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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Ethnobotany: A Dangerous Hobby

When I hear the word ethnobotany (the study of plants in relation to their cultural use) I think of soft-spoken, docile academics carefully gathering and analyzing specimens in exotic locations. But don’t be fooled; this job is not for the faint of heart. As Dr.Edward Palmer (1831-1911) can tell you, the practice of ethnobotany can get you ridiculed, ostracized – even killed. 

Edward Palmer, 1864
Photo Lot 70, National Anthropological Archives

Edward Palmer was one of the first botanists to study the cultural meaning of plants in tandem with their biological characteristics. He traveled widely throughout the continental US and Mexico as a Smithsonian Institution field representative in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; in sixty years’ time Palmer studied over 30 indigenous groups and collected over 16,000 botanical specimens.

But before his field work days, Palmer was a surgeon contracted with the US Army; at this time, his interest in plants was only a hobby. In 1868 he was named the official physician for the Kiowa and Comanche Agency in Oklahoma Indian Territory. According to the biographer William E. Safford, Palmer was pressed by his friends at the Smithsonian to collect specimens from both the tribesmen and the environment, and thereby send them back to Washington, DC for study.

Though Palmer first arrived bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, the realities of reservation life quickly sunk in. A small but vocal group of Kiowa and Comanche were constantly raiding neighboring bands of settlers, stealing their food, their provisions, and even their wives and children. The head of the reservation, Colonel Leavensworth, managed to organize a truce in 1865, yet as evidenced by the ongoing raids the terms were paper-thin at best. Palmer’s field notes from the time convey the air of danger and hostility at the reservation.

Yet this failed to stop him from collecting specimens for the Smithsonian. Any leisure time available to Palmer was devoted to studying the flora and fauna of the area. It became such a large part of his daily routine that Leavensworth soon dismissed him for continually neglecting his professional duties. Palmer claimed it was his refusal to store the Colonel’s stash of whisky in his wagon that really caused the dismissal.

Whatever the reason, Palmer soon found himself the physician to nearby Fort Cobb on the Washita River; though the head of this particular reservation, Major Shanklin, was much friendlier towards Palmer, the people certainly were not. They feared he was a witch-doctor because of his strange specimen-collecting practices. The women at Fort Cobb often referred to him as tewit-sa-mariett, or dangerous wise man. And when Palmer failed to save a child sick with pneumonia, it was the last straw; the Kiowa and Comanche of the Fort Cobb reservation decided they needed to be rid of the evil medicine man once and for all.
Drawing of two Comanche men, collected by Edward Palmer in 1868
Manuscript 127,601 National Anthropological Archives

Word quickly spread that the Indians of the reservation wanted Palmer dead. At one point a small group of armed men managed to sneak into Palmer’s wagon while he was away. In the end they left everything untouched, interpreting the wide array of animal specimens to be harmful magic. Yet there was also hostility among the various native groups in the reservation. A number of looting raids had forced many to move to neighboring territories. The reservation community was getting smaller and smaller by the day as more natives were fleeing the raiding parties. Taking his death warrant into account, Palmer eventually joined the mass exodus out of Fort Cobb. 

Palmer’s six months in Oklahoma Indian Territory is an eye-opener. The heightened tensions between Native American groups and new settlers, and even between the Native Americans themselves, can turn even the peaceful task of studying plants into a death trap.

To learn more about Edward Palmer, visit the National Museum of Natural History’s online feature of Palmer’s botanical specimens. His collections are held at the National Anthropological Archives as well as other units within the Smithsonian.

Jacqueline Saavedra, Intern, National Anthropological Archives

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