On February 7, in Phoenix Auditorium at The Haven, preceding our AGM, eminent ethnobotanist Dr. Nancy J. Turner, Emeritus Professor, Environmental Studies, University of Victoria, presented some of her fascinating research. The evening’s proceedings were begun by Snunéymuxw Elder Lolly Good with a personal introduction and prayer in Hul’q’umîn’um. Dressed in ceremonial robe and headdress, she brought greetings from Chief Wyse and thanked us for caring for the land.
Shelagh Rogers (Chancellor, University of Victoria, and GaLTT member) thanked Elder Lolly and spoke briefly about ethnoecology—the linking of people with plants and place—in the context of Dr. Turner’s 40-year history of honouring First Nations knowledge keepers and encouraging University of Victoria students to also preserve knowledge. She spoke of the seven sacred teachings: Wisdom, Truth, Courage, Honour, Love, Respect, and Humility, all demonstrated by Dr. Turner, and described the many nuances in the word “tender” that could be used to describe Turner.
The First Nations have been here in BC for at least 14 thousand years, and to describe them as “hunter gatherers” is too simplistic—she considers the term “cultivators” to be more accurate. She spoke of their tradition of burning clearings to keep cammas fields healthy, and folding back turf to harvest larger bulbs from deeper levels, leaving higher, smaller bulbs to grow in the loosened earth below.
Also, the Tsilqoti’in ceremonially replant sunt’iny “mountain potato” (Claytonia lanceolata) to help spread these valuable plants with pretty white flowers.
She described techniques for taking bark from carefully chosen cedar and birch trees at exactly the right time of year using correct technique, so as to get the right bark for your project while not harming the tree by preventing the sap from running. She also spoke of “learning from the beaver” how to prune and pollard trees in a way that encouraged healthy fruit growth and young shoots that can be harvested, and “learning from the bear” how to scatter some fruit on the ground when berrying to encourage new plants. She spoke of the coastal peoples’ “kincentricity”, encompassing all relationships, not just human, resulting in respect for other species’ (animal and plant) environments, and described clear evidence of deliberate seed scattering in particular areas. She told how local languages described different aspects of certain plants, showing the cultural importance of a particular use of that plant to each group.
She also described large-scale Gitga’at seaweed harvesting techniques and the building of clam gardens, enclosing suitable beach areas with rolled rocks to enhance shellfish growth. She stressed that prime resource areas throughout peoples’ territories were named, owned, managed, and celebrated as places. Their ownership was inherited or bestowed as a gift or in return for a favour. It was not just common property without oversight. Land and resource use were distributed over space and time according to the seasons, and spiritual aspects are critically important, reflected in ceremony.