Rick Flores earned his undergraduate degree in 1997, and returned to graduate school two years ago in the Environmental Studies program at UC Santa Cruz. Between his two phases of higher education, Flores worked at the UCSC Arboretum, which set him on a path towards graduate school.
Flores was the Curator of the California Native Plant Collection at the Arboretum, which he said “naturally led me to start learning about the ethnobotany of the California Indians.” In 2009 the Arboretum started a program with an indigenous community, the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band (AMTB). The pairing, called the Amah Mutsun Relearning Program, was established to, as Flores said, “help assist them in their efforts to relearn their ethnobotany and traditional ecological knowledge.”
Flores led the program and developed an understanding and familiarity with the AMTB, assisting them on various projects throughout California, in their traditional AMTB territories, “from Quiroste Valley Cultural Preserve at Año Nuevo State Park to Pinnacles National Park,” said Flores. “I also began to realize that perhaps I could help the AMTB even more with an advanced degree.”
After talking with AMTB Chairman Valentin Lopez about his thoughts on graduate school, “to study and research the tribe’s efforts of relearning cultural knowledge and the process involved,” and receiving the Chairman’s full support, Flores was introduced to Associate Professor Flora Lu at the Environmental Studies program at UCSC.
“From our first meeting [Dr. Lu] has been incredibly supportive and understanding of my research and goals,” said Flores. “After receiving the support of the AMTB, and having found a faculty adviser who understands and supports my research, I knew the timing was right to go to graduate school.”
Flores currently studies how the AMTB “attempts to recuperate and relearn traditional ecological knowledge and resource management after a period of colonial dispossession,” he said, and “how this process of relearning can help them become active land stewards again.
“In addition, my research investigates the relationships the AMTB have fostered with western academics and institutions to assist them in this process of cultural revitalization.”
Flores added that, “since the Environmental Studies department is an interdisciplinary program, for my natural science research [thesis component], I’ll be looking at how to grow and harvest traditional California native food plants by blending traditional knowledge with contemporary horticultural practices.”
His interest in indigenous life began in his youth, and was spurred by a visit with family when he was a teenager.
“I remember being at my aunt’s house in Hawai’i when I was about 13 years old when she told my cousin to go get dinner,” he recalled, “…he came out with his snorkel gear and spear and proceeded to go down to the ocean to spear our dinner.
“…being from the suburbs of Los Angeles, I assumed he was going to come out with his car keys and wallet to go to the grocery store.”
Flores' father also grew up in Hawai’i, and shared memories with his son about their family’s close relationship with the land. “My dad remembers my grandmother foraging in the forests of Hawaii for various medicinal and edible plants. I remembered being rather awestruck by the fact that my family was still in some ways living off the land in Hawaii.
“This experience really brought my interests closer to home.”
The choice to attend UC Santa Cruz seemed an easy one for Flores based on a research interest well matched with that of a faculty member and a graduate program on campus. His decision was aided by the close relationship the campus has with the Arboretum and the assistance the campus offers to student employees.
“The University of California has some really great fellowships for staff members to obtain higher degrees,” he said. “Being at UCSC I can continue developing the Relearning Program at the Arboretum, while also pursuing my graduate degree. Moreover, the interdisciplinary nature of the Environmental Studies Department really fits my research, as it is both plants and people. I see my research as a mix of ecological anthropology and traditional ecological knowledge.”
Looking towards the future, Flores believes he will continue his work with indigenous peoples and their pursuits. “I want to continue to help the AMTB in their efforts to relearn traditional knowledge and become active land stewards within their traditional territories again,” he said. “I would also like to work with public and private land managers to incorporate traditional knowledge into contemporary land management practices.
“Prior to European contact, California was a tended landscape, meaning that the California Indians were actively tending the land and creating habitats for cultural resources.”