This episode features the first of our interviews from our annual SACNAS National Convention show. This conference is the largest gathering of scientists of color in the nation and we had the honor of interviewing keynote speakers.
Today’s speaker is Dr. Rosalyn LaPier who is an award-winning writer studying the environmental and religious history of indigenous plants. The conversation veered from her background in physics, what are the stereotypes when it comes to indigenous scientists and ended with a great tip for all foodies.
This interview was recorded on location in Salk Lake City, Utah in October 2017
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>> Here we go!
[♪ Blackalicious rapping Chemical Calisthenics ♪]
♪ Neutron, proton, mass defect, lyrical oxidation, yo irrelevant
♪ Mass spectrograph, pure electron volt, atomic energy erupting
♪ As I get all open on betatrons, gamma rays, thermo cracking
♪ Cyclotron, in and any and every mic
♪ You’re on, trans iridium, if you’re always uranium
♪ Molecules, spontaneous combustion, POW
♪ Law of de-fi-nite pro-por-tion, gain-ing weight
♪ I’m every element around
Dr. Rosalyn LaPier: So, my name is Roslyn LaPier. I’m an associate professor at the University of Montana. I’m in the Environmental Studies department and we teach both environmental studies classes and environmental science classes. If they’re in graduate school they get a Masters of Science degree, and if they’re an undergraduate they get a Bachelor of Arts degree. So, we’re kind of a blended . . .
Rosalyn LaPier: . . . program where students can come into the program. Because we’re interdisciplinary, students can either be very sciency in what they’re doing or they can be more sort of social science/humanities focused, but they still have to take a lot of science [laughing.]
Rosalyn LaPier: So [laughing].
Interviewer: It’s good to be well-rounded. And I was reading about you, and you are a physicist, deep-down.
Rosalyn LaPier: Yes, I am [laughing.]
Interviewer: So, before we get into, like, what you’ve been doing recently and your work with environmental science and outreach and everything that you’ve been doing, I want to kind of go into the Wayback Machine and talk about, like, how did you get involved in science, and especially, how did you get involved in physics? I want to take us through the story of how you got from physics to environmental science.
Rosalyn LaPier: Okay. So, I grew up on the Blackfeet Reservation, and I lived primarily with my grandparents and with my mother, who was a single mother. And when I was in high school, I became interested in math and science and discovered it was something I was good at. And so when I went to college, there was a small college in Colorado called Colorado College, that, my senior year of high school, they went to every single high school in Montana that was on a, in a reservation community and they recruited for students to go to Colorado College, so I applied . . .
Interviewer: [Interrupting] Oh, wow.
Rosalyn LaPier: . . . I applied without, never having been there, never seeing the place, didn’t even know where Colorado Springs was. I’m not even sure if I had been in Colorado. I probably hadn’t been.
Rosalyn LaPier: So I applied to go there, and I started out as a math major and in fact, many of my friends today from college were math majors because that’s the program I started in. I also took classes in physics, but not any other science, so for those of you who are physicists, you know that physics is at the top of the food chain. But if you’re a physicist, you usually don’t have to take a biology class or a chemistry class, but . . .
Interviewer: Oh, that’s what you mean. Got it, yes.
Rosalyn LaPier: But if you’re a biology major or a chemistry major, you have to take physics.
Rosalyn LaPier: So anyway . . .
Interviewer: So our listeners know that I’ve actually never taken chemistry in college, and I took biology in high school. So yeah, my other science knowledge is awful. I only know math and physics and astronomy, that’s it.
Rosalyn LaPier: [Laughing.] Yes, because, yeah, exactly. So, when I was an undergraduate, I only took physics and math, and as we were moving through the program, we started taking the higher level math. I took linear equations, which is a very easy class, but not for me.
Interviewer: What?! [Laughing.]
Rosalyn LaPier: And then I took abstract algebra, and that just completely did me in. I had no idea what was going on in the class, I didn’t know what they were talking about. I went to the professor’s office literally every single day and said, “Please explain this to me, I don’t know what’s going on.” And that was the point when I was just, like, “I don’t think math is for me.”
Rosalyn LaPier: Because we were . . .
Interviewer: As a major.
Rosalyn LaPier: As a major. We were kind of evolving into something that I wasn’t quite . . . so I went to the physics department where I had already been taking classes, and went to one of the professors and said, “So, will there be anything harder than differential equations in physics?” And they were like, “Nah.”
