The primary purpose of this book is to describe and to reference the published literature on the nutritional properties, the botanical characteristics and the ethnic uses of traditional food plants of Canadian Indigenous Peoples. Since it is recognized that Canadian political boundaries are not honored by plants in their biological habitats, the nutritional and botanical information presented here is often relevant to other regions with northern latitudes where the same species are found, such as northern regions of the United States, Europe and Asia. However, the ethnographic information reviewed and presented in this book is only from Canadian Indigenous Peoples and their immediate neighbors in Alaska and other states bordering Canada.
This reference guide is intended for a variety of users: Indigenous People, nutritionists, and other health care professionals working with Indigenous People or with other rural people, biologists, ethnologists, the variety of organizations serving Indigenous People, wildlife enthusiasts, and the academic audience in a variety of disciplines. It is written with academic-style referencing, using language that is intended to be easily understood by a variety of readers.
It is recognized that the identification and description of useful plant species for food and medicinal uses has captivated the attention of academics and botanical entrepreneurs in recent years. The focus of this book is plant species that are "edible". This infers that if a plant food item was used for both food and medicine, it would not be threateningly toxic. Since Indigenous People often do not delineate between "sustenance" and "medicine" in the same way that contemporary academic science tends to do (ie: sometimes a food is a medicine, etc.), this reference work can be generally helpful in identifying useful plants in the general environmental milieu of Indigenous People.
We have not attempted to thoroughly document published knowledge on the possible toxic components of these plants. However, in the sections describing use of particular plant species, warnings are given on known toxic constituents, and how they can be avoided.
The scientific literature was searched for nutrient information for approximately 1,050 species that were identified as edible and available in Canada. An overview of the regions where the plants are available, and their botanical characteristics, is given in order within the major plant groupings. The ethnographic literature of Canadian Indigenous Peoples was searched for available information on the patterns of use of the particular species, and thus is also summarized.
It needs to be stated clearly that the existing knowledge of nutrient contents and ethnic uses of Canadian edible plants is less complete than is the botanical knowledge. Hence, we have made the generally loose supposition that if a particular species has edible parts, then Indigenous People somewhere would have taken advantage of them. Further, that if descriptions of ethnic uses of a particular plant are known, but the nutrient value for a particular plant part is not reported, it is because the knowledge does not exist (no analyses done), not because there are no nutrients in that particular plant. Thus, this book reports our contemporary existing knowledge, as of 1990, on nutritional, botanical and ethnological data for more than 1,000 species of edible plants. It will become obvious to the reader that there are great knowledge gaps, particularly in the ethnic uses and nutritional chemistry of these foods.
Some definitions are in order here:
Indigenous People- For the purposes of this work, the term "Indigenous People" refers to a cultural group in an ecological area that developed a successful subsistence base from the natural resources available in that area. Indigenous People in a particular environment are recognized as the definitive sources of knowledge of successful uses of plant and animal resources, particularly within their culture. The term "Indigenous Peoples" refers to the plural—that is, more than one cultural group considered simultaneously.
Edible- Able to be eaten without recognized hazard, or with only minimum hazard.
Food- Whatever is eaten or drunk for replenishment of the species.
Human Nutrition- The science of food and the nutrients and other substances therein, and their action, interaction and balance in relation to health and disease. It includes the processes by which humans ingest, digest, absorb, transport, utilize and excrete food substances. In addition, human nutrition includes certain social, economic, cultural and psychological characteristics for the successful use of food.
Traditional plant foods- Technically, in the Western Hemisphere, this term implies plant foods from the natural environment used in traditional indigenous cultures before contact with Anglo-Europeans. However, for the purposes of this book, we have included some species introduced from other regions that are either known to have been used by Indigenous People, or which contain edible parts. Generally, we have avoided giving attention to introduced food plants that are used in commercial agriculture, because botanical and nutritional data on these species is published and readily available elsewhere. We have generally dealt with plant species that grow "wild", or at least are not cultivated in the usual definition of the word in modern agriculture, but we have tried to include plant food species known to have been actively cultivated by precontact Indigenous People (for example, maize, wild rice, etc.).
This book contains several cross-referencing tables that are presented to accommodate readers with different kinds of backgrounds. There is an alphabetized table of common English plant names given with botanical names (Appendix 2); there is an alphabetized table of botanical names given with common English names (Appendix 3); there is a table presenting a composite of information of each species (Chapter 5) alphabetized by botanical name. In addition, there is a chapter giving an overview of the known ethnic uses of the most important and universally used species (Chapter 4); and there are large tables which present the known nutrient contents of the edible parts of approximately 500 species. We would have liked to present a table of indigenous language names used for species, with English names and botanical nomenclature, but the published literature is very sparse in this area. Moreover, the linguistical symbols for the different indigenous languages which are published, often make the interpretation difficult for non-linguists. Furthermore, the large number of different languages and dialects spoken by Canadian Indigenous Peoples, and the complexity of their botanical nomenclature and classification precludes the inclusion of such a table. The index to the book, together with the cross-referencing tables, make the information easy to locate from a number of starting points. Maps of the locations of Indigenous Peoples of Canada are given in Appendix 1.