Explore use of this native plant in Indigenous culture with the Dorothy Ramon Learning Center.

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This edition of the Dorothy Ramon Learning Center August 2020 newsletter has been reprinted in full.

Chia: A plant of power

In this newsletter we explore paanihac (Serrano), pasal (Cahuilla), pashal (Luiseño), ‘ilépesh (Barbareño Chumash), nulh’amulh (Kumeyaay), or chia, as this sage plant (Salvia columbariae) is known in a few local Southern California languages. Chia’s tiny seeds offer an important Native American traditional energy food.

Dorothy Ramon: They could do anything anywhere

Dorothy Ramon remembered in Serrano:
“‘Amay kwenemu’ ‘uviht chaway tengek nerneerm taaqtam ‘uviht.
Long ago the women would gather it.
‘Amatunga ‘aam ‘ichu’kin tum hiiti’ peerraqwi’ Pemya’ mern kwana’ ‘amay.
They would make food out of it. They’d mix it (with other foods).

Tum hinyip peerraqwavim wihay ‘amay.
They would put it into any kind of food of theirs. …
Xhit ‘a’ayec rraaqwc kwenevu’ ‘ama’. ‘Ayee’ hawaytim chawe’cu’.
That was healthy food. They would always go gather it.

Pana’ peenyu’ hawayt weney peeqwayk ‘ama’ paanihac: haqwanow qwa’im.
When they were hungry the paanihac plant was always there for them to eat.

‘Ani’ kwenevu’ … hakup ‘enaac peettattqa’ peyika’ nyihay puuyu’ pemeka’.
It was … very good for their bodies.
… Kwana’ puyaan tum hayp mih. Tum haypim hamin nyihnyi’.
They could go far (after consuming it). They could do anything anywhere.” (1)

Power in a single seed

“The seeds are highly nutritious, containing more than 20 percent protein and 34 percent oil. Historical accounts relate that a teaspoonful of chia seeds could sustain a man in a trek across the desert.” — Michael Lerch (2)

Chia for good living

EDITOR’S NOTE: We thank Learning Center friend Robert Porter of San Bernardino for suggesting that we feature chia in this newsletter and for contributing this article and photos. His many community activities include hosting the “I love San Bernardino County!” program on KCAA radio.

By Robert Porter
Chia is called pahinatsh (3) in Serrano and pasal in Cahuilla and has been used as food and medicine for thousands of years. According to Katherine Siva Saubel, the famous Cahuilla Indigenous plant specialist, and anthropologist Lowell Bean, “In the past, it often covered many acres and was readily available near most Cahuilla villages. One of the many instances of plant management practiced by the Cahuilla was the burning over of chia stands periodically to facilitate the next season’s growth.”(4) This shows how important it was to keep this plant growing back in large numbers every year.

From June through September people used seedbeaters to harvest the tiny seeds, knocking them from the flowered stalks into a basket. In older times the collected seeds were hulled by rolling them in a metate and applying pressure with a mano. Seeds were parched in a basket or clay trays with hot coals and pebbles, ground into a meal to make cakes, or soaked in water to make a beverage. (5)

Katherine Saubel explains in Cahuilla that when she was young in the 1930s-40s, she would help collect chia at Mallard canyon in the hills, then her mom would prepare it in a skillet, and it was very tasty:
“Pén pénga’ pé’ pé’ ‘áachakwe’ pé’iy pemúmlayqa’ ‘áchakwe’ ‘álawe’ pish kinapi’.
And she would constantly stir it because otherwise it would burn.
Kill míyaxwe’ pish pechútpi’. ‘Achakwe’ pe’múlaypi’ míyaxwe.
She could not burn it. You have to stir it constantly.

Múlu’uk pénga’ ‘áy pé’ qwásqa’. Pén pika’ ‘áy pepikinqa’.
First it would cook. Then she would pour it out.
Pén péngap ‘áy petúlusqa’ pé’iy ‘ay. Then she would grind it.

