The BC Interior Forestry Museum launched its Winter Speaker Series on Oct. 22 with a presentation by Dr. Nancy J. Turner, ethnobotanist, distinguished professor and Hakai Professor in ethnoecology, in the School of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria.
With a focus on traditional knowledge systems, land and resource management systems of Indigenous Peoples of Western Canada, Turner has worked with First Nations elders and cultural specialists for more than 40 years; helping to record, retain and restore their traditional knowledge of plants and environments, including indigenous foods, materials and medicines.
Her new, two-volume book, Ancient Pathways, Ancestral Knowledge: Ethnobotany and Ecological Wisdom of Indigenous Peoples of North America, is the consolidation of her years of research, and an attempt to answer four key questions: “How did the people ever learn all that they know? How did they share that knowledge across time, generations and space? How did they adapt that knowledge for different places, times and conditions? Finally, how can that knowledge be preserved, maintained, brought forward and kept for the future?”
Turner’s love of plants and genuine desire to respect and learn led her to form bonds of trust, creating friendships with many elders including Neskonlith elder, the late Dr. Mary Thomas.
As a child in Salmon Arm, Thomas spent many hours with her grandparents, learning about her Secwepemc culture; travelling to different areas in the mountains, digging root vegetables, picking berries and basket materials. Thomas even shared memories of coming to “Mount Revelstoke by horseback, with her family, to gather food… They collected mountain potatoes – a staple in the winter diet, avalanche lilies and spring beauty down in the valley bottom. When those were finished, her people would move up to the plateaus where they hunted, picked huckleberries and gathered more avalanche lilies and spring beauties.”
Many root vegetables would have been harvested in the Revelstoke area, as well as cow parsnip, the inner bark of trees, black lichens and medicines.
Turner’s research has contributed to a growing understanding that plant and animal use involved complex management traditions.
Through ecological and social practices, indigenous peoples have intentionally influenced the quality and quantities of the foods and materials being produced in nature.
Plants and environments are manipulated through large-scale and long-term activities, such as the use of berms or terracing to create and extend habitat for root and clam gardens; and by the very detailed actions of pruning individual shrubs to stimulate new growth. Indigenous Peoples are found to be longtime cultivators, applying a range of traditional practices and leaving minimal impact.
Turner suspects areas around Revelstoke would have been strategically burned, creating prime hunting and berry-picking grounds.
Social management strategies to share knowledge are deeply rooted in tradition, embedded in narratives and ceremonies; reinforcing the respect and responsibility of ensuring resources are kept in good condition.
Turner has compiled a comprehensive look at the traditions of indigenous peoples and sees the potential for the application of these strategies in a modern context. She sees how humans can have a positive influence on biodiversity and the productivity of their ecosystems by becoming caretakers.
The Winter Speaker Series is brought to you by the BC Interior Forestry Museum. Visit their website at bcforestrymuseum.ca, or their Facebook page for information on future events.