medicinal plants and so on, maybe, huge trees that we can have tools from so and so. And it was more of things like, fiddleheads, blueberries, groundnut. And when I looked at her list, I realized what she was giving me was some of the most important plants that she thinks you would need to know in order to survive in New England. And it made total sense.

If you know these plants that Judy knows you would get along fine on the landscape in knowing them, including one of my favorite things, your fresh blueberries. But then I realized also that she was giving me more than what we think of as a simple thing.

We think of blueberries and strawberries and blackberries as sort of simple, summer fruits, berries that we enjoy. Maybe it was some, yogurt or ice cream in the summertime, but there’s a lot of incredible uses of things like blueberries and strawberries. They have very powerful medicinal uses. You can actually take the bushes themselves and use for basket making material. And there’s all sorts of other things that I didn’t know about seeing like, such as blueberries and strawberries. It was a welcome gift.

LILIA FUQUEN: So you, along the way, got to create relationships with other people who have deep relationships with plants. And I remember there’s a part in the book, there’s a passage, I was wondering if you could share with us and it sort of sets the stage for, with the time with your father in the introduction. There were some fig stories that I was hoping you could lead into.

ENRIQUE SALMÓN: Oh, well, yeah, you’re talking about my grandfather,

LILIA FUQUEN: Your grandfather yes.

ENRIQUE SALMÓN: On my mother’s side. I will read this passage here at the beginning to me it sets the tone, I think, for where I’m coming from. As a writer, as an indigenous writer. I was raised by a mother, a grandmother, and other extended family members who were living libraries of indigenous plant knowledge that has been collected, revised, and tested for millennia. This kind of knowledge is not housed in a building, stored on shelves, according to some fixed system. It lives in the memories, oral literature, and daily rituals of its practitioners. As I grew up, I was exposed to this plant knowledge during regular plant-collecting excursions, and it was reinforced each time we cooked a traditional meal. Every time my mother or grandmother treated me for an ailment. Whenever I helped my grandfather in our corn field, I took this early exposure to plant knowledge for granted, not knowing that I was becoming a rarity among most young people in our modern society.

And the concept you were referring to with my grandfather is an example of this passage of knowledge, as I mentioned in that entry, this is not knowledge that was written down. It was actually kind of what we think of as, on the job training. You learned this plant knowledge by doing it by being it. And you never know when the information is gonna come to you. I used to help my grandfather in our corn field and on the edge of the corn field. There was these different fruit trees, including his big fig tree, and it would get warm. And sometimes we’d go sit under the fig tree to get out of the sun and into the shade. And that’s when he would pick up a stick, get out his little knife and he would sort of whittle and he would just start talking about stuff.

And a lot of times he would talk about plants, tell me about how tobacco and water gourd were friends and how they would get in trouble together and how another one of their friends was corn husk. And he would just tell these simple little stories and sometimes even repeat them. But over time, those become a part of your own personal library of, in this case plant knowledge. And this is typical of how this knowledge is transferred among native peoples around the world.

LILIA FUQUEN: Is there a story that you can share with us from that about maybe the gourd or is there a plant story that you can tell us?

ENRIQUE SALMÓN: One of my favorite ones, one that comes to mind is also an example of how we classify plants. In Western society, American, European botanists classify plants by their Latin names that most people can’t pronounce. And it’s based on this old Linnaean system from the 1700s. My people, we classify plants by gender and ethnicity and a story about that involves a woman.

And we begin the story, Ki Anya, which means in the time past time, it’s kind of like this sort of time in the past that we really can’t put our finger on. And there was a woman who, her name was Sitakame and she was a gambler. She was always gambling and she wasn’t a good gambler, unfortunately, and she lost a lot. And it got to the point where she was gambling everything. She was gambling her home, her clothes, and you know, all her worldly possessions, and it got so bad, she actually gambled her children and she lost.

We play these gambling games that involved this stone board and so on, anyway, that’s another story. And she lost her children in this game and Onoruame, that’s the name we give to that, that created everything around us, Onoruame was not happy with this, but, Onoruame, our creation is not a judgmental sort of creation, is always thinking of ways to make good from bad. And so Onoruame turned Sitakame into a tree and the tree you would call brazilwood. And so brazilwood is a very useful tree. It grows down in the bottom of those canyons I was talking about earlier, and it’s a hardwood and the heart of the wood of the tree, it’s this reddish sort of color. And you can take the heart of that wood, and if you know what you’re doing, you can turn it into a very powerful medicine for weakness, for heart problems, for breathing problems and so on. You can take the bark and the leaves of the plant and it’s good for issues that women deal with during childbirth and menstrual problems and menstrual cycles and so on. So it’s a very useful plant.

And Sitakame is also the same word that in our language means aunt like my father’s sister, she’s sitakame.

And so there’s a tree that is Rarámuri that’s the ethnicity and is a female, and is related to us, she’s an aunt.

LILIA FUQUEN: The kinship.

