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mountain ash (Sorbus scopulina) are used to pry up roots and are more sensitive to the surrounding ground than modern implements like the shovel (Chingee, 1993; Ford, 1993; Jenness, 1937). Another example would be the harvesting of cambium, during which the tree is incised only on the sunny side (and not girdled) in order to expedite the healing process (Alexis, 1993; Pierre, 1993; Isaac, 1993). (11-12; footnote added) Recent ethnobotanical research in British Columbia has identified other management strategies. Although their work was in the Interior Plateau of British Columbia, Peacock and Turner discuss many strategies employed by First Nations to improve crops. Pruning is one such strategy. For example, one Elder recalled her mother stating that the Saskatoon bushes were overgrown so she cut the older stems back to the ground. The following year, the new shoots were the perfect size for basket rim hoops and a few years later, berry production on these plants was excellent (Peacock and Turner 1999:150). “Certain species of berries… were harvested by breaking off the berry-laden branches. This, too, was a form of pruning” (Peacock and Turner 1999:151).
Another management strategy discussed by Peacock and Turner (1999) was management on the broad scale, which included all members of society, within the entire territory. Again, although their research focused on the Interior Plateau of British Columbia, many of their findings about resource management apply to Sekani people 25. This management strategy “included a planned and patterned seasonal round, the rotation of harvesting locales… and religious ceremonies and moral sanctions” (1999:156). Thus, contrary to common stereotypes about hunters-gatherers, people did not move aimlessly through a vast wilderness in search of food. Instead, “seasonal movements of people across the landscape were linked to the temporal and spatial availability of culturally important plant resources” (Peacock and Turner 1999:156). 26 Further, “peoples’ movements… through the season, and the alternation or rotation of specific harvesting locations, over multiyear cycles, were in fact forms of broadscale resource management” (Peacock and Turner 1999:157). During research for this submission, it was stated by Elders on numerous occasions that the annual gatherings were for this purpose. At these gatherings, many social events occurred, but importantly, the meetings included discussions of the lands and resources and how these resources would be managed for the upcoming year.
Some comments made by Elders during the Ethnobotanical studies done among the Dene of the Prophet River also reveal a strong responsibility for managing the plant resources. For example, The Tse Keh Nay are just north of the Interior Plateau. Turner (1997:16) notes that although the peoples of the sub-arctic (including Tse Keh Nay) rely heavily on moose and caribou, and traditionally did not rely as heavily on plant foods as the peoples of the Interior Plateau, they still used many different species of plants. This is supported by Bannister, 2006 and Black (Rich 1955:12) who notes that “their principle subsistence is that of Roots & Herbs, this is some consolation, we may only starve above in this Country of the Thecannies, provided always these means of subsistence may be found all over…. This… is a question they do not seem to understand[,] perhaps… they find subsistence on every point, they will not allow however of their having ever eaten Frogs or Mice, indeed they do not require it, for they have a large Bundle of a kind of Water Hemlock (but not poisonous) and what the Canadians call Chou Creux.” In fact, this movement was linked to the temporal and spatial availability of all culturally important resources.
Blueberries are highly valued as a food item and seen as important food for both humans and bears. They are eaten in a variety of ways, raw or processed and they make excellent jam (PN). Elders believe that people have a responsibility to their berry patches and that “you always got to think about next year.” They expressed concern about the increasing garbage and litter that they find in their traditional berry picking grounds. If berry patches aren’t managed appropriately, Elders say the berries won’t grow back again.
(Bannister 2006:23) In short, the generations-old, traditional management strategies of the Sekani resulted in a continual, reliable resource, that was vital to their well-being.
Plants as Food First Nations in the interior of northern British Columbia used plant foods to supplement their predominately protein diet (MacKinnon 1999:7). Plant foods provide important vitamins, minerals and carbohydrates and, following a long, cold winter, fresh plant foods were a welcome addition to a diet consisting largely of meat and dried foods.
