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Decolonizing Education: Native Americans

This guide was originally created for the use of instructors and students in the reACT Decolonizing Education Experiential Learning Program funded by the 2022-2023 TLTC Curriculum Grants. Specifically: ARCH460; ARCH478; ARCH601; ARCH678; CHBE473; ENCH648


Ethnobotany is the study of how people of a particular culture and region make use of indigenous (native) plants. Plants provide food, medicine, shelter, dyes, fibers, oils, resins, gums, soaps, waxes, latex, tannins, and even contribute to the air we breathe. Many native peoples also use plants in ceremonial or spiritual rituals.  Since our earliest origins, humans have depended on plants for their primary needs and existence. Over time, people and cultures have tested and continued to use the plants that were beneficial. Our cultures evolved by passing ever more sophisticated knowledge of plants and their usefulness from generation to generation. Examining human life on earth requires understanding the role of plants in historical and current-day cultures. Even today, we depend upon plants and their important pollinators for our existence and survival. SOURCE: USDA, AND US FOREST SERVICE. ETHNOBOTANY. Celebrating Wildflowers Website.

Native American Ethnobotany: A database of plants used as drugs, foods, dyes, fibers, and more, by native Peoples of North America. The database now contains 44,691 items. This version added foods, drugs, dyes, fibers and other uses of plants (a total of over 44,000 items). This represents uses by 291 Native American groups of 4,029 species from 243 different plant families. About half of them are medicinal. This expansion of the database was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Balick, M., et al. (1996). Plants, People, and Culture: the Science of Ethnobotany (Ser. Scientific american library series, no. 60). Scientific American Library.  ebook. Ethnobotanists Cox and Balick share two decades of experience living with the indigenous peoples of Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia, conducting fieldwork in the study of how people use plants. The result is a story of human culture in relationship to the plants traditionally used for medicinal, recreational, and ornamental purposes. These ethnobotanists argue that human cultural origins are inter-woven with plants. They examine everything from the prehistoric use and gathering of plants by hunter-gatherers to modern times.

Foster, S., & Duke, J. A. (2000). A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of eastern and central North America (2nd ed., Ser. Peterson field guide series). Houghton Mifflin. ebook. It describes in a general way the medical uses of specific species by human groups such as Native American and early settlers but is not explicit regarding exactly how the plant was used.

Great Lakes Anishinaabe Ethnobotany - The Great Lakes Anishinaabe Ethnobotany site website is a collaboration between the Cedar Tree Institute and the Northern Michigan University Center for Native American Studies both located in Marquette, Michigan, and the USDA Forest Service. The website features video interviews, a collection of personal stories and cultural teachings related to various plants and trees of the upper Great Lakes region.

Medicine Ways: Traditional Healers and Healing - U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, Health & Human Services.

Wings and Seeds: The Zaagkii Project, A Native Plants and Pollinator Protection Initiative - The Zaagkii Project (Anishinaabe for “The love that comes from the Earth”) is a collaborative effort between the Cedar Tree Institute, the United States Forest Service, and the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community.

Why Native Plants?

  • Native plants, those that have grown in a particular area since before human settlement, provide food and habitat for native wildlife. Fewer native plants often lead to decreasing populations of native wildlife.  
  • Our ecosystem benefits from native plants – stabilizing soil, filtering water, purifying air, and supporting wildlife. Using native plants on sites they are best adapted to can have significant benefits to mitigating environmental stresses, such as extreme temperatures and drought, to retain productive lands for both agriculture and wildlife.

Source: Taylor, C. Native plants boost conservation benefits, strengthen wildlife populations. USDA. Natural Resources Conservation Center. 

Culturally Significant Plants

The historical use of native plants has become of interest to many Tribal peoples and also to the general public. Plants played an integral part of every American Indian tribe's existence. Plants were used as food, ceremonial artifacts, and in medicines. Additional plants were also important in traditional American Indian lifestyles.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) administers Farm Bill conservation programs and provides technical assistance to American Indians and Alaska Natives (AIAN). NRCS has an extensive joint outreach effort with the Intertribal Agriculture Council (IAC), the Indian Nations Conservation Alliance (INCA), and other partners to increase awareness of USDA services available to AIAN communities.

