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Plant Use by Native Peoples of the American Southwest: Ethnographic Documentation

by Katharine D. Rainey and Karen R. Adams

The purpose of this work is to summarize information from published and unpublished ethnographies that document how Native peoples of the American Southwest used—and, in some cases, continue to use—selected plant resources. The data contained herein have been used to suggest and support interpretations of archaeobotanical remains recovered from sites excavated by the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, and it is our hope that these same data will be useful to other archaeologists and ethnobotanists studying ancient plant assemblages in the western United States.

This publication consists primarily of a large compendium (Compendium A) that draws on an extensive database compiled by the authors and maintained by the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center. The compendium lists the relevant ethnographic references (which correspond to expanded bibliographic entries in the list of references cited); it identifies the various plant taxa by both their scientific and common names; and it describes the documented plant uses for specific ethnic groups. We intend this compendium to serve as a summary of, and a guide to, the extensive ethnographic literature, which we encourage the reader to consult for additional, more-detailed information. The purpose of this publication is not to suggest or encourage the use of any plant in any particular manner. Although every effort has been made to accurately summarize plant uses documented in the literature cited herein, neither the authors nor the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center makes any claim regarding the safety or efficacy of any usage described in this document.

We used several criteria for deciding which information to include in the compendium. First, we were most interested in plant taxa and parts that were represented in the archaeobotanical assemblages from sites excavated by Crow Canyon (at the time of this writing, we were working with a taxonomic list for sites excavated from 1983 through 1998). If the Crow Canyon taxonomic list included identifications at the genus level (for example, Artemisia), we included information on every species of that genus that we found in the ethnographies. If the Crow Canyon list included a taxon identified at the species level, we included ethnographic sources that described uses for that particular species, when possible; if no detailed information was available for the species, we reported data for the genus, as described above. Second, the ethnographic reference had to be a primary source. When the author of a particular ethnography quoted another author's work, we made every attempt to find and include the original reference. Third, because a given plant can be known by many common names and, conversely, a single common name can refer to multiple very different taxa, the ethnography had to present the scientific name for every taxon. This requirement forced us to omit some well-known examples of ethnobotanical literature that referred to plants by their common names only, but we did not want to risk associating a particular use with the wrong taxon. Fourth, for an ethnography to be included in this compendium, it had to relate to specific groups of Native peoples living in the American Southwest, primarily in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and/or Utah, although the historic ranges of some of the groups extended into adjacent states and parts of northern Mexico. In addition, we included a very small number of Great Basin groups (Ute, Uintah Ute, Southern Paiute, and Gosiute) whose historic ranges also fell within the four above-named states. Ethnographies describing plant use among Great Plains and European groups were specifically excluded from consideration.

Because our goal in publishing the compendium is to aid researchers in their interpretations of archaeobotanical remains, purely modern uses of plants—for example, as graze for cattle or sheep—were not included. However, we did include plants considered adventive into North America in historic times, when the genus also had indigenous representatives. Examples of introduced wild plants include Amaranthus albus and Chenopodium murale; examples of introduced domesticated plants include almond, apricot, peach, and plum, all in the genus Prunus. In such cases, we assumed that some historically introduced species might have easily become incorporated into long-standing Native American traditions of indigenous plant use. Including these taxa in the compendium is also consistent with the guidelines described in paragraph 3—that is, to include information on every species of a given genus.

Consistency was a primary concern as we entered information into the database that underlies the compendium. The scientific names of many plants are revised over time, as more data become available and various taxa become better understood—sometimes taxa are even assigned to new or different genera. Because the publication and manuscript dates of the ethnographies consulted for this project span more than a century, it is not surprising that some of the names reported in them are no longer current. In the genus and species fields of the database, we chose to list the scientific names as given by the authors of the original ethnographies (except for typographical errors, which we corrected). When we determined that the ethnographically reported name of a particular taxon was outdated, we provided the modern (current) name in the "Taxonomic Notes" field. Current names are from one of three floras of reference, which are, in order of preferred use, (1) A Utah Flora (Welsh et al. 1987*1), (2) Manual of the Vascular Plants of Texas (Correll and Johnston 1970*1), and (3) the W-3 Tropicos database compiled by the Missouri Botanical Garden (available on the Internet at When we knew that a name given in an original ethnography was outdated but could not correlate it with a modern name, we made a note to that effect in the Taxonomic Notes field (for example, "[reference] does not recognize this species"). For a number of taxa, the species, variety, and/or subspecies authorities were not specified in the documentation, and in those cases we left the data fields blank.

