Contributed by Alain Cuerrier, Montreal Botanical Garden and ISE North America Representative
In 2002, I was approached by a pharmacologist, Pierre Haddad, who wanted to help native people prevent and tackle diabetes that prevailed then and now within their population. Diabetes is up to 5 times more prevalent among First Nations communities than in the non-native population of Canada. We decided to form a multidisciplinary team and we were blessed with acceptance from Thor Arnason, a well-known phytochemist and ethnobotanist, as well as Tim Johns, another well-known figure in the world of ethnobiology. At the core of the study is the Cree Nation that has accepted our project on their land. The project, funded by the CIHR, started in 2003 and we became the CIHR Team in Aboriginal Anti-diabetic Medicines. We started the project with the development of a Research Agreement (accessible through the CIHR-TAAM web site) that covers all aspects of the ISE Code of Ethics and protects the rights of the Cree people to have control over their traditional knowledge; it was almost 6 years before the Agreement was officially signed.
After a first round of interviews, we ranked plants based upon a Syndromic Importance Value equation that takes into account the number of times a plant is mentioned, the number of diabetes symptoms it is used for, and the ranking that clinicians did on the 15 symptoms we used in our interviews. The first 8 plants were assessed for their phytochemistry and we ran a number of bio-assays. Results showed that most plants were good candidates for treating people struggling with diabetes. With such interesting data we soon realised that we could play a seminal role in translating traditional medicine (TM) into an acceptable language for nurses and physicians working in the modern clinics in the Cree communities. Then, the team added new researchers: Steffany Bennett to look at neuropathy and Brian Foster at possible drug interactions. Also, physicians working with the Cree Board of Health and at University of Montreal took part in the project. The Cree Board of Health played a central role and was from the start supportive of our project.
Along with enlarging the number of bio-assays and understanding the phytochemistry within the first 8 plants, we decided to open our work to another set of 9 plants. Interviews done in 3 more communities gave further insight on possible plant candidates. Two additional communities joined the project in 2011.
At each step, the Cree people have been involved through monthly steering committee conference calls and biannual meetings (in the South and in the North). We also took part in their Cultural Gatherings and presented the project findings at their Health Fair and General Assembly meeting. We took pride in discussing the results with the Elders and Healers. They are also conducting an observational study within their Nation, a study that we all decided to call Putting Traditional Medicine First.
In parallel with these research elements and, in part, answering a call from the Elders and Healers, we have been pursuing an impact assessment of harvesting some of their medicinal plants. Another related study examines the change in metabolite concentrations along a South-North gradient. But the real outcome is to see the pride that Cree have over their TM and also the renewed interest that the project has generated within the Cree Nation. Thanks to the Elders and Healers that made this project an interesting one. Meegwetch!
Contributed by Jessica Dolan, McGill University, ISE Member
Shé:kon, hello! My name is Jessica Dolan. I’m a PhD student currently doing research in Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) communities on how people are putting Haudenosaunee ecological knowledge and traditional philosophies into practice in environmental stewardship projects. There are 17 Iroquois communities located within the political boundaries of the United States and Canada, but my research is mostly based at Six Nations of the Grand River, Ontario. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy includes the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora nations. As the name suggests, people of all six nations live at Grand River.
I am interested in how people throughout Haudenosaunee communities are drawing connections between the continuous revitalization of cultural knowledge and the natural world. Here, revitalization does not mean bringing something back that is dying (as resuscitation does), but rather active continual engagement in the stewardship of culture and the environment. This revitalization takes place in the form of building a personal relationship with nature that is properly situated within Haudenosaunee worldviews.
Like others in the field of ethnobiology, I believe traditional ways of life contain essential ways of knowing and being for humankind to have healthy relationships with each other and with the environment. In addition, my research is motivated by a principle that is analogous to one in traditional medical systems: in addition to treating the symptoms of an illness, it’s important to treat the cause. In the case of the degradation of the Earth, I believe the cause is the principles that underlie the drive toward constant economic growth that requires increasing consumption of natural resources in a globalized capitalist economy.
It’s important for North Americans to know that Indigenous Knowledge is not only held by people in remote, far-away places, but also in communities not all that far from major North American cities. One thing that is significant about Haudenosaunee ecological knowledge is that it is an Indigenous philosophy of pathways to social-ecological balance held by people whose lands have been some of the most polluted areas of North America throughout the 20th century. For example, Six Nations of the Grand River is surrounded by one of Canada’s centers of agricultural and industrial production, yet it holds the largest extant stand of Carolinian forest within Canadian political boundaries. The plant volume and diversity may be great at Six Nations of the Grand River, but toxic run-off from upriver agriculture and industry permeates the Grand and some of the smaller waterways. While there is a strong cultural-environmental ethic and traditional knowledge practice at Six Nations, that is also threatened by urban sprawl, the problem of toxic and solid waste storage, and industrial and agricultural development opportunities. In this respect the old saying is true: the poison is beside the cure.
