Sacred Pollinators: An Interview with Frank K. Lake
An interview with research ecologist Frank K. Lake.
By Emily Underwood
Frank K. Lake has been immersed in the rich cultural and ecological heritage of California’s northwestern
Pacific coast since early childhood. Raised by a Yurok and Karuk family, he learned about the natural world through cultural practices that now inform his work as a research ecologist and fire scientist at the Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station.
You’re acknowledging that it’s not just in the past, like a museum, but that it’s important today.
Lake spoke with Flora about the importance of pollinators to the Yurok and Karuk Tribes and other Native Californians, as well as the challenges and opportunities of applying traditional ecological knowledge to forest restoration and management. As this issue went to print, he was out in the field, working on the
Red Salmon Complex fire in the Trinity Alps Wilderness.
E: How did your ancestry, culture and family affect your choice to become an ecologist?
F: I’m part European-White, Mexican, Spanish and a descendant of several tribes of North America. I grew up in a Karuk-Yurok family and was raised with that culture. Growing up among the northwestern California tribes and as a child being involved in subsistence and spiritual practices was a big part of my upbringing and the
culture I practice and participate in now. In particular, being taught and trained at many different sacred sites, which have high biodiversity, and learning the spiritual and cultural teachings and creation accounts related to those places and species influenced my decision to be an ecologist.
E: Can you describe where you grew up, for people who might not be familiar with the area?
F: It’s rural and remote, but extremely beautiful and diverse. There’s the Pacific Ocean, with different types of beaches and rocky intertidal coastlines, to oak woodlands and prairies, to the cedar-pine and mixed- conifer and hardwood forests, and the high true fir forests of the Klamath and Siskiyou mountains. Everything between the Pacific Ocean and Mount Shasta was my cultural teaching ground.
E: How old were you when you started learning those cultural and spiritual teachings?
F: Very young. There are pictures of me at Katimin, the Karuk Center of the World near Somes Bar on the Klamath River, helping make fishnets with my grandpa and my dad when I was like three years old. My dad was one of the founding professors of the ethnic studies program here at Humboldt State University and taught spirituality and Native American studies. He started learning from elders about traditional healing, and that influenced his time with me and his teaching as a father to son. He was also very much involved with activism — there were the Yurok fishing wars, the struggle over Yurok subsistence fishing and conservation. I was a product of the environmental controversy over the G-O road, with the Forest Service wanting to build a logging road that went from Gasquet on the coast through the Siskiyou Mountains to Orleans. I remember being at a protest against that at the Eureka courthouse as a child. [Through those experiences] I learned the tension between Indigenous retained rights, conservation and environmental protection, and what would be or would not be sustainable management, both for forest resources and riverine systems.
E: How did you learn to relate to the natural world in those teachings?
F: A lot of it was being taught how to introduce myself to a natural place: a spring, a hillside full of wildflowers. Just sitting there with buzzing pollinators, watching the hummingbirds come up in the meadow in the morning sun. Being taught that every unique species is a different spirit that has a right to be acknowledged, that has its own life history requirements, what it needs to live. Learning that you have a responsibility to understand that, to know it, to reaffirm your responsibility for that, and to care for that as a human being.
E: What did you learn about the process of pollination?
F: [Laughs] The Indian version of the birds and the bees? It’s like what I tell my daughter, when we come out in the springtime to the huckleberries in my yard and wild patches. I’ll say, ‘Come on, honey. Let’s go in the morning light when it reaches the huckleberries and the dew starts to melt. You see how the bumble bees show up for some of the flowers, or the hummingbird comes for a visit? Do you see what they’re doing? They’re kissing the flowers. And when you kiss the flowers, it helps make the fruit.’ That’s what I tell my now seven-year-old daughter and my nine-year-old son, but it was that same kind of thing. There’s a level of descriptive intimacy between the pollinator and flower and the outcome from that relationship, be it a fruit or a nut or other thing that we all depend upon for food as other animals and humans in this environment.
