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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Phyllis Hogan: Portrait of an Ethnobotanist

Air Date: Week of

Ethnobotanist Phyllis Hogan who, while non-Indian, lives and works among the Navajo and other southwestern United States tribes for the past twenty years brewing her particular mix of herbal respect and commerce. Sandy Tolan talks with Hogan and her Indian neighbors about her work and ways.


CURWOOD: Twenty years ago a search for herbal remedies might have taken you to a back shelf of a health food store. These days, many people can find a wide choice of herbal cures for maladies ranging from headaches to depression in their local supermarket. But who makes these herbal remedies and where do they come from? Living on Earth's Sandy Tolan recently paid a visit to one herbalist who plies her trade in Flagstaff, Arizona. Her knowledge base rests in Indian country.

(Cutting, sweeping sounds, cranking)

TOLAN: In a basement lab in downtown Flagstaff, a botanist peers through wire-rimmed glasses at the dark fennel liquid being squeezed through an old juice press.

HOGAN: It's the juice from that dry mass, we're going to yield a couple of ounces.

TOLAN: Behind her are bottles filled with extracts and herbs to soothe a vast range of ailments: upset stomach, arthritis, asthma, backache, sluggishness, sleeplessness, a pounding head.

HOGAN: These are our formulas. We have echinacea golden seal, what we call allergies and arthritis tonic, expectorant, ginseng complex, this is real good...

TOLAN: Phyllis Hogan has been doing this work as proprietor of the Winter Sun Trading Company for 20 years now. It's part New Age herbal repository, part trading post for the silversmiths and Kachina carvers of Navajo and Hopi country, and part pharmacy for the medicine men.

HOGAN: We're very well known throughout the reservation as being a place where you can come and ask us in your native tongue for childechee, for instance, or zilthnar toe, atza aze, any of these herbal medicines that are required for ceremonies.

(Wind and traffic sounds)

HOGAN: This is a plant called Tetradimia canadensis, and it's kind of unique to our area. And I learned about it through the Navajos. If a person is having nightmares or bad dreams about someone who died, they called it chindichil, chindi meaning ghost weed, and then that is to alleviate bad nightmares of the dead. The Hopis, however, use this to expedite childbirth.

TOLAN: Walking through an old Pueblo ruin north of Flagstaff, Hogan explains that her business began humbly. She lived in a teepee and sold jewelry and a few herbs from a tiny log cabin just across the road here.

HOGAN: Right across the street, right here. And I would see these elders out here, you know, picking. They were Navajo elders and I'd give them this plant called napin. And it's, it was like my calling card, it was like their most important ceremonial plant. And I would hand it to them and I would point that I was across the street, and they'd follow me over there and they'd see all the herbs in the jars. They were fascinated. They would come back in the next week with one of their grandchildren to translate, because they couldn't speak English. And they'd want to know who I was and what was I doing with all these things. And that's how I got known among the Navajos.

TOLAN: Hogan was already an herbalist when she came from southern Arizona. That was long before herbal remedies became popular. She arrived with a base of white man's science. But as she started learning from the old healers of Indian country, her knowledge deepened.

HOGAN: And I can show you plants around here that are still in use and very important today. Old food plants, like that lyceum right there. The berries and the flowers were used as food by the Navajos after they were being held captive for 4 years by the United States Government and they had no food. They used a lot of seeds and grass seeds, and this one particular plant. About 4 years ago I was working with a Navajo and he got tears in his eyes when he saw that plant, and he said this is the plant that my people survived on.

TOLAN: For Phyllis Hogan, ethnobotany is detective work. Who used what, when, for what purpose. And how did plants native to southern Arizona get all the way north to Flagstaff's higher altitudes long before settlers arrived?

HOGAN: And they're agreeing that these plants were brought in, in a trade probably, on an ancient trade route, by very important ceremonial leaders from these prehistoric tribes. Then these plants were used, and some of them today are still used ceremonially. Like the tobacco. And so now I'm looking at the plants here and finding plants that grow in the desert like the lyceum. Did the Hohokum bring it up, did they get it in a trade from them? It's just a mystery. It's history but it's a mystery.

(A train hoots)

TOLAN: But it's not just fascination with days gone by that motivates Phyllis Hogan.

(Train continues hooting)

TOLAN: In a tiny storefront around the corner from her trading company and half a block from the Santa Fe railroad tracks, she works to preserve rare and native species through her Arizona Ethnobotanical Research Association.