Interviewer: No. [Roslyn LaPier laughing.] I’m teaching classical mechanics right now, and that’s like all differential equations. That’s all that class is.
Rosalyn LaPier: So, yes, so then, at that point, yeah, I became a physics major.
Interviewer: Yeah. But then, and so, so you’re an undergrad, you’re only being exposed to basically math or physics. And then, when do you get exposed to, basically, any other science [Roslyn LaPier laughing] after that?
Rosalyn LaPier: Well, me personally?
Rosalyn LaPier: Well, so, I mean, when I was an undergraduate, I was the lone female for four years.
Interviewer: Oh, wow.
Rosalyn LaPier: And . . .
Interviewer: And you’re the lone female of color, as well?
Rosalyn LaPier: And I’m the lone female of color for four years, and everybody else in the department was, you know, geeky white males. And when I was reaching my senior year, there was a lot of different, both government agencies and corporations who were recruiting us to go and work in their agency and/or to go to grad school. And it was at that point where I was realizing, and please, students of today, do not take my advice on this [laughing.] I was realizing at that point that I would be spending the rest of my life with the same people that I had just spent the last four years. So I thought, “Hm, maybe I should take a different turn . . .”
Interviewer: I see.
Rosalyn LaPier: . . . than what I was doing. Anyway, I think, it’s very different now.
Interviewer: It is different now.
Rosalyn LaPier: Extremely different now.
Interviewer: But I think, I think that that’s a, I mean, that’s a realistic experience that a lot of people have. I mean even now in SACNAS, where they are in a field where they feel like the climate of that field is not inclusive enough or they don’t feel like they belong there and that really pushes them out. I’ve heard many, many, many students that have started in physics or even finished like you in physics but did not continue down that line because of the climate of, maybe just that university or maybe just that field in physics or something like that, but I mean it’s still a problem sometimes and it’s good that we talk about it. And you talk to those grad students that are already in that program and you do some research.
Rosalyn LaPier: Yeah.
Interviewer: Yeah, before you do that, yeah. But anyway.
Rosalyn LaPier: Yeah. So I think it’s different now and I think you can find programs that are definitely much more diverse . . .
Rosalyn LaPier: And diverse by gender, and by people of color, and I think there are places now where you can definitely go to that you’re going to have a different experience than something that is kind of the monoculture that I was experiencing when I was in school. But I, you know, I loved physics and I liked math. [Laughing.]
Interviewer: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I understand.
Rosalyn LaPier: By the time I finished [laughing.] So I left there and I worked for an agency for a while called the Council of Energy Resource Tribes which was a Native American non-profit NGO that was in Denver and they work with tribes with natural resource development.
Interviewer: That’s awesome.
Rosalyn LaPier: And they, and so I was, I was, you know, your typical kind of research assistant, research associate, and I worked with the geologists and I worked with the attorney and I worked with, you know, the different people that were in, who were at CERT at that time including lots of scientist who were working with tribes to address issues of natural resource development and also environmental issues. And so, at that time, that was sort of sparked, then, my interest in having that as, perhaps, a career path of working with tribes, working in tribal communities, and addressing perhaps not just environmental issues or natural resource development, but also just addressing issues that tribes thought were important and to have people who had education and training behind them who could work with them.
So, long story short, I end up back in school [laughing.]
Rosalyn LaPier: And I went back to school and decided to get a degree in environmental history, and I was allowed, in my environmental history department, because, and this was at the University of Montana, they allowed me to create an interdisciplinary coursework where I could do both kind of the environmental science, ethnobotany part, also look at religion because I’m also interest in religion . . .
Interviewer: I heard about that.
Rosalyn LaPier: And then do the actual history as well. So I was able to blend those interests of mine together when I was getting my PhD.
Interviewer: So I, I was reading about your work and this has made me really think about these things because I do inclusion work and outreach work. There’s very much of a disconnect between the vocabulary and the like, terminology we use in science versus the terminology that’s used in social science. And like, I think there’s a lot of miscommunication that happens between social science and, and, you know physics and biology and chemistry and all that. So like, you’re telling me your story and basically, you’re telling me you’re going from this very, you know, I want to say objective (finger quotes) field of physics and math and then you’re going to this kind of area where you’re kind of venturing into that social science realm. How did you adapt? I mean, you had to kind of relearn this academic language but from a different field, and it must’ve been, like, kind of hard. [Laughing.] So how did that go?
