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Ethnobotanist Nancy Turner Receives Two Prestigious Awards

Nancy Turner, PhD, an ethnobotanist and distinguished professor in the school of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, recently received two prestigious awards.1 The first, the William L. Brown Award for Excellence in Genetic Resource Conservation, is only bestowed once every 2 years to an individual who contributes to the field. The second honor that Dr. Turner received, the Killam Research Fellowship, is awarded by the Canadian Council, a Canadian government funding agency, to a small group of people every year.

Dr. Turner was chosen for the William L. Brown award based on her lifetime’s work studying the traditional ecological knowledge systems and traditional land and resource management systems of indigenous peoples, particularly in western Canada, said Bruce Ponman, information coordinator for the William L. Brown Center (e-mail, April 3, 2008). According to Ponman, the recipient of this award receives a bronze medal and a check for $10,000 with “no strings attached.”

The Killam Research Fellowship is a $70,000-a-year grant (Canadian dollars), given for two years, covering the cost of teaching and administrative duties at a recipient’s university so that the winner may take a paid leave of absence to pursue research goals.2 It is expected that by the end of this time a certain pre-established research project is to be completed.

“I was very surprised because it is very competitive,” said Dr. Turner of the Killam Fellowship, adding that only 9 other people were selected that year as co-winners (oral communication, April 3, 2008).

Dr. Turner was actually notified that she received the Killam Fellowship in Spring 2007; however, she deferred for a year because of certain teaching responsibilities she did not find appropriate putting on hold at that time. She began her use of the fellowship in January 2008 and will return to regular teaching in January 2010. Besides serving as a professor, Dr. Turner is also a research associate with the Royal British Columbia Museum and is affiliated with the Natural Resources Institute at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.

“A lot of people have noted that the value of my work is in giving a voice to indigenous elders and plant experts and demonstrating just how sophisticated and complex indigenous peoples’ knowledge and use of plants and the environments is,” said Dr. Turner. She explained that some believe that these indigenous people, called “hunter-gatherers,” just took whatever they could find. Through her work, Dr. Turner has been able to show that they actually developed very complex systems for managing and enhancing the plant and animal populations they relied on and continue to do so. “It is far from random,” Dr. Turner said. “As some of these approaches become better understood and more widely known, they could be applied in a contemporary context, to increase the quality and diversity of native species.”

It is through this understanding that Dr. Turner believes the original richness of British Columbia could be restored, and she has high hopes for the future: “I think the loss and deterioration of habitats and native species is turning around,” said Dr. Turner. “I think indigenous people are revitalizing their knowledge through increased control of their lands and resources, and there is coming to be a greater recognition of their contributions to environmental stewardship.”

Dr. Turner is currently working on a book that will be a culmination of 40 years of work in ethnobotany with indigenous elders and cultural specialists in British Columbia. The topic is the examination of “how botanical and environmental knowledge is transmitted through time and space.” Chapter topics will include: ethnoecology and ethnobotany, history and archaeoecology, language and classification systems, narrative and ceremony in knowledge transmission, food systems, medicine and healing, belief systems, and cultural and environmental renewal and restoration, among others. Dr. Turner described the process of creating and compiling this complicated and thorough book as “fun work.”

Dr. Turner, who received her doctorate in botany from the University of British Columbia, has authored or co-authored over 20 books and received many awards.1 One of her books, Plants of Haida Gwaii (Sono Nis Press 2005), was awarded the Lieutenant Governor’s medal for the best work of historical non-fiction concerning British Columbia. Among various other professional associations, she is a long-time member of the American Botanical Council’s Advisory Board. She also co-authored the cover article for HerbalGram 62 regarding devil’s club (Oplopanax horridus, Araliaceae).3

—Kelly E. Saxton
  1. The 2008 William L. Brown Award page. William L. Brown Center Web site. Available at Accessed March 27, 2008.

  2. New honour for renowned UVIC ethnobotanist [press release]. Victoria, British Columbia, Canada: University of Victoria; February 26, 2007.

  3. Lantz TC, Swerhun K, Turner N. Devil’s club (Oplopanax horridus): an ethnobotanical review. HerbalGram. 2004;62:33-48.