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Traditional Plant Foods of Canadian Indigenous Peoples


While growing up on my reserve, I remember my parents, aunts, uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers telling me stories about the plants in our area. I would, in turn, explain the stories to my younger brothers, sisters and cousins, and invariably make up something along the way if I couldn't remember all the details. As kids, we would chomp on snake tongues, pilfer berries (we never made it home with enough for a pie), or gather milkweed to relieve our skin from endless mosquito bites. My grandmother had as much success as anyone giving awful-tasting medicine to a kid, especially when it was bitter roots to chew on for a sore throat. I never knew what a weed was, since I was taught that every plant has a purpose on this planet.

I am currently working at the Assembly of First Nations, a national Indian political organization, still pursuing my love of the outdoors as a policy analyst for environment and harvesting—hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering. During the past summer, I introduced this book to Native communities in the course of my work. If there is one way to get a Native person talking, especially an elder, bring up the topic of traditional Native foods. The response was like a dam being opened — people would go into detail to describe some of their practices, or fondly remember what their parents or grandparents did a long time ago. They wanted to know if a certain plant or certain practice was included in the book. If it was, they checked the accuracy of it and felt good about it; if it wasn't included, they let me know about it. If the enthusiasm and knowledge of the few Native communities I visited are any indication, then this book will be a big hit. But we have to realize that it is only scratching the surface of Native knowledge about their plants. Sadly, though, there is also the realization that the foods themselves, and the skills and practices in using them, are slowly dying. There is a triple threat: the loss of knowledgeable elders, leaving no one to teach; the loss of culture, leaving little incentive to learn; and the loss of healthy ecosystems, leaving no foods available to take even if one wanted to. At this moment there are health advisories in some areas warning people of the potential risks to their health from consuming foods contaminated by industrial emissions and agricultural wastes. It has taken time for these things to be understood, and we are still hopeful that the situation can be turned around.

That is where this book fits in. It can be used as a tool for First Nation People to change their situation. It is probably the first of its kind in Canada to document the literature on the nutrition, botany and use of our traditional plant foods. It describes in simple language not only technical information about the plants, but also how these plants are a part of our distinct culture. To retain this knowledge for succeeding generations is going to take the concerted efforts of people like Dr. Kuhnlein and Dr. Turner, along with academically trained Native youth and the elders and practitioners who maintain a vital link to Canada's environment. When Canada can no longer support the tiny percentage of people who depend directly on the land for sustenance, how can we expect this country to support an entire population? When Aboriginal People who live off the land in other countries can no longer support themselves with wholesome foods, what does that predict for global survival? Aboriginal People are, in my view, the best indicators of a healthy environment.

As a biologist working with both Native People and non-Native scientists, I appreciate the usefulness of this book in its forthright writing style — it is easy to understand. The respect for the ways of life and foods of Aboriginal People is evident in the writing, which demonstrates the authors' integrity. In addition, the wealth and depth of the material gave me and my summer commentators a wonderful sense of pride in the extent of knowledge accumulated by our people in order to live healthy lives.

We need to work hard together to preserve our knowledge and to protect the environments of the plant foods of the world's Indigenous People. This book is a good step along the way. Ia: wen, Dr. Kuhnlein and Dr. Turner.

Laurie Montour
Assembly of First Nations
Ottawa, April 1991

Traditional Plant Foods of Canadian Indigenous Peoples
Nutrition, Botany and Use by Harriet V. Kuhnlein School of Dietetics and Human Nutrition, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec and Nancy J. Turner Environmental Studies Program, University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia (1996) (pdf)

The primary purpose of this book is to describe and to reference the published literature on the nutritional properties, the botanical characteristics and the ethnic uses of traditional food plants of Canadian Indigenous Peoples. Since it is recognized that Canadian political boundaries are not honored by plants in their biological habitats, the nutritional and botanical information presented here is often relevant to other regions with northern latitudes where the same species are found, such as northern regions of the United States, Europe and Asia. However, the ethnographic information reviewed and presented in this book is only from Canadian Indigenous Peoples and their immediate neighbors in Alaska and other states bordering Canada.

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