Looking Back, Thinking Forward

  • Nancy J. Turner
    Ancient Pathways, Ancestral Knowledge: Ethnobotany and Ecological Wisdom of Indigenous Peoples of Northwestern North America Vol 1 & 2. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Rafael Madeja

In Ancient Pathways, Ancestral Knowledge, Nancy J. Turner provides an insightful ethno-botanical analysis of the Traditional Ecological Knowledge of Indigenous peoples of British Columbia and neighbouring areas in two integrated volumes. Having worked with Indigenous botanical and cultural experts in British Columbia and beyond over the span of four decades, Turner delves into numerous concepts, values, and perspectives that explain the deep and inextricable bond—based on recognition, respect, and continuity—between humans and all plants and environments. In order to better understand how various plant resources and habitats were manipulated and managed within traditional Indigenous economies, she explores through the multi-scalar lenses of geographic space and time certain patterns in Indigenous knowledge of how various animals and plants interrelate, how the ecosystems function as a whole, and how people used their ecosystems to sustain themselves on a subsistence basis. Turner attempts to take under the scrutinizing eye the pathways and processes of knowledge acquisition and dissemination that have taken place since time immemorial with a keen interest in how particular plant resources and their applications have been developed, applied, expanded, and handed down over generations.

In Volume 1, Turner investigates the historical aspects of the complex knowledge systems built up by Indigenous peoples in this vast region before and after the arrival of European newcomers. The emphasis is placed upon the fact that while Indigenous peoples availed themselves of resources in the region characterized by geographical immensity with productive and fertile forests, river valleys, and estuaries with respect and appreciation, they were also forced to adapt to disruptive changes, such as times of alternate cooling and warming, floods, glaciation, and shifting ocean currents. Thus, Turner presents the history and dynamics of human-environment interactions across a range of cultures and linguistic groups in northwestern North America that were subject to numerous cultural, ecological, and social context shifts. Consequently, Indigenous peoples, seeking new opportunities to sustain their resources and thrive in different environments, integrated new information and ideas with already existing place-based knowledge systems, allowing them to adapt to changing conditions and ensure the survival of Indigenous peoples across times of immense change.

Exploring the context of the rich history of Indigenous peoples and the environment, the author provides a valuable insight into human-plant relationships during ancient times, based on the observation of animal habits and the life cycles and productivity of valued plant resources. Notably, on the basis of specific archaeological findings at various food-processing sites in the interior and coastal regions, she examines developments in plant harvesting, processing, and storage technologies as well as elaborate technologies for fishing and hunting. For the sake of illustrating the way Indigenous peoples used and interacted with plants, the book describes similarities and differences in the use of plant resources both in living form and as a product of trade across different Indigenous communities. To delve into people-plant relationships further, Turner mentions that plant names are considered a reflection of the cultural salience of plant species and since they are attached to places and seasons, they play an essential role in communicating local ecological knowledge. Hence, she provides a list of approximately 260 examples of descriptive plant names present in more than fifty Indigenous languages that may shed more light upon the value-laden knowledge associated with the plant, its importance, use among Indigenous communities, and relevant social and economic factors responsible for knowledge dissemination from one territory and language to another. At this point, Turner observes that certain aspects of Indigenous knowledge—such as Indigenous food systems and resource management techniques—have undergone tremendous changes since the era of European exploration and trade in their territories, and that the composition of Indigenous ecosystems has dramatically changed due to the introduction and encroachment of new species.

Furthermore, Volume 2 addresses intergenerational knowledge transfer preoccupied with the traditional know-how of seasonal clues in nature, which can determine optimal resource-harvesting times. Turner brings readers an array of phenological indicators that help to estimate the timing of harvesting resources within the four seasons. Significantly, since Indigenous peoples have been dependent upon their skills to decipher phenological indicators for plant life cycles in order to survive in all seasons, they have been capable of predicting what to expect and what sort of anomalies might take place in the near future. Moreover, as explained by Turner, Indigenous peoples—for the purpose of nurturing healthy and interdependent relationships with nature and leading sustainable harvesting activities—developed certain organizational systems characterized by ecological and biological dimensions. In her discussion of the high levels of complex resource harvesting organization required to process and distribute plants as nutritious, valuable, and storable products, Turner touches upon the stratification and diversification of societal roles involved in resource stewardship. This was not only required in the regulation of harvesting cycle timing and the level of sustainable harvest but also in the allocation and sharing of seasonal resources between relatives and other tribal communities.

Along with Indigenous peoples’ ecological knowledge of the management and preservation of resources and habitats came an integrated body of worldviews and philosophies referring to various spiritual aspects of Indigenous peoples’ relationships with plants and animals. Turner addresses kincentric ecology, which delineates that life forms and non-living entities are perceived as filled with human characteristics that sacrifice themselves so that people are able to survive. In other words, this worldview, at the heart of which lies the Nuu-chah-nulth expression hishuk-ish t’sawalk, states that all things are one and, thus, humans, animals, nature, and the spiritual world are tied together in a sort of mystical circle. Thus, people availed themselves of resources with respect and appreciation to secure the natural harmony. Ultimately, what the reader gets is origin stories and narratives from throughout the region which, full of references to plant and animal use in everyday life, convey critically essential ideas to future generations in a meaningful manner and, in turn, tackle numerous questions related to the acquisition and transmission of ecological knowledge and practices. Finally, the last chapter of Volume 2 focuses on the most effective means of retaining and renewing a series of ecologically sound principles and subsistence strategies drawn from ecological wisdom to cope with biocultural erosion and to provide motivation for restoring connections with local environments and food systems in recent decades of environmental and cultural change.

All in all, Ancient Pathways, Ancestral Knowledge offers compelling insights into the Traditional Ecological Knowledge of Indigenous peoples of northwestern North America and brings into light the fact that over countless generations Indigenous communities have been actively preoccupied with managing their ecosystems and making use of their resources in a sustainable manner. As resources are becoming limited in predominantly urbanized and industrialized societies, this place-based knowledge may play a pivotal role not only in creating more respectful relationships with local ecosystems but also in promoting sustainable environments and more conservation-oriented ways of living in the face of increasing global climate change.

This review “Looking Back, Thinking Forward” originally appeared in Emerging Scholars. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 226 (Autumn 2015): 160-62.

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