Ethnobotany

We include here ethnobotanical information on plants from several of the principal taxa found in Dinétah. This information is culled from several sources which include, importantly,  Katherine Rainey's and Karen Adams' (2004) online Compendium, Plant Use by Native Peoples of the American Southwest and Dan Moerman's (2003) online Native American Ethnobotany Database as well as Vernon Maye's and Barbara Bayless Lacy's (1989) Nanise': A Navajo Herbal, among others. Our focus here is on Navajo ethnobotany and Navajo plant use. However Pueblo, Apache, Ute and other references are also included incidently as they represent uses by contemporary peoples adapting to the same or similar environments and help extend our understanding of the site.


Yucca   Pigweed   Big Sagebrush  Goosefoot   Juniper   Lupine   Common Bean   Piñon Pine   Corn   Purslane   Tobacco



Yucca glauca Nutt.

Britton, N. L., and A. Brown. 1913 Illustrated flora of the northern states and Canada. Vol. 1: 512.

Yucca, Narrowleaf Yucca, Soapweed   

Navajo Name: Ts1’1szi’ts’00z, “narrowleaf yucca”

Talawosh, “water suds,” name for root; Nidoodloho, “the green fruit”; Nideeshjiin, “stalk black,” name for young, dark stalk; Nideesgai, “stalk white,” name for taller stalk

Family Taxon Genus
Agavaceae Yucca sp.  Yucca L.

Classification: Yucca L. contains 30 Species and 45 accepted taxa overall

Species: Several different species of Yucca are identified in the ethnobotanical literature:

Primary Use: fiber

Ceremonies: Evil Way, Mountain Chant, Night Chant, Snake Chant, Wind Chant, War Chant 

Ritual Use: Yucca is used in almost every ceremony, yucca fiber is used to tie ceremonial equipment - hoops, prayer sticks, unravelers and chant arrows. It juice is used to make paint and varnish for ceremonial objects (pipes, figurines, prayer sticks etc.) and the bristles for brushes to apply it. Leaves from a yucca that a deer has jumped over are heated in coals. When they are soft, juice is wrung from the leaves onto small flat stones that hold paint pigments (Mayes and Lacy 1989:117).

Probably the most important ceremonial use is bathing in suds made from the yucca root. Most ceremonies include a ceremonial bath of yucca suds for the patient as well as the singer, along with other cleansing rituals (Mayes and Lacy 1989:117).

Prior to the introduction of sheep, the Navajo wove mats with yucca, the inner bark of juniper and with cotton. Weaving is associated with Spider Woman in the Origin stories.

 

Other Uses: The range of other uses is very wide:

Paul Vestal, in the Ethnobotany of the Ramah Navaho (1952:16-17), discusses several different kinds of material tied with yucca fiber to make various implements. These include Idaho Fescue, Prairie Junegrass, or Sand Dropseed about a foot long, tied with yucca fiber, used as a brush for cleaning metates. Also wooden slabs tied together with yucca fiber used as snowshoes (Vestal 1952:13).

Francis Elmore, in the Ethnobotany of the Navajo, records that spruce twigs were used as beaters to make a high, stiff, lasting lather of yucca roots and water, yucca strands used to tie rolled skins into a rabbit skin blanket, and yucca fiber and pith twisted with mountain grass and used to make roofing, mats for sleeping mats, bedding, blankets and rugs, also to make leggings and shoes (Elmore 1944:21,34).

Harold Colton, in Hopi History and Ethnobotany, documents the use by the Hopi of Navajo Yucca. They used Navajo Yucca as a fiber and fastener to make basketry, bind twigs used to make snow brooms, used leaf fibers for paint brushes and the whole plant as an anchor for bird traps. They crushed roots used for soap, and took infusions as a laxative. Ceremonially, the Hopi used yucca fiber to make kachinas masks, used the juice as varnish on kachinas and leaf fiber as whips in a variety of ceremonies (Colton 1974:370).

Tools and Toys

Medicine:  

Food 

References: 


Amaranthus hybridus L.

Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. Illustrated flora of the northern states and Canada. Vol. 2: 2.

Prostrate Pigweed

Robert H. Mohlenbrock 

Pigweed

Navajo Name: Naazkaadii, "spread out"

Family Taxon Genus
Amaranthaceae Amaranthus  Amaranthus L.