E: Can you share some examples of pollinators that are particularly important to California tribes?
F: My perspective is very much northwest California-influenced, but broadly across California Indian tribes and through the northwest those would be birds, particularly hummingbirds, and insects such as bumble bees, butterflies and moths that pollinate many of the food plants, like huckleberries and black cap raspberries, Indian potatoes (geophyte lilies), and iris for cordage and string. There’s the silk moth — its little silver cocoons are used as rattles for the Pomo and the Miwok and the Maidu — and the green hornworm that eats wild tobacco, a very important crop amongst California tribes.
For us [Karuk-Yurok Tribes], there are several different species of hummingbirds that are associated with the World Renewal Dances, and other healing aspects of the culture. Bumble bees, too: I think about the hum in the meadows in the high country, the big bumble bee that’s more yellow than black, the dark purple-black bees, and little ones that live in wood. So many bees, laden with pollen on their little legs and thighs.
There’s quite a few different Indian names for girls that mean ‘Butterfly,’ or ‘Hummingbird.’ My half-sister Chay- gam-em, who is a Yurok Tribal member, her name is Hummingbird. Also, for the Hupa, Karuk and Yurok there’s a girl’s coming-of-age ceremony called the “Flower Dance,” where the community and the families acknowledge the importance of women for the family and tribe, and her association with and knowledge of pollinators for many food and basketry plants of cultural importance. There’s a lot of teaching from older women and even men in that ceremony, acknowledging the importance of that young woman and her role in the environment.
E: What stories about pollinators are important to you?
F: Some of my favorite stories as a kid were about hummingbirds: In one, all the birds get together to have a contest, to see who can fly highest. They make fun of Hummingbird because he/she is so small; some of the birds go a little higher, the hawks and eagles go higher. Then Condor steps up and says, ‘I’m gonna fly the highest and show you all how it’s done.’
Without anyone knowing, Hummingbird gets on the neck of Condor. When Condor goes so far into the sky that they’re almost out of sight and breaking the atmosphere, Hummingbird jumps out of Condor’s neck feathers and collects starlight and sunlight. (The full name of Frank’s sister translated from Yurok is ‘Hummingbird from the sun.’) Hummingbird gets it on her/his head and chin and feathers and then sneaks back onto Condor. Condor comes down, and the birds come around and say, ‘Condor, Condor, you’re the greatest bird! You’ll be the one closest to the Creator!’ Then Hummingbird crawls out of his shoulders and shows off the new starlight and sunlight on his/her feathers and says, ‘Actually, I was the one who got the highest.’ This story is meaningful to my family, and why I think my sister was named such.
E: As someone trained in several traditions, what do you think is missing from the Western scientific understanding of how different animals and plants, including pollinators, are connected?
F: I remember being up with my dad in the Siskiyou wilderness in a sacred meadow, when these biologists came by with butterfly nets. My dad goes, ‘What are you guys doing
here? You’re interrupting our spiritual seclusion! Don’t you know that these butterflies are some of the most sacred in the world?’ And the guys are like, ‘Well, actually, these are endemic butterflies and they’re found nowhere else in the world.’ And my dad’s like, ‘That’s what I’m trying to tell you! They’re a gift from the Creator!’
Seeing all this unfolding as a 10- or 11-year-old kid, that still resonates with me today. Like, we both appreciate and respect pollinators, but we have different ways in which we acknowledge them, and different ways of gaining information about what we should do to protect and conserve them. The biologists were trying to convince my dad that these butterflies are so rare and endemic and tied only to this area, these plants, and that they’re special — to be known about and studied. And yet my dad was saying, ‘Well, yes, if you sat here, and prayed, and introduced yourself, and watched them, you would learn about them. And you wouldn’t have to do this type of sampling and pin [the butterfly] and take it as a specimen back to your lab.’
