TEK in practice: Chumash Naturalists and Ecologists Speak about traditional plants

The Chumash Science Through Time blog features guest blogs from Indigenous writers.  The following essay from Michelle and Kim Perez explores Chumash ecological knowledge in the context of broader conversations about Traditional Ecological Knowledge. 

Before we begin this article, we ask for forgiveness from our elders and relatives with more knowledge and experience than us. We come to you humbly to share this information as we know it and to further the conversation of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). In our efforts, we examined the TEK of traditional plants as determined by two Indigenous naturalists and ecologists. Through first-hand interviews, we analyzed the evidence of their knowledge in regards to the use, practice and ecology of traditional plants. We concluded that the results would be qualified as data on the assertion of observation, experimentation and analysis. Our greatest challenge was how to articulate this data in terms that non-Indigenous audiences could understand without compromising authentic knowledge.

As we work to elevate the voice of Indigenous communities in the fields of science, it is important to understand science from an Indigenous perspective. Dr. Leroy Little Bear articulates it best as he explains that Indigenous science is more aligned to the field of quantum physics, “…which sees flux, movement, simultaneity,” (Fedirka, 2019). From the lens of Traditional Blackfeet Knowledge, Dr. Little Bear puts western scientific thought in the framework of Indigenous knowledge, compromising neither as he illustrates his point. He says,

“In western thought, we try to isolate. We try to get down smaller and smaller and smaller; and isolate. Whereas in Native thought, it’s always holistic. It’s always the relational networks,” (BanffEvents, 2015, JAN 14).

This concept of relation is the core distinction between western and Indigenous pedagogy. As Dr. Little Bear points out, our perception of the world does not exist in isolation of anything else; but rather is interconnected with everything else. This is macro-level community. How does the woodpecker affect the tree and the tree the woodpecker; and how do our actions or inactions perpetuate positive outcomes for both? That is traditional science.

Our ancestors observed the land for tens of thousands of generations. Throughout that time, they observed, experimented and analyzed their surroundings to the point that they became an integral part of its well being. Language is proof of their knowledge of the land, the animals and everything else in between, above, below, seen and unseen.That relationship or flux with the environment shaped their culture, the words they spoke, their practices, their ways of knowing and understanding the world. And it would be passed down from generation to generation. This is symbolic interaction, the theory that, “meaning and identity are co-created through interaction,” according to Sarah J. Tracy, author of Qualitative Research Methods: Collecting evidence, crafting analysis, communicating impact (Tracy, 2019). The earth showed the ancestors how to live in relation to it. They observed, they experimented and they analyzed. They tried again, until they knew what worked for the benefit of the whole. And through these interactions, Traditional Ecological Knowledge was developed.


Take Mia Lopez, notable Chumash community rockstar with such titles and roles as Former Chumash Tribal Chair, current Tribal Representative, Cultural Resource, MLD for the Native American Heritage Commission, member of Chumash Maritime Association, Wishtoyo Employee, Cultural Educator. She dances flamenco and crafts anything she can harvest from the land. Mia talks about her grandfather. He was a military man, stoic and proper. He grew up in a time when it was dangerous to be Indigenous. He didn’t speak much about his heritage and raised his kids to identify as Mexican. Being the youngest at the time, her grandfather would take care of her while her parents worked and siblings were off at school.

He would take Mia on walks through the hills of Santa Barbara. He knew all the plants there, all the relatives. “He would call them by these funny names,” she explains, “Little did I know he was speaking our language.” Her grandfather showed her all the plants, their names and how to use them.“He taught me that mugwort was good for poison oak,” Mia says (Lopez, 2019). You can tell by the way she speaks of her grandfather that they shared a special bond. There was a song in her voice as she recounted those memories with him. And there was a song on his tongue too. “He would sing to me,” she says, “He’d say, ‘sit there babe,’ and then he would sing,” (Lopez, 2019). He knew all those traditional songs she would learn later were songs the ancestors sang. She tells of all the traditional dances he knew and shared with her. “My grandpa chose me to share all his knowledge with,” she says earnestly, “I’m going to honor that,” (Lopez, 2019). Through her own observation, experimentation and analysis, she honors him.