The NRCS Plants Materials Program provides resources and technical information on culturally significant plants.

Leonetti, C. (2010) INDIGENOUS STEWARDSHIP METHODS AND NRCS CONSERVATION PRACTICES GUIDEBOOK Coordinated by Crystal Leonetti, NRCS Alaska Native Liaison, Yupik Written Collaboratively by the “NRCS/Native Practices Work Group.”

Culturally and Economically Important Nontimber Forest Products of Northern Maine - A USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station Sustaining Forests web page introducing the cultural and ecological landscape of northern Maine and its Canadian neighbors through the non-timber forest products that grow there and the people who gather and depend on them.


NATIVE SPECIES: A plant historically present in a particular region. Native is usually defined as having​ ​been found indigenous to the local area before colonization. Native species for Maryland are​ identified in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Publication, Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and​ ​Conservation Landscaping – Chesapeake Bay Watershed or the M-NCPPC publication, Native Plants of​ ​Prince George’s County

Slattery, B., et al. (2005). Native plants for wildlife habitat and conservation landscaping: Chesapeake Bay Watershed. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Chesapeake Bay Field Office.  A new database from this information is also available. This publication includes pictures as well as user-friendly information on native species appropriate for planting in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and adjacent coastal regions. Although one guide cannot furnish the answers to every question, [this guide has] included as much useful information as possible in a limited space. This guide displays the great diversity of plants available. Pore through this guide the same way you look through nursery catalogs.

Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. Prince George's County Planning Department. (1998). Native Plants of Prince George's County, Maryland, 1997-1998. Prince George's County Planning Dept.

Shreve, F. (1910). Plant life of Maryland. (Ser. Maryland. weather service. special publication, v. 3). Maryland Weather Service. The present volume embraces a discussion of the plant life of Maryland and allied subjects, the interpretation of which is largely dependent on the physiographic and climatic conditions which characterize the State. Part II includes a historical bibliography of Maryland Plant lists. Part VII is an extensive list of plants.  Includes a topical and botanical Index.

Native Plants Organizations

Native Roots Farms. Their mission is to celebrate Native American roots, protect open space, and nourish the community with sustainably grown produce in Lower Delaware.  Native Roots Farm Foundation works with tribal, public, and private partners to connect people from all backgrounds with the Indigenous plants and traditions of Coastal Delaware. We will celebrate the heritage and cultures of Native peoples through a public garden and sustainable farm. And we will offer agricultural, horticultural, and environmental programming, events, and initiatives. 

Chesapeake Natives, Inc.  The Mission of Chesapeake Natives, Inc. is to promote, protect, and propagate plants native to the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Their goals include: (1) expand the nursery operation of CNI at Eleanor Medill “Cissy” Patterson’s historic greenhouse at Mt. Airy Mansion in Rosaryville State Park, Upper Marlboro. This 80-year Lutton Solar V-Bar greenhouse is being brought back to life with the education and training of local volunteers in plant production from local ecotypes, forest restoration, and community outreach, using native plants and the local environment of southern Prince George’s County, southern Maryland; and (2) build up an army of people that know how to work with native species and why they should do it.  Both small- and large-scale forest and meadow restorations, and their buffers, require planting with local ecotypes. A wide range of these plants are almost invariably unavailable for restoration projects. Working with native plants can lead people into jobs that work to preserve the natural environment. Native plants are sold, view a list of inventory.

Maryland Native Plant Society. Their mission is to promote awareness, appreciation, and conservation of Maryland's native plants and their habitats. We pursue our mission through educationresearchadvocacy, and service activities. Membership is open to all who are interested in Maryland's native plants and their habitats.  Research Funding is available as well as a bookstore.  The website includes a critical annotated bibliography.