Rosalyn LaPier: Well, so [laughing], before I went to get a PhD, I actually got a Master’s degree in religion.
Rosalyn LaPier: And so I went from physics to religion and, and those are very similar [laughing] but different.
Rosalyn LaPier: So, I mean, I still was really interested in understanding the universe, right, and understanding how the world works, but then I also became interested in then how do people conceptualize it in a completely different way? And religion is one method of conceptualizing the universe. And I was interested in people’s cosmologies that were created.
Rosalyn LaPier: So, with different indigenous people, what kinds of, you know, how did they imagine that their universe was really functioning?
Interviewer: What was the mechanism?
Rosalyn LaPier: Yeah, what was the mechanism behind that? And they really did have that, kind of this blended view that we would see today as, it was partly an understanding of the natural world as natural science but then also they had layered on top of that their own cosmology. And, you know, there are some people now who write about this sort of thing when they talk about, you know, quantum mechanics and that there’s, that, you know, indigenous people have this view of the world.
I wouldn’t quite go that far, because I think that they’re not understanding it from the mathematical kind of mechanistic sense of the way the world works. But I think that a lot of indigenous people have some very, very interesting ways of the way that they imagine that the world works. And that’s what really intrigued me about studying religion. And it’s something that I still do today.
And so that’s something that I try to do in my own scholarship and my own research now is try to do this blending of what we would consider sort of natural science and religious studies. And those two things kind of fit pretty nicely in environmental history.
Interviewer: Right. That was what I was going to ask. [Rosalyn LaPier laughing.] So how does that come up in environmental history?
Rosalyn LaPier: So, I mean, environmental history considers that discipline to be kind of multidisciplinary, where there are people who study a lot of different sciences because some people want to understand the natural world sometimes from the beginning of time, right, so there’s folks who do kind of the evolutionary histories of the world. There are some people who are interested in some very specific relationships between, say, animals and plants and humans, and so . . .
Interviewer: And like, when did that all start, that kind of thing.
Rosalyn LaPier: Yeah, and so because of that, there’s, people need to understand that science so that they can write about it and tell people how those connections work. So, for example, I have a friend in Canada who wrote this really great book on the history of the Northern Great Plains and his entire first chapter is about grass and about precipitation and about the relationship between how grass is able to have certain nutrients in it that then attract certain animals, and kind of this relationship between the tall-grass prairies and the short-grass prairies and bison . . .
Rosalyn LaPier: . . . and other animals.
Interviewer: And that’s very scientific.
Rosalyn LaPier: It’s very scientific, and so, and then he goes from there to then talk about the relationship with humans and human societies, you know, all the way up to the present and the kinds of relationships we have with the natural world today. So, in environmental history, there has been this blending between sort of, you know, science (usually kind of biological science) but science and telling the story of humans and . . .
Interviewer: Right. Because it’s going to affect the narrative, the actual science.
Rosalyn LaPier: Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. So in that particular book, for some of us, when we read that, his book, we love the chapter on grass because we’re just like, “Oh! This is it! This is really explaining what’s going on here.”
Rosalyn LaPier: And really getting down to the nitty-gritty of why there’s these relationships occurring. Sometimes people who are just pure like humanities historians folks . . .
Rosalyn LaPier: . . . they’re just like, “Oh my God, that chapter on grass! I can’t stand it!” [Laughing.]
Interviewer: It makes me, it totally made me think of the analogy of like, Moby Dick, and my husband loves that book, some people do not like that book. And he loves the chapter on like, like whaling, they go through like, like, how does this work? Like how, how, you know, how do you actually do . . .
Rosalyn LaPier: All the minutiae. The minutiae.
Interviewer: Right. And he actually really enjoys that, and there’s a very, I think, a very scientific categorization in that book, or in that chapter, that, I never read it, but you know . . .
Rosalyn LaPier: Yes yes.
Interviewer: He told me. There’s also that book called Cod. Do you know it?
Rosalyn LaPier: Yes, yes.
Interviewer: And it’s a, yeah, it’s like the history of cod, and there’s a lot of science in there about like, how did this work, who actually used the cod, how did the cod, you know, what was their life cycle, all that kind of stuff. And I think it’s really interesting that you bring that up, that when you are studying history, or really, honestly, if you’re studying anything, there is an ounce of science that you kind of have to understand to tell the entire story. Or, do, I don’t know, I guess you don’t have to, but it helps.