Classification: 45 species in Amaranthus

Species: 

Primary Use: Food

Ceremonies: Bead Chant, Coyote Chant

Ritual Use: 

Medicine:  

Food: Seeds ground Standley 1912: 458)

Other Uses: sheep food

References: 


Artemisia tridentata Nutt.

Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. Illustrated flora of the northern states and Canada. Vol. 3: 530.

Big Sagebrush 

Navajo Name: Ts'ah, the sagebrush

Family Taxon Genus
Asteraceae Artemisia sp. Artemisia L.

Classification: Artemisia L contains 68 Species and 100 accepted taxa overall

Species:

Common Names: Big Sagebrush, blue sagebrush, chamiso hendiondo, common sagebrush

Primary Use: Medicine

Ceremonies: Life Medicine, Evil Way Medicine,  Other curing ceremonies, Bead Chant, Eagle Way, Water Way, Mountaintop Way, Night Way, Evil Way

Ritual Use:

Medicine:  

Food: 

Other Uses: Ts'ah is used to make yellow, green, and gold wool dyes (Mayes and Lacey 1989:107)

 

References: 

Data:


Chenopodium album

Melganzenvoet bloeiwijze

Chenopodium album L.

lambsquarters  USDA NRCS

Goosefoot, Lambsquarters, Wild Spinach   

Navajo Name: Tl'oh ligsii, grass white

Family Taxon Genus
Chenopodiaceae Cronquist system (1981)

Amaranthaceae in the APG II system (2003)

Chenopodium sp. Chenopodium

Genus: Chenopodium Contains 50 Species and 78 accepted taxa overall

Species

Description: Common lambsquarters is an erect, annual herb under 4 feet. Herbage is mealy but not hairy, stems may have lengthwise, red streaks. Small greenish flowers open from mid-May to mid-October

Distribution: From 8000 ft to lowest part of reservation ~3000 ft disturbed soil in depressions

Ceremonies: Mountain Chant, Nightway

Ritual Use:  

Medicine: 

Food: 

A major food plant. Seeds considered among the most important food plants when the Zuni reached this world (Castetter 1935:21)

Mayes and Lacy (1989:43) describe preparation: dried plants are threshed on a blanket to winnow the seeds, ground lightly to loosen the perianth, winnowed again, washed, dried and ground with corn. Meal had a bitter taste if used alone. Seeds stored for winter (Vestal:1952:25). 

Other Uses: 

References: 

Buskirk 1986:192

Castetter 1935:16, 21

Chamberlin 1911:366

Colton 1974:300

Elmore 1944:43-44

Fewkes 1896:18

Franciscan Fathers 1910:185

Hocking1956:149

Jones 1931

Matthews, W 1886:768

Mayes and Lacy 1989:43-44

Reagan 1929:156

Stevenson 1915:45, 66

Swank 1932:36

Vestal 1940 :161

Vestal 1952:25

White 1945:560

Whiting 1939:73

Wyman and Harris 1941:33,38

Young 1938:6


Juniperus communis

Common Juniper 

Afbeelding

Juniper   Little - Utah juniper, Rocky Mt Juniper   

Navajo Name: Gad bik2’7g77, “male juniper”, 

Gad ni’ee[ii, “drooping juniper”

Family Taxon Genus
Cupressaceae Juniperus sp. Juniperus L.

Classification: 27 species in Juniperus

Species

Description

According to the species account from USDA Forest Service Fire Effects Information System (FEIS), Utah juniper is a short tree that may live as long as 650 years (Loehle 1988). Utah junipers grow less than 26.4 feet (8 m) and are often as short as 9.9 to 14.85 feet (3-4.5 m), with a trunk 4 to 7.5 inches (10-30 cm) thick (Hitchcock and Cronquist 1973; Hickman 1993; Kearney et al. 1960; Ronco 1997). Sometimes the tree has multiple stems (Arnold 1964).

Utah juniper trees will grow in very stunted forms under severe site conditions. A 6-inch tree with a 24-inch (60 cm) taproot may be over 50 years old (Lanner 1983). They grow quite slowly, usually only about 0.05 inch (0.127 cm) in diameter per year (Gottfried 1992; Meeuwig and Bassett 1983).

