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Pharmacologist mixes research, teaching with native American wisdom

by Chrissie Castro

As they walk into Jim Adams’ class, a group of his students gaze at his artistry­an immense Cux, a Chumash Indian headdress, made of luxuriant black hawk feathers and a Pach, a traditional Chumash hand-woven skirt made of tree fiber.

If Adams wasn’t already an associate professor of pharmacology, he might be mistaken for an aspiring artisan­or perhaps a medicine man­for he has become an expert in California Native American culture. After further inspection by the class, Adams begins his lecture on local medicinal plants by sharing the quiet history of California Native Americans

The Chumash, he explained, populated California’s central and southern coast for 13,000 years prior to the Spanish missionaries gain control of their lands. They revered medicinal plants due to an important legend that tells how when their homeland, the Channel Islands, became too crowded. Xoy, the creator god, solved the problem by dividing the tribe into two.

“Half of the tribe walked across a rainbow bridge to the top of Mount Pinos near Santa Barbara,” he explained. As they crossed the bridge, some fell into the sea.

Xoy took pity and changed them into dolphins. The Mount Pinos people became the Ka’ikiku, or brothers of the dolphins, and the people of the islands became the Molmolokiku. Xoy asked them to create plants for the Ka’ikiku to use for survival. When they were done, he took the Molmolokiku with him into the afterlife. “The Chumash still pray to their kin before each plant’s use,” Adams said, “since it is viewed as an ancestral offering.”

Adams uses the story to illustrate the rich spiritual history of medicinal plants in California, and their traditional and modern uses. As pharmacists, knowing common uses along with the active ingredients of a plant can be of great benefit.

Willow, he said, is found in streambeds across Southern Calif-ornia and contains a form of aspirin. The Chumash Indians chewed on it to alleviate head and tooth aches. Yerba mansa, also known as swamp root or lizard tail, was used as a tea to treat cuts and sores, venereal diseases, asthma, kidney and urinary tract disorders, and as a bath for arthritis.

Washtiqoliqol, or California Rose, was made into a tea to help babies with colic, teething and constipation. The petals were also dried and crushed into baby powder.

Adams became intrigued with medicinal plant use while reading a book about Chumash Indian legend. He was on the hunt for a drug that mitigated brain injury associated with stroke, and a legend in which a plant was used to awaken people from near death sounded promising.

Though he has yet to find exactly what plant this legend was founded on, it hasn’t stopped him from investigating. Like carefully collected clues, he keeps hundreds of photos of each species and variety of native plants he has come across in California wrapped tightly in a binder. With his findings, he plans to write a book in which native uses and associated legends are placed beside their pharmacological context.

For Adams, teaching the uses and sacredness of medicinal plants is a natural progression of learning about them.

“The first thing a native does with a medicinal plant is pray,” he said. “I have embraced that respect for medicine, and I think my students also understand that connection. It’s a special lesson that they just don’t get in their everyday pharmacology class.”