Pikap ‘áy héspen petúlusqa’ pika’ ‘áy chéqe’ flour ‘áyaxwe’, ‘áy pévey’a’ pé’. Péngap ‘áy pé’iy pá’li’ … She would grind it until it became like flour, what she had ground. They put water on it …” (6)

Hunters used to eat it, she remembered, taking it along with them. “‘Umu támi’ti’ hemnénmap míyaxwe pé’iy pemqwáwenive’ yéwi. Long ago they could walk all day if they ate it.” (7)

Katherine Saubel and Lowell Bean also mention the curative properties of chia as a poultice on infections and as eye medicine.

Pahinatsh or pasal was an important part of Indigenous life-ways, even being used for ceremonial purposes and being kept in the ceremonial bundle, Katherine Saubel remembered. (8) This plant being a food source, medicine and having religious significance shows how interwoven it was into ancient culture. This chia plant is much rarer today because of habitat loss, grazing, and the loss of indigenous plant management. Please never harvest this plant in the wild, so it can be seen and admired for thousands of generations to come.

My personal experiences with chia come from many encounters in the wild and on archaeological surveys. I would often look for chia as a sign of a former Indigenous presence in that area, and scour the land for artifacts to record, as a site. Often times manos and metates were recovered in these areas in situ or left in the spot they were last used. I’ve also seen chia on my many hikes in our region and always tell my companions that the presence of this plant indicates an old Indigenous garden. It’s a beautiful plant, and I have always admired it and its uses.

Ernest Siva: Memories of Chia

Ernest Siva recalled in 2012: I have fond memories associated with paanihac. (Some people call it paahinac.) Whenever my mother visited Polly Cisco we — my sister Arlene and I — would delight in her surprises for us. Polly was an elder at the Morongo Indian Reservation. She and her father came to Morongo sometime in the mid-1800s from Desert Hot Springs (Paac Wirrarrka’, traditional place name, meaning Swirling Waters). Her people were all killed there, but managing to escape, the two survivors found refuge at Morongo. Even though she had experienced such tragedy early in her life, she was always laughing and telling stories. She spoke Maarrenga’twich (Serrano language) beautifully, although her father’s language was a dialect of Pass Cahuilla. Our family loved her.

We always expected to be given a handful of chia when we arrived at her home. She ate “Indian” food, as did most of the old-timers. This meant she harvested her own food and prepared it. I do remember she did put hominy, which came from a store in Banning, in her beans, though. I recall she ate hakweych (wild wheat) a lot. She would outdistance us all when walking to town, which was 3 miles away. The old-timers were like that. They were energetic and had fine posture.

When guests arrived at the Kiich Ater’ac (the ceremonial house) they were given paanihac. The feast would follow. This was another time, (the 1940s) but so close in memory.

Today, out of convenience we eat other store-bought cereals such as steel-cut oats, but cousin Kim and his wife, Barbara, harvest and eat paanihac regularly. They are runners and find it easy to carry and use on the trail. The spirit of Polly lives on. (9)

Ernest Siva: Reflections after the 2020 Apple Fire

Native American people used to burn chia and other seed crops to increase their production. Such cultural burning helped the people rejuvenate the land.



1. Dorothy Ramon (and Eric Elliott), “The Paanihac Plant,” in Wayta Yawa: Always Believe, Malki Museum Press, 2001, pp 143–144.
2. Michael Lerch, “Chia: Plant of Power,” in “Heritage Keepers” newsletter, © Dorothy Ramon Learning Center, Inc., Summer 2004, Vol. 1, №3, p. 7.
3. Orthography and spelling of pahinatsh used by Donna Largo, Daniel F. McCarthy, and Marcia Roper, Medicinal Plants Used by Native American Tribes in Southern California, 2009, Malki-Ballena Press © Malki Museum, Inc., p.15. (Linguist Kenneth Hill also used this orthography, 1973.)
4. and 5. Lowell John Bean and Katherine Siva Saubel, Temalpakh: Cahuilla Indian knowledge and usage of plants, 1972, Malki-Ballena Press, p. 137
6. Katherine Siva Sauvel and Eric Elliott, “Gathering Chia,” in ‘Isill Heqwas Wáxish: A Dried Coyote’s Tail, Malki Museum Press, 2004, Book 1, p. 51.
7. Book 1, p.168 8. Book 1, p. 626
9. Ernest H. Siva, “Memories of Paanihac (Chia),” in “Heritage Keepers” newsletter

© Dorothy Ramon Learning Center, Inc., Summer 2012, Vol. 9, №2, pg. 4

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