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

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An Overview of the Nutrient Value and Use of Plant Foods by Indigenous Peoples


As of 1990, about 550 different species of plants have been documented in the literature as having been utilized in one way or another in the traditional diets of Indigenous Peoples in Canada and neighboring areas. When the variety of food types yielded by these plants is considered, the diversity is even greater, since many plants provide more than one type of food. A summary of the numbers of these traditional plant foods by major plant grouping and by plant food category is given in Tables 3-1 and 3-2.


Many traditional indigenous plant foods are comparable to those available in an average market today. These include root vegetables, green vegetables, fleshy fruits, seeds, nuts, and grains, and mushrooms. Indigenous People also have taken advantage of more exotic plant foods such as algae, lichens, flowers and the bark or inner bark of trees.

The root vegetables (i.e., tubers, corms, bulbs, rhizomes and true roots) include such root foods as wild onions, blue camas, spring beauty, yellow avalanche lily, bitterroot, balsamroot, silverweed, springbank clover (Figure 2), roseroot and knotweed. Root vegetables are recognized as the storage organs of plants and in this function they contain carbohydrates that are usually maximized at the end of the leaf-growing season, before new shoots appear. Carbohydrates can be present in a variety of forms and flavors, and may not always be readily digestible by humans. Some traditional root foods contain the carbohydrate, inulin, which becomes sweet upon cooking, due to a partial

Table 3-1. Traditional Plant Foods of Indigenous Peoples of Canada and Neighboring Areas by Major Plant Grouping

Major Plant Grouping

Approximate Number of Species
Documented as of 1990

Seaweeds (Marine Algae)




Mushrooms and other Fungi


Ferns and Fern-allies


Conifers (Gymnosperms)


Flowering Plants - Monocotyledons


Flowering Plants - Dicotyledons




conversion to the sugar, fructose. (Kuhnlein et al., 1982; Turner and Kuhnlein, 1983). If the skin of the root food is consumed, it can be a good source of mineral nutrients. Usually, root foods provide only small amounts of vitamins in a 100-gram portion.

Green vegetables include stems, leaves, shoots and buds. Examples of stem and shoot vegetables include thimbleberry and salmonberry, fireweed, cow-parsnip, Indian celery, and fiddleheads. Leaf vegetables are plants such as lambsquarters, watercress, mustard greens and nettles. Most are available

Table 3-2. Plant Food Categories in the Traditional Diets of Indigenous Peoples of Canada and Neighboring Areas, Showing Approximate Number of Species Providing Foods within each Category

Plant Food Category

Approximate Number of Species

Inner bark, cambium and sap




Roots (roots, bulbs, tubers, corms, rhizomes)


Greens (stems, leaves, buds, shoots, etc.)


Seeds, nuts and grains


Fleshy fruits (berries, drupes, pomes, etc.)


Sweetening agents


Beverages (teas and juices)


Miscellaneous flavorings, casual edibles and chewing gums




Figure 2. Springbank clover rhizones (Trifolium wormskioldii). A root vegetable from British Columbia.

(palatable and digestible) only in their young stages. Green vegetables can be expected to have a high moisture content, carotene and other vitamins (vitamin C and folic acid) and minerals such as iron, calcium, magnesium, etc. (cf. Kuhnlein and Turner, 1987).

Wild berries and other fleshy fruits (including drupes, pomes, and aggregate fruits) are favorite foods of many people, and, of all the traditional plant foods, they are probably the most frequently used by contemporary Indigenous People. Saskatoon berries (serviceberries), blueberries and huckleberries (Figure 3), gooseberries and currants, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, cloudberries, salalberries, crowberries, cranberries, wild plums, grapes, cherries and crabapples—all of these are still harvested and enjoyed. Most wild fruits are good sources of ascorbic acid; some, such as rose hips, are exceptionally high in this important nutrient. Fruits can also contain unexpectedly high amounts of other nutrients such as calcium, vitamin A as carotene, and folic acid (Kuhnlein, 1989).

