When Stanford undergraduate Ryan Miles Duncan first came to campus last year, he was immediately drawn to a budding project: the native plants garden, a new teaching space near the Stanford Dish, an open area for research and recreation on the outskirts of the Stanford campus.

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Harry Gregory

Stanford students learn about the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe and other indigenous communities through cultivating and caring for a native plants garden in a new teaching space near the Stanford Dish.

The garden was an unexpected offering for him at Stanford: It was an opportunity to learn and connect with the local Muwekma Ohlone tribal culture and traditions, all while cultivating native fruits, herbs, and flowers.

“Before I got admitted to Stanford, this didn’t exist at all,” said Duncan, as he gazed around a cleared-out, half-acre-sized plot beneath a canopy of deciduous oak and bay laurel trees.

Duncan, who is from Oklahoma and is part of the Choctaw and Chickasaw communities, was excited to help build a dedicated space for learning and community centered around indigenous communities away from the hustle and bustle of the Stanford campus and outside, closer to nature.

“It’s a lot more calming here,” said Duncan.

When students come to the space, it is not uncommon to glimpse deer peeking out from shady bushes and hear the crinkle of leaves crunching beneath hooves. Above, hawks can sometimes be seen circling, watching the class below.

What was once woody brush and weeds some years ago is now two concentric circles complete with an irrigation system – thanks to the efforts of Duncan, Wilcox, and other Stanford students.

Duncan, who is majoring in Native American studies, has been coming regularly to the garden – first on an outing for Muwekma-Tah-Ruk, the Native ethnic theme house at Stanford, and then as part of an ongoing Community Engaged Learning class he is enrolled in with anthropologist and Stanford instructor Michael Wilcox.

Wilcox started the project four years ago as a place for Stanford students to gather and learn about the history of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, and how their lives, like other Native American populations, were forever changed by colonization.

“Stanford offers this really unique laboratory for learning about native peoples in the Bay,” said Wilcox, a senior lecturer affiliated with the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity (CCSRE).

Plants are a way to tell that story, Wilcox said.

They carry a rich narrative with traditions passed down over generations, which students learn about. But plants reveal a darker history as well, one connected to larger social and political issues facing the Muwekma Ohlone and other tribes today, such as tribal land sovereignty and food insecurity.

For Duncan, this has been an especially salient problem. “Even back home where I’m from, we lost a lot of our traditional food systems to colonization and the domestication of plants,” he said. “Learning about the biological systems and how those connect to colonization and culture has been really apparent in this class.”

Learning history through habit

The site for the garden project also bears significant meaning; As part of the Stanford campus, it sits on the ancestral land of the Muwekma Ohlone people.

Students learn about what happened to the land during colonization, the rise of monoculture farming in the region, and its lasting effects on natural habitats today.

For example, last quarter, students helped clear away invasive weeds like cirsium vulgare (commonly known as the bull thistle). They learned how the plant is particularly pesky in areas that have been used as pastures and for grazing, and how it is connected to cattle farming, one of California’s largest agricultural industries. Thus, by extension, the bull thistle’s emergence is entwined with the tribe’s disappearance and displacement. After Junipero Serra founded the Santa Clara Mission in the late 1770s, European and American settlers took over the land – which then became known as the Rancho Rincon de San Francisquito – to raise ruminant livestock.

This is among the many facets of California history Wilcox and students unearth in the class through their interaction with the environment.

The class also goes on hikes across the Bay to learn about the area’s natural history. As Wilcox tells students, the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe story is also a history of environmental and geological change.

Over the 10,000 years that the Muwekma Ohlone people lived in the San Francisco region, they have witnessed the Bay appear following glacial melt that led to rising sea levels and flooding across the region. They then watched it reform as the water receded, giving way to the many meandering waterways, deltas, estuaries, and dry river valleys that define the Bay Area topography today.

“Their whole story is one of climate change, and we have a lot to learn from them and other native peoples about how we can deal with elements that are changing constantly and affecting the way that we live,” Wilcox said.

Throughout the quarter, students also get to learn about plant physiology, the natural landscape, and other biological and ecological factors as they relate to California and the local environment.

Engaging with the community

Learning about the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe from the tribe itself is also an important part of the class.

The class – under the stewardship of Wilcox and university archaeologist Laura Jones – works closely with the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe. Twice a month, students meet with representatives of the tribe to hear from them what they would like to see come out of the space. (As Wilcox points out, students learn relationship-building skills as well as horticultural ones.)

“A lot of the work that Professor Wilcox is doing gives reasons for why the tribe needs to be here, why their knowledge is valid in this space, why we’re all guests on their land, and how we should always be thinking of the tribe and how we can better their position in the world,” said Duncan.

For example, there are some native plants that are still used today for ceremonial purposes, like sage. There are other plants with traditional, medicinal properties as well, such as toyon, whose bright red berries were once used to treat wounds and infections.

This quarter, students will put young plants like these into the earth with the hope that by late spring and summer, there will be a thriving garden for the local community to harvest from.

In addition, the class has also attended local tribal events and festivals – for example, students recently took part in a celebration hosted by the San Jose non-profit ConXion to honor the heritage of native people. There was Aztec dancing, a Pow Wow, and spoken remarks from people including Arvol Looking Horse, a Lakota Native American spiritual leader and outspoken critic against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Finding a taste of home, laughter

Jasmine Waukela Kinney, a major in psychology and Native American studies, is another student in Wilcox’s class. Kinney is a Yurok tribal citizen, and for her, having an outdoor space dedicated to tribal culture and heritage helps provide an added sense of belonging at Stanford.

Throughout the quarter, students go on field trips across the Bay Area, including sharing a meal together at Cafe Ohlone, a restaurant in Oakland, California dedicated to Muwekma Ohlone cuisine. (Image credit: Courtesy Michael Wilcox)

“I feel seen as a California native person and student here at Stanford,” Kinney said about being involved in the projects. She and Duncan are among some of the 450 undergraduate and graduate students representing more than 50 tribes and island communities studying at Stanford.

Like Duncan, Kinney has also taken several of Wilcox’s courses.

“By taking Mike’s classes we are able to come together, we are able to learn from one another, to teach one another, and to thrive with one another,” Kinney said. “That is important because when you’re away from your home community, this is your community.”

For Duncan, the non-traditional learning environment has allowed for a different type of creativity and curiosity than what he gets in a classroom setting.

“We have more open conversations,” Duncan said. He said he doesn’t feel the same pressure that he gets in a classroom, where he said he feels he has to have more formal and prepared answers. In the garden, he said he can be with his friends, learning as much from them as he does from the course materials and exercises Wilcox offers. “There’s a lot of laughter,” Duncan added.

For Kinney, the garden also brought her a sense of home as some of the plants the group is working with are ones that she grew up with in her culture.

“Being here I can just come back and smell home,” she said. “To be able to have a piece of that at Stanford and seeing how I can reflect and know everything’s gonna be okay when I smell a little piece of home.”