What we typically are taught in our Western education is the objectification of nature, as something separate from humans. [I would like to see] Western-trained scientists or biologists be open to and inclusive of Indigenous or tribal perspectives, and be open to those tribal teachings as another form of knowledge — maybe not one that they believe in, or were taught, but being accepting of that as another way of knowing.
It’s a struggle. I see this in the peer-review aspects of journals, the colonial elitism of a Western-educated person saying, ‘I have a PhD, what could a California Native elder teach me?’ They often discount or discredit these alternative indigenous teachings and explanations, which can be kind of funny and informative. If you think about a Coyote story, it’s funny, it has humor, it has ethical lessons about what you should and shouldn’t do. It’s a way of teaching you throughout your life. So many times I’ve had ecologists or biologists say, ‘Oh, it’s just storytelling, it doesn’t really have any grounding and is not really applicable to me.’ I think that they closed the door before they had a chance to learn something that could have been of value.
E: Are there traditional methods of supporting pollinators that you would like to see adopted more widely?
F: For me, it’s reinstating tribal burning practices to recover more open habitat, to expand oak and hardwood forests, to recover and maintain prairies and meadows. It’s restoring flowering shrubs and forbs that provide so much food, nuts, and berries with the help of pollinators. It’s reestablishing tribal cultural fire regimes in partnerships with agencies, organizations, and tribal families to increase the diversity of habitats burned across the landscape. For example, burning to increase oak woodlands — which we could also call tribal acorn orchards since they have been managed for acorn production for thousands of years — and grassland prairies that can support food plants like geophytes/ Indian potatoes, trailing blackberries, tarweeds, as well as culturally important plants like mules ear for medicine, and beaked hazel for food and basketry materials.
There are broader things that we can do to restore and manage these places with a keen eye toward what pollinators need.
E: How can organizations like CNPS, agencies and others learn from and support traditional ecological knowledge in restoration efforts, without appropriating or co-opting those traditions?
F: By being more holistic and more inclusive of [the tribal] perspective and of the sacredness of nature and pollinators. Also, by acknowledging that it’s not a ‘natural’ state that we’re trying to restore, but actually a cultural legacy in many areas, for particular habitats. It’s about approaching tribes as research partners, understanding what their research or management needs are and desires are. It’s using that indigenous knowledge or traditional ecological knowledge to formulate our study approaches: What are the metrics? What are the indicators to measure or evaluate? How can indigenous knowledge help us consider the way we even analyze the data and interpret results?
As a non-tribal person, you can learn what you can do as a human to promote pollinators in the habitat they need, and not just look at the environment extractively, as an economic resource or as an ecosystem service that was produced for you. We can have pollinator campaigns and plant little gardens, but I think there are broader things that we can do to restore and manage these places with a keen eye toward what pollinators need.
E: In a recent article in Ecopsychology, you and your coauthors (Jonathan W. Long, Ron W. Goode, and Benrita Mae Burnette) talk about the importance of using Indigenous place names. What is lost when those names are not used?
F: Acknowledging tribal place names can be a form of reconciliation, repatriation and restoration for tribes recovering traditional knowledge and related subsistence or ceremonial practices that are otherwise mostly invisible to mainstream Californian and American society. Tribal place names give context, and can enrich the understanding and history and stories and teachings of a place and its people.
I think of a recent project for the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership in the Offield Mountain area. Offield is the colonial settler name, but the name of that mountain is Ma’ and Sa’Tue’yee [upper and lower mountain peaks]. To have an environmental planner or the botanist be like, ‘Oh, I can’t say Sa’Tue’yee’… Challenge yourself. If you say you’re inclusive, overcome the discomfort of saying the Indigenous name, even if you say it wrong. If you’re working with tribal people who have asked you to call it this, and you say it’s too hard, you’re demonstrating your ability to give up.