Seeds, nuts and grains, including maize, wild-rice, oak acorns, beechnuts, hazelnuts (Figure 4), black walnuts, balsamroot seeds and whitebark pine seeds, have also been eaten. Such foods are generally known to be good

Figure 3. Black mountain huckleberries (Vaccinium membranaceum), a delectable wild berry.

sources of protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. In some cases, oil can be rendered from these foods. Grains from maize and wild-rice would have been used either green or mature and the energy value from stored carbohydrate and fat would vary considerably, depending on the stage of maturation. If the maize were cooked with a wood ash, the mineral contents would be raised substantially. Nuts are considered a rich source of fat and carbohydrate kilocalories, and were consumed raw or cooked. Cooking would certainly enhance their digestibility and nutrient availability. Nuts are also good sources of minerals, such as iron, the B-vitamins, and amino acids.

A relatively small number of mushroom and fungi species was featured in traditional indigenous diets; some of these are still being used. Few studies have been done on the nutrient contents of wild mushrooms, but indications are that they are comparable in nutrients to commercially available types (Turner et al., 1987).

The inner bark tissues of many types of trees have been an unusual source of plant foods. Conifers like western hemlock, Sitka spruce and lodge pole pine, but also cottonwood and other deciduous species, have inner bark tissues that were scraped off from the trees in spring. There is little documentation

Figure 4. Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta).

of nutrient content of these foods; however, they would be expected to have a high sap content. Using maple sap as an example, one would expect high carbohydrate/sugar energy values for inner bark foods.

Lichens, especially rock tripe and black tree lichen, were used in some areas, both as food and emergency food. In the far North, lichens were also utilized in a partially digested state from the rumens of caribou. Marine algae, or seaweeds, were used by virtually all coastal peoples, and sometimes were traded inland. Still used at present, they are important sources of vitamins and several minerals, particularly iodine. Both algae and lichens can be difficult to digest unless specially processed. There is little documentation on their nutrient contribution to the diets of Indigenous People. Algae have also been used as an emergency food (energy source) in coastal areas where fish and game were for some reason limited.

Flowers are unusual plant foods which are not usually available on a commercial basis today. Indigenous People took advantage of such delicacies as rose petals, fireweed flowers, and mariposa lily buds. Flowers are high moisture-containing foods, usually low in protein and fat, but some can be surprisingly rich in vitamin A as carotene or vitamin C. There is extremely little published information on the mineral contents of flowers.

There were relatively few very sweet substances in the traditional diet of Indigenous Peoples. In Eastern Canada, sugar maple and related species provided sap for syrup and sugar. In the interior of British Columbia, Douglasfir was an occasional source of a crystalline sugar produced under very unusual environmental conditions. Licorice fern rhizomes (Figure 5), were sometimes used by coastal peoples of British Columbia as a sweetener and appetizer, and some of the "root" foods containing inulin, including camas, nodding onion, and balsamroot became very sweet when the inulin was converted to fructose through storage and cooking processes. In general, however, the sweeter types of fruits such as wild strawberries, Saskatoon berries, and salal were the primary sources of sweetness in the diet, and these were sometimes used to enhance the flavor of other foods. When molasses and refined sugars were introduced, they were quickly adopted into use and were served, along with various oils and fats, with many types of traditional plant foods including greens, roots and berries.

Aside from the various sweeteners, a number of aromatic and otherwise

Figure 5. Rhizomes of licorice fern (Polypodium vulgare), which is used as a sweet.

strongly flavored plants were used as condiments in cooking. Several species of the mint family were used as culinary herbs in soups and stews, as were some species of the celery family such as Indian celery greens and seeds. Some of these plants, as well as some aromatic plants in the aster family, also functioned as preservatives for meat and fish.

Many plants in different regions were used for beverage teas or drinks. Of these, perhaps Labrador-tea is the most widely used, although the extent of its original use by Indigenous Peoples was probably much more restricted. Other beverage plants include Canada mint, wild bergamot, trailing wild blackberry and wild rose. Many teas from plants were taken as medicines or tonics as well as regular beverages. As far as can be determined, alcoholic beverages were unknown to Indigenous Peoples in prehistoric times. For example, the Fisherman Lake Slave, who make a variety of "brews" (fermented drinks) from wild plants, were said to have learned to do this from white men from Fort Liard around the turn of the century; the process requires yeast, sugar, and raisins and fermentation usually takes from two to five days (Lamont, 1977). Some specific documentation of the nutrient values of beverage plants are provided in Chapters 4 and 5.

