Nancy Turner has spent much of her adulthood trying to preserve traditional knowledge of B.C. plants and habitats passed on for generations by Indigenous elders.
Turner remembers talking to elders back in the 1960s and ’70s who voiced their frustrations to her about how the Indigenous younger generation wasn’t interested in what they had to say.
“The connection I had with the elders was a mutual love of plants. It is a huge honour and a privilege for them to have shared their knowledge with me and it is a responsibility I take seriously to pass that knowledge whenever I can,” Turner said.
“It never seems to be enough but you do what you can to preserve that knowledge.”
She talked about her experience as an ethnobotonist and emeritus professor at the University of Victoria as the keynote speaker at a research forum held at the Summerhill Winery in Kelowna on Monday called Eating The Okanagan: Exploring Change in our Local Food Systems.
“We need to think about how we can restore the land, to learn from people who have lived on one place for a long period of time. It is important to learn that knowledge to have the wisdom to continue to live a sustainable lifestyle in our modern world,” Turner said.
“We are suffering cumulative losses and we need cumulative solutions,” she added, citing such land use benefits as prescribed burning, plant breeding programs, combating invasive weeds on the landscape and the impact of climate change.
Turner talked about how Indigenous people learned to live off the land, to observe and respect how wildlife looked after their food supply.
They survived on a variety of plant root vegetation such as as the chocolate lilly, balsamroot, soapberry shrub and yellow glacier lilly to the inner bark of pine trees and a variety of different fruit from strawberries to Saskatoon berries.
“They learned how to prune the berry bushes from observing how the bears. The figured out that if you cut back a bush it will grow back again and produce more berries,” she said.
“There were all kinds of different ways that Indigenous people used to enhance and preserve the productivity and quality of plants they relied on as food sources. It is a knowledge that has not been appreciated as much as it should have.”
She said Indigenous food staples have been replaced by the food processing volume of society today has created nutrition and health issues such as cancer and diabetes that were not prevalent prior to the arrival of Europe settlers in North America.
“We need to rebuild the food system knowledge of the past and combine it with the better elements of the foods we eat today,” Turner said.
Turner said Indigenous people sustained themselves over 12,000 years and longer by living off and sustaining what the landscape had to offer, harvesting the plants and berries available to them beyond fish and mammal meat to thrive, celebrating those foods in their culture and language.
She cited a past study that concluded 50 per cent of the calories in the diet of B.C. Interior Indigenous communities were generated by root plant vegetables, and 70 per cent of their food was derived from plants.
“That is often not well recognized or appreciated. There is much we can learn from people who have sustained themselves over a long period of time living in the same place,” she said.
She said not only were fruits and plant roots replanted and harvested seasonally, but some plants that were inedible or indigestible could be prepared in different ways to become staple diet items and even sweet treats by being cooked on open pit fires, dried out and stored as food sources during the winter.
“If you know what you are looking for, you can still find these pits on the landscape, and if you dig them up you will find fire-cracked rock,” she said.