The Plants Need Us to Speak Up For Them: Talking With Nick Hummingbird

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California Native plant expert Nicholas Hummingbird, Cahuilla/Apache, is founder and manager of Hahamongna Nursery in Pasadena. The nursery, in the Arroyo Seco watershed, has four dozen species of plants under cultivation that are native to the L.A. Basin and surrounding hills. Blending commitment to his Native heritage with a desire to share knowledge, Nick is a persuasive spokesperson for the many benefits of native plants. We spoke with him earlier this year. 

Why is Traditional Ecological Knowledge important?

Here, in California as a whole, indigenous people for thousands of years were so entwined with the land that the disappearance of our interaction with the land has really suffered. We were entwined that we learned our place and what we did would enhance things and nature was truly a part of our everyday well-being and our survival that we just destroyed it. We have to come back to that. We have to learn that there are impacts to what we do.

When we do realize that what we do impacts so much, we start to look at solutions. How can we do things better? How can we do things differently? That's what we have to come to. It's easy to say that we're the big problem but we're not just going to go away like that. There's still opportunity to fix this. It's [about] making better choices. Being hopeful. Trying to inspire others.

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Nick Hummingbird in his nursery | Photo: KCET

So the importance of us as a cultural people is that we're not living totally in the past. But we're embodying the morals and values of our ancestors. For example, we take care of these [Juncus] patches to steward more for future generations, [so] that this plant may be in abundance like it was before. When we come here, we gather these seeds with the responsibility of growing more so that we can maintain a healthy and abundant [landscape] for the future. When we take these seeds, I'm making a commitment that I'm going to grow them. Nature has taken a few through the winds, dispersed some of the seeds, but there's still a lot [more to do].

Part of our stewardship role is to maintain our valuable plants. Because we didn't survive thousands of years without them. And, if you want to have thousands of years into the future, we need to start planting those seeds today so they can grow into a better, healthy tomorrow.  When we bring these plants back into the cities, we invite nature back. We invite all the birds, the insects. And that's important. Restoring our culture is also restoring our balance, our stewardship role, our care taking role, our enhancing role. Teaching other people why these plants are important, not only to us but to nature.

Can you tell us about the Hahamongna Nursery?

We started off as a restoration industry to provide plants for restoration projects and the Arroyo Seco Watershed in the city of Pasadena. [Our mission was] to enhance water resources, to enhance the habitat, and at the same time really create a community around why restoration's important.

Those projects have been held up but we've gone forward and grown a lot of plants. Our aim is to get people in Pasadena and the surrounding areas to basically look at alternatives to their landscape, because the big problem we have — and the problem that's been occurring for the past few years — is drought.

Basically what we have here is a huge asset for community with 10,000 native plants [that] weren't here a year ago. That's a huge accomplishment for many, many people who have come together for this place. This is an answer to our region's crisis of extinction, and habitat loss and destruction. We provide education for people and for a lot of young people, job skills training that's going to be necessary for people who want to go into the field of native plants, because it's really a skill that you can't just learn anywhere.

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Signage at the Hahamongna Nursery | Photo: KCET

What is the biggest threat to native plants?

The biggest threat to plants is just people not being educated. As they say, “people don't care about things until they're gone.” There's already been an extinction of 400 [California native] plants. They're gone and people still don't care. With 6,500 plants native to our state, 400 [are] already extinct. There's 6,100 left. Next 20, 30 years, possibly half of those are going to be extinct. Right now is time of people learning about these numbers and doing something about it. Because it's not just the plants that are going to go. It's the hundreds and thousands of insects and birds and coyotes, everything you can imagine, that survives off these plants.

I'm hoping if you have children, you think about their future and those to come because what we're doing is we're stealing from [them]. We live in a world with very limited resources and that can't go on forever. I hope that this generation, through education, and future generations can help stem the tide and really make a difference. Because it's up to us.

How do you use social media and technology to spread your message of environmental and Indigenous rights? 

I take a lot of pictures. That's one of the things I like to do in my spare time. [When] I started using Instagram [it became this] tool. People from all over the world can see them. Here's a way to educate people. I've incorporated plant facts and just names of certain plants that they can use as reference to check out. Then it came to political issues and issues that affect all of us environmentally. I always try to give people hope because it's important to have hope. Apathy is going to kill us all, and most importantly, the plants. Now, with 3,000 followers on Instagram, I can say it's pretty successful. I use this as a platform for indigenous issues to give us what we haven't had for so long: a voice.