Chapter 4 gives known nutrient values of specific plant foods within the major groups mentioned here.


In general, harvesting of plant foods required little in the way of specialized equipment. Root foods were usually dug or pried out with the aid of a pointed digging stick, the design of which varied from one region to another. Originally, digging sticks were made of wood or sometimes antler, with or without a separate crosspiece for a handle. In historic times, iron digging sticks, sometimes fashioned from the tyne of an old-fashioned harrow, have been used. Other plant-gathering implements included such items as scrapers (originally of bone or antler and later of a rounded and sharpened section of tin can) for removing the edible inner bark tissue from a tree, comb-like tools for harvesting some types of berries, and poles and hooks for gathering high-growing elderberries and black tree lichen, or for pulling up eelgrass from the ocean bottom. Most greens and berries would have been harvested by hand. A wide assortment of burden baskets and containers, most constructed from various types of fibrous plant tissues, were used to transport and store the harvested foods. Birch-bark containers were particularly important for this role in many regions.

Some plant foods, especially greens and berries, could be eaten fresh and raw with little preparation other than peeling green shoots or destemming fruits. Other plant foods were prepared in some way before being served. For some, further processing was essential to render them digestible or to eliminate toxic components. Furthermore, plant foods intended for storage invariably required some degree of processing to allow their preservation.

Many different procedures were used in processing plant foods, and sometimes two or more processing techniques were applied successively. For example, a newly-harvested root food would probably undergo preliminary cleaning and might also be washed or peeled close to the site where it was dug. Then, possibly after transport to a camp area or permanent residence, it might be cooked by boiling or steaming in an underground pit. Following cooking, it might be dehydrated for storage by spreading it out on a mat for several days. At this point, the dried food could be kept for a considerable period of time—months or even years if necessary. Before it was finally consumed, it would probably be reconstituted by soaking in water or boiling in a broth with meat, fish or other foods.

Dehydration, by sun, wind or heating over a fire, was a very common and widespread method of storing plant foods for later use. This technique was especially common for berries and root foods, but was also used for mushrooms, seaweeds, inner bark, and even some greens. Depending on their nature and on their intended use, the foods could be dried loosely or individually, or mashed and dried in loaves or cakes. Roots and mushrooms might be strung on strings or threaded onto skewers for drying. Dehydration had the added advantage of making foods lighter and more compact for transport from the harvesting and processing site to permanent winter quarters. This was an important feature before the convenience of horses and other forms of land transportation. Foods that were properly dried and stored would keep up to several years. Before use, they were usually reconstituted in water.

Some foods, especially roots and certain berries, were preserved without dehydration for considerable periods. They were stored in containers or buried in underground caches. In the northern regions, caches were particularly effective, since the food generally froze if situated next to permafrost, and remained frozen over the winter, to be dug out and thawed as needed (cf. Lamont, 1977; Kari, 1977). Another method of storage used for more tart fruits, such as crabapples, elderberries, cranberries, and soapberries, was to place them in a container covered with water and sometimes a layer of fish or animal grease or oil. Such foods would soften, but remain quite palatable, sometimes becoming sweeter the longer they were kept (Turner, 1975; Port Simpson Curriculum Committee, 1983). The Inuit and some northern Indian Peoples used a fermentation or "souring" technique to preserve some of their greens, berries, and root foods. These foods were often first placed into a seal poke or, recently, a barrel. The techniques of storing and fermenting foods in the North are described in detail by Jones (1983).

Many foods, both fresh and stored, were cooked before being consumed. In some cases, as with the inulin-containing root foods (such as camas and wild onions) and black tree lichen, prolonged cooking greatly enhanced the digestibility of the food, and hence its nutrient value (Turner and Kuhnlein, 1983). Baking or steaming for many hours in an underground pit was a common method of cooking many root foods. Large quantities of food could be prepared with minimal use of containers or utensils (cf. Turner and Kuhnlein, 1982). Foods could also be boiled, either directly over a fire or stove, or using red-hot rocks heated in a fire and dropped into a box or other container with the food and usually water or some other type of liquid. Roasting over an open fire was also used for some foods.

