Native Foods and Medicines: Healing Our Communities

By Kate Gordon and Amanda Wixon

“When we see these plants and the animals, we don’t see them as natural resources that are there for our taking, we see them as relatives that live in their own communities, just like other humans live in their communities.”  – Craig Torres (Tongva), founding member of Chia Cafe Collective

Despite the rapid growth of the city and its environs, Riverside and the surrounding areas still contain many of the plants that local indigenous communities have relied on for centuries to sustain their health. Many of the plants found locally can be used as alternative food sources and traditional medicines. By promoting the use of Native plants, local groups seek to preserve their cultural practices while advocating for environmental safety and sustainability.

Indigenous Foods and Medicine

Today’s Native communities face health problems that are a result of a longer history of unhealthy diets. Beginning in the 19th century, the federal government forced many Native peoples onto reservations. There, indigenous communities had to rely on cheap, government-supplied foods to survive. This change from a locally-sourced plant and game diet to one rich in flour, sugar, fat and salt was detrimental to the health of the overall Native population.

Native people used plants for both medicine and for the storage of medicine. Elderberry blossom tea can be used to cure fevers, upset stomachs, and colds.

Native food activists encourage a return to a more traditional diet to regain good health. Many Native plants are multi-purpose, serving as a food source and as medicine. Foods such as cholla cactus flower buds, mesquite, acorn, and chia seeds are nutritionally dense and have been known to alleviate symptoms ranging from lactose intolerance to diabetes. By teaching and learning about the health benefits of Native foods, advocates encourage a reconnection with the land through gathering, gardening and cooking.

This image includes wild rose, stinging nettle, yerba santa, mint, elderberry, and ephedra, all of which can be used for a variety of ailments.

For centuries, indigenous peoples have practiced resource management, carefully tending to the land that has nurtured them. For more than a century, European-American settlers have exhausted the land, believing the supply of natural resources to be endless. Today’s gatherers and weavers seek their supplies in places not as easily accessible as they once were. Expanding populations and pollution have limited the areas in which to safely gather. To make the land fruitful again, Native and non-Natives must practice reciprocity by taking only what is necessary to survive and by giving back to nature. By asking permission before one takes, one honors the land. By recognizing plants and animals as part of the living world we all inhabit, we honor Mother Earth.

Dried nettle leaves can be used in soups, salads, teas and stir-frys. The leaves care highly nutritious – rich in iron, magnesium, calcium, boron, and carotenoids, and also can be used as a diuretic.

Photo Credits

“Indigenous Foods and Medicines of Southern California,” by Deborah Small, Deborah Small’s Photo Blog

“Elderberry Medicine Tube,” by Deborah Small, Deborah Small’s Photo Blog

“Native California Tea Plants,” by Deborah Small, Deborah Small’s Photo Blog

“Stinging Nettle and Sunflower Seed Soup,” by Deborah Small, Deborah Small’s Photo Blog