A Scientist's calling to practice Chumash healing

At the entrance of Eaton Canyon, USC professor James Adams was standing with a suede side bag and an explorer hat that was dangling from his neck. In his hands, he held a silver container with an acorn-based paste. As he waited for his students to arrive for his hike, he handed out the square-shaped protein treat to the attendees. It is not sweet, he said. And he was right.

He led the small crowd to a trail with plants of all colors, shapes, and sizes. Adams made everyone stop and explained how among Chumash Indians, prayer is essential. He started clapping and singing a Chumash prayer song about dolphins. In accordance to the legend, the tribe sees these mammals as as their brothers.

When asked about the God these prayers are directed to, Adams responds "when I practice Chumash religion, when I practice Presbyterian religion, it's the same God."

Adams, 63, does not have a drop of Chumash blood in his body, but in his heart and mind flows great knowledge passed on from his Chumash teacher. Even though he is an Anglo man, his passion for healing others through the use of native California plants along with this scientific expertise made him the best fit to fill the role of healer serving the Southern California tribe.

"I'm so honored that I can preserve this tradition and help pass on what my teacher taught me," Adams says. "It's a wonderful opportunity for me and a great challenge as well."


Since the dawn of America, white men have brutalized and tainted the history, culture, and identity of Native Americans. Today, it is no different. In politics, the construction of the North Dakota Access Pipeline has affected several sacred sites of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. In pop culture, celebrity couple Hilary Duff and her boyfriend received backlash for dressing up as an Indian and a pilgrim last Halloween. In sports, the U.S. still has a football team named Red Skins, which recently won a trademark lawsuit after a long battle.

The story of Adams, also known as "Jim," is not one of cultural appropriation and displacement. With compassion and respect, Adams has dedicated years to understand the belief system that Chumash Indians follow.

Chief Ted Garcia gives a Chumash blessing with white sage to Enrique Villaseñor.

The challenge about 20 years ago was convincing his Chumash teacher that he wasn't a racist, anglo man. The issues he faces today have to do with getting his plant-based medicines approved by the U.S. Food and Drug administration and dealing with criticism for charging for his services as a healer. These bumps in the road have not dissuaded Adams from his calling as a healer for a community he has become a part of.

Ted Garcia, the hereditary chief of the Southern Band of the Chumash Indians, considers himself to be more open-minded regarding his healers' backgrounds in comparison to other chiefs, "I don't believe that you have to be Chumash, you just have to be a good student and learn all there is to know and pass it on and help people."

It has been a challenge among this indigenous community to keep the youth involved in leadership and ceremonial roles because they often work, go to school or have families. Many of them come back to their roots much later in life. In fact, chief Garcia himself did not become involved with his culture until he was in his 40s. "Life a lot of times gets in the way," chief Garcia says.

James Adams working in his lab at the University of Southern California's Health Campus. (Claudia Buccio)


Through him, she is still living. From what she taught him, so I'm very grateful for that...

Adams attributes his interest in Indian healing to his ancestors who arrived to the U.S. from England in 1635. Surgeon William Adams learned from Virginia Indians after realizing "that the boat of medical supplies wasn't going to come quickly from England," Adams says.

"My grandparents knew quite a bit about of American Indian healing and used it on me when I was a kid. And they taught me," Adams says.

Adams studied biochemistry at UC Riverside and then pursued a PhD in Pharmacology at UC San Francisco. However, just like his ancestors, Adams wanted to learn Native American healing.

After several years of trying to find an apprenticeship opportunity with a traditional healer, he came across a very knowledgeable Chumash healer in 1998.

Most Chumash have "been born and raised in white society," Adams says. "Another white man is no big deal."


This was not the case with the healer he was trying to learn from, who passed away in 2012. She had a traditional upbringing thanks to her own conviction and thanks to her grandparents.

"She didn't want to teach me because I am a white person, and she knows the whole history of what white people have done to California Indians," Adams says. "And I can't blame her for not wanting to teach me."

During that first encounter, she looked at him and said: "You are a white man. I will never teach you," Adams recalls.

He had brought along his Chinese wife, who ended up having a long conversation with the healer. She finally reconsidered this apprenticeship and accepted. "I become her student and was her student for 14 years," Adams says. "She taught me how to be a healer."

In order to convince the healer that he was serious about learning Chumash history and culture, Adams hand-made his own regalia, which consists of a ceremonial skirt and a hat made of feathers that took him around 250 hours to make.

"The feathers are to help me get out of who I am, and become somebody else," Adam says referring to the outfit he wears for Pow Wow. "Stop being this serious healer, Doctor Adams, and become, you know, a social person who can interact with people one on one."

Chumash traditional dancers performing at the 24th Annual Hart of the West Pow Wow in New Hall, Calif. (Claudia Buccio)

"She [healer] wanted to interact with me because I could bring the science to her healing, so that was my job," Adams says. "It was a good team, and that's the way the book that we wrote was set up also."

This paved the way for the study of Chumash medicine within the world of academia. Adams and the healer worked in multiple projects together such as the book Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West and an article in which they defined the role of traditional medicine within their community: "Chumash healers treat their patients with prayer, laughter, dreaming, phytotherapy, aromatherapy, healing ceremonies and other techniques. Healing involves first healing the spirit, then healing the body."