Rosalyn LaPier: Yes, yes. Absolutely.
Rosalyn LaPier: Yeah.
[♪ Janelle Monae singing Wondaland ♪]
♪ Early late at night
♪ I wander off into a land
♪ You can go, but you mustn’t tell a soul
♪ There’s a world inside
♪ Where dreamers meet each other
Interviewer: Then what are you doing now, what is your current work?
Rosalyn LaPier: So, I do a couple of different things. One is I do my own personal research of things that I am actually interested in. So, for example, right now I’m working on a book about plants that native people used for purification purposes. So, one of the things we know about native plant use, or what is called ethnobotany, is that native people, indigenous people divided the plant world into two kind of categories, one where plants actually had a specific use and purpose and that plant really does that thing, right?
So, in terms of medicinal plant use, there’s a particular plant that really is an anti-inflammatory, it really does work that way and you can use it as a medicine. There’s another type of plants that indigenous people used and that was their relationship to the supernatural realm, or the divine, or metaphysical. And they have completely different plants that have that relationship and that connection.
So in this particular project I’m working on right now, I’m interested in that understanding, you know, why are they using these specific plants for these specific purposes that may or may not‒and usually it’s may not‒actually have a, you know, some sort of element in it that actually does the thing that they think that is going on. And so what they’re interested in is having this relationship with the divine, and using specific plants that are mediators between our human existence and the supernatural realm and using specific plants for that purpose.
Interviewer: Was there any overlap, was there any, like, you have some that are in that medicinal category and some in the spiritual category in, like, certain tribes and certain cultures and then you go, like, fifty miles away and it’s like some similarity but then there’s some overlap where it’s switched, I mean like, how many tribes are you kind of studying and what regions are those, and . . .
Rosalyn LaPier: So I’m, yeah, so I’m mostly interested in the Northern Great Plains. . .
Rosalyn LaPier: . . . as an area, as an ecoregion.
Rosalyn LaPier: And, um, so there are several different tribes that are on the Northern Great Plains, and one of the things I’m also interested in looking at is looking at specific ecoregions where there are different tribes using the exact same space . . .
Rosalyn LaPier: But having a completely different relationship with the natural world, and a completely different relationship with the plant specimens or plant species that they are using. So, I think that’s a whole other kind of . . .
Rosalyn LaPier: Thing but I actually . . .
Rosalyn LaPier: I actually teach about that, so I have classes where I have students kind of do a compare and contrast between different tribal groups that exist in the same space . . .
Rosalyn LaPier: But you know, one might be an agricultural group, one may be. . .
Rosalyn LaPier: . . . hunting and gathering, and one may be something else and they have . . .
Interviewer: Or a different elevation of the same area.
Rosalyn LaPier: Yeah.
Interviewer: So you would have slightly different vegetation.
Rosalyn LaPier: Yes.
Interviewer: It’s just, as a scientist, I’m like, so, and then, you could . . . [laughing]
Rosalyn LaPier: Yes, yes. And you know, unfortunately, you know unfortunately because of colonization, you know, we’ve really missed out, sort of, at a great opportunity to study some of these relationships, because people aren’t living in the same places that they used to live.
Rosalyn LaPier: They got removed from places, their landscapes were collapsed down to smaller spaces. So, to a certain extent, we have, people are beginning to try to recreate some of those relationships and try and figure out where people were living . . .
Rosalyn LaPier: And how they were using the landscape, but that’s hard to do now, when people are living completely in a different area than they used to live.
Interviewer: Yeah, and that’s super, I mean, that’s unfortunate because you have, you know, an association with the land and those plants, and if you moved, if a large population had to move, then they probably, I’m guessing, there was probably some attempt to kind of relate some of the plants they had there to maybe, maybe this is a similar plant here, and trying to continue that but it wouldn’t be the same and, I’d be super interested in that too.
Rosalyn LaPier: Right, right.
Interviewer: Like, how did that get altered and modified?
Rosalyn LaPier: Right, right. So, I mean, but it, so it, like it, the universe . . .
Interviewer: So many things it could go . . .
Rosalyn LaPier: Yeah. I was going to say, so, at the University of Montana there’s lots of different folks and students, a lot of graduate students who are interested in different, you know, ideas about plant use and native plant use, you know, people who are interested in studying fire and how native people used fire to their benefit, things like, you know, transplanting plants, figuring out diversity of plants in different areas.
