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Aboriginal Plant Use in Canada's Northwest Boreal Forest
Aboriginal Plant Use in Canada's Northwest Boreal Forest

Aboriginal Plant Use in Canada's Northwest Boreal Forest, by Robin J. Marles, Christina Clavelle, Leslie Monteleone, Natalie Tays, Donna Burns. Published by University of British Columbia Press and Natural Resources Canada, Canadian Forest Service, distributed in the U.S. by University of Washington Press, 2000. 368 pp., color illustrations, hardcover. ISBN 0-7748-0737-7. $75.00 softcover ISBN 0-7748-0738-5 $24.95 .

The significance of Aboriginal Plant Use in Canada's Northwest Boreal Forest lies not just in its content and scope, but perhaps moreso in what it represents as a participatory research partnership.

Although ethnobotany has gained global prominence over the past few decades, studies focused on the plant use of indigenous peoples of North America are relatively few, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, a view of some standing holds that most information about food, medicine, and other aspects of aboriginal culture has already been recorded, or is too eroded by Euroamerican acculturation to merit further scholarly attention. More recently, considerations of intellectual property and other aspects of indigenous rights have redefined the modes and paradigms through which ethnobotany is conducted. Canada, where relationships between First Nations communities and the larger society remain politicized over issues of title and sovereignty, might seem particularly unlikely ground for original research, particularly that touching on the contentious issue of medicinal plants. This volume admirably dispels both of these assertions.

To their credit, the authors, led by Robin Marles, built a preparatory research project during several years of progressive collaboration among university scientists, governmental resource and environment agencies, and First Nations communities. In a non-polemic manner, they simply got on with the job and produced a volume that should be valued by and acceptable to most parties. In this case the level of education and political sophistication of aboriginal people in Canada becomes more an asset than an impediment for scientific research as it sets the groundwork for more equitable relationships and research agreements.

Members of indigenous communities actively involved themselves in the project as students, interviewers, community leaders, contributors of information and co-authors, and in the first instance, the resultant volume will serve as a resource most useful to the communities. Not only does it provide a wealth of information given by elders, but it places this information within the context of previously published ethnobotanical literature and a broad range of pharmacological, botanical, economic, ecological, and other scientific data. Communities can draw on this body of information to manage and use their own resources for subsistence, and social and economic benefit. In representing the wealth of traditional culture, this book offers a potential source of pride and continuity to peoples facing complex problems adjusting to ongoing lifestyle changes. I would hope also that it inspires additional aboriginal youth who wish both to embrace their own culture and to seek education and career opportunities in the sciences.

The main body of the volume comprises a series of more than 200 short monographs on the economic plants of the boreal forest in an area defined principally by the northern half of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta and adjacent areas in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, and representing the cultural heritage of Cree, Dene and Metis peoples. Data complied from original and secondary sources are combined under the categories of vernacular and scientific names; habitat; medicinal, technological, and ritual uses; properties including nutrient, toxic, and pharmacological constituents. Detailed botanical descriptions compliment high-quality color photographs; all information is well-supported by references to original field data or published literature and a practical glossary and index. Each entry finishes with an evaluation of the potential of the plant for economic development.

With its high level of scholarship and its practical orientation, this volume will also interest non-aboriginal scientists, entrepreneurs, and resource managers. Certainly, it supports the objective of sustainable use and management of the boreal forest, a priority for the Canadian Forest Service and other government agencies that funded the project.

Commercialization, whether by aboriginals or others, presents a dilemma for many First Nations in that it simultaneously offers a means to self-sufficiency on their own land while threatening traditional values and relationships with this environment. In this book, the evaluation of a few of the plants as offering appreciable commercial potential dispels this issue to a degree. Moreover, information that was deemed confidential for spiritual or proprietary reasons, including many details of the use of medicinal plants, has been withheld. In fact, much of the information contained is available in published sources. While the consultative model embraced by the project goes a long way to allay concerns within aboriginal communities, the end result is undoubtedly a compromise. Among the contending considerations of indigenous rights, economic needs and sustainable resource management, this volume strikes a successful balance between the traditional generosity of First Nations people to share with others and the necessity to serve the best interests of their own communities.