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Erna Gunther: A Pioneer in Native Plants

During her lifetime, Erna Gunther was considered to be one of the leading authorities on Pacific Coast Indian culture. Born in New York in 1896, this petite and powerful woman completed her Master’s and doctoral degrees in anthropology at Columbia University, where she studied under Franz Boas. Gunther was a professor of anthropology at University of Washington from 1923 to 1966 and chair of the Anthropology Department from 1937 to 1955. She was also the director of the Washington State Museum from 1929 to 1962. In 1945 she published the first systematic study of Washington tribes’ use of native plants, Ethnobotany of Western Washington. She authored several other books, catalogued collections of Pacific Coast Indian art in several West Coast cities, and lectured widely throughout the U.S. and abroad. She died in Poulsbo, Washington in 1982.

Colasurdo has written a much-needed profile of this trailblazing intellectual who helped preserve valuable information from many Native cultures that were being quickly and radically transformed by Anglo-American culture in the early twentieth century. “Erna Gunther: A Pioneer in Native Plants” helps to illuminate Gunther’s life and highlights the significance of her enduring legacy.

Opening excerpt from “Erna Gunther: A Pioneer in Native Plants”:

In 1934 Erna Gunther took up a fountain pen and carefully printed on the inside cover of a gray, nondescript notebook:

Should this ever be found, please notify the address above.
This book is of great value, but only to the owner.

The young researcher couldn’t have been more wrong. As one of many field books filled with fascinating details on Northwest native cultures, the little book contained the beginnings of a pioneer text that would remain popular long after its author had passed away. First published in 1945 by University of Washington Press, Gunther’s Ethnobotany of Western Washington has remained a classic reference for plant enthusiasts for more than five decades. After one revision and seven reprintings, the book now stands as a precious glimpse at how early Northwest Coast peoples regarded indigenous trees, shrubs, and wildflowers. It is through this book that readers today know how nineteen different tribes—from the Klickitat Indians along the Columbia Gorge to the Lummi near the Canadian border—used more than a hundred different species of plants. The slender book explains how rosehips were chewed by the Klallam as a breath freshener, and how soapberries were whipped by the Makah into a delicious, frothy dessert. Within its fifty pages, readers are plunged into a not-so-distant time when sword ferns were tied together to form mattresses, spruce roots were plied into water-tight baskets, and camas bulbs were dug up from vast meadows every spring.


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copyright 2009 Christine Colasurdo