Rosalyn LaPier: So, for example, again, another person in Canada was researching different waterways and one of the things that he, and he was an archaeologist, one of the that he found was that, every twelve miles on certain waterways in Canada, there was kind of like a mini-oasis of cottonwood trees and, you know, serviceberry plants, and kind of this diversity of plants that you used for medicine and plants that you used for . . .
Interviewer: Every twelve miles.
Rosalyn LaPier: Every twelve miles.
Rosalyn LaPier: And so he was doing this research and he was figuring out that in the past, before people had horses, that twelve miles was about how far people traveled in a day . . .
Rosalyn LaPier: . . . when they were traveling. So, what was, he was speculating that was occurring was that people were creating these little oases of areas where they would camp.
Rosalyn LaPier: And they’d set up their villages. And then, in between, there’s not as much diversity, and then you get there and there is.
Rosalyn LaPier: So, I mean, people have been doing some of this kind of research already to try and figure out, kind of, the ancient past and . . .
Rosalyn LaPier: Um.
Interviewer: So, let’s go back to your book. So, what you want to do in your book is study a specific region and kind of be able to record and talk about and, you know, share that idea of the divine plant population.
Rosalyn LaPier: Mmhmm.
Rosalyn LaPier: Yeah, so what I’m interested in is looking at plants that were used specifically for religious purposes.
Rosalyn LaPier: And so one of the things I was interested in is the idea of purity and the concept of purity that is pretty ubiquitous across religious groups around the world. So, most religions have an idea of, as humans, that when we enter a relationship with the divine or enter a relationship with the supernatural, that we have to be blessed or pure. And so, you know, an easy example to show that is, for example, if you’re Catholic and you’re going to Mass, you walk into church and the first thing you do is you take holy water, right, and you bless yourself. So that’s a very simple, kind of, blessing slash purification process that now you can go into church and you can sit down and participate in Mass.
Rosalyn LaPier: Right, okay, so this is very common across religions around the world, kind of this idea that humans need to do something to themselves to be able to present themselves in a good way to the divine.
Rosalyn LaPier: So, I was just interested in looking at particular plant species that native people on the Northern Great Plains were using and I started that project because an elder in the community had suggested it to me because he was concerned that, because, again, of colonization and this collapsing of land use, that only two plants were being used, for the most part, for purification. And he said there’s way more plants that were used in the past, not just these two . . .
Rosalyn LaPier: . . . that everybody knows about. So I . . .
Interviewer: So let’s find out.
Rosalyn LaPier: Yeah, so I started making, I started making a list of what I knew, I started interviewing elders and made a longer list, I went to the archives to look at interviews that had been done 100 years ago by early ethnographers, and then added to my list, and so right now, I have a list of about 40 different, either plant species or different natural elements like lichen or fungi. Also different lithic material was used.
Interviewer: What’s lithic material?
Rosalyn LaPier: Rocks.
Rosalyn LaPier: [Laughing.]
Interviewer: That’s what I thought, but I was just like, just in case, I was, yeah.
Rosalyn LaPier: Rocks. [Laughing.]
Interviewer: Rocks. Okay.
Rosalyn LaPier: And what they would do with that is they would actually take specific types of rocks and they would grind them up into a powder and they would use that powder for purifying themselves.
Interviewer: And how would they purify themselves with that powder?
Rosalyn LaPier: Usually, not in all cases, but usually they would burn it.
Rosalyn LaPier: And then they would take the smoke from whatever that, whatever they are burning, and then they would use that to, what we would call smudging, or symbolically wash themselves.
Rosalyn LaPier: Yeah yeah yeah. So, yeah, so I was interested in trying to figure out that diversity, and then I started, I took the list of plant species and other natural elements and started mapping that out.
Rosalyn LaPier: So, trying to figure out where on the landscape can you actually find these.
Interviewer: Right, because they’re probably outside of where . . .
Rosalyn LaPier: Absolutely.
Interviewer: . . . everyone was pushed.
Rosalyn LaPier: Yes. Absolutely. And then, you know, there’s some that you can only find up in the alpine . . .
Interviewer: Wow. Okay.
