Traditional Plant Foods of canadian indigenous peoples, Nutrition, Botany and Use

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CHAPTER 2
What's So Special about Indigenous Foods?

Foods from the natural environment which became included into the cultural food use patterns of a group of Indigenous People are known as indigenous foods. There is a great diversity of cultural ecosystems that sustained Canada's Indigenous Peoples throughout history, and hence, there is a great variety of indigenous foods that are part of our collective human knowledge. Indigenous foods can be categorized as plant foods, animal foods, earth elements such as salts, and water. The tremendous diversity of plant foods available to and used by Canada's Indigenous Peoples, which is the subject of this book, is an area deserving of careful study and documentation.

It is common knowledge that the collective wisdom of resource use in natural environments known to Indigenous People is disappearing in the face of "modernization'' and "technological development". Young people are no longer systematically taught by their elders to survive using only the natural environment. Hence, valuable information on these resources is being passed to fewer and fewer people, and gradually being lost from indigenous societies, as well as from collective human knowledge. In the face of this loss, one of the purposes of this book is to help bring recognition to the great variety of potentially useful plant foods that exist, and to stimulate research and further documentation on nutritional and botanical properties and use of plants by and for Indigenous People.

Research on indigenous foods can benefit efforts to protect the world's natural environments. By knowing the plants useful to Indigenous Peoples, temporal and longitudinal studies can demonstrate environmental integrity, or lack of it. The knowledge traditionally-living Indigenous Peoples have on the presence, absence, and/or general health of the plants and animals in their cultural milieu can be developed for environmental monitoring. This has been well demonstrated with the use of harvest studies to monitor the presence of animal Wildlife by Indigenous People in the Canadian Arctic.

Indigenous People are logical beneficiaries of attention and documentation of their traditional food resources. In many parts of the world, particularly in the Western Hemisphere, indigenous groups are working diligently to document their elders' knowledge of use of natural food resources, and to revive their use as much as is feasible in a contemporary world (cf. 'Ksan, People of, 1980; Jones, 1983; Kuhnlein and Moody, 1989). This occurs primarily in groups who still have regular access to their aboriginal lands and the natural environment still provides food resources. These people are often eager for scientific (nutritional, zoological, botanical) documentation, since the elders universally relate their impression that young people would be much healthier if they would rely more on these resources and less on marketed foods which are limited in variety and quality in the low-income areas which are usually inhabited by Indigenous People. As well as physical health benefits, it is recognized that leaders and elders of indigenous groups want to preserve and protect the knowledge of traditional environments and lifestyles for the cultural benefits they provide to people of all ages within the group. Hence, both health promotion programs and cultural enrichment programs for Indigenous People will benefit with more and better information about indigenous foods.

The diversity of physical environments in Canada has provided an array of ecologically-determined food systems for Indigenous People. This ecological diversity combined with the broad cultural diversity of Canadian Indigenous Peoples presupposes a wide range of dietary patterns, health patterns, as well as disease risk and risk for morbidity and mortality. By and large, it is assumed that if a population was successfully maintained in an area, the food resources were sufficient and morbidity and mortality was low enough to carry individuals through the reproductive age. It is also recognized that food resources are environmentally dependent and that there were episodes, whether seasonally each year, or in an occasional entire year, when food supplies were short. All groups had access to the variety of nutrients essential to health (carbohydrate, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, water) but short-term malnutrition probably occurred during food shortage.

In the scheme of dietary diversity, plant foods are generally viewed as good sources of carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. However, the latitude and climatic patterns greatly influence the type of plant foods, indeed, of all foods, available to indigenous groups. Agricultural groups in mid-southern to eastern Canada (Huron, Ojibwa, Iroquois) cultivated maize, beans and squashes, and harvested maple sap, and wild rice. West Coast peoples had a great diversity of berries, roots and green plant foods to supplement diets rich in fish and game. Northern peoples utilized seaweeds, berries and tundra greens (Figure 1).The quantity and variety of plant foods were balanced

Figure 1. Arctic net-veined willow (Salix reticulata). A green herb eaten by Inuit in the Eastern Artic.

with quantity and variety of animal and fish foods utilized to make nutritionally complete dietary patterns. Research and understanding of the nutritional vitality in the diversity of food systems developed by these indigenous societies provides new knowledge and depth of understanding to contemporary dietary patterns of indigenous cultures as well as to our larger multicultural populations.

This kind of research is particularly imperative as we recognize that indigenous dietary patterns are being displaced for Indigenous People with marketed foods. This displacement is accelerated in areas close to urban centers, but it is also taking place in the most remote regions of Canada, including the Canadian Arctic. For a variety of reasons related to the "modernization" of contemporary society, the indigenous ("wild" or noncommercialized) food resources are falling out of use. It is hoped that this resource book will call attention to the variety of useful plant foods in Canadian environments.

It is intended that the definition of indigenous plant foods contained in this reference will be useful as a resource for groups of Indigenous People who wish to stimulate interest in their natural resources, and who can then use it for purposes of nutrition education and health promotion. A parallel effort on traditional food plants of Eastern Africa has recently been undertaken by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (Hussein, 1987; FAO, 1988). Ebeling (1986) authored a fine volume on Indian foods and fibers in arid America.

Those participating in wilderness education programs are also potential beneficiaries of published knowledge on indigenous food resources. Plant identifications, ways of preparation, cautions on potential toxicity, and nutritional benefits of specific plants are highly desired information for individuals who are teaching/learning about wilderness survival. By the same token, this information is useful for general education programs on environment awareness and protection (Kuhnlein, 1984; Kuhnlein, 1985).

Another area of usefulness for information on indigenous plant foods is for genetic research and development of agricultural crops. Germplasm conservation programs and data bases of indigenous foods are valuable resources for enhancing existing crops or for development of new ones (Duke, 1977; Turner, 1981). Wild plants have been shown to successfully improve the genetic stocks of agricultural crops: the cases of Mexican teosinte maize (Robson et al; 1976) and winged bean (NRC, 1981) are excellent examples. Commercially grown fruits have been derived or genetically improved with wild species—this is true for cranberry, gooseberry, grape, blackberry, strawberry and blueberry, among others. Some wild food crops known to be used by Indigenous People, and which have now been directly adapted for commercial markets, are chia seeds, pinyon nuts, Jerusalem artichokes, wild rice, maple syrup, black walnuts, etc. (Nicholson et al., 1971; Turner, 1981). Wild, green plants used by Indigenous People of rural Mexico are actively harvested for commercial markets in urban areas (Bye, 1981). In western Canada, Saskatoon berries have been researched for their marketing potential (Mazza, 1982).

Thus, it is clear that documentation of the knowledge Indigenous People have aquired about the natural plant food resources of Canada, will benefit humankind in many ways.

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