As mentioned earlier, a given plant can be known by many different common names, both in common usage and in published references. For the compendium, we decided to use the common names that appeared most often in the ethnobotanical literature; when common names were not given in the ethnographies, we used the common names provided by Welsh et al. (1987*1). To facilitate database searches, we usually assigned all the members of a given genus the same common name (for example, the common name for both Artemisia tridentata and Artemisia filifolia is given as "sagebrush"), especially when the different species are similar in appearance. Exceptions were made for species within a single genus that are distinctly different in physiology and are distinguished in common parlance, such as ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa Lawson) and pinyon pine (Pinus edulis Engelm.). See Table 1 for a list of the common names and their associated genus names as reported in Compendium A. Readers should keep in mind that this table, together with the compendium, is to be used primarily as a historic resource and should not be regarded as a comprehensive, up-to-date, or authoritative guide to botanical nomenclature.

The plant parts used by the various ethnic groups were often, but not always, noted in the ethnographies. When they were noted, we listed the parts as specifically (for example, "fruit") or as generally (for example, "aboveground plant") as the original documentation permitted. We made every attempt to use the same part names as are used in Crow Canyon's archaeobotanical database (found in the Analysis Data section of the research database, available on-line at When no specific part was listed in the original ethnography, we left the data field blank.

Finally, in our attempt to present information in as consistent a manner as possible, we standardized the ethnic-group names paired with each described plant use. We generally refer to the groups by the specific names used in the original documentation, although we occasionally "lumped" groups in an effort to streamline data entry. For example, if an ethnographer stated that all the groups in New Mexico used a plant in a certain way, we listed the group as "New Mexico groups" rather than enter each Native American group in New Mexico as a separate entry. We used traditional ethnographic names to facilitate comparisons between the compendium and the literature. So, although the people known in the ethnographies as Pima and Papago prefer today to be called the O'Odham, we used the names Pima and Papago in the compendium to avoid confusion. A list of the ethnic groups whose names appear in Compendium A is provided in Table 2. The entries in this table are linked to maps (Figure 1, Figure 2, and Figure 3) that show village locations or approximate historic ranges of the various groups.

The descriptions of plant use provided in the compendium were paraphrased as accurately as possible from the original ethnographies. This was a difficult task because the original descriptions were sometimes terse, ambiguous, and written in an archaic style. When paraphrasing proved too difficult or risky, we presented the original text in quotation marks. In cases in which the author of the ethnography listed the plant but did not indicate if or how it was used, we recorded "plant recognized, but no uses given" or "name given, but no uses given."

To further assist the reader, the many and varied individual uses described in the compendium were also grouped into six broad "use categories." Five of the six categories—food, fuel, construction, medicine, and ritual—correspond to topics of general interest to anthropologists, ethnographers, ethnobotanists, and archaeologists. The sixth category—"other"—by definition includes a very wide range of uses that cannot be neatly categorized as one of the foregoing, and the reader is encouraged to not overlook this group. Further, because it was sometimes difficult for us to distinguish between medicinal and ritual use, anyone interested in one of these categories should also consider plant uses assigned to the other.

The database underlying Compendium A was developed in ACCESS 97, a program of Microsoft Office 97. The data fields, which correspond to the column heads in the compendium, are explained in detail in a separate, linked list. Users of the compendium can sort and reorder the information by the following data categories: ethnic group, genus, species, common name, plant part, use category, and reference.

Click on the title below to access the compendium:

Compendium A. Ethnographically Documented Uses of Plants

1The W-3 Tropicos database is subject to continual revision and may have been updated since we last consulted it in conjunction with this project in August 2000.


This publication would not have been possible without the support of many people and institutions. The Arizona State Museum, Arizona State University Archives, Arizona State University Labriola Center, and Eugene Gaffney provided access to rare and difficult-to-find publications. Scott Ortman, Louise Schmidlap, and Lee Gripp provided much-welcomed technical advice and assistance, and Mary Etzkorn provided editorial support. Computing facilities, programs, and assistance were provided by the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, Michael A. Kolb, and R. Lee Rainey.

Karen R. Adams (Ph.D., University of Arizona, 1988) is an independent consultant in archaeobotany with more than 30 years of experience in the American Southwest and northern Mexico.

Katharine D. Rainey (M.A., Arizona State University, 2001) was an environmental archaeology intern at the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center and currently is an independent archaeobotanical consultant.

To cite this publication:

Rainey, Katharine D., and Karen R. Adams
2004 Plant Use by Native Peoples of the American Southwest: Ethnographic Documentation [HTML Title]. Available: Date of use: day month year.*

*Example: Date of use: 26 November 2004.

Copyright © 2004 by Crow Canyon Archaeological Center. All rights reserved.