News & Stories abstracts
Sep 1st, 2007

Salt from islands and from deserts

(The Paintbrush, Fall 2007)

Mark F. Acuña
Death Valley (Photo by Graham Bothwell, 2009)

In the final days of summer and at the hottest time of the year, clear blue skies and deep warm nights offer rare summer beauty. The Tongva, the indigenous people of the Los Angeles Basin, called this time “Cucuat,” the brown and sear month. The hills, valleys and canyons are still alive with good food. But we must look carefully, for the plant people* are hiding in the shade. The last days of summer “Aw.ró.reh.vay” sent the Tongva food gatherers even farther afield than normal. Some ventured out to the edges of the desert, the great “Wah.wah.weet” beyond “Hidakapu” (the San Gabriel Mountains) or down to the edges of the “Moomaht”, the sea. Some even ventured out to the “Wehe.,” the Mountains that go down to the Sea (our Channel Islands).

What was the search? Salt and especially in the plants known as “Kasil” or more commonly “Ungarr”.

Botanically they were looking for Atriplex, Saltbush. Tongva diet used two species: A. canescens and A. californica. A. lentiformis was a difficult plant found in the alkaline desert wastes. Few Tongva ventured that far out from the wonderland of “Tovangar,” the Los Angeles Basin. But Tongva traders braved the desert lands.

Fresh leaves of Kasil/Ungarr were eaten raw or boiled with other foods to add flavor. On rare occasions when A. lentiformis was traded from the Chemehuevi and the Kumitaraxam (the present day Cahuilla) the seeds were mixed with Chia to form cakes and stored for future use, a rare commodity. The trade plants (flowers, stems, and leaves) were crushed and steamed for nasal congestion, and a tea was made from the leaves to relieve stomach pain.

A. canescens leaves and stems were crushed, mixed with saliva, and spread on ant bites. A. californica has long roots, which were pounded to make soap. The three species overlap in blossom time: A. canescens and A. californica, April to November; A. lentiformis, August to October.

A. canescens can be found on common dry slopes, in flats and washes below 7,000 feet, Juniper-Pinyon Woodland, coastal strand, valley grasslands, cismontane valleys, and out to the alkali sinks, and creosote bush scrub of our deserts. A. californica is found on sea bluffs, sandy coastlands, coastal strands, salt marshes, and sage scrub, and on most of the Channel Islands.

* The “plant people” are the plants themselves. The Tongva saw all life forms as “people.” Thus in the hot and sear times, the small, the little, the delicate “plant people” look for and hide in the shade. So to find them, we must “look carefully.”

Mark F. Acuña is a Gabrieleno-Tongva Elder and can be contacted at

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