Many plant foods were mixed with other foods, both plant and animal, before being eaten. For example some Interior Salish people of British Columbia made a type of pudding with several ingredients including Saskatoon berries, deer fat, black tree lichen, and tiger lily, and yellow avalanche lily bulbs (Turner et al., 1990). Oils and fats were often used to enhance the flavor of plant foods (Turner, 1975, 1978; 'Ksan, People of, 1980; Port Simpson Curriculum Committee, 1983; Laforet et al., 1990). Pemmican—a mixture of dried meat, berries, and fat, with many variations—is probably the best example of a food incorporating both plant and animal ingredients. In the North, a type of "ice cream" was sometimes made by whipping berries and greens together with fat and, sometimes, snow (cf. Kari, 1977; Jones, 1983).


The great majority of Canadian Indigenous People had a traditional economy based primarily on hunting, fishing and plant gathering. Plants were regarded both as direct sources of food, and as secondary sources in the role of food for animals which were eaten. Plants also provided many useful and important materials in hunting and fishing technologies. Some groups, such as the Huron, Ojibwa and Iroquois of the Great Lakes region, practiced agriculture to some degree, growing and apparently selecting and breeding several cultivated varieties of maize, beans, squashes and pumpkins. Sunflowers were also grown, but aside from these few species, virtually all other plant foods were harvested from the wild.

However, since food production may be described as a series of developmental stages in indigenous economies (cf. Ford, 1985), many native plant species could be regarded as being in the initial phases of agriculture ("incipient agriculture"). Various means were used to encourage the growth of these food plants and to foster optimum habitat conditions. For example, controlled burning was practiced on southern Vancouver Island to optimize the production of blue camas, which grows best in an open meadow habitat (Turner and Bell, 1971). Native elders in many parts of British Columbia have recalled that patches of mountainside were formerly burned from time to time to eliminate underbrush and promote the growth and yield of black huckleberries, blackcaps, strawberries, tiger lilies and other economically important plant foods, as well as to provide good browsing areas for deer and other game. Hazelnut bushes were burned back to the ground to stimulate nut production, according to one Nlaka' pamux (Thompson) woman.

From Manitoba to the Maritimes, wild-rice was harvested on a regular, systematic basis, using methods that ensured continued production. Also in eastern Canada, sugar maple trees were tended and used year after year on a sustained yield basis.

The concept of genetic and ecotypic variability was obviously recognized by Indigenous Peoples and was a factor in food gathering. It was widely known that some localities and habitats produced a particular plant food of better quality than others. For example, some Pacific coastal peoples travelled considerable distances to obtain prime cow-parsnip shoots in the spring, even though cow-parsnip could be found nearby (Kuhnlein and Turner, 1987). Salal, thimbleberries, highbush cranberries, Pacific crabapples, camas, springbank clover and Pacific silverweed all had their designated harvesting localities in Pacific coast environments, where they were prolific and of best quality. These localities were visited year after year, and in some cases, generation after generation. This was undoubtedly true of food plants in other regions of the country.

Ownership and stewardship of particular harvesting sites by individuals, families and village groups was also widely recognized. In some cases—as with camas, springbank clover and silverweed—family ownership was established for discrete patches, whose boundaries were sometimes marked off (Boas, 1934), and proprietorship carried on for many successive generations (cf. Turner and Kuhnlein, 1982, 1983). Rocks and brush were generally cleared from these "garden" patches, and only the largest "root" parts were selected, the smaller roots, bulbs, or rhizomes being left for successive harvests. Some Nuxalk people of Bella Coola began more obvious agricultural procedures, with annual plantings of springbank clover rhizomes on the river floodplains (Edwards, 1979).

With traditions of plant resource husbanding already in place, it is not surprising that many Indigenous People became adept gardeners and farmers within the historic period. The Haida of the Queen Charlotte Islands, for example, who were already experienced growers of a certain type of aboriginal tobacco, became renowned for their expertise in potato production. Haida potatoes were grown, not only for local consumption, but were traded or sold to the Tsimshian and other mainland peoples, and to trading ships and nearby Hudson's Bay Company posts.

