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Spirituality pervades Sekani life. In many cases, the preparation of medicines is “strongly tied to religious and spiritual beliefs” (MacKinnon 1999:9). Some plants were, and still are, used specifically “for their spiritual, protective or medicinal values” (MacKinnon 1999:9).
“Collection, preparation, and administration of these plants… involved a great deal of ritual, as it was believed that they lost their medicinal and spiritual powers if these traditional rituals were not observed” (MacKinnon 1999:9). For example, “when medicinal plants are retrieved, in order to create the most effective medicine, something is always returned to the ground as a gesture of gratitude and replenishment of the soil” (Davis 1993:18). This same practice is
found further north:
Elders indicated that when a plant is collected, it is important to leave a small offering (such as tobacco) in place of what is taken. It was explained that this ritual shows respect for the plant and increases the healing power of medicine made with the plant material. Mary Chipesia explained it this way: ‘You put tobacco there, you pay him back and he help you. It’s a life, eh. Everything is a life.’ Mary later added, ‘If you don’t put snuff, sometimes it don’t grow back and it loses its power.’ (Banister 2006:10) The preparation of the medicine also requires ritual observances. “In order to maximize a medicine’s potency, some choose to prepare their healing blends in privacy” at a certain time of day (Davis 1993:18).
…[T]he culture of plants was, and is, an all pervasive element amongst the Sekani. This is exemplified by the role of plants in ritual beliefs and ceremonies. During menstruation, women would traditionally separate themselves from the village and reside in small brush huts, where they would drink from special birch bark cups (Jenness, 1937). Young men were sent out on vision quests in order to get blessed by certain animal spirits. If the vision proved elusive, a number of frogs were rounded-up and placed inside a circular birch-bark encasement in which the young man would sleep overnight. This method was supposed to rapidly induce visions (Jenness, 1937). A fungus from the birch tree (unspecified) is one ingredient in what is sometimes known as “Indian potion”, which is reportedly good for “catching women” (Solonas, 1993). And if this fungus is burned in the house, no bad spirits will get to you (Solonas, 1993). There are other plants, such as the devil’s club (Oplopanax horridus), which are believed to have strong enough powers so as to ward off illness, or to indicate threatening weather, such as baneberry (Actaea rubra), or “thunderberry”. (Davis 1993:19) As noted earlier, some plants are used to cleanse the body and soul. For example, during the gathering at Amazay and Thutade Lakes, Tse Keh Nay people gather datsənangət along the hillsides of Amazay. This plant is used in the ‘brushing ceremony’ held at the lake.
Datsənangət is used because it is one of the first plants to grow back following a fire, and thus has an ability to endure through the worst of conditions.
A lot of this stuff, a lot of our culture, it goes back to the religion, even similar to the bible if you really understood it. So if you read the bible after the Noah’s Ark, the flood and all that, the bird came back with a little plant sort of thing, the first plant he came back to tell there was life. It’s sort of that…after the burn went through, it’d be the first berry to grow back…. It’s important to our beliefs. (Tse Keh Nay 2006) Many ceremonies, rituals and beliefs are still alive and well among the Tse Keh Nay. Many of these are private and personal and in this report, only some are shared. Sharing their spirituality is not easy for Tse Keh Nay people. It is hoped that in sharing this small amount of information, an understanding will be gained of Tse Keh Nay ways and what they call their “intangible resource”, the spiritual, intangible connection to their lands and resources.
Plants, Animals, People: Their Interconnections
Just as each culture has a different perspective of how the world is supposed to function, so too are there different cultural conceptualizations of plants. Since the Sekani were traditionally dependent on animals for their well being, it should come as no surprise that many plants were classified as belonging to important game animals. For example, the fruits of the mountain ash (Sorbus scopulina) are called “moose berries”; the sitka valerian (Valeriana sitchensis) is known as the “caribou plant”; ?Icelandmoss (Cetraria islandica) is known as “caribou lichen”; ?alpine sweet-vetch (Hedysarum alpinum) is known as “grizzly bear root” and heart-leaved arnica (Arnica cordifolia) is known as “porcupine feet” (H. Chingee, 1993; J. Isaac, 1993). Some plants have humorous connotations such as the mature puffball mushroom (Lycoperdon perlatum), which is sometimes known as the “fart” plant, and the lily-of-thevalley (Maianthemum canadense), sometimes known as “dog’s kiss” because it has a foul smell (Solonas, 1993). (Davis 1993:19) As the above quote describes, Sekani people have always recognized a strong link between plants and animals. Their ancestors watched the animals closely and as a result, they know the plants and medicine necessary for life. Although the following excerpts are from Prophet River area (Bannister 2006), it is believed that they apply to Sekani people and help to demonstrate the connection between plants, animals and people.
