traditional chmash healing with Cecilia Garcia
Environmental Health Rituals and Traditions

Self-Healing with Chumash Native Plant Medicine


The late Cecilia Garcia taught Chumash traditional spirit healing with prayers, laughter, dreaming, herbal medicines and aromatherapy, leading to mending the body’s physical processes.

traditional chmash healing with Cecilia Garcia
Chumash people had several medicines used against pain such as willow (S.lasiolepis), momoy (D.wrightii) and black sage (pictured-Salvia mellifera). Soaking in a handful of crushed black sage leaves and stems in a warm bath relieves pain in the feet and lower legs. -Cecilia Garcia

Cecilia Garcia and James Adams: Healing With Medicinal Plants of the West, Abedus Press

In early October 2011, a group gathered at Quail Springs Learning Oasis and Permaculture Farm to study with Chumash medicine woman Cecilia Garcia and USC professor of pharmacology James D. Adams Jr. Quail Springs is set in the Cuyama Valley, surrounded by the Los Padres National Forest, backcountry to Santa Barbara and Ventura. Nearby are the Chumash sacred Mt. Pinos and the enchanted Lockwood Valley.

Renowned Chumash medicine woman Cecilia Garcia departed our human-bond in Ensenada in May 2012. A terrible loss, considering her tireless teaching of healing through native plants, ceremony, and laughter for the many-too-many overly-serious and botanically-ignorant migrants to her ancestral South-Central California home. Read a tribute to her on WilderUtopia.

Quail Springs focuses on permaculture and human sustainability, a farming and living experiment emulating ecologic relationships from wild nature. Studying ethnobotany and healing in the Chumash tradition with a scientific overlay there was a rare and edifying experience.

Spirit Healing, Mind-Body Follows

According to an article published in the Oxford Journals by James Adams, traditional Chumash healing with prayers, laughter, dreaming, herbal medicines, aromatherapy, and ceremonies have been employed in south-central California for 13,000 years. Healing the spirit always comes first, followed by mending the body’s physical processes. Prayer and fasting, connecting with the land, and breathing fresh air all help us to communicate with the Creator and life-giving energies. Families and friends too can fast, pray, laugh and dance together, assisting with a patient’s comfort and reassurance. This runs contrary to modern modalities focused on healing the organism separate from spirit, family, wild earth, and ceremony.

White Sage – Salvia apiana – waykway (Chumash)

Possibly the most integral spirit plant is the white sage. The concentrated bundling common to sage burners is not recommended, allowing the leaves to dry freely, avoiding mold. Use of white sage purifies the central nervous system and brings calm. In Cecilia’s words “It tickles the spirit” and promotes protection, equilibrium. White sage can be administered as a drink by putting a leaf in cold water, used with prayer. This could be consumed every day, one leaf per day, all the water you can drink. A lukewarm tea is also used. Burning, smudging or smoking sage functions as a blessing, accompanied with prayer, in order to protect someone. It should not be used as incense and not be tied with yarn or string. The book lists a number of other uses, modern and traditional.

Mugwort – Artemisia douglasiana – molush (Chumash)

Another important spirit plant is “dream sage” or mugwort. It grows in river valleys in riparian areas and leaves have a mild sage smell. This herb has usage with people under stress who cannot sleep nor dream. Lack of sleeping and dreaming leads to depression, overeating, and health debilitation. A handful of dream sage can be collected and stuffed into a pillow, the aromatherapy calming the mind, promoting rest, dreaming, and ultimately the spirit. For women and some men, drinking a cup of mugwort tea at night helps deal with chemical imbalance and feminine problems, but not to be used in pregnancy.

California Sagebrush – Artemisia californica – kopsheek (Chumash)

California sagebrush is ever-present in the foothill chaparral with a strong smell used to recall pleasant memories, burned or carried in a sack. Here shown dried out in fall, during the spring it has feathery leaves, silver-green, a few inches long. It also can be used as a decoction for muscle, joint or arthritis pain relief. Stuff sagebrush into a jar, soaked in alcohol, with cracked avocado seeds and one leaf of white sage added. The tincture is allowed to soak for 3-6 weeks in a dark place and can be used in addition to standard treatments. Anxiety can be relieved by sagebrush tea mixed with cinnamon.

California Bay (Laurel) – Umbellularia californica – pshakn (Chumash)

One of the most pungent medicinals is the Bay tree, traditionally used in hot spring baths. Growing in riparian areas near water, an aromatherapy hot soak in bay leaves can comfort joints. Though much stronger than European bay leaves, it flavors food or makes a tea to strengthen the immune system or relieve digestion problems. Wrapped in a cloth, deveined leaves relieve migraine headaches or put in the mouth until the pain subsides.

Momoy (Chumash) – Datura wrightii

Also called California Jimson Weed or in Spanish, toloache, this small bush is common in disturbed areas and often considered one of the most sacred plants in the Chumash world. According to Cecilia, Momoy protects and tickles the soul, brings you back to earth. Ingestion of the root mixture would initiate young boys or girls into adulthood and can induce sacred dreams or hallucinations. Unfortunately, the dreaming-dose can inhibit breathing, become poisonous, or induce blindness. It can be dangerous or deadly, and not recommended outside of sacred, not psychedelic, Chumash ceremonies. In small amounts it can help a patient breathe as aromatherapy mixed with yerba santa leaves (Eriotdictyon crassifolium) or destress as a foot soak, and can bring luck by sucking on a piece.

Coast Live Oak – Quercus agrifolia

Acorns from the Coast Live Oak along with its valley cousin, the roble (Spanish) or ko (Chumash), were the most important food source through the winter. Storable for four months, they could be eaten in a soup, as porridge or baked as a bread. The thin soup was used for almost any disease as good nutrition. Tannins must be removed, processed through warm water leaching and adding baking soda. Acorns drop in the fall in two stages. The first tend to become wormy and are shared with the deer and other animals. The second drop are gathered by humans.

California Everlasting – Gnaphalia californicum

This flower has an everlasting butterscotch (or maple) scent with clustered pearly flowers (in spring) and is referred to as “women’s tobacco.” It should be drank as a tea at night for four days when you have a cold and the illness will not persist or progress. It is also used to change people’s attitudes, smoked with tobacco. Some varieties are considered a tonic for women’s fertility.

Buy the book from Abedus Press and Amazon

Quail Springs Learning Oasis and Permaculture Farm

Articles By James and Cecilia in Wilderness Way Magazine

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  2. elizabeth lerer

    Thank you for posting this.

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  5. Chumash healing with the plants.

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