Rosalyn LaPier: . . . area, subalpine, other stuff that you’re finding way down in these very arid badlands areas. And so, I was just trying to map out, too, where you would find these different plant specimens. And then, then I just started looking at what other people had done research on some of these, and they’re not researching them the same way I am, but they’re researching them for other purposes.
Rosalyn LaPier: So I started looking at what other, mostly botanists . . .
Rosalyn LaPier: . . . had done to get a sense of if other groups had relationships with these plants as well . . .
Rosalyn LaPier: . . . or were people just studying them for, you know, botanical reasons or diversity . . .
Rosalyn LaPier: . . . species diversity reasons. So, yeah, so that’s kind of what my, but, what I’m really interested in is this relationship between humans, plants, and the divine, and getting a sense of why are they using certain plants and not others. Your earlier question of, you know, are some of these plants, do they actually do have, serve a purpose, like they are . . .
Rosalyn LaPier: . . . really are medicinal versus . . .
Interviewer: Right, or psychedelic.
Rosalyn LaPier: Or, yes, or they have no, sometimes, with some of the plants as far as I know, they don’t really do anything, you know. They’re not, you know, an analgesic, they’re not . . .
Rosalyn LaPier: They’re doing something completely different.
Interviewer: They don’t even taste good?
Rosalyn LaPier: Don’t taste good . . .
Rosalyn LaPier: [Laughing.] So, the question is sort of, like, what, how did these relationships happen . . .
Rosalyn LaPier: . . . and why are we using, you know, these different, so anyway, it’s kind of . . .
Interviewer: Because there’s always also, maybe, importance to a plant could also be how it grows, right, or where it grows.
Rosalyn LaPier: Right.
Interviewer: And not necessarily, you know, what it does.
Rosalyn LaPier: Right, right. Yeah, and then, there are some people now who are doing research on some of these plants, especially when they’re looking at the change of the diversity of plant life that exists on the Northern Great Plains, because the Northern Great Plains is one of our areas in the United States, and in Canada, that’s considered like the breadbasket, right, of America. So that’s where all the wheat is grown . . .
Interviewer: Okay, I was like, “What is . . .”
Rosalyn LaPier: . . . barley is grown . . .
Interviewer: I was like, “What does that mean?” [Rosalyn LaPier laughing.] Okay, okay.
[♪ Janelle Monae singing Wondaland ♪]
♪ Dance in the trees
♪ Paint mysteries
♪ The magnificent droid plays there
♪ Your magic mind
♪ Makes love to mine
♪ I think I’m in love, angel
♪ Take me back to Wondaland
♪ I gotta get back to Wondaland
♪ Take her back to Wondaland
♪ She thinks she left her underpants
♪ Take me back to Wondaland
♪ I gotta get back to Wondaland
Interviewer: So you’re working on this book. What are your other projects that you’re doing now, because I’m assuming, like everyone here at SACNAS are doing a million things at once, so . . .
Rosalyn LaPier: Well, I, I work with my students . . .
Rosalyn LaPier: . . . So, usually, whatever my students are interested in, I’m also kind of throwing myself into. So, you know, we have students who, like, for example, right now myself and another professor who’s actually a botany slash biology professor, we do an internship right now called Native Plants Stewardship and Ethnobotany.
Interviewer: Oh, cool.
Rosalyn LaPier: And we have students each semester who intern with us. And so those students have to both work in a native plant garden that we have on campus and then we also have them, we were just this past week out collecting seeds, so we teach them how to do seed collecting and then we use those seeds . . .
Interviewer: I do not know how to do that.
Rosalyn LaPier: [Laughing.] Then we take those seeds and we do restoration work, so we have specific places that the university owns where we restore the landscape. So we have students who work on different projects related to that who will do specific projects where they are working in our, we have an area that the university owns where students can use plots of land and do different kinds of projects. So I help out with students who are imagining different projects that they’re interested in doing. But the internship is one of the great places where students get to learn, you know, basic botany and ethnobotany but get to actually use it the way we would use it in environmental restoration and environmental work.
Interviewer: Well, so, I, I do want to ask also, because I mentioned that we talk about pop culture and we talk about how, how we’re trying to talk about, you know, science in pop culture and trying to get it out to the general population and to other scientists. Is your work ever represented in pop culture that is like totally wrong? And you’re making a face, so yes. Or, and is there something that maybe, possibly slightly gets it right?