While working with University of California Santa Barbara students at a community garden, Mia taught them how to see the flux there. These students knew all the jargon, the technical methods and theories; but they didn’t understand the simultaneity of the garden. Mia explains that they were given the task to observe the garden and then determine what mitigation was needed. The students, eager to impress, began with superficial practices like mulching and rip rap, and so on.


“Propagation doesn’t happen when you completely mutilate growth areas,” she tells them, “I think you need to stop and watch the garden some more.” (Lopez, 2019). They had missed how the birds and squirrels were using the garden; and how they were contributing to the growth of the plants as well. Mia explains, “It’s not gardening, these are our relatives,” (Lopez, 2019). To have a relationship with the whole is a traditional way of seeing and knowing the world.

In western science, they attempt to describe the interrelation of species with the term, Keystone Species, which are those who drastically impact the environment with which they interact; and are an integral part of the garden’s life. Krista Oke and Andrew Hendry explain the significance that keystone species have on their surroundings in their article, Genetic insights into the past, present and future of a keystone species, stating that, “Early-migrating Chinook also played an important role in terrestrial ecosystems by providing predators with longer access to salmon resources and transporting marine-derived nutrients farther upstream—and earlier,” (Oke and Hendry, 2019). The activities of animals, even fish, can provide or diminish resources for other creatures and plants. They play a very important role in the development of equitable resource allocation. These are patterns that Indigenous people observed for tens of thousands of years. And it was this observation of patterns that informed their own interactions with the land.

For Mia, this knowledge was part of the lesson. Watch the land and the animals. Observe how they interact with the land and with one another. How are they participating in resource allocation? These were the concepts she learned from her grandfather.


The power of observation would serve as a foundation for the next step in the scientific process, experimentation. Our next relative, Carlee Domingues, a gentle but tenacious graduate student at UCLA, describes her education with traditional plants under the keen instruction of a community elder, Cecilia Garcia. Carlee’s story begins much like Mia’s. A complicated history of identity spoken, or not spoken about. She recalls an abalone shell her grandmother had, but it was only at private family gatherings their Indigenous roots were acknowledged. It was a fateful journey that brought Carlee to Cecilia. From the Brown Berets of L.A. where smudging was a regular practice before meetings to set the intention, to the raw earth where the sage was born, Carlee would learn how to use traditional plants. “[Cecilia] told me, ‘We need to put sage in our bodies, in our water, in our coffee.’ So I’ve continued to use it that way.,” Carlee recalls,(Domingues, 2019). Sage was digested to combat gastrointestinal issues, fight colds and fevers, and to calm the nerves. “Sage was an antidepressant for Chumash people,” Carlee continues, (Domingues, 2019). She learned the practical use of the plant and how to incorporate it into her every day. Carlee was taught that sage is part of a healthy, Indigenous diet.


Although it was often burned in ceremonies, sage wasn’t meant to be burned or destroyed. It was meant to heal. Carlee explains, “This method, or how it came to me this was for Chumash people. It’s a way to honor your body, the water, the ancestors,” (Domingues, 2019). She reminisces of learning about the unseen aspects of interacting with plants from her family and from Cecilia. Observing, mimicking, practicing. Cecilia taught Carlee the proper way to interact with the plants respectfully – an ecological way. There was no need to question the methodology, because it was proven to work for ancestors.

“Our people have generational relationships.There is potential danger in disrespecting the plant or the ancestors. When I gather sage, I was taught the specific instructions. The one time I didn’t do it, things were weird for me. I won’t make that mistake again. I bless myself before gathering,” (Domingues, 2019).

Through her own observations and experimentation, Carlee learned that there were variables that could be controlled and would result in reliable outcomes. Any variation from that could potentially result in negative outcomes. That is Traditional Ecological Knowledge. In practice, Carlee uses the sage in different ways. During our interview, she was drinking a freshly brewed cup of elderberry tea with sage, honoring her elder, Cecilia. She put in her water, her coffee, just as she was instructed; and yet, she finds new ways to harness the plants potential. Every practice was the product of observation and experimentation. Valentin Lopez, Chairman for the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band of California explains, “Our people learned by trial and error and by observing the patterns of mother nature…and it was that power of observation that they applied knowledge and passed it on,” (Public Broadcast Service, 2019). The generational knowledge shared from the elder, Cecilia, was invaluable in replicating positive results that could be taught to the next generation – Carlee. Through simple actions, Carlee honors the plant and the ancestors; but also the tenants of science. She continuously and curiously finding news ways of observing and experimenting with traditional plants.


