Respected Navajo Herbalist and Environmentalist Remembered

“Picking plants is a very holy experience—I take a sincere and serious approach to it with respect and then hope and faith.”

These are the words of Jerome Jackson, a gentle herbalist and environmentalist, who passed away in Holbrook last week. Though only 59, he left an impressive number of loving relatives, friends, students and a respectful body of knowledge of traditional Navajo plants and their uses.

His birth in the autumn of 1942 was never recorded—he later chose November 3rd as his birthday. He was born to Rosaline Scott of the Big Water Clan and for his father, Henry Jackson of the Salt Clan, and was raised in a traditional manner in Teesto, Arizona. He is one of seven surviving siblings.

He and other relatives learned from Jackson’s maternal great-great grandmother, Kasbah Kanuho. He also acquired knowledge from his father and uncles. Through a long and thorough initiation process, Jackson acquired important knowledge, which he later shared with others.

“A lot of people are worried to share [knowledge]—to have people know their knowledge surrounding these plants in Navajo tradition. There’s a saying among our elders, ‘If they have interest they’ll come to me.” He had enough persistent interest to impress his teachers, and though he wasn’t a hatathli (singer), he had extensive knowledge of the ceremonies of the Western Navajo and the herbs many of the traditional people still use.

Jerome Jackson spent the last 15 years of his life as a teacher and was involved in many bilingual and multicultural programs. He was a popular teacher across the reservation and in Flagstaff schools.

In 1998, NAU anthropology graduate student Erian Humphreys undertook an independent study wherein she teamed up with Phyllis Hogan, director of the Arizona Ethnobotanical Research Association, to interview a Native American activist involved with the Navajo-Hopi relocation. Hogan immediately thought of Jackson.

In a series of interviews, Jackson shared the story of his life with Humphreys. Fortunately, this history is preserved in Volume Two, Number One, Fall Equinox 2000 issue of the Official Journal of the Arizona Ethnobotanical Research Association.

For almost 15 years, Jackson collected plants for Hogan’s shop, The Winter Sun Trading Company, and co-taught ethnobotany classes with Hogan. He, along with his aunt, Grace Smith, served as ambassadors to the United Nations in Geneva, speaking against relocation. Though he always believed that relocation was wrong, he looked at it in a matter-of-fact manner.

“A lot of my immediate family members relocated, and [the land has] been partitioned to the Hopi people. I think my Hopi brothers were just being used. Us Native Americans should have stood together and stood our ground, not to be used against each other to promote one’s cause.”

Jackson’s spiritual way of looking at the world is honored by his brother, Paul, who spoke of his brother in a tear-choked voice. “He was a very gentle man who put prayer first in his life. Our mother is taking his passing very hard. She held him close in her heart, putting him on a pedestal. None of my brothers or sisters can take his place.”

Jerome had begun to experience some health problems with his heart, Paul said, and he recalled asking his brother about them. “’If I go, it would be the Higher Power taking me,’ he told me. That is how he went about his life.”

Jerome, he said, was a good brother with a good attitude, willing to help others. When faced with harsh words or criticism, Jerome was able to walk away in a good place. “He gave a lot of good encouragement in his life. That’s how I knew my brother. He was a sweet man and we will all miss him.”

Paul also expressed his family’s recognition to Hogan for the work she and Jerome did together. But Hogan, he indicated, was more than just a fellow herbalist and environmentalist. “He depended on Phyllis,” Paul said. “She was his backup. When he needed someone to talk to, she was there for him.”

Jackson and Hogan were in the process of mapping sites of traditional and endangered plants. She was saddened by the news of her friend’s untimely end. “His passing is the end of an era,” Hogan said. “He was one of the last of traditional medicinal plant gatherers. But more than that, he was a teacher. He was willing to share his knowledge.” She expressed her condolences to Jackson’s family and friends, and echoed the words of his brother Paul. “We will all miss him.”

Quotes of Jackson’s words are used by permission of the Arizona Ethnobotanical Research Association.

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