Moose is a staple part of the local diet and considered a very healthy type of meat. According to Mary Chipesia: “If I eat straight dry meat, you see me about a hundred year old, and never get old too… straight meat, you can live on it. Moose eat them leaves, they eat medicine. They eat the top of the water lily and some kinds of roots. They eat leaves, that’s medicine, all the healthy stuff. Not like meat in stores, that makes you sick.” Alex Chipesia explained that animals also have a key role in traditional healing as they provide part of the power for cures: “The old people got a power to cure. They got the power from the animals for cures to survive, like a doctor.
Hard to believe but you gotta get that power from the animals”. The repeated references to animals during the study clearly indicates that animals remain integral to the way of life, and essential to the continued well-being of Prophet River community members.
Given the integral role of animals in Dene Tsaa Tse K’nai culture, it is not surprising that many ecological concerns of participants were as much for the welfare of local animals. (Bannister 2006:14-15) An important concept to understand when considering Sekani culture and their tie to their lands and resources is that nothing is seen as standing alone. Throughout the research for this submission, Tse Keh Nay Elders continually referred to the “ecosystem.” It was obvious from their comments that it is impossible to discuss one area, one animal or one resource, as an isolated part. To Tse Keh Nay, all is integrated and any change will have an impact on the entire ecosystem. It is a holistic view of their world.
Traditional Plant Use Today
Today, Tse Keh Nay people live in a world where there are many alternative food sources.
However, “due to the high prices of store-bought foods, and the Tse Keh Nay’s relative seclusion, many traditional foods are still relied upon” (Davis 1999:15). Moose meat is still a staple and berries are still widely picked and preserved by many Tse Keh Nay people.
In 1993, following her field work among the Tse Keh Nay, Davis notes:
Other foods which were observed to be still exploited include: mushrooms, tree cambium, various leaves – consumed both raw and in the form of a beverage (usually tea) – other plant foods may also still be exploited that I did not observe during my research. These local plant foods play an important role in that they are easily accessible, cheap to process, permit self-sufficiency, and propel the Sekani’s cultural plant knowledge. (15) Of course, there continues to be extensive use of plants for medicinal purposes, with many people choosing traditional medicines over western medicine.
Plant Use At Amazay During research for this submission, information was gathered about plant use around Amazay that might be impacted by the use of Amazay as a toxic waste site. There are many accounts that indicate that the loss of habitat around Amazay would be a loss to the Tse Keh Nay use of plants. One account describes the use of datsənangət in the ceremonies that take place at the annual gatherings. Datsənangət is gathered on the hillsides around Amazay and is used in ceremonial brushing that is observed by the Tse Keh Nay.
Another account describes the plant used as “gun medicine.” The advisor was clear that this plant is obtained around Amazay and is used in cleansing a gun and preparing it for the owner. This is inextricably connected to the important rite of passage for boys on one of the hills above Amazay, and is one reason Amazay is seen as a sacred, spiritual place.
Another account is that of the two people who got sick at the gathering. The plant used by one of these people was only found on the hills of Amazay. Jəstəts is another plant that is available at Amazay. This plant is important for your heart, but it was clear that this medicine has both physical and spiritual properties. A primary use of the plant is to “make you feel better” emotionally. This is said to be ‘notsine’ and is a result of the spiritual properties of Jəstəts. As one person said, ‘It’s how you believe in then it works.’ (Tse Keh Nay 2006).