With the return of spring, fresh greens are still collected by many families. These greens include plants like thimbleberry shoots, cow-parsnip (Indian Rhubarb), fiddleheads and fireweed. A short time later, the sap of the lodgepole pine, black poplar and birch (Davis 1993:12) begins to run, signaling that the inner bark (cambium layer) is sweet and ready to eat. Often, the bark was mashed, cooked and dried in cakes for winter storage (MacKinnon 1999:8). These cakes provided an important source of carbohydrate in the winter months.
As the days warm and lengthen, other foods like berries, roots, seeds, fruits, flowers, cattails, mushrooms and lichens (Davis 1999:12) become available to be eaten fresh or preserved and, in the old days, cached for the upcoming winter. Traditionally, berries were a common plant food and were often traded (MacKinnon 1999:7). Today, many families continue to gather berries and prepare them for storage by canning or freezing. Some families still trade canned berries with other First Nations for traditional foods that are unavailable in their territories.27 The area around Thutade Lake is an ideal berry gathering site. Some of the berries gathered here include Rose Hips, Lingonberries, High-bush Cranberries, Soapberries, Strawberries, Raspberries, Huckleberries, Kinnikinnick, and Crowberries (Tsay Keh Dene 2002).
During the growing season, other plants are utilized and often preserved for the winter months. Some edible roots harvested by Sekani people include: Bracken Fern, Venus’ Slipper, Spring Beauty, Wild Onion, and Sweet Alpine Vetch (Davis 1999:13). Many of these roots are a good source of carbohydrates in a protein rich diet.
For example, soap berries might be exchanged for smoked salmon or oolichan grease.
Other plant food sources are various varieties of mushrooms, fungi, lichen, flower petals, and plants used in beverages, like Labrador Tea, Canada Mint, and Red Raspberry (Davis 1999:13).
Because plants were such an important addition to the winter diet, a number of preservation methods were employed. Berries and other plants might be dried, stored in animal fat or boiled to extract the juice. Some recall their mother pounding fresh berries with dried moose meat then rolling it flat with a birch rolling pin to dry (Davis 1999:14). Today, canning and freezing offer an effective alternative to traditional preservation methods.
Plants in Technology and the Household
Plants were utilized for technological purposes and “provided a wide array of materials important for everyday life” (MacKinnon 1999:8). They provided the basic necessities of shelter and fuel for the fire, and comfort in the home. Spruce, Lodgepole Pine and SubAlpine Fir were “of primary importance for the construction of shelters” (Davis 1993:15).
Birch bark was used to “sheath” the dwelling (Jenness 1967:91). Wood was used to heat the homes and tree boughs lined the floor and created beds. Some clothing and many household implements were made from plant products (baskets, mats, cord etc.). Other household products like glue, caulking, dyes and stains came from plants. Others, like mint and bluebells were common for washing hair.
Women also relied on plant products in food preparation, both as food and as tools ‘in the kitchen.’ Sir Alexander Mackenzie writes about ‘the kitchen’ in his journal, which notes the importance of plant resources:
Their kettles are also made of wapate 28, which is so closely woven that they never leak, and they heat water in them, by putting red-hot stones into it.
There is one kind of them, made of spruce-bark, which they hang over the fire, but at such a distance as to receive the heat without being within reach of the blaze; a very tedious operation. They have various dishes of wood and bark;
spoons of horn and wood, and buckets; bags of leather and net-work, and baskets of bark, some of which hold their fishing tacking, while others are contrived to be carried on their back. (1970:291) Plants were important for hunters and fishermen because they were used to make their tools, nets, fishing line, hunting gear, and snowshoes. According to Davis, traditional snowshoes are still “widely used” among Sekani people (1993:16). Alexander Mackenzie recognized in his journal the quality of hunting and fishing implements made from plants when he states that the “nets and fishing lines are made of willow-bark and nettles; those made of the latter are finer and smoother than if made with hempen thread” (Mackenzie 1970:291). Spears, bows and “excellent arrows” were made from wood, and canoes were made from bark, sealed with pitch (Mackenzie 1970:291).
In Alison Davis’ 1993 report, she notes that wapate is woven spruce roots (16).
