Ethnobotany of the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians

9780870718526Ethnobotany of the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians, by Patricia Whereat-Phillips.

Myrtlewood is most often thought of as beautiful wood for woodworking, but to Native people on the southern Oregon coast it was an important source of food. The roasted nuts taste like bitter chocolate, coffee, and burnt popcorn. The roots of Skunk Cabbage provided another traditional food source, while also serving as a medicine for colds. In tribal mythology, the leaves of Skunk Cabbage were thought to be tents where the Little People sheltered.

Very little has been published until now on the ethnobotany of western Oregon indigenous peoples. Ethnobotany of the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians documents the use of plants by these closely-related coastal tribes, covering a geographical area that extends roughly from Cape Perpetua on the central coast, south to the Coquille River, and from the Coast Range west to the Pacific shore. With a focus on native plants and their traditional uses, it also includes mention of farming crops, as well as the highly invasive Himalayan blackberry, which some Oregon coast Indians called the “white man’s berry.”

The cultures of the Coos Bay, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw are distinct from the Athabaskan speaking people to the south, and the Alsea to the north. Today, many tribal members are reviving ancient arts of basket weaving and woodworking, and many now participate in annual intertribal canoe events. Ethnobotany of the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians contributes to this cultural renaissance by filling an important gap in the historical record. It is an invaluable resource for anyone who wishes to learn about the indigenous cultures of the central and southern Oregon coast, as well as those who are interested in Pacific Northwest plants and their cultural uses.

The Melding of Ethnobotany with Language and Story.

If you’ve ever studied a second language, you’ve probably heard, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” While some people may feel unaffected that they no longer remember the language they learned in secondary school, entire cultures suffer when the last speaker of that language dies and the language is lost. There is a great importance behind understanding cultures and their practices. This includes how the culture connects with the environment around them. Today Patricia Whereat-Phillips discusses her introduction to research focused on indigenous languages and how she became interested in ethnobotany. In her new book, Ethnobotany of the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians, Whereat-Phillips documents the ethnobotany of western Oregon indigenous peoples.

Growing up in the hills near the eastern shore of Coos Bay, I spent much of my childhood playing out in nature – playing in the stream at the bottom of the draw, watching deer eat apples in our yard, helping mom fill the bird feeders, and spending all summer wandering the land around our house picking berries. As a child, I learned that I was descended from the Milluk people of lower Coos Bay. I wondered what the old language was like, but no one seemed to know. The last fluent speaker of Milluk died before I was born, and the last speaker of its sister language, Hanis, died when I was 2 ½ years old. I never met her.

For years my research focused on indigenous languages – mostly the Coosan languages of Hanis and Milluk, and Siuslaw, and traditional legends. My interest in ethnobotany began when I received a letter from an undergraduate who was researching medicinal plants of Oregon Indians. It wasn’t a question I’d looked in to before, and I began to do some research. I found a few mentions of medicinal plants, and answered her letter. By now, my curiosity piqued, I tried to do some more research and found (probably as this student did) that there is little published on western Oregon ethnobotany (unlike the rest of the Pacific Northwest and California).

So I spent years trying to research the ethnobotanical knowledge of the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw. Not only did I gain a greater appreciation of the beauty and diversity of the temperate rainforest that I had grown up in, but a greater appreciation of the breadth of indigenous knowledge of the landscape and the melding of ethnobotany with language and story.

You can read more here. I don’t have my copy yet, but I am looking forward to it, and learning more about these peoples. The book can be ordered here.


  1. rq says

    I have a thing for ethnobotanical stuff, mostly because I grew up with an oral tradition of herbology along with the actual medically recognized stuff. I really, really like seeing it examined in other cultures, because there’s so much knowledge buried within -- a lot of it being lost -- and it’s absolutely useful information for anyone ever trying to get out into nature for extended periods of time. Knowing the local flora can save your life, and the best sources of information are the peoples living in that location for generations (spec., those who live in harmony with the local ecology, rather than those who simply come to destroy and build their own).

  2. says

    rq, I agree absolutely. I grew up with that type of oral tradition too, and I’m really looking forward to reading this.

Leave a Reply