Navajo Culture Highlighted in New Book: Nanise' A Navajo Herbal

Vernon O. Mayes and Barbara Bayless Lacy's book "Nanise' A Navajo Herbal" features 100 plants from the Navajo Reservation. Each plant's profile includes its common, Latin, and Navajo name as well as its common Navajo uses.
By Hannah Kincaid
January 28, 2013
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The plants described in "Nanise' A Navajo Herbal" grow on the Navajo Reservation, a 25,209-square-mile area covering the Northeastern corner of Arizona, the Northwestern corner of New Mexico, and a portion of Southeastern Utah. The area is comparable in size to the state of West Virginia.
Cover Courtesy Five Star Publications

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Many North American plant lovers have a go-to field guide that helps them identify local flowers, shrubs and trees.  But what if you’re interested in more than the scientific name? What if your curiosity is tickled by a specific plant’s story, its place in the old world and the songs and games created in its honor? Unless you have the uncanny ability to speak to the trees, sources for that historical knowledge are rare and hard to find. Fortunately, the residents of the 25,209-square-mile Navajo reservation in the Southwestern United States pride themselves on passing that knowledge from one generation to the next.

 Inspired by the Navajo’s extensive plant knowledge, Vernon O. Mayes and Barbara Bayless took it upon themselves to interview Navajos who know how to do things the “Navajo Way.” The duo also interpreted decades worth of Navajo anthropological texts. Their hard work paid off with the publication of Nanise’ A Navajo Herbal.  

 The book provides a glimpse into the wealth of preserved Navajo knowledge, including which plants make the best medicine, building materials, dye and more. Organized into alphabetical profiles of 100 Southwestern plants, each plant’s profile includes its common, Latin and Navajo name as well as the plant’s physical description, Navajo uses and a botanical illustration.  In the center of the book are colored photographs of each plant to make identification all the easier. The back of the book includes two indexes, one for each plant’s common name and one for the scientific.

Uncovering the Navajo uses for even the most everyday plants provides a real thrill for any plant or history lover. Allow yourself to get transported back in time as you learn detailed recipes for natural dyes made from mahogany rootbark, alder, aluminum sulfate and more. The appendix of Nanise’ A Navajo Herbal even includes directions for games that use homemade cottonwood dice and instructions for how to make a traditional Navajo bow or ponderosa cradleboard.

While the instructions for natural dyes and games are detailed enough to replicate, the medicinal information is not. Each plant’s healing qualities are mentioned, however this is not a pharmacopaeia and there are no detailed how-to instructions. The authors clearly state that only Navajos who have gone through an extensive apprenticeship with a medicine-person should have access to in-depth medicinal and ceremonial information.

If you’re interested in the traditional Navajo uses of alder, birch, brown-eyed susans, or juniper, look no further. Nanise’ A Navajo Herbal provides a colorful and inspiring glimse into traditional Navajo life and cultural practices. The book is available on Amazon.

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