Plants for Medicine Many Tse Keh Nay people today continue to rely heavily on traditional medicines derived from plants and animals, and sometimes a combination of both. Their knowledge of the medicinal qualities of plants has been passed down through the generations. Often, the medicine is a mixture of plants that have various medicinal qualities. They might be brewed into a tea, dried and ground into a powder, mixed with animal fat to make an ointment, burned to make a smudge for inhalation or mashed to extract juices. Sometimes, the medicine is obtained via an animal. For example, it is said that although there is a plant that is not suitable for humans, for particular illnesses, the prescription is to eat the meat of a groundhog that has been seen eating this same plant. Tse Keh Nay’s intimate knowledge of plants and the environment allows them to have a virtual pharmacy at their doorstep.
During research for this project, there were several examples of the use of plants for medicinal purposes. For example, one story recorded what happened during the gathering in 2005 at Thutade and Amazay when two people got sick with what seemed to be the same illness. One person went to see a doctor and was prescribed antibiotics. The other person opted to use traditional medicines. This included the use of a plant. Interestingly, in the area of the gathering, the only place where this particular plant was found was the shores of Amazay Lake. Also of interest was that the person who chose to use the traditional medicine recovered more quickly than the person who used antibiotics (Tse Keh Nay 2006).
Jəstəts is another plant available at Amazay. It is good for the body and soul. It is taken as heart medication but also has a property called notsine. This means that not only is it physically good for you, but it is good for your spirit, and gives an overall good feeling.
Other stories were recorded during research for this project. For example, one man discussed “gun medicine” that grows around the Amazay and Thutade areas. Although more research is required to identify the exact plant, the story is interesting. To make “gun medicine” the leaf and berry are burned down to ashes. The ashes are put in the chamber of the gun and someone who has not shot a gun before shoots his first moose with that gun and “that gun gonna be lucky” for as long as the new hunter owns it (Tse Keh Nay 2006). This ties into the importance of Amazay as a hunting and spiritual place. An important quality of Amazay is that it is a place where boys spend four days on the mountain, fasting and praying in a ritual that is generations old 29. During this rite, the boy receives a warrior’s name and he will, through vision questing, receive an animal helper that will be a part of him for the rest of his life. As part of this rite, the boy will shoot his first big animal, likely with a gun that has been cleansed with “gun medicine.” This is a transition in the boy’s life. It is his “rite of passage” from boyhood to manhood. Amazay, as a rich hunting area, contributes to the success of this rite of passage. Today, among Tse Keh Nay, there are people who go to Amazay for this rite.
If you become a hunter and they bless you on the hills of this Amazay Lake that’s what they do they camp around here at that Duncan lake they used to dry meat here, they fast, they give people names. If you’re a good hunter they give you a Big Man name.
See Jenness (1937:68-69, 76) for further information.
They bless you up here in their own way, the Indian way. They pray for you, you became a hunter, give you a name and they let you go after that, do your own hunting like when a father baptizes you. That’s the way they do it, the Indians. (Tse Keh Nay 2006) This same plant can be used to “doctor” a gun. A gun needs “doctoring” when you shoot at a moose and “he walks away, walks maybe one mile before he die”. The ash from the root of this same plant is put through the gun, and in the process, the gun is cleansed (Tse Keh Nay 2006). It was noted that this is important for “ground-hog” hunting to ensure the immediate death of the animal. Although the use of this plant has a spiritual function, it is seen by Tse Keh Nay as being “medicine” for the gun. This same plant is used to cleanse the gun if a menstruating woman touches it. Thus, Tse Keh Nay people use plants as medicine to heal the body, soul and material items that are of great importance to Tse Keh Nay well being.
Other Tse Keh Nay people spoke about using Labrador Tea, or Red-Osier Dogwood (“Red Willow”), Devils Club, Cow Parsnip (“Wild Rhubarb) and many other plants for medicine. It is obvious that the close connection Tse Keh Nay have with their territory has resulted in a myriad of pharmaceuticals.
Plants and Spirituality