For so long we haven't had a voice. Now, these issues are becoming more mainstream. People are learning. People are becoming educated. People are more open minded. Where everything that we value, everything that we fight for, and everything we want to protect really has an impact on everybody's well-being. That our culture has values and morals that we adhere to, that keeps us on a good positive road. We don't want to forsake those.

As indigenous people in California, we have one of the worst histories where we went through genocide. [They] tried to get rid of everybody. We survived. We persevered. We still have love. We still have appreciation. We still have respect. All of these good human qualities that the greatest hate and greed in the world didn't kill. We made it. The plants and the animals and the land that we value so much are still going through that genocide and it's only increasing and that's why it's important that we have more education. More efficacy. More people valuing life. It's great to have things but those things are easily replaced.

For nature, it takes years and years and years to replace what was lost, if you can even do so at all. Instagram gave me a huge platform to be able to bring that message to so many people.

What is your response to people who view traditional gathering, such as "foraging" for sage and chia seeds, as trendy?

When you see our indigenous people gathering, they're doing so with a knowledge and a relationship with thousands of years. What we do enhances the very environment that we're interacting with. We're gathering Juncus for a basket or chia for food, we're not going to destroy our resource. We're not going destroy what we need next year and the year to come. The problem is a lot of people have the same mentality as our capitalistic society is when they go out to nature to see that it's a free resource and they exploit it. For us as indigenous people, before we take, we always give. When you go to the store before you buy food, you give money. Our former currency is morals and values and responsibility, stewardship. We give. We give a song. We give tobacco. We give water in honor of what we're taking. [It's] an honor that we are responsible for what we take. We don't just take because it's there. That life form has every right to exist as much as we do. 

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White sage at the nursery | Photo: KCET

My encouragement is if you really want to [use] plants, a lot of people have homes with yards. And for a lot of people who don't, like me? I have a patio with pots and plants. There's always a park nearby or an open space. There's a lot of community gardens where people like to grow vegetables. There's a perfect opportunity for native plants in there. Part of learning about natural resources and native plants, foods, and medicines is being responsible about it. Just because it's free and it's there for the taking doesn't mean that you have a right to it. Nature has rights and it's time to respect those rights. It's time to respect other life forms other than ourselves.

How do you feel about non-Native people using white sage?

[That’s] a plant that is highly exploited in Southern California, our white sage. This plant is used by indigenous people for cultural and spiritual reasons. So much of our culture has been lost. The few things that we have left, we hold on to those things and we value them. I really encourage people not to use our plants in a way that we feel is mockery. You don't go into a Catholic church and grab holy water and start blessing people. A priest does that. What does a priest do? A priest goes through a lot of rhetoric and learning and teaching. He does things in a process that is earned and respected. That's why he has a title.

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Nick prunes white sage at the nursery. | Photo: KCET

It is proven scientifically that the [sage] smoke kills bacteria in the air of your house. A way for somebody who is non-Native, who harvests their sage [to use it] is to burn it in your house. There is the smell of California, right there. There is using this plant that you gathered. There is being respectful.

When you start blessing people and doing ceremonies with it, you're messing with our land. You're messing with our ancestors. You're messing with our culture. That's where we take that to heart. When you buy that plant at a grocery store, or wherever they are selling this plant that has been exploited and stolen and killed for a mere ten dollars, eight dollars, short-term profits, you are part of that destruction. You have to ask yourself: what are you really doing this for? How does that equate to the price that is being paid exponentially other than the ten dollars that you paid at the store?

When we gather, we do it with a history, and a culture, and a revival of who we are as human beings and our connection to the land. We're a part of it, and it is a part of us. When we come to our sages, we always give before we take. We give water, we give offerings, we sing a song. We respect it, and that when we take from it, we take only what we need, when we need it, and when it's available to be given. When we do it, we do it in a way that enhances the plant, so that if we need to come back to it again, it's still there and it still provides sustenance to the other animals and wildlife that need them.

These plants don't have voices. They don't have rights. They need us to stand up for them. They need us to have love and respect for them. When those that are so vulnerable, it really shows a characteristic and values of a culture of people to protect them. That's what we ask: the protection of our plants and protection of our culture. You live here on our land, and when you do that, you have to respect us as a people first. Human beings.

What are your hopes for the future with landscaping and Native plants?

My hope for the future is that my job becomes unnecessary. Conservation becomes unnecessary. That native plants are just such a part of daily life that it's not even thought about. It's just something that people do. Something people already know. My hope is that people will see the value in native plants, the value in the place that they call home and the value of these hills, these mountains, these valleys.

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Co-produced by KCETLink and the Autry Museum of the American West, the Tending the Wild series is presented in association with the Autry's groundbreaking California Continued exhibition. 

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