Other accounts record berry picking sites at Amazay. An earlier study, commissioned by Northgate recorded a small trail “on the east side of Duncan Lake… [where] Joe Bob Patrick and his family would collect blueberries, blackberries, huckleberries and Saskatoon berries” (Jennifer Hill, 2005 cited in Dewhirst, 2006:54). Research for the present study confirmed this statement.
Although it is unclear if the plants that grow around Amazay are available elsewhere in Tse Keh Nay lands, it is clear that the Tse Keh Nay know of and utilize plants at Amazay. Loss of the habitat for these plants will force Tse Keh Nay to find other sources of these plants, if they are available at all. As Bannister states, …simply identifying a specific plant or pinpointing the location(s) where it grows will not lead to an adequate strategy of ecological protection. Traditionally important plants and associated cultural knowledge cannot exist in isolation of the cultural and ecological contexts where they originated. That is, the way to protect traditional plant knowledge is not through documenting it in reports or handbooks, but in protecting the integrity of the cultural groups and the ability of local communities to learn and practice this knowledge within intact forests, mountains, lakes and rivers. (Bannister 2006:41) References Banister, Kelly 2006 Prophet River Ethnobotany: A report on traditional plant knowledge and contemporary concerns of the Prophet River First Nation. Unpublished report prepared for Oil and Gas Commission (OGC) and Prophet River First Nation.
Davis, Alison 1993 The Traditional Role of Plants Amongst the Sekani Peoples of Northeastern B.C.
Unpublished report on file with the Tsay Keh Dene.
Jenness, Diamond 1937 The Sekani Indians of British Columbia. National Museum of Canada Bulletin No. 84.
King’s Printer, Ottawa.
1967 The Indians of Canada. Anthropological Series 15, National Museum of Canada Bulletin 65, Ottawa.
Mackenzie, Sir Alexander 1970 The Journals and Letters of Sir Alexander Mackenzie (1789-1819). W. Kaye Lamb, Ed. MacMillan of Canada: Toronto.
MacKinnon, Andy with Pojar, Jim and Coupe, Ray 1999 Plants of Northern British Columbia. Lone Pine Publishing: Vancouver.
Peacock, Sandra and Nancy J. Turner 1999 “Just Like a Garden”: Traditional Resource Management and Biodiversity Conservation on the Interior Plateau of British Columbia in Biodiverisy and Native
America. Paul Minnis and Wayne Elisens (eds.). University of Oklahoma Press:
Swanell, Frank 1932 Plan of Topographical Reconnaissance of the Ingenika River and the Headwaters of the Finlay River Cassiar District.
Tsay Keh Dene (TKD) 2002 Tsay Keh Dene Traditional Use Study: Understanding the Land and People, Final Report, Prepared for the British Columbia Ministry of Sustainable Resource Management, Prepared by the Tsay Keh Dene and D.M. Cultural Services Ltd.
Tse Keh Nay 2006 Draft Notes on Oral history of Thutade and Amazay Lake.
Turner, Nancy J.
1997 Food Plants of Interior First Peoples. UBC Press: Vancouver.
APPENDIX B: EXPANDING THE MINE, KILLING A LAKE: A
CASE STUDY OF COMPETING ENVIRONMENTAL VALUES,
PERCEPTIONS OF RISK AND FIRST NATIONS’ HEALTH.
Expanding the Mine, Killing a Lake:
A Case Study of Competing Environmental Values, Perceptions of Risk and First Nations’ Health
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTSIt is with great appreciation that I extend my heartfelt thanks to all the people who supported and contributed to this research project. Without you, this would not have been possible!
Thank you very much to Takla Lake First Nation and Chief John Allan French, and to Tsay Keh Dene, Grand Chief Gordon Pierre and Chief Johnny Pierre for participating in, and supporting, this project. Thanks also to Kwadacha First Nation and Chief Donny Van Somer who also contributed to this research.
I also want to acknowledge my advisor Neil Hanlon and committee members Gail Fondahl and Gary Wilson for sharing their extensive experience and knowledge of social science research throughout the design and implementation of this research.
Thanks to my ever-supportive and encouraging husband, Shawn.
Finally, I am very grateful for funding support from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and the Michael Smith Foundation.