ENRIQUE SALMÓN: Exactly, there is that kinship.

LILIA FUQUEN: Yes, thank you, that’s a beautiful story. And it makes me feel more connected to you and your heritage and how this book came to fruition. There’s another element in your book that I wanted to ask you about that. There’s one of the characters that runs through many of the stories is a coyote. And you make mention of something called, trickster consciousness, I wonder if you can explain that a little bit to us because I feel like, it’s a theme that runs strongly in the way that you teach through this book.

ENRIQUE SALMÓN: Trickster consciousness is prevalent among indigenous people all around the world actually. And it has different names, the trickster. In American Indian society it’s often coyote or coyote if you speak Spanish. Sometimes it can be a skunk or up in Pacific Northwest it’s raven, oftentimes. With my people, it’s often coyote, but also can be skunk, and jack rabbit. These are all different kinds of trickster figures. And if people aren’t quite sure what the trickster sort of thing is, think about, the old Bugs Bunny cartoons. He was a trickster. A more modern example would be Jack Sparrow and the Pirates of the Caribbean, you know. Cause the trickster figures are individuals that, they’re always out for themselves. You know, they’re very narcissistic and they’re selfish, but through their actions, they sometimes make good things happen. And that’s the power of trickster. They represent that sort of gray space in the universe that part of life and a reality of everything around us that we know exists. But we can’t quite put our finger on what it is and where it comes from. You know, as I say, here in several plant entries in this book, trickster figures play a role in how native peoples relate to plants.

Trickster stories are most often equated with coyote but coyote is only one of many such figures among indigenous people. The trickster might be raven or rabbit. My people Rarámuri, skunk is often a trickster. No matter the image, the concept of trickster is reflective of an American Indian consciousness or mindset that embraces the gray, an uncertain personality of the natural world. These parts of our universe are often not completely knowable and are therefore often considered sacred. Trickster occupies that gray uncertain, sacred space.

The trickster brings to life, the playful, disruptive and creative side of human imagination. Recreating is a process that native peoples look forward to over an annual cycle. So it comes back to this idea of how this kind of trickster consciousness is reflective in our ceremonies and our ritual. When we hold ceremonies, we hold ritual, we’re not worshiping anything. We’re not praying to a specific entity or deity. What we’re doing is honoring and reinvigorating, revitalizing the entire universe because we, the entire universe is this constant process of re-creation. And our ceremonies reflect that because we are a part of that ongoing re-creation. Trickster reminds us of that in the stories; the trickster stories related to plants, remind us of that as well. You can see this in ceremony. You can see it sometimes in regalia.

One of my favorite examples that we see this, I think I mentioned this in one of the plants in the book with a cat tail. And there’s a ceremony, that’s a puberty ceremony among the Western Apache. And in a part of this ceremony, the young woman is, her hair and her head is pasted with this combination of, I guess you call it a poultice or a paste of corn meal and cat tail pollen. And you know it’s put on her hair and on her forehead cause she becomes this historic figure for the Western Apache. But also during this ceremony, there’s, the mountain spirits arrive. They’re called Gaan, G-A-A-N is how you might spell it. 

And there’s four of them, but there’s always a fifth figure during, these mountain spirit dances. And this figure is painted gray. The entire body is gray and it makes these really interesting kind of eerie noises, but that gray figure directly represents that unknown part of the universe. And so this is where this knowledge is encoded and reproduced; it’s not written down. It happens as we live it, back to that on the job training.

LILIA FUQUEN: Huh, I’m trying to imagine, are there any in our modern society, is there a way that we recognize that gray unknown? I can’t think of an analogue to that.

ENRIQUE SALMÓN: You know at times, you don’t really see it much. Because I guess, modern industrialized, especially Western modern industrialized humans tend to think in a more polarized kind of worldview where there’s opposites, dark and light, good and bad, male/female, and so on. And there’s not often, a lot, any space given to that in between space. And we see this especially reflected among native peoples. However, with the idea of two-spirit people, where there’s individuals who in some societies, some indigenous societies reflect five, sometimes six genders are recognized among indigenous communities. And so this a further example of how indigenous communities recognize that gray space of the universe. And it’s not so polarized. And we have to honor that, that in-between sort of mystical space, that we can’t quite put our finger on, but we know it’s there.

LILIA FUQUEN: Yeah, so with, with the possibility, and expression of multiple genders, there’s another element in the book and that’s that, this is something you’ve mentioned is that, plant knowledge is gendered. So how does that, how do you in your, as you are, write a book that expresses the plant knowledge that you have access to while acknowledging that there’s so much more that may not be… First, can you explain what gendered plant knowledge is?

