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Native American Medicinal Plants: An Ethnobotanical Dictionary

Native American Medicinal Plants: An Ethnobotanical Dictionary by Daniel E. Moerman. Portland, OR: Timber Press; 2009. Paperback; 799 pages. ISBN-13: 97-0-88192-987-4. $29.95. Available in ABC’s online store.

This book is an abridged version of Dan Moerman’s earlier volume, Native American Ethnobotany (2003), also published by Timber Press. The new volume itemizes approximately 25,000 medicinal uses of some 2,700 plant species documented from literature sources as having been used medicinally by native peoples of North America. Developing this immense and comprehensive database has been the work of over 3 decades, starting with an early computer “punch card” version published in 1977. Over the years, Moerman added more and more documents to his database, more than doubling the number of species covered in the current work compared with his original volumes.

The book is divided into 5 major sections. The first is a short narrative introduction, “Plant Use by Native Americans,” in which Moerman discusses some of the key issues regarding efficacy of medicinal plants, the range of treatments for which they are applied, and some physiological and cultural aspects of herbal medicines. He also provides brief overviews of the sources of information, the drug use categories applied, and the names of Native American (and Native Canadian) indigenous groups cited in the book.

The second section, comprising the majority of the book, is the “Catalog of Plants,” in which species are listed alphabetically by scientific name, starting with Abies amabilis (Pinaceae; Pacific silver fir) and ending with Ziziphus obtusifolia var. canescens (Rhamnaceae, lotebush). Under each entry is a listing, in a standardized order, of different categories of medicinal use (e.g. Emetic, Analgesic, Antirheumatic, Dermatological Aid, etc.) with brief descriptions of the particular use by each indigenous group for which there is documented information. A few species are illustrated with botanical drawings from the US Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service’s PLANTS database.

The third section, “Index of Tribes,” is a listing of the same information under the names of the indigenous groups, from Abnaki to Zuni. This is followed by an “Index of Plant Usages,” categorizing the information according to different medicinal uses, from Abortifacient to Witchcraft Medicine, and listing plant generas alphabetically with the associated indigenous groups. Finally, there is an alphabetical “Index of Common Plant Names” with their corresponding designated scientific names.

The purpose of this book is to provide an easy “one-stop” reference source for botanical medicines used by indigenous peoples of North America. Moerman took pains to incorporate only primary references in the compilation—work based on original, first-hand research with native peoples who used the plants—rather than any secondary sources based on prior published work. The works cited had to have clear scientific identifications and originate from research north of the Rio Grande.

The book has immense value for researchers and educators, as well as for Native Americans and Canadian First Nations’ communities themselves. It serves as proof of the rich systems of ethnomedical knowledge developed over millennia by indigenous peoples in all areas of the continent, including some indications of how knowledge has been shared and adapted across geographic and cultural boundaries. Through this highly commendable project, Moerman has aimed to “give back” to the people of the 1,100 or so American Indian tribes and Canadian First Nations who originally shared their knowledge with those who wrote the references sourced in this book. (Some of the references go back as far as the 1880s.) He raised enough money from non-governmental organizations and granting agencies, assisted by his colleague Michael Balick, PhD, of the New York Botanical Garden and by the cosmetic company Nu Skin of Provo, Utah to send copies of his 2003 book to all of the registered indigenous or tribal groups in the United States and Canada.

One dilemma Moerman faced in the organization of the book is that the names of the indigenous tribes, communities, and language groups covered in the database are variable. Some of the names (e.g., Nootka, Southern Kwakiutl, and Bella Coola) are entirely outmoded now, having been widely replaced with names chosen and preferred by the people themselves (e.g., Nuu-chah-nulth, Kwakwaka’wakw, and Nuxálk, respectively). In other cases, different spellings or terms for the same group were used in different sources: Clallam and Klallam, for example. Rather than trying to sort these changes and duplications and to standardize the names, Moerman, as he discusses, made the decision to retain the terms used in the original reference sources.

This poses a major problem, however, in terms of appropriate and up-to-date representations of the groups, and it also results in potential duplication of information, since the same group named by different terms (e.g., Ojibwa and Chippewa) is represented in different places, in the same listing. Including references that cover more than one group (e.g., “Montana Indian”), without separating these into tribes, also creates difficulties in making comparisons, since the information represents different scales of accuracy. It is completely understandable why Moerman chose to present the tribal names in this manner, but in my view, the book would be of even greater utility if he were able to provide (in a future edition) a table with the most common equivalencies of tribal names, and then, in the database itself, use the most widely accepted and up-to-date names for each language group. After all, he used the most current botanical names of the plant species, which have also changed over time.

Despite this difficulty, the book is an amazing and extremely valuable compendium of information and will be used in many different ways and at many scales of inquiry to allow a better understanding of the importance of herbal and traditional medicines. It brings into the 21st century some of the rich knowledge and wisdom of past generations of indigenous botanical experts and medical specialists and stands as a tribute to traditional healers around the world. I highly recommend it to HerbalGram readers and all those interested in biocultural diversity.

—Nancy J. Turner, PhD, Distinguished Professor, University of Victoria, British Columbia