Wild foods and plant preservation

Photo courtesy of City of Surrey

According to Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at UBC Farm (CSFS), increasing human population growth and global food demand, is causing major challenges to global food systems. These challenges are compounded by climate change, and the global degradation of arable land.

Locally, the loss of agricultural land to development, the cost of land, and an ageing demographic of farmers, are just some of the barriers young farmers encounter in trying to get a foothold in agriculture.

But if there are local problems, the CSFS is also identifying local solutions. Indigenous peoples have been stewards of their lands for centuries, promoting conservation and harmony with nature.

Their food systems are often based on sustainable practices that preserve biodiversity and ecological balance.

UBC Farm (established in 2001) set up the CSFS in 2011 as a teaching and research to spur innovation ‘from field to fork’ to achieve resilient, thriving, and socially just food systems. CSFS supports innovations in food security and ecosystem services, while respecting and protecting diverse ecosystems and knowledge pathways within Indigenous and cultivated food systems.

Indigenous food sovereignty

According to UBC, Indigenous foods are identified as “plant, animal or fungi that have been primarily harvested, cultivated, taken care of, prepared, preserved, shared, or traded within Indigenous cultures and economies.” Over the many millennia, through the evolution of hunting, fishing, farming, and gathering strategies, Indigenous people harvested a vast diversity of flora and fauna, which have been used as foods and medicine.

Rooted in the history, culture, and knowledge of Indigenous peoples and their connection to the environment, Indigenous Food Sovereignty emphasizes the rights of Indigenous communities to control their own food systems, ensure access to culturally appropriate and nutritious food, and maintain sustainable relationships with their lands, waters, and traditional food sources.

Indigenous food sovereignty seeks to uphold Indigenous rights as enshrined in treaties, agreements, and international declarations. These rights include land rights, cultural rights, and the right to maintain and practice traditional food systems.

In March 2006 the Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty (WGIFS) was set up. Group members participate in the B.C. Food Systems Network Annual Gathering, and provide input and leadership on ways to increase awareness and mobilize communities around the issue of Indigenous food sovereignty.

Food is medicine

British Columbia’s First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) is the first and only provincial First Nations health authority in Canada. As a health and wellness partner to over 200 diverse First Nations communities and citizens across B.C., the FNHA is also a champion of culturally safe practices throughout the broader health care system.

The work done by the FNAH is grounded in the First Nations perspective on health and wellness.

This holistic vision encompasses the emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of life.

In addition, the FNAH is also running a Climate-Resilient Food Sovereignty Project putting youth at the forefront of enhancing food harvesting and providing them with opportunities to share traditional knowledge with Elders, their families and other youth. This engagement of the younger generation allows them to view themselves as stewards of their land, to view it as a resource to nurture and protect, and encourages them to increase their own strength, resilience, and self-esteem.

Reclaiming and sharing ancestral knowledge of plants

While traditional Indigenous foods are sources of sustenance, they also hold immense cultural and spiritual significance and are often integral to ceremonies and rituals. Indigenous food sovereignty practices are often deeply intertwined with Indigenous languages, ceremonies, and social structures, all of which foster a sense of belonging and cultural continuity.

Deanna Miller of the Katzie First Nation. | Photo courtesy of Deanna Miller

Born and raised in Langley, Deanna Miller (šxʷne:m – meaning healer in the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ language) from Katzie First Nation became empowered to reignite the ecological sustainability and cultural preservation of her ancestors, through plant knowledge.

Miller’s father was a residential school survivor and, although she grew up on reserve, she felt no connection to the culture and land. When she started working as an aboriginal support worker for the Langley school district in 2007, she was exposed to an array of culture and ceremony, as well as the knowledge and experience of her co-workers. However, she still felt like she never really had a connection to culture that was specific to her until she started to learn about plants.

She acknowledges that, initially, her learning was mostly self-directed, as she did not have access to Elders for support. She first attended a medicine making workshop at UBC Indigenous Gardens, also part of UBC Farm now known as the xʷc̓ic̓əsəm Garden with its traditional xʷməθkʷəy̓əm Musqueam name meaning “The place where we grow”.

Through her interaction with the Elders in residence, Miller was able to identify her true passion.

“From then, I made a commitment to build a relationship with the plants on my land,” she recalls.

What started as a hobby for Miller, quickly turned into a small business, making teas, salves, skin care products and balms, as well as running medicine making workshops and plant identification walks.

“Preserving traditional ways of language, ceremonies, plant knowledge, fishing is important,” she says.

“However, we need to embrace that culture changes and evolves, and acknowledge that everyone practices culture in different ways and so there are different ways that we can preserve culture”.

Miller has witnessed how much of the traditional ways of life have been eclipsed by capitalism and industrialism.

“I would hope, people understand that the indigenous people in all of our communities are the original stewards of this land. We cannot get back to our traditional stewardships, but it’s important to find a better collective balance,” she says.

Miller believes that everyone should take a moment to “walk slowly” and take in everything nature has to offer and be thankful for what the earth can provide for us.

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