ENRIQUE SALMÓN: Well, there is the example I gave you earlier about how my people classify plants by ethnicity and gender as well. Cause they’re recognizing that feminine side, of what the plants offer. Your corn, for example, is a female but then tobacco is a male. And this is reflective of how we see ourselves in these plants, the plants themselves and the landscapes that these plants come from are examples of our values. In fact, through our cultures, our language, we are giving voice to these values and morals that the land and the plants are presenting to us. So there’s this really important reciprocal relationship that continues, by just something, by recognizing the gendered elements and facets of plants and the landscape. But the other part of that is that knowledge about plants is often gendered.

There’s things about plants that women from different indigenous societies know that men don’t and vice versa. One of my favorite examples is among the Pueblo folks up in northern New Mexico. More specifically, I’m thinking of, Ohkay Owingeh, which is, we call San Juan Pueblo, just north of Española, New Mexico. And if you want to go on a fun road trip, you can go to San Juan Pueblo in the summertime, then go visit one of their feast days. It’s amazing, but in the times before that area was colonized, the men would be asked by the women to go and collect certain plants outside of the immediate area of the pueblo where, the surrounding pueblo were the agricultural fields and so on.

And a woman tended not to venture past, those areas because it was still a little dangerous. There were still Comanche and Navajo and Apache roaming about, taking female slaves and that sort of thing. And so the women tended to stick closer to the pueblo while the men would go out to hunt to collect the materials, tools and materials for tools. And so they knew where to collect the plants, bring them back, but they didn’t know what to do with the plants. Okay, they would bring them back and the women knew how to deal with the plants, how they use it for medicine, for cooking spices and so on. And so there was an example, simplest example of gendered knowledge. There’s other deeper and more involved examples. That’s one of my favorite ones right there.

LILIA FUQUEN: Thank you, yes, and I’m also, I almost lost track of time because this is such a fascinating topic and all of the many questions that I have and I’m sure other people have for you. So I wanted to see is there one thing in particular that you’re hoping this book inspires in people.

ENRIQUE SALMÓN: I was hoping, as I, this is something that moves throughout my career, as an indigenous scholar in general, that as people go through these different passages about the plants, that they start to recognize the sophistication and complexity of, in this case, American Indian plant knowledge. And not just plant knowledge, the complexity of our understanding of our, in our local ecosystems, and our relationship to these plants and their ecosystems.

And that’s the other part of it is that, as modern day humans, we need to revitalize our relationship to our local environments. We can do this easily through plants. We can do it one plant at a time. Learn about a plant, grow a plant, learn its name, learn how it grows its lifecycle, learn the insects that visit the plant, learn the kind of soils that the plant does best on. And maybe even the climate, just all sorts of layers of knowledge that we can learn by just studying one plant.

But what happens by looking at one plant, we start to get interested in the companion plants and other plants. And all of a sudden we start to build our own personal library of plant knowledge. And if more of us would do that, our relationship to our ecosystems around us would improve, get deeper, and our choices, our practices, as we move through this future of uncertainty with climate change and so on, we would have better and more, deeper understandings of how to mitigate changes that are happening in our ecosystems and our local environments. And that’s the important thing I want people to recognize is that all native knowledge is local.

That’s why you see the, in the, in the passages, I point out where the different information, what part of the country the information is coming from because native knowledge is very specific to where native people come from. What a native people, person knows in Vermont is not gonna make much sense to what a native person knows in New Mexico or the other way around. I’ll tell my students it’s really tough to be a traditional Apache in Vermont. Landscape is so different.

LILIA FUQUEN: Right, wow, and as the ecosystems are changing with climate change, I imagine that’s having an impact on traditional knowledge and being able to carry on some of those practices.

ENRIQUE SALMÓN: Well, the good thing about native peoples is that we’ve always been resilient. We have been good at adapting to change because change is the universe. It’s in constant flux and native peoples have always recognized that. There’s that gray space of the world, again, of the universe, because we have always recognized that, we’ve always been ripe for recognizing how to adapt.

And as an elder from Taos Pueblo told me one day up in northern New Mexico, “You know, us indigenous people are like those scraggly Juniper trees you see around the Southwest. They’re not that pretty on top, but their roots are deep and strong, and the next strong wind that comes won’t blow us down. We’re still going to be here, cause we’re rooted deep in the earth.”

LILIA FUQUEN: Thank you Enrique this has been fantastic. And I hope that everybody attending today has been inspired by the stories and storytelling of Enrique Salmón. It’s time for us to wrap things up. Thank you, Enrique. And thank you to everybody who tuned in. Please consider buying. Iwígara from your local bookseller. You can also check out future, Shelf Life events from the Virginia Festival of the Book, taking place every Tuesday and Thursday at noon. And you can learn more at and Enrique, did you have anything you wanted to sign off with today?

ENRIQUE SALMÓN: No, I can’t think of anything, except that, I hope you enjoy the stories and you’re inspired to learn more plant stories.

LILIA FUQUEN: And everybody, I do encourage you to get this book because it is a beauty and the stories inside it are very inspiring, I have learned so much about the ecosystem that each of these plants exist in through the storytelling that happens with each of the entries. Thank you, Enrique.



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