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Y. biologist says Utah losing wisdom as tribal healers die

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 4 2000 10:55 a.m. MST

A Brigham Young University biologist says Utah is losing a "treasure chest" of ancient knowledge about plants and medicines with the passing of Indian tribal healers.

"An increasing number of aged healers are dying with their knowledge left unrecorded," ethnobotanist Paul Alan Cox wrote in an essay in Friday's issue of the journal Science. "Will tribal knowledge survive this millennium? If it doesn't, the world will be far poorer for its loss."

Cox, a botany professor at Brigham Young University in Provo, is on leave at the Hawaiian island of Kauai, where he serves as director of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, which manages five tropical gardens and two preserves in Hawaii and Florida.

In all, the gardens hold 787 endangered plant species with more being collected from South Pacific islands and Southeast Asia. Traditional Indian healers, weavers, farmers and shipwrights teach classes and grow native plants such as taro, breadfruit, kava and other medicinal herbs in the gardens.

"While many scientists understand the need to preserve biodiversity, few understand the need to preserve cultural diversity — particularly indigenous knowledge systems," Cox said.

"Scientists should learn to listen to indigenous people. Many indigenous cultures have remarkable knowledge and insights. We should preserve this knowledge for future generations."

Cox named the culture of the Goshute Indians as a prime example of a culture that is fading away. Of several hundred Goshutes living in Utah and Nevada, fewer than 20 are fluent in their native language, and when they die "their language and much of their culture will disappear forever," Cox wrote in Science.

"Among the 20 are elders whose experience as little children is extraordinary: They were raised as hunter-gatherers in the high deserts of the Great Basin," Cox said. "By tracking a diverse palate of edible roots and tubers, a desert habitat that might otherwise appear foreboding was transformed for them into a movable feast."

Yet, Cox said a Goshute matriarch told him "her grandchildren would rather watch television than listen to stories of a now forgotten way of life."

Cox said Utah "is a treasure chest for ethnobotanical studies" of plant-based foods and medicines because the state is rich in indigenous cultures.

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