Review of Turner, Plants, People, and Places

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Nancy J. Turner, ed., Plants, Peoples, and Places: The Roles of Ethnobotany and Ethnoecology in Indigenous Peoples’ Land Rights in Canada and Beyond. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020. 480 pgs. ISBN 9780228001836.

Reviewed by Brittany Luby and Jane Mariotti.

Plants, Peoples, and Places invites readers to reflect on their relationship with flora. In it, Indigenous authors and informants describe intergenerational connections to plant beings for sustenance and healing. They also highlight past and present settler interference – from homesteading to mining to conservation – that has threatened Indigenous food systems, cultural expression, and sovereignty. Settler scholars confront colonial pasts and presents that separate(d) Indigenous nations from their homelands and, by extension, harvesting grounds. All contributors reflect on their rights to use and duty to care for plant beings and each other into the future – a temporal focus which reflects Indigenous philosophies whereby past, present, and future are intertwined.

Through Section One, the collection opens with Indigenous family voices. As Turner notes, the opening chapters are “compellingly personal accounts that show, with examples and individual and community experiences, the significance of plants and environments in people’s lives” (33). These personal narratives challenge Western values of “objectivity” and remind readers that what we know is shaped by our experiences with the world.

Section Two, Historical Perspectives on Plant-People Relationships in Canada, reveals the risks of viewing Turtle Island through “imperial eyes” (111). For example, John Lutz shows that camas, an essential carbohydrate in precolonial Lekwungen diets, was actively managed to ensure yields of high quality. Burning and selective seeding created fields which settler-colonists framed as “Eden” (120) or a “natural park” (110). Settlers credited God rather than Indigenous labour for environmental transformation. Settlers’ failure (or, perhaps, refusal) to see Indigenous relations to place led them to claim Lekwungen fields. Settler claims resulted in the violent dispossession of Lekwungen families from their ancestral territories.

According to Letitia McCune and Alain Cuerrier, Elders and herbalists from the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee harvest Labrador Tea (Rhododendron groenlandicum) as a medicinal plant. Source: Robert Flogaus-Faust, Wikimedia Commons.

Letitia M. McCune and Alain Cuerrier show readers that “imperial eyes” continue to shape Indigenous-plant and settler-Indigenous relations today. McCune and Cuerrier discuss a host of medicinal plants that Elders from the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee use to manage diabetes. Herbalists generally frequent grounds with “mineral-rich soils” that are “known to increase the production of antioxidants within plants” (161). Mining companies are also attracted to these same “mineral-rich” grounds for business causing friction between Indigenous herbalists and non-Indigenous industrialists. McCune and Cuerrier conclude with a call for Canadians to increase Indigenous participation in policymaking, seeing relationships and meaningful knowledge exchanges as a salve to contemporary colonial activities.

Section Three, titled Ethnoecology and the Law in the International Arena, provides examples of Indigenous rights advocacy that has improved plant-people relations and settler-Indigenous Relations around the globe. Jacinta Ruru shares models of collaborative care from New Zealand. Most notably, the Te Urewera Act of 2014 challenges colonial conservation thinking by (re)visioning associated lands as “a legal entity” with “all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person” – a lens that more accurately represents Māori beliefs (213). Board Members have since started to think about managing “‘people for the benefit of the land’ rather than managing the land for the benefit of the people” (214). Ruru associates such conceptual shifts with the recognition of the Treaty of Waitangi – a legally-binding nation-with-nation agreement – in the Conservation Act of 1987. In Ruru’s article, readers learn that treaty recognition can move settler societies towards effective land- and resource-sharing.

Section Four is titled Ethnoecology, Law, and Policy in the Current Context, and aims to inspire researchers, resource managers, and policymakers to reflect on their epistemologies and to learn through collaboration with Indigenous nations. Kelly Bannister opens the section with research ethics arguing that “decolonization of the research enterprise [requires] putting relationships back into research” and that a respect for and acknowledgement of “cultural property” ought to shape the boundaries of research (256, 260). She argues that for non-Indigenous researchers working on the land, learning and respecting boundaries requires “a framework of mindfulness.”

