Come walk the paths of Aasuingna, the “place of the plants.” The Tongva have no word in their language for “garden”—before European settlement, their entire world might have seemed to us a garden, and the plants their pantry, their construction yard, their fabric store, and their medicine cabinet.
Ethnobotany is the study of how different cultures use plants—for housing, tools, clothing, medicine, and ceremony. All cultures have ethnobotany, but ethnobotanists work mainly with native peoples, because their unique knowledge is most likely to be lost. Around the world, native peoples and the plants that they have relied upon are disappearing at an alarming rate. It is important to preserve cultures as well as habitats.
The Tongva are the indigenous people of the Los Angeles Basin. Before colonization by the Spanish, the Tongva “maintained the land”, creating conditions of great biological diversity and abundant food, including acorns, other plant foods, seafood, and game animals. Called “Gabrielino” by the Spanish at the San Gabriel Mission, they were introduced to European culture and disease. In the years afterwards, their culture declined and then collapsed. The abundant natural resources available to the Tongva hunter-gatherers have been supplanted by agriculture and food importation in the multicultural society of today. But the Tongva remain, and they are now reclaiming their culture. In this garden live the plants of the Tongva world, which is our world too,
unless we fail to maintain the land.