Your attempts as a non-tribal person to say that tribal place name shows respect. It shows your ability to be a willing partner, to come through something uncomfortable. You may also support a form of healing, because of maybe that place being named after a white settler who led the local militia during the Civil War, who hunted down your tribal colleague’s great grandaunties and uncles and got bounties for them, whose village was burned, whose grandmothers were raped. If you keep calling it that name, it only furthers that trauma for those tribal descendants today.
E: What about names of plants? Should those be called by tribal names too?
F: Every tribe is going to have a different name for different plants. One example of a common flower with lots of different names is Dichelostemma capitatum, or blue dicks. It’s used as a food, the flowers are used as regalia in a girl’s coming-of-age head wreath, and every tribe is going to have a different name for it. What you could do is, rather than saying ‘This species was used by California tribes,’ you could say ‘This species is used and valued today by California Indian tribes.’ That adds presence and relevance to it. You’re acknowledging that it’s not just in the past, like a museum, but that it’s important today.
E: You have worked to show how traditional ecological knowledge can be incorporated into ecological restoration efforts. What are some of the big-picture challenges and daily obstacles to that? What would you like to see happen in the future?
F: Often when we restore these places, it’s kind of a showcase. So often the plaques say ‘Stay out! This area has been restored! Stay on path! Stay on trail!’ But if we’re acknowledging that a site was part of a cultural landscape and a cultural practice over a long time, why wouldn’t we facilitate access and opportunity for tribal reengagement? There could be another sign saying ‘This area has been restored to promote tribal access, and subsistence and other important cultural practices. Be respectful of tribal people, while they gather and steward this place of significance to them.’
Then, when you see Indians out digging Indian potatoes with an iron crowbar or tire iron, you wouldn’t stop and say, ‘What are you doing?’ Instead, it could be ‘there’s California Indian people tilling the soil, recovering this lily patch. They are going to feed themselves and be stewards.’ So much of the California Indian experience is being questioned and asked what you’re doing, being assumed to be doing something illegal when you’re just trying to be Indian. We complain that we don’t have the budgets to maintain [restored] sites. But we should be looking at stewardship models that would engage tribal families and urban communities.
I think about all the ways that elders or other practitioners have enriched my understanding, have helped me devise a new metric that was ecologically or culturally applicable for a study. When we write papers and we get published, that science, the body of research informing management that leads to implementation or restoration strategies on the ground, is more culturally inclusive and more directly applicable to tribal interests and values. Then tribal people become direct beneficiaries of their investment of knowledge. To me, that’s a form of justice.
So much of the California landscape and ecosystems was perceived as a natural system, but really was a cultural relic. For tribes, when you [do cultural burning], you restore the oak woodland and prairie, the grasses and shrubs and flowers and forbs. Things come back and you increase the biodiversity, the per square meter unit rate of pollinator production. And you’re also there with your granddaughter, digging Indian potatoes, teaching story and song, gathering hazelnuts, gathering acorns. Your uncles or your father are hunting deer and you have food, you have clothing, you have medicine, you have the revival of cultural stewardship practices and knowledge systems.
Than as a tribal person you name your daughter Butterfly, or Bumble Bee, and when she grows up she asks, ‘Why did you name me Bumble Bee, Daddy?’ And you say, ‘It’s here, see how this bumble bee kisses this flower? What are you going to do in your life as a woman to make sure that you, as that bumble bee, persist? And not only that your family has food, but that the bumble bees have food, and that hummingbird has what it needs? To me, that’s the richness of recovering a cultural knowledge and practice that has been there for many generations and was interrupted.
Anderson, Kat M, and Frank K Lake. “Beauty, Bounty, and Biodiversity: the Story of California Indian’s Relationship with Edible Native Geophytes.” Fremontia 44, no. 3, December 2016, 44–51.
Long, Jonathan W, Frank K Lake, Ron W Goode, and Benrita Mae Burnette. “How Traditional Tribal Perspectives Influence Ecosystem Restoration.” Ecopsychology, June 2020, 71–82.
Emily Underwood is the Publications Editor for CNPS.