In the next chapter, Deborah Curran and Val Napoleon guide readers through three case studies where Indigenous law systems, born out of “relationship and responsibility among lands… and humans,” were applied to management situations (270). In the environmental assessment conducted by the Stkemlúpsemc te Secwépemc Nation, for example, chiefs, Elders, youth, and family representatives came together and voiced concerns over the proposed Ajax Mine near Kamloops, BC. Band members stressed the importance of considering both Western and Secwépemc knowledges, or “walking on two legs,” when making decisions about land use – which affects all living things, both human and non-human – on Secwépemc territories (277). Ethical decision-making demands that resource managers and policymakers recognize knowledge gaps and consider the experiences of others before acting.

So, how can readers move forward in a good way? The chapters in Section Five – Drawing Strength and Inspiration from People, Plants, and Lands through Justice, Equity, Education, and Partnerships – offer a vision of reclamation, restoration, and reconciliation. Jeff Corntassel offers a series of actions individuals can undertake to re-story the landscape and promote Indigenous resurgence. As part of his journey, Corntassel ordered corn and tobacco seeds from the Cherokee Seed Bank. He planted them with his daughter. By so doing, Corntassel re-established relationships between his family and plant beings that sustained the ancestors. We are reminded that daily actions sustain families and families form Nations. Families that care for plant beings continue to occupy and to use their ancestral territories and resist erasure.

Corn is indigenous to Turtle Island. Jeff Corntassel recommends planting Indigenous foods as a form of territorial reclamation and reconnection. Source: Sunira Moses, Unsplash Photos.

Leigh Joseph (Styawat) also emphasizes the restorative potential of plant-people relationships. As the focus of her Master’s degree, Styawat worked to re-establish lhásem (Northern riceroot) in the Squamish River estuary. Traditional plant foods and medicines, she argues, connect people “to the land, identity, language, community, and culture” – all of which are healing (392). By “walking on two legs” or, in her words, “walking in two worlds,” Styawat was able to mobilize her university education as an ethnobiologist to serve her community by promoting healing through traditional food systems.

As a whole, Plants, People, and Places is a text that reminds us to nurture our curiosity and to engage with a diversity of sources. Its contributors remind us that land is a teacher, that plants communicate, and that human beings can find knowledge and wellness in plant-people relationships. It is a book that ought to be read broadly. Section Five is especially useful to students entering programs in the natural sciences as it outlines ethical practices that need to be adhered to when working with Indigenous peoples (and plant relations).

Anyone researching native plant species, Indigenous foodways, or settler-Indigenous relations in what is now known as North America can benefit from the teachings bound in this collection. As Turner concludes, a healthier shared future could grow from research that recognizes the “the singularity and dignity of nonhuman life, especially those nonhuman lives on which our own lives depend, and the need to think and plan in terms of deeply multigenerational time scales” – a teaching that Indigenous Knowledge Keepers have long adhered to and ask(ed) newcomers to consider.


Feature Photograph: Camas meadow in Victoria, BC. Courtesy of Nick Kenrick.

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Brittany Luby and Jane Mariotti

Brittany Luby is an award-winning historian at the University of Guelph. Her writing–both academic and creative–is intended to draw attention to social inequities in what is now known as Canada and to empower and to envision alternate futures. Her current research is multidisciplinary and community-driven and focuses on manomin caretaking in the upper Winnipeg River drainage basin. To learn more follow @manominproject on Instagram. Jane Mariotti is a third-year undergraduate student at the University of Guelph studying Environmental Science and majoring in Ecology. Her interests lie in nutrient cycling and botany. Her experience includes field work in environmental monitoring, tallgrass prairie ecosystem restoration, and lab work in soil sample processing.

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