Mexica-Cherokee Ethnobotanist Explains Foraging From The Land You Travel On

Traveling is like being a fish out of water. You are some place new and you feel vulnerable. But to strengthen your gills, travel far from home.

Hello, my name is Brenda Elrod and I am a Mexica-Cherokee-American Woman.  I am both immigrant and native. I am a gardener, a cook, a forager and especially an eater. I am a student and supporter of healing power of plants. I am passionately pursuing the ancient wisdom of our native plants in the Americas.

Native Vegan-Flower

Traveling While Native

I feel very fortunate to have been able to travel far and wide. I’ve been to countries in Asia, Europe and the Americas. I cherish every moment of jet lag and every rickety puddle jumper that rattled my bones to safety. I wouldn’t undo any close encounter I have had with spiders, jellyfish, geckos, monkeys or the multitude of mosquitoes that have come to know me intimately while abroad.  I remember feeling as if I was leaping out into thin air when I flew to Greece by myself. And on my honeymoon in Bali, during the funeral ceremonies of an important ruler, I sat solemnly in a courtyard and watched as the artisans create the beautiful decorations that would illuminate the celebration. I basked in the warm hues of the fading sun, overlooking the rice in the company of the grandson of one of the last kings of Bali. Our stillness had served to deepen our memories.

Traveling internationally has taught me so much about myself. About my limits and my strengths. It has taught me about other cultures and viewpoints different from my own. And in a way helped me find my place in the world as a Native American. It has taught me respect for others and I have learned to be grateful for all the things I have and to stand against social and political injustice.

Native Vegan-Plant

Traveling domestically has probably taught me just as much. In Hawai’i, I was taught by locals to wash my hair with awapuhi pulled straight out of the earth. I swam with a sea turtle. I ate sugar cane fresh from the field. In Oregon, I was stung by, and then ate, nettles. I foraged for berries. I hunted chanterelles. In Yosemite, I swam under a waterfall and in Palm Springs, I gathered jojoba nuts under the hot desert sun.

As a Native person, it is my understanding that wherever we go, the land and their inhabitants are telling us stories. If you let them! Using someone else’s homeland as a backdrop for your Instagram selfies is dangerous without acknowledging that the land is alive and their citizens are storytellers. They are important stories from which we can learn and have a much deeper travel experience.

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Combating White-Washing

Want to know what I’ve learned about myself after all my wandering? I am truly proud to be native to the Americas, but I am a survivor of severe white-washing.

I am what some might call a coconut: brown on the outside, white on the inside. My father is part Cherokee, but his family has lost any sense of what that means. So I was raised with my “white” father and my colonized, Eurocentric, Mexican mother.

Culturally speaking, you might say my mother was raised in a mixed heritage home. Her family knew they were Mexican, but the only way you could tell was by the food they ate. My abuelo moved his family into a shabby house in a nearly all-White, Californian neighborhood. They weren’t allowed to speak anything but English at school. My mother forgot how to speak Spanish. In addition, my abuelo was an alcoholic and abusive. Everything associated with being Mexican, in my mother’s eyes, was tainted with shame.

Native Vegan-Mom

Ironically, my parents moved to the Sonoran desert and raised me in the territory of the Maricopa and Pima Nations. I grew up finding broken bits of pottery under sage and creosote bushes and learning the names of all the plants and animals. I lived close to the earth. I ate cactus fruits. I had no idea how close I was to discovering something important about myself. But I always knew I was different and I always felt like something was missing.

Due in part to my troubled childhood, it wasn’t until college that I started to search for what was missing. My search had turned up more questions than answers. So I started my cultural journey with foods and plants. It was the most accessible way to awaken my inner indigenous self.

Native Vegan-Childhood

Foraging From The Land You Travel On

Home for me is a moving target, but what stays the same is listening to the stories of the land and its people. I’m constantly learning to forage the land: acorns, Indian lettuce, Indian cress, bay leaves, nuts.

At home I grow food of the Americas such as pineapple, chayote, beans, squash, corn, peppers, lambs quarter. But I think foraging plants for food and medicine is a great travel habit. It’s a great way to listen to the stories of the land you walk upon, have an adventure, and get to know local peoples. It’s also a path towards healing and nutrition. It’s a path to learning respect for nature and for her caretakers. It’s also fun. Like me, you may become an accidental ethno-botanist.

It’s easy to get to know native species of useful plants pretty much wherever you go now. Thanks, Internet! All anyone has to do is Google their destination and add the word forage to their search. Plus, there are plenty of books on the subject, apps, blogs and IG accounts dedicated to the local hunt. You can even “hunt” for local delicacies at markets.

Native Vegan-Plant Growing

Actively Learning About My Native Lands

I may have been White-washed but my heart beats like a native drum. I know for certain that I am connected to my native roots, like the roots I forage on my travels. I continue my education in Native History, Issues, Culture and Language. I am always seeking allies and Native relatives. I taught my mother how to make tamales (and to reclaim her native, Mexica identity that was denied her). I feel as if I am a salmon swimming up stream, leaping and struggling in a desperate attempt to get back to an ancestral home.

My identification as a Native person has deepened substantially over the past few years. Due largely to the fact that I became a mother. Motherhood is such an incredible and sacred gift! I feel compelled to give my son what I didn’t have growing up: a true sense of who he is. We take my son to pow wows, Mexica events, we garden, we cook and we eat. We are learning Nahuatl, the native language of the Aztecs. I hope we can take him to see the ancient Aztec temples in Mexico. I want him to be able to identify with the glory of the history and mourn the loss of so many of our ancestors. I buy him all the indigenous children’s book I can find. I read to him and teach him Native ways. I often tell him that his brown skin is beautiful. And you know what? It really is.

Being A Fish Out Of Water

I really hope to meet all of you fish-out-of-water someday. I hope we swap adventure stories and share and learn from each other over a meal of local plants. And I hope, like a salmon, we take a leap into thin air every once in a while and see what happens.

About The Author

Brenda Tumbaga is a Mexica-Cherokee woman who participates in ancestral eating, foraging, and joyfully celebrating indigenous plants. She gives FREE Vegan recipes on her website The Native Vegan. If you’d like to learn more about foraging and native plants, you can find her by clicking on the social media buttons below:

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