In our own analysis, we incorporated a variety of qualitative methodologies. We determined this was the most effective approach to interpreting the data. But words like inductive, deductive, participants, fall short as terminology because they confine themselves to the western view of the world. We asked our relatives to share their TEK of plants, so that we could attempt to describe that knowledge in western scientific terms. Sarah J. Tracy, author of Qualitative Research Methods: Collecting evidence, crafting analysis, communicating impact, helps to explain our reasoning, “Qualitative research helps people understand the world…[It] can provide knowledge that targets societal issues, questions, problems and therefore serves humankind,” (Tracy, 2019). If TEK can be a part of the discourse in the scientific community, then we can properly serve humankind with authentic progress and innovation. At its core, science is dedicated to better understanding and adapting to the world around us. When we take on the perspective of relative as opposed to researcher – a separation from the subject, we develop a sense of caring. Jeanette Rodriguez, author of A Clan Mothers Call, explains, “This particular theme of caring for the earth is one that Indigenous people have carried with them in their cultural memory and are now intentionally articulating publicly through various public addresses…” (Rodriguez, 2017).

Our knowledge and understanding of the world are embedded in the fabric of life and existence we dissect and study. We can no longer continue to view the world through the lens of a microscope and interpret it from some dead man’s theory. We must live in that microscope with the subject, interacting with every piece of it in harmony, applying those theories and practices he left behind. As we probe the world and dissect our relatives, we separate ourselves from them. This is a dysfunctional relationship. It is time to dive into the flux and redevelop our relationship with the world around us. This is the land – the planet we were given to live with. What are we actively doing to ensure the next seven generations will survive?

We hope that this will continue the conversation of Traditional Ecological Knowledge, for and within the scientific community. As ecological issues are compounded and severely threaten our well being, TEK must be included in the narrative of climate change science. To our relatives who shared their stories and their knowledge with us, Kiyaqinaliyuw, Kišaqšwalawiyuw. You honor us.

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Michelle is a member of the Chumash tribe and daughter of Kim and Raymund Perez. She resides in Golden, Colorado where she works for the Indian Education Program, working with Indigenous students in one of the state’s largest districts. As a child, Michelle was raised in the pow-wow circle, learning traditional ways of the plains and southwest tribes. This upbringing rooted her in the Indigenous community and she dedicated herself to giving back. She obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology from Metropolitan State University of Denver and is dedicated to completing a masters. Michelle helped created a nonprofit dance group, the Medicine Heart Dancers to preserve cultural traditions with younger generations. She enjoys helping Indigenous students develop their cultural identities. In her professional life, Michelle is dedicated to challenging western institutions that do not honor or reflect an authentic Indigenous narrative. Michelle enjoys pow-wow dancing, learning her tribal language, singing to the plants and animals, and learning about other Indigenous communities.

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Kim is a beloved mother, grandmother, daughter and community member residing in Fort Lupton, Colorado. She grew up in Pacific Grove, California learning about the land and the ocean from her grandparents. Kim spent much of her youth living and playing with the land which imparted a traditional way of knowing the world. As a mother, she moved to Denver, Colorado to raise a family and built lasting relationships with the Indigenous community where she learned about their cultures and traditions. She worked with organizations such as Eagle Lodge youth programs, the 7th Generation pilot program and the Medicine Heart Dancers dance troupe. Through this work, she was able to raise her children with a traditional sense of belonging, grounded in traditional ways. They learned pow-wow culture, songs, dances, bead work and how to make regalia together. Her children danced in pow-wows growing up and she carries on these traditions with her grandchildren. Kim loves spending time learning about traditional culture and language. She spends her time crafting ribbon skirts and regalia, learning Indigenous plants and hiking the mountains of Colorado. When she’s not busy with crafts, Kim stays busy with her 16+ grandchildren, chasing her rambunctious turtle and taking orders from her bossy chicken.