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As a young nine-year-old, Nancy J. Turner immersed herself in the mysteries of the natural world, becoming an active participant in the Victoria Natural History Society’s junior wing. Today, still profoundly captivated by nature, Turner is one of Canada’s foremost ethnobotanists, a celebrated professor in Environmental Studies at UVic, and an esteemed author. Her passion for exploring the intricate bonds between humans and plants burns brighter than ever.

Nancy Turner’s Magnum Opus: A Blend of Love for Nature and Rigorous Research

Having penned numerous books on the subject, Turner’s latest offering, Ancient Pathways, Ancestral Knowledge: Ethnobotany and Ecological Wisdom of Indigenous Peoples of Northwestern North America, merges her lifelong infatuation with nature and meticulous academic investigation. The masterpiece delivers an enthralling chronicle of the sophisticated relationship between humans and plants across this region.

The Expanse of Indigenous Plant Knowledge: History, Practice, and Cultural Significance

This extensive study sprawls across two volumes – The History and Practice of Indigenous Plant Knowledge and The Place and Meaning of Plants in Indigenous Cultures and Worldviews. These collective works trace the intricate history and practice of Indigenous plant knowledge, encompassing the vast geographies from Southern Alaska throughout BC and extending to northern Oregon, and traverse time from the late Pleistocene to the present day. The books encapsulate Turner’s acquired wisdom over her 45-year career and the timeless wisdom of the First Nations, the original custodians of these lands.

Content Background

The Confluence of Multiple Disciplines in Ethnobotanical Research

Through decades of collaboration with Indigenous knowledge-holders across BC, Turner’s study amalgamates botany, anthropology, geography, ecology, and linguistics. Her latest work infuses threads of evidence from lesser-known but equally important interdisciplinary fields such as ethnobiology, archaeobotany, palaeoecology, palaeoethnobotany, and phytogeography. Her conclusions drawn from this comprehensive synthesis are truly illuminating and often unexpected.

The Tale of Western Red Cedar and the Importance of Linguistics

Consider, for instance, the case of the western red cedar, a symbol of the BC coast. Turner provides intriguing insights, revealing that the western red cedar only became common in this region around 5000 to 4000 years ago after humans had already settled in the area. By combining palaeoecology and historical linguistics, she showcases the rapid adoption of this tree by the First Peoples and its subsequent importance in their cultures.

Influence of Plant Resources on Social Structures and Philosophical Worldviews

Turner elucidates how plant resources significantly influenced social structures. For instance, the red cedar’s abundance facilitated the development of large societies by allowing the construction of a sizable post and plank houses and seafaring canoes. Turner also highlights the profound respect Indigenous cultures have for plants by citing a young Kwakwaka’wakw woman’s ritual before harvesting bark from a cedar tree for rope, clothing, and baskets. Such examples underscore the interconnectedness of ecology, kinship, and philosophical worldviews in these cultures.

Common Plants with Uncommon Roles: The Eulachon Highway and the Kelp Highway

In Turner’s exhaustive study, readers discover the remarkable roles some ordinary plants played in shaping early human civilizations. She introduces us to the lesser-known “kelp highway” followed by ancient maritime-dependent peoples from the Pacific Rim to South America – areas potentially never fully glaciated during the Pleistocene.

The Impact of Plant Availability on Human Migration and Community Formation

The availability of plant nutrients greatly influenced the migration and settlement patterns of ancient people. Over time, these nomadic communities settled down, leading to the cultivation of specific plant resources. These cultivated resources then became integral to their social relationships, trade networks, and more.

Honouring Indigenous Cultivation Techniques

Through the lens of Nuxalk matriarch Mrs. Joshua Moody, Turner pays homage to Indigenous cultivation techniques. Mrs. Moody continued her family’s tradition of cultivating springbank clover, a favoured root vegetable, into the 1920s, exemplifying the deep-rooted connection between these communities and their environment.

Bridging the Gap Between Indigenous Wisdom and Modern Understanding

Acting as a bridge between ancient wisdom and modern understanding, Turner elucidates indigenous techniques and practices by listening to what the land has to say. A prime example is the discovery of a 3500-year-old wapato (“swamp potato”) garden during construction activities related to the Golden Ears Bridge. The remains unearthed there spoke volumes about ancient harvesting, processing, and resource management techniques.

Content Background

Reclaiming Indigenous Land Management Practices: The Case of Garry Oak Woodlands and Camas Meadows

Through the case of Garry oak woodlands and camas meadows, Turner highlights the Coast Salish people’s sophisticated land management practices, which, unfortunately, were discredited by white colonizers. These colonizers declared the land as “unowned” and ripe for exploitation, completely disregarding the Indigenous people’s careful ecological management.

The Legal Consequences of Ignoring Managed Plant Relationships

Turner underscores the far-reaching legal repercussions of neglecting to recognize these managed plant relationships. For example, she cites an 1897 letter from three Kitamaat Haisla leaders to BC’s chief commissioner of lands and works, pleading for the reinstatement of crabapple gardens as part of their reserve lands—crucial plants for their food and medicine, but deemed useless by white Europeans.

Indigenous Knowledge as Our “Collective Human Heritage”

Indigenous wisdom forms part of our “collective human heritage,” asserts Turner, and is crucial for our survival. Traditional Ecological Knowledge provides a blueprint for nurturing more respectful, meaningful, and careful relationships with our local environments, other species, and the natural world.

From Voices of the Past to Lessons for the Future

She brings to light age-old cultivation techniques, such as those practiced by Nuxalk matriarch Mrs. Joshua Moody. She also interprets what the land itself narrates, evidenced by a 3500-year-old wapato garden discovered during the Golden Ears Bridge construction.

Turner also highlights Garry oak woodlands and bright-blooming camas meadows, creations of Coast Salish people through weeding, seeding, harvesting, and burning. Her work emphasizes how overlooking indigenous land management practices contributed to land appropriation, impacting legal issues around land access.

Indigenous Wisdom: A Global Treasure and Collective Heritage

The book underscores the importance of indigenous wisdom as part of our shared human heritage. Turner is a firm advocate of Traditional Ecological Knowledge as a model for fostering more respectful and meaningful relationships with our local environments, other species, and the natural world. Her work is a call to action for global cooperation to ensure long-term biocultural conservation.

Turner’s undying optimism is reflected in her belief in cultural resilience and hope for the future. Although she acknowledges knowledge gaps, she celebrates the knowledge-keepers she’s learned from and identifies her role as a bridge-builder between different worlds.

Spanning over 1000 pages, her central message remains crystal clear: “We have to find ways to look after each other.” Amy Reiswig, a writer and editor, has also explored Turner’s Saanich Ethnobotany: Culturally Important Plants of the WSÁNEC People (with Richard J. Hebda, 2012). She notes Turner’s 1995 handbook, Food Plants of Coastal First Peoples, continues to enjoy enduring popularity, selling about 800 copies a year.