Rosalyn LaPier: So, well, I don’t know about pop culture, but I think that when people think about ethnobotany or they think about indigenous people and plant use, they almost think of either medicinal use and/or psychedelic use, and so I will always get questions and so will the students in classes who’ve learned a little bit about, sort of, ethnobotany, of, you know, how do you, you know, how do you cure cancer, you know, how do you do this?
Interviewer: You’re like, well I have a secret in my office.
Rosalyn LaPier: Yes, exactly. [Laughing.] So, so there’s that kind of like, people ask you those questions. You know, indigenous people used plants for such a wide diversity of purposes that people don’t understand that diversity. So sometimes I’ll spend more time talking about the things that are not medicinal or not psychedelic and I only focus on other types of ways that native people had relationships with plants because otherwise, it just becomes about that.
Rosalyn LaPier: Or, you know, if they go to their local, I don’t know, record store, CD shop, they’re always going to encounter smudge sticks and incense . . .
Interviewer: Oh yeah! [Laughing]
Rosalyn LaPier: And that sort of stuff, and so [laughing] so then they’ll always ask questions about that as well. Or they’ll think they know.
Rosalyn LaPier: So I’ve been schooled many, many times [interviewer laughing] by somebody who’s gone to the CD store and . . .
Interviewer: Right. By the majority population?
Rosalyn LaPier: Yes, [both people laughing] who come with their little smudge stick and tell me what it does, and I’m like, “Hmm, yeah, maybe.”
Interviewer: I see.
Rosalyn LaPier: Maybe not, but okay.
Interviewer: So other than, like, the spiritual relationship or the divine relationship with these certain plants and also rocks that we talked about, you’re saying there’s other ways in which native populations and native tribes have used, you know, the botany that you’re talking about. So, you know, what are these other things that people can think of instead of thinking about only medicinal [pause] or only psychedelic, I mean is where my brain goes because I know nothing about botany.
Rosalyn LaPier: [Laughing.] Right. So, yeah, so I mean, edible is probably the biggest one.
Rosalyn LaPier: People don’t really . . .
Interviewer: That makes sense [laughing.]
Rosalyn LaPier: [Laughing.]
Rosalyn LaPier: People don’t realize the diversity of the amount of plants that people actually did eat historically. So, they ate anything from, you know, the same types of things we eat today, roots, berries, different types of leaves. So if you think of the way we eat today, right, we eat potatoes, we eat a salad, we have roasted vegetables, you know, and then for dessert we have berries, you know, creme brulee. They would have all of that but the creme brulee, you know.
Rosalyn LaPier: So they ate, you know, a wide diversity of plants, they used plants for tools, they used plants for making a lot of different objects, so I guess tools, but a lot of objects in the world that they lived in. They made clothing out of . . .
Rosalyn LaPier: . . . plants, and especially in the Pacific Northwest.
Rosalyn LaPier: They made all of their clothing out of plants, including, you know . . .
Interviewer: I don’t know anything about that, you tell us more about that!
Rosalyn LaPier: [Laughing.] So, yeah, I mean they made most of their clothing that they wore and hats that they wore, everything that they wore. . .
Interviewer: [Talking over Rosalyn LaPier.] Yeah, oh, the weaving, yes.
Rosalyn LaPier: Yes, that was . . .
Interviewer: [Interrupting.] I do know about this.
Rosalyn LaPier: Yeah yeah yeah, okay. [Laughing.]
Interviewer: Okay, good. You’re right. Yeah, so, I want to know, this is just an aside because I asked almost all my guests this, what kind of pop culture . . . do you like pop culture, and if you do, what are you like watching, reading, liking, movies, anything like that at the moment that kind of either . . .
Rosalyn LaPier: So. . .
Interviewer: . . . makes you think of your work, or gets you away from your work? [Laughing.]
Rosalyn LaPier: Yeah, no, there’s no . . . I love scifi, but only a certain kind of scifi.
Interviewer: What kind? [Laughing.]
Rosalyn LaPier: I love the show Continuum.
Interviewer: Mmhmm, I love Continuum! [Laughing.]
Rosalyn LaPier: I love Fringe.
Interviewer: Yeah, I don’t watch Fringe.
Rosalyn LaPier: Oh!
Interviewer: I should . . . should I?
Rosalyn LaPier: Yes!
Rosalyn LaPier: Yes. It’s the same, it’s very, they’re both . . .
Interviewer: [Talking over Roslyn LaPier] You’re like, it’s the same thing!