Many traditional people throughout Haudenosaunee communities continue an ancient practice of acknowledgement and relationship with the natural world. Some people are actively choosing to learn and engage in these ways of life because their families did not raise them in it; others do it because it is just what they have always done. There are also many people who commit a great amount of their time to participating in cultural revitalization through the study of one or more Iroquoian languages, while raising their children as speakers to have their heritage language as their first language, thereby revitalizing the indigenous knowledge that is encoded in the traditional language patterns.
Throughout cultural and educational events that I have participated in – as well as the interviews I’ve been doing – I’ve heard people describe how revitalization of traditional knowledge is essential to the survival of Haudenosaunee cultures and Mother Earth. This philosophy is part of the Great Law of Peace, the foundational oral history of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. The Great Law contains guidance on the political organization of traditional government and on the social organization of the clan system. But it also contains instructions on how individuals can come to peace within themselves and with their communities, so those communities can then live in peace with other communities. Continuous enactment of peace is essential to the principal of the Dish With One Spoon, a Haudenosaunee philosophy, which is the peaceful sharing with equanimity and moderation of resources of the natural world.
Traditional teachings show how war is bad for the environment, and also that it is necessary to maintain personal physical and mental health (internal environment) in order to have a balanced relationship with our external environment, the one around us. From the grassroots to the policy level, environmental management is not only about managing the non-human natural world, but also addresses “social management” that supports healthy communities. In turn, if individuals and communities are healthy, that will be reflected in our relationship with the natural world.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many people at Six Nations of the Grand River speak about the importance of transmitting the cultural knowledge of growing and preparing traditional foods. This year, Six Nations Farmer’s Market and Community Garden coordinator Jennifer Hill organized a workshop series to educate community members about traditional agricultural knowledge. The topics of each month’s workshop correspond with the traditional cycle of ceremonies; it began in January after Midwinter ceremony. Each month, Elders and knowledgeable people speak on such subjects as Haudenosaunee seed varieties; how to tap maple trees and boil sap; how to plant corn, beans, and squash in mounds; the nutritional benefits of flint corn; how to use wild plants such as Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) as a natural pesticide for flint corn; the medicinal properties of strawberries and their leaves, and more.
On March 30th, the Six Nations Farmer’s Market and Community Garden, the Indigenous Knowledge Center, the Joint Stewardship Board and others hosted a seed exchange where about 75 participants from throughout the Haudenosaunee communities exchanged dozens of Haudenosaunee heirloom seed varieties of corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers, among others. In May, workshop participants planted a community garden in the center of Ohsweken at Six Nations of the Grand River. The Six Nations Farmer’s Market will have its grand opening on August 6th in the village of Ohsweken.
This yearlong hands-on community education series has already demonstrated to hundreds of people the necessity and benefits of sustaining biocultural diversity. It reinforces community health through the transmission of cultural teachings about plants (plants can show us a lot about how to have good relationships with each other), and by making fresh produce readily available. It also supports knowledgeable people from the community who have been planting and continuing traditional techniques of tree tapping and medicine gathering, by giving them a space to share what they know.
My research at Six Nations of the Grand River is done in partnership with the Indigenous Knowledge Center at the Six Nations Polytechnic (http://www.snpolytechnic.com/indigknowledgecentre.html), and the Joint Stewardship Board. The Joint Stewardship Board is a working group devoted to building Haudenosaunee ethics and traditional knowledge into practice in environmental stewardship projects, and to building guidelines for equitable environmental consultation within co-management agreements.
My thesis will examine the principles and practices of Haudenosaunee environmental knowledge based upon literary references, the perspectives of people who I have interviewed this year, and the learning I’ve done through participating in workshops, cultural events, gardening, volunteering as a councilor at a traditional knowledge youth camp, and living in the community. I will discuss through the examples of two case studies successes and challenges of applying this consciousness to co-management partnerships and community projects. I hope that the benefits of my writing will be to support the revitalization of traditional knowledge, and to contribute to awareness building about environmental ethics and protection throughout Six Nations communities, in the mainstream, and in academia. If you would like to know more about my research, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s all for now. On:en.