Plant foods, especially after processing for storage, were a common item of exchange in the traditional economies of Indigenous Peoples. Dried berries, nuts and roots, and, on the Pacific Coast, boxes of highbush cranberries and crabapples preserved in water and oil, were traded over wide areas and frequently used as potlatch and ceremonial gifts. The importance of trade and gift-giving as a means of distribution of wealth and coping with relative abundance and scarcity of plant foods in different localities is discussed by Suttles (1987) for the Northwest Coast. Within the historic period, early explorers, traders, missionaries and settlers also benefited by trading plant foods from Indigenous People, and in some cases these foods meant the difference between starvation and survival (cf. Aller, 1954).

The harvesting, preparing and eating of foods often involved ritual and ceremony. In general, plants and animals—particularly those which were important as resources—were viewed with respect and gratitude. These attitudes are evident in ceremonies such as the "First Fruits" and "First Roots" ceremonies of the Okanagan-Colville of British Columbia (Turner et al., 1980).


The diversity of plant foods used varied significantly from region to region within Canada. This is due partially to geographical and ecological influences on species distribution and abundance, and partially to cultural traditions and preferences. There is very little literature on individual use frequency or quantitative consumption of plant foods (indeed, of any traditional indigenous foods) by Indigenous Peoples in Canada. The trends in use frequency of 70 traditional food species by the Nuxalk have recently been published (Kuhnlein, 1989a, Kuhnlein and Turner, 1987; Kuhnlein, 1989b). Wein reviewed the frequency of use of contemporary foods by the Wood Buffalo Cree and Chipewyan people, and this included two traditional plant foods (birch syrup and Labrador-tea) (Wein et al., 1989). Honigmann (1949, 1961) also provided quantitative evaluations of food use, including traditional foods, in his studies on Kaska and James Bay Cree.

Throughout Canada the assumption is made that, while Indigenous People collectively have traditional knowledge of use of a tremendous variety of wild plants, this knowledge rests primarily with the elders of groups. The younger generations generally use more marketed foods and fewer traditional foods, particularly plant foods, than did their elders in earlier days. As well, elders are though to use somewhat more traditional foods today than younger generations do. It is the elders who are especially anxious to have traditional foodways documented, because they recognize that the knowledge will be lost to future generations if the current trends continue.

Generally speaking, fewer plant foods (both in terms of species, and in total quantity) have been used by Indigenous People resident in northern latitudes. The greatest variety of plant foods appears to have been in the ecologically diverse plateau and montane region of south central British Columbia. Here, for example, the Nlaka'pamux (Thompson) Interior Salish used no less than 120 plant species in some way as sources of foods, flavorings or beverages (Turner et al., 1990; Laforet et al., 1990). In eastern Canada, as noted previously, cultivated plants including maize and squash, augmented a variety of gathered plant species, with fruit (berries) being the most widely exploited. Published ethnobotanical works often describe the plants used, but give little quantitative information on the extent of use by population groups.

The amount of a plant food used, together with its nutrient contents, are the two essential pieces of information needed to determine the contribution a food makes to the nutrient needs of individuals. In the absence of the first essential piece of information, only generalizations about potential usefulness of a plant food to a population group can be made. However, if a food is known to be a good source of nutrition, and if it is widely available and known to be aesthetically pleasing to the group, assumptions can be made with greater certainty that the food is, or was, widely used.


The health implications of the use of indigenous plant foods are multifaceted. On the one hand, plant foods contain nutrients that are not as readily found in animal foods, such as fibre, carotenes, vitamin C, and energy-rich carbohydrates. The diets of precontact Indigenous People would be expected to contain reasonable amounts of plants to provide these nutrients, and plant foods were stored for use during seasons when they were not available fresh from the environment. Plant foods also provided variety in flavor and texture to a meat, fish or grain based subsistence pattern.

Since contact with Europeans, many other foods have been introduced and are available for purchase. These can provide energy and variety to Indigenous People, but those that are most frequently purchased (particularly sweet and starchy foods) are not good sources of nutrients usually associated with plant foods—such as vitamins and minerals. Hence, since Indigenous People have been replacing many of their natural plant foods with purchased foods, she overall nutrient quality of the diet has been declining. Recently, a variety of research programs has been conducted in diverse indigenous groups in Canada which clearly documents the poor quality of the diets of the majority of individuals (Kuhnlein, 1984; Sevenheusen and Bogert-O'Brien, 1987; Schaefer and Steckle, 1978). Hence, it would benefit Indigenous People to either begin to reintroduce some of their nutrient-rich traditional plant foods, or to create a more effective demand for plant foods of high nutritional qualiry in die food markets available to them.