(Creaky sliding doors)

HOGAN: So this is what you call an herbarium, and an herbarium is a repository of pressed plant specimens all categorized in alphabetical order according to family. And I'll pull one out here and just show you this tobacco here.

TOLAN: Phyllis Hogan wants to help preserve something, and as people on the reservation have begun to realize that they've let her in, slowly. They know she won't reveal certain things about their ceremonies. So now she's asked to identify rare plants in order to help protect those ceremonies.

HOGAN: A Hopi medicine man died and I was asked to come and document his plants by his family. I found an unusual plant, a root, in there, that I had never seen before or smelled before and it was all ground up.

TOLAN: Hogan was told the plant was a key element of the crucial lightning ceremony. But where the medicine man used to gather the plant there was now a shopping mall. She burned the gray root and smelled it. After years of searching through herbariums, she narrowed it down to 2 plants. She asked a fellow botanist if he could help her find one of those specimens.

HOGAN: He did. He brought it to me. When I scratched it, it turned gray. I smelled it, it had the exact smell that the root had from the Hopi medicine man. And we found a huge field where it grows. And so now 3 of the herbalists that I work with that could really use this plant and have not been able to find it for years are very excited and we're going to go all on a pilgrimage and do some prayers and pick this plant. And they're going to be able to pick as much as they need.

(Train hoots continue)

HOGAN: My biggest motivation, I believe, is for the elders and for cultural preservation. I like being able to go to an elderly person and make them smile by giving them a gift of something that maybe they couldn't find and they haven't seen for a long time. So this is another thing where I feel like I'm contributing and being able to give back to the native people who have taught me so much.

(Train rolls on tracks)

TOLAN: When she first started some Native Americans resented a white person looking into Indian medicine. People wondered if she was just profiting from their knowledge. But standing in a Flagstaff fair in front of her stunning beadwork, Ella Bedonie, a Navajo who's worked with Hogan over the years, says Phyllis has proved herself.

BEDONIE: She's always been an inspiration to me and my kids call her their hippie aunt [laughs]. And I really admire her for the respect that she has for herbs and the respect that she has for people as a whole. Through the years we've learned a lot from each other and she fixed herbs for me during the times, you know, when I was sick. I think she's carrying on something that is very sacred to our people, and in a way she's carrying on for us because a lot of the young people, they're not learning about it.

TOLAN: Clearly, Phyllis Hogan has benefited from the knowledge others have shared.

(Silverware on glass)

HOGAN: I'm going to put some of the milk thistle in her tonic, but I think you should just have your own straight milk thistle.

TOLAN: In her shop she mixes tinctures from the dozens of bottles and herbal extracts that line the back walls.

HOGAN: ... really want her to get serious about taking this in. I could always mail, would you mail order ...

TOLAN: While out front Kachina dolls and the work of master silversmiths catch the eye of tourists. Hogan does good business in both, but she says she worries sometimes about the herb business getting too successful. Soon, she says, herbalists will need to stop gathering some herbs and start farming them. Already, big herbal companies gather seeds and plants from the land with huge vacuum packs, and export nature's bounty overseas. And sometimes, Hogan says, the damage can come from just one lone entrepreneur trying to get in on a good thing.

HOGAN: And every barefooted, longhaired, bearded guy hanging around with nothing better to do and they want to get in on this, they're going out, picking sage, wrapping sage. And I'm not sure that a lot of these people are doing it conscientiously and they're over-gathering. And women, Indian women in California, in the coastal areas of California, have told me that they would like to have everybody just stop picking the California sage. And I just hate to see people coming in and unconsciously just thinking that they can make the big buck and the dollar off of wild crafting plants, not knowing what they're doing, not making prayer offerings, possibly treading into traditional medicine gardens that they don't even know are there, because these gardens don't have fences around them that say I belong to the Hopis or I belong to the Havasupis, you know? And this is how we get bad relationships with the traditionals, and with the Indian tribes.

This is our Hopi silver case right here, looks like here's a Hopi silversmith walking right in [laughs], bringing me some of his beautiful jewelry. Can we see some of your...

TOLAN: It's been 20 years now since Hogan started forging her own relations with Arizona's Indian tribes.

HOGAN: And the designs are all from your legends, right?


HOGAN: Clouds and rain and moisture...

TOLAN: If she wanted to, she could probably cash in on that knowledge nationally in the exploding New Age market. But she says she wants to keep her business small and use her knowledge locally, to give back some of the things she's received. For Living on Earth, this is Sandy Tolan reporting.



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