For Adams, one of the most valuable lessons he learned from his teacher was to use his sense of humor when treating patients "to keep people laughing because if a person is really sick and in agony if you can get them to laugh, it helps them to restore their balance, and it helps get them on the path to healing," Adams says.

In order to become a Chumash healer, Adams says the person has to believe in God and must have the gift of healing, a trait believed to skip a generation.

"So all healing comes from God, so everything must start with God. And whenever I heal a patient I pray, I bless them with white sage, and then start the healing process," Adams says.

Adams' teacher was the cousin of chief Garcia. After the healer passed away, the two agreed that Adams would become the new healer for the tribe in the San Fernando Valley.

"Through him, she is still living. From what she taught him, so I'm very grateful for that, and you know he's said "would you mind if I carried on this" and I [said] no, why would I? Because it is important," cheif Garcia says.

"I prayed for days to really be sure that this was what God wanted me to do," Adams recalls.

Adams explaining the herbal properties of California sage brush and its uses in Chumash healing. (Claudia Buccio)

From student to healer

Dr. James Adams tells the story of how he learned Chumash healing and how he was able to combine his two passions: science and traditional medicine. After his Chumash teacher passed away, he became the new healer of the Southern Band of the Chumash Indians.


Meet Dr. Adams, he practices Chumash healing and analyzes plants chemically. - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA
360° photo of Adams' lab at USC's School of Pharmacy. (Claudia Buccio)

Adams puts on his dark gray lab coat and glasses for safety reasons in his lab on USC's health campus. It is in that place where science and Chumash healing become one.

"The whole reason that I do this is because we know from the Chumash people that this plant, California holly, is very useful in slowing down the progression of alzheimer disease. Why? How does it work?," Adams says.

Adams enjoys going for a stroll in the hills within Southern California to gather plants that the Chumash use for healing. "We bring it back to the lab and we grind it up and extract it with various solvents," Adams says describing the chemical procedure followed to break down the components of a plant.

In a freezer at his USC lab, he stores different herbs such as chia and California everlasting. "So far, I've examined maybe 6 [plants] or so. You know, it takes a couple years to really get it done properly," Adams says.

Enrique Villaseñor (left) and James Adams (right) pose at the 24th Annual Hart of the West Pow Wow in Newhall, Calif.

Enrique Villaseñor is a one of Adams' patients who has embraced the use of Chumash natural remedies. He is originally from Mexico but moved to the U.S. when he was about 8-years-old. His mother used to be a curandera, a term in Spanish for healer.

Due to his exposure to alternative Mexican medicine, he was a lot more open-minded about using Chumash healing after suffering side effects from prescribed medication given to him after a knee surgery.

"I couldn't sleep. I was in a lot of pain," Villaseñor says. In those moments of darkness, he was introduced to California Sage liniment, which helped cease his ache. Since that day, he always carries a little bottle in his pocket.

Although, historically, Chumash healers have always been paid for their services in comparison to other tribes. Adams has encountered occasional backlash for charging $150 per consultation.

Adams usually meets with his patients at social events such as a pow wow. He also receives phone calls and emails from people seeking his services.

In his healing sessions, he usually takes patients on a nature walk, so they know where to find the plants they will need for their treatment. He tells people where they can buy the herbs, so they can prepare the medicines themselves.

"Maybe if I had 10 patients a day, I'd make money, but I have more like 10 patients a year. I'm not making money," Adams says with a laugh.

Adams also has his own creations, which is part of his conflict with the FDA. "I make the sage brush liniment, and I always have it available for sale 30 dollars for a bottle. I also make a balm out of a plant made chamise that I use for skin problems like eczema,"Adams says.

"I can sell my medicines, I can charge for my healing here in California, and the FDA, I know for a fact, is not particularly happy about it," Adams says. "I'm protected by California state law, so they can't stop me, but I can't practice at a hospital or at a normal clinic because everything that happens in those places has to be all FDA approved."

Cindy Carson, who teaches health law at USC's Gould School of Law, says traditional healers are protected under the California business and professions code. It "exempts people basically for any kind of prosecution if they are in fact doing their treatment as the practice of a religion," Carson says.

Adams has promised himself we will not give up trying to make the FDA approve his plant-based medicine to treat pain.

Part of his interest in helping patients with chronic diseases has to do with the memory of his mother. She "was a chronic pain patient, and I loved my mom a lot, but she would not let me treat her," Adams says. Whenever he has patients returning because they feel better from their pain he feels rewarded.

"What I want to do is just hug them and thank them so much because now they are the surrogate for my mom who wouldn't let me treat her," says Adams.

Just like Adams learned as much as he could from his teacher, he is also embracing a journey of mentorship with his own students.

"It is just a matter of finding somebody who has the gift of healing. You know, it's something you have to be born with it's something that God gives you. And it's not something that comes from talking to me," Adams says.

Chief Garcia hopes someone will be passionate enough to learn the ways of Chumash healing to keep the tradition alive. "I'm praying for a successor for him [Adams]," he says.

As of now, Adams is training the next generation of Chumash healers in Southern California. "One of them is from Mexican background, one is from a Chinese background. I'm still waiting to get a Chumash student," Adams says with faith.

Adams stands with his students right by an oak tree explaining the properties of acorns at Eaton Canyon. "Acorns are God's gift to us to survive the winter," Adams says. (Claudia Buccio)