(From left to right) Karlie Williams, Mavtas Yang and Quinton Caldera cultivate some native deergrass at the Pathways of Our Ancestors plant sanctuary in Fresno’s Woodward Park.
Photo courtesy of Richard Crockett
On the far western side of Woodward Park, after trudging down hills, walking a winding dirt path, and heading past a field of yellow grass—which could technically be called a desert—a small patch of green exists.
Just far enough away where the sounds of the busy Friant Road can no longer be heard, save for the occasional two-stroke motorcycle, there exists a lonely garden.
Visiting the Pathways of Our Ancestors plant sanctuary is like stepping into California in the 18th century.
Next to a river and surrounded by a barbed wire fence, visitors will see patches of deergrass with stalks reaching over 6 feet tall, as well as sedge grass, sage and sourberry, most of which was used by Native tribes for basket weaving.
The Many Lightnings American Indian Legacy Center, as well as Fresno State students who are fulfilling community service class requirements, tended the garden on Oct. 27.
Fresno State instructor of anthropology Charles Ettner said that everything planted at the garden is done so with care and ancient tradition, and before the students are allowed in, they were given the option to participate in a smudging ritual.
“We’re planting plants that Mother Earth is accepting, so we need to do it in a good way. That’s the Indian way,” he said.
Smudge, he said, is a spiritual ritual where sage leaves are wrapped, dried and lit. The smoke is spread over the person, which “cleanses” them.
The workers are then asked to avoid anything that could offset the blessing.
“Smudging is supposed to cleanse them,” Ettner said. “Once you’ve been ritually cleansed, they’re instructed that inside of the (Pathways of Our Ancestors), there shouldn’t be anything negative going on.”
While in the garden, the workers are discouraged to use any negative speech, actions or thoughts, at least as much as they can help.
Nobody was forced to go through the ceremony, but everyone accepted, despite their own personal and religious beliefs.
“It’s kind of nice to be ritually purified,” Ettner said. “It’s not a bad thing.”
The group began planting flora around three years ago.
Recently the group has been able to enjoy the fruits of their labor: The oak trees have grown strong, the deergrass has taken to the rough, dry soil, and nearly all the weeds have been evicted—nearly everything about the garden stands as a stark, green contrast to the surrounding arid environment.
The group has a partnering agreement with the state to grow the plants.
But not everything is perfect at the garden.
When the land was requested, a barbed-wire barrier was erected to section off the garden from the park.
“We want to eventually remove all the barbed wire,” Ettner said. “We have intended for a natural plant sanctuary.”
He said that they would soon remove the barrier and replace it with a natural barrier.
Fresno State students have visited the garden before and helped cultivate the harsh land by removing weeds, planting and irrigating the ground using water from the nearby river.
Freshman Karlie Williams is helping with the garden as part of her required volunteer hours for her communication class that deals with group discussion. She said that it has been a tough job.
“I don’t mind doing it,” she said. “It’s for a good cause.”
Though the work is difficult, it hasn’t prevented her from enjoying her time there.
“I think I would volunteer again,” Williams said. “I don’t mind doing this. I actually enjoy volunteering and doing community service like this.”
Mavtas Yang, a freshman from the same class, also experienced the garden for the first time.
“It’s really good for the environment,” she said. “I think a lot of people aren’t aware of these organizations.”
She said she plans on returning to the garden soon, but said she would come back to enjoy it with friends.
“It’s hard work, but it’s worth it,” Yang said.
The purpose for the garden, however, goes beyond simply cultivating plants. It exists to educate young Native-American generations, said Laura Wass, executive director of Many Lightnings.
“We want them to learn about their medicines, their foods, what was used as tools and so forth,” she said.
“The second priority is to bring in other children of other ethnic groups, so they understand our culture and tradition and the importance of it,” Wass said.
“We’re actually going to set that area up at the very end for demonstration purposes to show the children how things were gathered, boats were made, or how fishing poles were made, or wood harvested,” Wass said.
Wass said that she enjoys the help from Fresno State students, who she believes feel something when visiting the garden.
“They come here and they just love it,” she said. “The connection is really strong.”
Wass said that they have felt the presence of the spirits of the land, who have granted the organizers permission to cultivate the garden.
“It just feels natural,” she said. “Your spirit is high. You feel the spirits of the land. You feel the spirits of the plants—there’s no negativity at all.
“It’s the way it used to be.”