Utah juniper's taproot extends deep into the soil (as far as 15 feet (4.5 m). Their lateral roots may extend up to 100 feet (30.3 m) from the tree, several inches below the soil surface. Most root biomass is within the first 3 feet (0.9 m) of soil, with fine roots concentrated in the uppermost 18 inches (46 cm) (Skau 1960) or just below the soil surface (Tiedemann 1987). Utah juniper responds to low nutrient levels in the soil by developing extensive networks of fine roots at the base of the tree and at the end of lateral roots. This rooting habit may explain, in part, the competitiveness of juniper with understory species (Kearney et al. 1960; Klopatek 1987). Junipers compete more efficiently for soil moisture than do herbaceous understory plants; therefore, over time, junipers are more likely to maintain a stable population, while understory plants decrease (Austin 1987; Everett et al. 1983; Springfield 1976). However it is interesting to note, a Utah study concluded that Utah junipers do not use soil moisture from summer precipitation and do not have active roots in shallow soils layers during the summer (Donovan 1994).

Distribution:

Utah juniper is the most common tree in the Great Basin and is widely distributed throughout the arid West (Hitchcock and Cronquist 1973; Lanner 1983). The tree occurs occasionally in southern Idaho, southern Montana, and western Wyoming, and is common in Colorado, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, and southeastern California. Utah juniper is the most common juniper species in Arizona (Arnold 1964).

Ceremonies: Blessing Way, Night Chant, Mountain Chant, War Chant, Enemy Way, Evil Way, "War Dance", Enemy Way, Western direction

Ritual Use:

Medicine:

Food:

Fuel

References:


Lupinus decumbens  

Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. Illustrated flora of the northern states and Canada. Vol. 2: 348.

Lupine

Navajo Name: Azee' b7ni'7, "wondering about medicine"

Family Taxon Genus
Fabaceae Lupinus Lupinus

Classification: 236 genera in Fabaceae, 165 species in Lupinus, 356 accepted taxa overall

Species:   

Ceremonies: Male Shooting Chant

Ritual Use:

Medicine: 

Food: 

Other Uses: 

References: 


Snijboon peulen  

Phaseolus vulgaris

Common Bean    

Navajo Name:

Family Taxon Genus
Fabaceae Phaseolus vulgaris Phaseolus 

Classification: 12 species in Phaseolus and 18 accepted taxa overall

Species: 

Ceremonies: Night Chant 

Ritual Use:

Medicine: 

Food: 

Other Uses: 

References: 


Single-leaf pinyon 

showing single leaves and immature cones

Toiyabe

Piñon Pine     

Navajo Name: Ch1’o[, piñon

’Neeshch’77, “piñon seeds”; Atlish, “piñon butter”; Deetsiin, “piñon logs”; Deetsiin bijeeh, “piñon gum”

Family Taxon Genus
Pinaceae Pinus edulis Pinus L

Classification: Pinus L has 75 species and 70 accepted taxa overall

Species: 

Description:

According to the species account from USDA Forest Service Fire Effects Information System (FEIS), Mature singleleaf pinyon is usually found in open woodlands (Lanner 1999; Meeuwig et. al. 1990:380-384). It is a short tree (6-12 m). Because of a lack of self-pruning, it grows to a rounded to flat-topped crown with multiple, upswept branches. It is sometimes multi-stemmed from simultaneous establishment from seed caches (Tomback and Linhart 1990: 185-219). The bark is thin (1-2 cm) and smooth on young trees and grows up to an inch thick with age (Graves 1917). The wood is soft and not resinous (Perry 1991). Singleleaf pinyon has an extensive lateral root system. Therefore it can penetrate open areas between tree canopies and extract water and nutrients. This helps it maintain a seasonally stable xylem water potential and thereby to endure drought better than the associated shrubs (Evans 1988). 

Singleleaf pinyon needles are long-lived (5-12 years) (Graves 1917; McCune 1988). This "evergreenness," allows the tree to conserve nutrients and take advantage of short favorable conditions within a generally unfavorable landscape (McCune 1988: 353-368). The needles have an allelopathic effect on the germination and growth of herbaceous plants (Everett 1987: 152-157; Wilt et. al. 1988: 228-231). 

Singleleaf pinyon trees are long-lived. Where protected from fires, large trees can live 350 years or more (Everett et. al. 1986). Dominant pinyons are often 400 years old and have been known to reach 800 to 1000 years (Keeley and Zedler 1998; Ronco 1987). 

