Christine Colasurdo

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.


OTHER SELECTED WRITINGS BY CHRISTINE COLASURDO

ESSAYS IN ANTHOLOGIES
"A Little Garden of Sand: Bringing Back San Francisco's Native Dunes," in Holding Common Ground: The Individual and Public Lands in the American West (EWU Press 2005).
"Everlasting Wilderness," in In the Blast Zone: Catastrophe and Renewal on Mount St. Helens (OSU Press 2008).

ARTICLES ON NATURE/​OUTDOORS
“As Old as the Hills: The California Slender Salamander,” California Wild, Winter 2005.
“Life After Iceplant: Growing Natives in the GGNRA,” California Wild, Winter 2003.
“A Stack of Swifts,” California Wild, Summer 2002.
“My Blue Heron,” California Wild, Summer 2002.
“The City Goes Wild: Reintroducing Native Wild Plants to San Francisco’s Presidio,” ORION Afield, Spring 2002.
“Urban Peaks,” (cover story) Westways, May-June 2002.
“Out of an Ancient Sea: Notes on the East Bay Landscape,” Bay Nature, April-June 2001.
“Mammoth’s Perilous Magma,” California Wild, Fall 2000.
“Mount St. Helens Revisited,” Audubon, May-June 2000.
“Landscape in the Making,” Sunset, May 2000.
“Remembering Spirit Lake,” USFS Volcano Review, Summer 1999.
“Fort Ord,” Sunset, August, 1999.
“Best of the West,” a 6-month series, Sunset, June 1998-December 1998.
“Return to Mount St. Helens,” ORION, Winter 1997.
“Before the Mountain Blows,” Pacific Discovery, Spring 1996.
“Mount St. Helens Today,” Bird Watcher’s Digest, March/​April 1996.
“A Quick Trip to Paradise,” Pacific Discovery, Fall 1996.
“Oregon’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial,” Sunset, November 1995.
“Clearcuts and Volcanoes,” Cascadia Times, June 1995.
“Return to Harmony,” Sierra, May/​June 1995.
“Return to Mount St. Helens,” Sunset, May 1995.
“Life Erupts in Spirit Lake’s Backcountry,” Pacific Discovery, Winter 1994.

CALLIGRAPHY ARTICLES
"Margot Voorhies Thompson: The Power of Giving Shape to Meaning," Letter Arts Review, Winter 2010.
“The Secret Letters of Lyon,” Letter Arts Review, Fall 2009.
“Carl Rohrs at the Intersection of Calligraphy, Signpainting, and Typography,” Letter Arts Review, Summer 2007.
“Jacqueline Svaren,” Letter Arts Review, Vol. 21, no. 1 (2006).
“Georgia Deaver, Her Brush, and That Line,” Letter Arts Review, Vol. 19, no. 2 (2004).

SCHOLARLY ESSAYS
"Recollecting a Landscape: Oral Histories of Spirit Lake and Mount St. Helens," Oregon Historical Quarterly, Fall 2000.
“Tell Me a Woman’s Story: The Question of Gender in the Construction of Waheenee, Pretty-shield, and Papago Woman,” American Indian Quarterly, Summer 1997.
“The Dramatic Ambivalence of Self in the Poetry of Louise Bogan,” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, Fall 1994.

copyright 2009 Christine Colasurdo

Selected Works

Nonfiction/Outdoors
“superb popular science . . . This is engaging writing, full of human warmth.”
KLIATT
A massive coastal landscape is captured in one concise book.
To hear Colasurdo's commentaries for KQED's Perspectives series, go to http://www.kqed.org/radio/. To hear her read her poem “The Paradox of Enrichment” go to http:/​/​terrain.org/​one-poem-by-christine-colasurdo/​
Nonfiction/Biography
A glimpse at the fascinating life of anthropologist Erna Gunther

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