Discussing traditional tending of plants and their habitats

UVic environmental studies professor talks Indigenous wild plant cultivation techniques

Turner is immensely appreciative of the elders who have shared their methods and wisdom of plant tending with her, acknowledging Ida Jones, Clan Chief Adam Dick (Kwxsistalla), Selina Timoyakin, Helen Clifton, Mabel Joe, Mary Thomas, Ron Ignace and Annie York among many others. (Juan Cabrejo/The Omega)

The latest segment of the environmental science seminar series (held last Thursday) featured a presentation from University of Victoria emeritus professor of environmental studies Nancy Turner, on the traditional ecological knowledge of Indigenous peoples of Northwestern North America. 

Turner’s seminar was a primer to the field of ethnoecology, the scientific study of how groups of people perceive, understand and interact with the ecosystems surrounding them. Turner says the area can apply to many other scientific disciplines.

“Ethnoecology is sort of in a sense the broader field in ethnobotany, which focuses on plants, but ethnoecology is really the study of cultural, ecological knowledge and the interactions between the human societies and their environments, including other species,” she said. “It’s a very interdisciplinary study; it draws on many fields from architecture to geography to chemical ecology and political ecology, oral history, anthropology and so forth.”

Indigenous knowledge systems, according to Turner, find balance in procuring plants and animals for survival, while contributing to the land’s overall health and sustainability. She mentions the various techniques taught by her mentors, such as how to harvest silverberry bark and how to conserve halibut for the winter.

“These are the different components of Indigenous knowledge systems, practical strategies like what plants and animals are in an area, what’s good to eat, what’s bad to eat, where it grows, when it grows, how to process it and all of those things,” she said. “Central to a knowledge system like that is the worldview that people hold, the value set they hold, of respect and reciprocity, always you hear from elders, ‘you can’t just take, take, take; you have to give back,’ that’s part of the whole way of life that people have had.” 

Turner describes how most of the knowledge passed down through generations is through hands-on instruction and how every family or community holds a representative body of knowledge in addition to the members’ talents. 

“Every community, every family, holds its own particular specific knowledge,” she said. “Some people are trained from an early age in some particular part of that knowledge whether it’s medicine or theatre, canoe building or basket weaving, each community has its knowledge and individuals also have their own particular body of knowledge. It’s not all universal.” 

Turner grew very fond of Neskonlith elder and ethnobotanist Mary Thomas over the many years they collaborated, who happened to be an expert basket weaver. One wouldn’t assume the tremendous complexity and skill required to collect the right combination of birch bark to create a basket.

“She was a master birchbark basket maker and would say, ‘you can’t go out and take bark from any old place you have to really look for it; [it] takes you maybe a whole day of searching to get the right mixture, the shorter the eyelets (lenticels) the better and doesn’t crack easy,” she said. “This is very practical knowledge about the birch tree that goes with the basket maker.”

Despite having studied ethnoecology for almost 50 years, Turner is immensely appreciative of the elders of various nations within B.C. who have been willing to share their methods and wisdom of plant tending with her. She acknowledged Ida Jones, Clan Chief Adam Dick (Kwxsistalla), Selina Timoyakin, Helen Clifton, Mabel Joe, Mary Thomas, Ron Ignace and Annie York, among many others.

“What I’m sharing to you, I’ve been a student of and I’ve had some wonderful teachers who have shared their knowledge with me over the years,” she said. “I know people have cared for these lands for many thousands of years, Kukwstsétsemc (thank you in Secwépemc).”