Distribution:

Colorado pinyon extend through the southwestern United States and Colorado Plateau, reaching to the eastern rim of the Great Basin (Peet 1988). It is abundant in Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico (Peet 1988), and its range extends to southern Wyoming, eastern Nevada and California, western Oklahoma, the Trans-Pecos region of Texas, and northern Mexico (Little 1971; Peet 1988). Colorado pinyon occurrence is generally rare or localized on the edges of its distribution (Little 1971).

Pinyon-juniper woodlands cover more than 55.6 million acres in the western U.S. (Mitchell and Roberts 1999). Singleleaf pinyon has a large area of distribution which results in a large degree of genetic variation (Lanner 1975). It is the dominant tree species in the mountains of the Great Basin. It extends from southern Idaho, western Utah and northwestern Arizona, through most of Nevada and eastern and central California to northern Baja California (Lanner 1975; Little 1971; Meeuwig et. al. 1990:380-384). It is also found in the Mojave Desert borderlands of southern California and in small, fragmented populations in a belt across Arizona south of the Mogollon Rim into southwestern New Mexico (Lanner 1981; 1983). 

The distribution of singleleaf pinyon has undergone many changes in both prehistoric and historic times (Chambers et. al. 1999:29-34), and  any assessment of pinyon and juniper woodland distribution is only a snapshot of a woodland in motion (Everett 1985: 53-62). Historic changes in distribution are well documented (Gordon et. al. 1992; Richardson and Bond 1991: 639-668; Tausch and Nowak 1999: 71-77; Yorks et. al. 1994:359-364). The evolutionary distribution of pinyon may provide information helpful in understanding climate change(Betancourt 1987, 1991; Ernst and Pieper 1996:14-16).

Ceremonies: War Chant, War Dance, Mountain Chant, Witch Chant, Night Chant, Lightning Chant, Shooting Chant, Evil Way,   

Piñon Pine is used to make medicine or equipment in almost every Navajo ceremony: to build ceremonial hogans and corals in the Mountain Chant and Night Chant, piñon charcoal is preferred for the black pigment in sand painting and piñon pitch is used in the ritual necessary after the death of a relative or friend (Mayes and Lacy 1989:79)

Ritual Use:

Medicine: 

Food: 

Fuel

Other Uses: 

References: 


Zea Maize  

Otto Wilhelm Thomé 

Corn, Maize   

Navajo Name: Naad33

Family Taxon Genus
Poaceae Zea mays Zea L.

Classification: Zea mays L. contains 2 Subspecies, 3 Varieties and 2 accepted taxa overall

Species: Zea mays L.

Ritual Use:

Coyote Chant, Night Chant, "Nubility ceremony", Women's puberty ceremony, Mountain Chant, Bead Chant, Wind Chant, Motion-in-hand ceremony, Prominent in origin stories (Matthews 1897; Farella 1984; Zolbrod 1984)

Ear 

Corn meal 

Leaves 

Corn pollen 

Medicine: cornmeal mush mixed with herbs and liquids, then applied to sore throats (Elmore 1944:28)

Husk 

Husk or leaves 

Leaves

Ears 

Meal 

Kernels 

Other uses

References:


Portulaca retusa  

Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. Illustrated flora of the northern states and Canada. Vol. 2: 40.

Portulaca villosa Cham. 

Eric Guinther

Purslane, Little Hogweed   

Navajo Name: Ts4gha’ni[chi’, “breeze through rock”

Family Taxon Genus
Portulacaceae Portulaca sp. Portulaca L.

Classification: Portulaca L. Contains 18 Species and 20 accepted taxa overall

Species: 

Ceremonies: none cited

Ritual Use:

none cited

Medicine: 

Food: 

Other Uses: 

References: 


Nicotiana rustica L.

Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. Illustrated flora of the northern states and Canada. Vol. 3: 170.

Wild tobacco

Navajo Name:  

Family Taxon Genus
Solanaceae Nicotiana  Nicotiana L

Classification: 41 genera in Solanaceae, 22 species in Nicotiana

Species:

Ceremonies: 

Evil Way, Blessing Way, Night Chant, Raven Chant, Mountain Chant 

Ritual:

Medicine:

Food: 

none cited

Other:

References: