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Plants, People, and Places: The Roles of Ethnobotany and Ethnoecology in Indigenous Peoples’ Land Rights in Canada and Beyond


Plants, People, and Places: The Roles of Ethnobotany and Ethnoecology in Indigenous Peoples’ Land Rights in Canada and Beyond by Nancy J. Turner, ed. Montréal, Québec, Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press; 2020. Hardcover, 554 pages. ISBN: 9780228001836. $49.95.

The broad field of ethnobotany (the study of relationships and interactions between plants and cultures) has taken many forms as an academic discipline. Ethnobotanists document medicinal plants used by cultural groups around the world, study how different cultures classify and categorize plants linguistically, conduct archaeological investigations on the origins of agriculture, and tackle hundreds of other research topics. This landmark volume, which emerged from a 2017 symposium called “Indigenous Peoples’ Land Rights and the Roles of Ethnoecology and Ethnobotany: Strategies for Canada’s Future,” provides an unmatched look at an important, and often overlooked, role for ethnobotany: supporting Indigenous sovereignty over lands and waters.

With contributions from more than 40 authors and edited by ethnobotanist Nancy J. Turner, PhD (a longtime idol of mine), this work brings together diverse perspectives from preeminent Indigenous leaders and knowledge-holders such as Ronald Ignace, PhD, former chief of the Skeetchestn band of the Secwépemc Nation; Indigenous and non-Indigenous academics such as archaeologist Chelsey Armstrong, PhD, who has brought renewed attention to traditional forest gardens in western Canada; ethnobotanists; legal experts; historians; and others. This gives each chapter a unique voice, writing style, and set of experiences, which makes the more than 500-page compendium not only readable, but a page-turner. This is a pleasant surprise given the rigorous scholarship of the work.

The content of the chapters is as varied as the authorship. Some chapters provide nuanced accounts of First Nations’ relationships with plants and the ways Indigenous stewardship has profoundly shaped ecosystems across the country. Others provide eye-opening histories of how Europeans were drawn to and claimed these bountiful human-sculpted landscapes but ignored the role Indigenous peoples played in creating them. Instead, Europeans considered these areas terra nullius, or empty land, an idea that was used to rationalize the seizure of the land. Other chapters outline examples of cases in which ethnobotany and other evidence were used in court to support First Nations’ sovereignty over land and resistance to unwanted extractive development on unceded territory.

For a book that covers so much difficult ground, the tone is surprisingly hopeful and inspiring. As Douglas Deur, PhD, Kim Recalma-Clutesi, and William White state in the opening of the book, “[t]his capacity to heal lies latent in all forms of destruction.” This observation is evident in the rekindling of plant knowledge, landscapes, stories, and songs from “embers” (knowledge that is held by elders, scattered in historical documents, and encoded in newly revitalized languages). These same ethnobotanical embers serve as testaments to the prior use and management of traditional territories — testaments that are admissible evidence in court cases involving land and resource rights.

This book is a valuable resource for ethnobotanists who are looking for ways to develop ethical and reciprocal relationships with communities that extend beyond so-called “parachute science” (the practice in which scientists, often from higher-income countries, “drop in” and conduct research in other often-lower-income countries without communicating with locals). Ethnobotanists seeking a more inclusive approach have carried out documentation projects on behalf of communities, participated in eco-cultural restoration projects, and engaged in other activities. This volume provides dozens of examples of how ethnobotanists might contribute in another way: supporting the rights and sovereignty of Indigenous communities. It also provides food for thought for herbalists who may benefit from Indigenous knowledge and are interested in giving back.

Plants, People, and Places focuses primarily on Canada but provides a blueprint for Indigenous communities worldwide and their allies. The Canadian context is unique in many ways. Landmark rulings like Delgamuukw v. British Columbia and Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia set key precedents for the admissibility of oral history and ethnobotany in land rights cases.

In other ways, the Canadian situation is not so unique. Indigenous peoples around the world have shaped their ecosystems for millennia to increase the availability and abundance of useful plants (e.g., the edible forests of the Maya, sacred groves of Ethiopia, and controlled burning on nearly every continent) in ways that do not always resemble the agricultural practices of colonists. Many legal systems assumed that “unmanaged” land was unused and, as noted above, therefore available for the taking. The Canadian cases show that when ethnocentric ideas of what land and water management looks like are challenged, Indigenous sovereignty can be asserted in new ways. There are ample opportunities to apply the lessons and experiences from the authors to contexts around the world.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book to ethnobotanists, communities facing challenges related to sovereignty, policymakers, herbalists, and anyone interested in traditional ecological knowledge, history, plants, and Indigenous rights. The volume has something for everyone: unusually rich descriptions of plant-people relationships and knowledge, detailed histories of settlement and resistance, and inspiration for those seeking to reclaim their land and heritage.

Alex McAlvay, PhD, is an assistant curator at the Institute of Economic Botany at the New York Botanical Garden. His research focuses on traditional management of plants and its ecological and evolutionary impacts.