Monday, March 13, 2017

Datura and the Chumash

We talked briefly about Datura, or Angel's Trumpet, in class and Gil posted about how dangerous it can be if ingested, so it might come as a surprise that Datura used to be a central part of Chumash culture and was used by almost all Chumash people. For those of you who haven't heard of the Chumash, they were a large group of Native Americans that lived in the Santa Barbara area and Channel Islands for almost 13,000 years before European contact. Naturally, they had a long time to become familiar with native plant species, including Datura wrightii which they called momoy. It was used for both spiritual and medicinal purposes. At puberty most boys and girls would be given Datura during a ceremony in which they would fall into a coma for about 24 hours a would hopefully wake up having gained a supernatural guardian to protect them throughout their lives. In Adulthood, Datura could be used whenever someone felt it was necessary: to gather courage, for protection, to contact the dead, or to gain insight into the future. It was also used as an anesthetic, a poultice treatment for hemroids, and even to get rid of tapeworms. The Chumash were very aware of the dangers of taking  Datura, but trained specialists/shamans could pretty consistently prepare doses strong enough to have the desired effect without killing the person taking it. Luckily, if you did die it was believed that those who had drunk Datura would have the strength of spirit for their soul to journey to Similaqsa, the Land of the Dead, rather than falling into the ocean and becoming a frog, turtle, snake, or fish.

Most of this info comes from Chumash Ethnobotany by Janice Timbrook. It's a cool book I would definitely recommend it if you are interested in learning about Santa Barbara's native plants and how the Chumash used them. Also it has lots of pretty watercolor illustrations!

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