Rosalyn LaPier: It’s the same thing. They’re very similar.
Interviewer: It’s done both in Vancouver, BC [laughing.]
Rosalyn LaPier: [Talking over interviewer.] No no, so I like very, I like scifi that’s thoughtful but not gory or like a horror movie . . .
Interviewer: [Talking over Rosalyn LaPier.] So like . . .
Rosalyn LaPier: . . . you know how some . . .
Rosalyn LaPier: . . . scifi can be horror-movie-ish, so I don’t like those, but I like the ones . . .
Interviewer: [Talking over Rosalyn LaPier.] So Star Trek: Next Generation?
Rosalyn LaPier: Yeah, nah . . .
Interviewer: Oh, it’s so good though! [Rosalyn LaPier laughing.] It’s so good!
Rosalyn LaPier: I like things where it’s like time travel.
Interviewer: Okay, right.
Rosalyn LaPier: Yeah, yeah yeah.
Interviewer: Like Dr. Who.
Rosalyn LaPier: Yeah.
Rosalyn LaPier: And just kind, of, but, and thoughtful. Thoughtful . . .
Interviewer: How is that not related to your work? You deal with history.
Rosalyn LaPier: Yeah. I don’t know. [Laughing.]
Interviewer: I can see this link here. [Rosalyn LaPier laughing.] Okay. So, I wanted to thank you for talking to me. I’ve actually learned a lot. You’ve made me think about botany more than I think I ever have in my whole entire life. [Rosalyn LaPier laughing.] And it was nice, as soon as I was reading about you, I was like, “Physicist!” [Rosalyn LaPier laughing.] But yeah, thank you for talking with me.
Rosalyn LaPier: So now I just read about physics.
Interviewer: Do you really? What do you read about?
Rosalyn LaPier: I read about chaos theory and . . .
Interviewer: Oh yeah!
Rosalyn LaPier: Quantum entanglement . . .
Interviewer: All the stuff I avoid.
Rosalyn LaPier: All that stuff. [Both laughing.] I love that stuff.
Interviewer: Is there anything else I didn’t ask about that you’d like to talk about in the last two minutes?
Rosalyn LaPier: Don’t eat things that you don’t know what they are.
Interviewer: Oh my god, right? That’s huge.
Rosalyn LaPier: I had a student once who, well, me and Marilyn [sp?], my co-professor, we had a student who collected a plant that’s called death camas, and it’s called death camas for a reason. It’s because it’s poisonous. And he went and he collected tons of this because he thought it was onions and then he took it home and then he sauteed it in butter and then he ate it, and then he got sick, and then he ended up in the emergency room. And then, he was trying to contact me and Marilyn, and then he got a hold of Marilyn and he had a picture of it, and he’s like, “Marilyn, what is this?” and she’s like, “That’s death camas!” So then he talked to the person, the doctors at the emergency room, and then they, like, knew what to do and, anyway, he recovered.
Interviewer: [Laughing.] [Whispering] Oh my god! So he’s fine?
Rosalyn LaPier: He’s fine, now, but after that, now he’s our cautionary tale we tell every single student, like, do not eat something, especially take it home and sautee it in butter.
Interviewer: [Whispering.] Oh my gosh!
Rosalyn LaPier: You may die.
Interviewer: That is a wonderful story [both laughing.] Thank you! Thank you for talking to me.
Rosalyn LaPier: [Laughing.] Okay.
Interviewer: Thanks for listening to Spark Science. If you missed any of our show, go to our website, Sparksciencenow.com. If there’s a science idea you’re curious about, send us a message on Twitter or Facebook at SparkScienceNow. Spark Science is produced in collaboration with Kay Marie Spark [sp?] Radio and Western Washington University. Our producer is Regina Barber Degraaff, our audio engineers are Natalie Moore, Andra Nordin, and Tori Highley. Our theme music is “Chemical Calisthenics” by Blackalicious and “Wondaland” by Janelle Monae.
[♪ Blackalicious rapping Chemical Calisthenics ♪]
♪ Lead, gold, tin iron, platinum, zinc, when I rap you think
♪ Iodine nitrate activate
♪ Red geranium, the only difference is I transmit sound
♪ Balance was unbalanced then you add a little talent and
♪ Careful, careful with those ingredients
♪ They could explode and blow up if you drop them
♪ And then they hit the ground
[End of podcast.]