Another consideration in the use of plant foods by Indigenous People is the potential toxic constituents contained in them. While most commercially marketed foods are known to contain only very low levels of identified toxins, wild plants are candidates for scrutiny, because toxins have been identified in some of them. Indigenous people are well known for their ingenuity in processing plant foods to remove toxins, and it is thus prudent to note traditional processing techniques that would accomplish detoxification. The major techniques used to remove plant toxins are: heating, leaching, fermenting, adsorption, drying, physical processing, and changing the acid-base ratio; these have been recently reviewed by Johns and Kubo (1988). It is clear that toxicity safety issues cannot be ignored when considering the nutritional value of plant foods. In Chapter 4 the plant foods that contain toxins and which are used by Indigenous People are identified, along with the techniques which remove the toxins. The known presence of potential toxins is also noted in the comprehensive listing of plants in Chapter 5. The most toxic genus of plant food known, that of Robinia spp., has not been included in the various lists of edible plants reported here, even though some nutrient information exists for some species in the genus.


Indigenous Peoples have developed many conservation strategies to maintain biological populations and productivity of plant and animal food resources. Selective and seasonal harvesting, habitat conservation and maintenance, and use of diverse resource bases are practices which were widely used, and are as applicable to modern resource use as they were in the past.

Today, populations of native plants and animals, and the ecosystems they inhabit, are more vulnerable to destruction than ever before. Modern practices of clearcut logging, strip mining, open range livestock production, and large-scale agriculture have drastically depleted the extent of natural habitats and the plants and animals living within them. Urban expansion, industrial development, widespread use of herbicides and insecticides on forests and farmlands, and the introduction of aggressive weeds and animal pests have taken a further toll on native plant and animal resources. Because of all these pressures on wild biological populations, extreme care must be taken to conserve and maintain natural habitats and native species.

Although overharvesting of wild plant foods by individuals is seldom a problem if done carefully and with discretion, there are certain plants that are particularly affected by disturbance and harvesting practices. This is especially a problem with plants having edible underground parts and edible shoots, where harvesting may destroy an entire plant. For example, in some areas of eastern Canada, wild leeks (Allium tricoccum) and fiddlehead ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) have been overharvested (mostly by non-Indigenous wild food enthusiasts) from wild areas and their populations have been seriously depleted. People wishing to use wild plant resources should be aware of the effects of harvesting on a plant population and use discretion as to whether a wild food should be taken at all and, if so, what quantity should be used. It is also important to remember that many wild animals depend on the same wild plant foods as used by people, and therefore their needs must be considered in harvesting decisions. As a general rule, harvesting should be widely spaced rather than intensive, with shoots, berries, leaves, and other plant foods being taken in small quantities from many plants rather than in large amounts from just a few plants. Plants in the Comprehensive List (Chapter 5) which are marked with an "R" (rare or endangered, or highly vulnerable to overharvesting) should not be harvested under ordinary circumstances.

Many wild plant foods discussed in this book can be propagated from seeds or cuttings, and grown in garden situations (cf. Nuxalk Food and Nutrition Program, 1984). This is an excellent alternative to harvesting plant foods from natural areas, since it makes them more readily available without affecting their abundance in the wild. Most are attractive in garden and landscape settings, and many have the added advantage of attracting birds and other desirable wildlife. Demonstration gardens of wild plant foods and other culturally important native plants provide an excellent teaching situation for schools, museums, and cultural centers. Those interested in preserving traditional knowledge of Indigenous Peoples should consider the use of living plant material to demonstrate the use and identification of plant resources.

Thus, it is realized that plant foods have been important cultural components and dietary components for Indigenous Peoples. They have provided variety, aesthetic qualities and nutrients not otherwise available in subsistence foods from the natural environment. Although toxic elements are recognized as natural components in plants, technologies developed by Indigenous Peoples minimized their negative effects. In addition, Indigenous Peoples used their knowledge to conserve their natural resources to ensure future availability. In the following chapters we note the many different plant foods used by Indigenous Peoples, the many ways they have been used, and the variety of nutritional properties they contain.

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