Plants of Haida Gwaii: Xaadaa Gwaay gud gina k’aws (Skidegate) Xaadaa Gwaayee guu giin k’aws (Massett) by Nancy J. Turner, PhD. Winlaw, British Columbia: Sono Nis Press; 2004. 264 pp., hardcover. ISBN 1-55039-144-5. $38.95.
Every ethnobotanical work that bears Nancy J. Turner’s name—and there are many—may be found to be a trustworthy companion to those who crave knowledge about people’s relationship to plants. Her new book, Plants of Haida Gwaii: Xaadaa Gwaay gud gina k’aws (Skidegate) Xaadaa Gwaayee guu giin k’aws (Massett) is an exceptional work and was recently the recipient of British Columbia’s Lieutenant-Governor’s Medal for Historical Writing. Her careful attentiveness to detail allows the reader to shift from the ordinary viewpoint of botanical interest to an extraordinary perspective of wholeness as understood by people deeply rooted to the land and sea, specifically the Haida Nation.
The many excellent photographs enliven the book. Most are in color and many were taken by the author and her husband. They cover the plants and the people in native communities—people busy with bark, root, or pitch. Also included are wonderful illustrations by Giitsxaa (Ron Wilson) that portray scenes from traditional Haida stories. These illustrations and photos, combined with the thoughtful and thought-provoking text, allow the reader to experience the landscape, the people, and their culture, as well as many of the individual plants harbored on this archipelago known as the Queen Charlotte Islands.
Located off the northern mainland coast of British Columbia just south of the panhandle of Alaska, these islands are botanically and culturally rich. The preferred traditional name of the land is Haida Gwaii. (Recently, the Canadian governmentrecognized Haida Gwaii as the accepted official name of the islands.) The title of the book speaks of the archipelago as well as two specific Haida Nation settlements on the large northern island known as Graham Island. Throughout, Turner references traditional names of plants, animals, places and objects using the two different dialects represented by the Skidegate and Massett peoples.
Though it has grown common for authors to acknowledge by name local informants in the foreword, Turner takes a giant step beyond by putting the concerns of the Haida people in the forefront of this entire work. Written with collaboration and cooperation of the Haida, this book represents a strong sense of accountability to the “first people” and the land, as well as the deep relationship that exists between them. Plants of Haida Gwaii, in essence, is a gift from Nancy J. Turner’s mid-life to a people and a place that once inspired a youthful graduate student. Luckily, she was able to reconnect with people like Florence Davidson, one of her earlier informants from the 1970s, before her passing at nearly 100 years of age.
The book represents a milestone in a life dedicated to the new ethics of ethnobiology, a field in which Turner has been a catalyst as a member of the ethical standards working group of the International Society of Ethnobiology. Deep concern for bioethics has grown out of a generation of people significantly touched by not simply the bounty of the green earth and how to utilize it, but by the acknowledgement that living requires reciprocity. In seeking models for this act of giving back, indigenous people offer not just historical guides but current inspiration as Plants of Haida Gwaii so aptly illustrates. Though for centuries white researchers have lamented the loss of indigenous wisdom and know-how to the crush of industrialization, native peoples have managed to maintain themselves and the knowledge that is essential to their unique worldviews.
The dedication to the concerns of the Haida people in this new book is nothing new for Turner, who is a distinguished professor of botany at the School of Environmental Studies, University of Victoria, British Columbia. Her early works, such as the 1970s series from the British Columbia Provincial Museum, including Food Plants of British Columbia Indians, Parts 1 and 2, along with Plants in British Columbia Indian Technology, remain not only excellent sources of information about the plants but illustrate her acknowledgment of her indebtedness to the indigenous people who were integral in her education. But in Plants of Haida Gwaii, the interloping scientist is rather thoroughly replaced by an acceptance of the Haida as the experts, while still acknowledging those researchers, and their written work, in whose academic paths she has followed. Whereas in her writings of three decades ago, Turner categorized the indigenous peoples of British Columbia using the government’s accepted classification system, in this current book she unabashedly utilizes the Haida’s languages and viewpoints.
This makes for complications that she willingly tackles. She gently helps the reader to grasp concepts that may be unfamiliar and have been certainly regarded as unscientific. Because of the Haida’s broad concept of medicine, their relationship to the “whole”, and, more importantly, due to their desire for privacy and protection of the plants with whom they share their lives, specific applications of medicinal information are not given. As Turner puts it, “Each individual has her or his own particular connection with nature. It is important for all of us to understand that this relationship exists and that it has a profound influence on the way traditionally trained Haida perceive their lands, but equally important to respect its sacredness and essentially private nature.” This emphasis on the individual’s relationship to nature sets a tone far different than that of current protocols for scientific categorization and creates complications for the lettered researcher, like Turner, who chooses to work within these parameters.
Turner appears to accept willingly such parameters and explains that, “It is impossible to separate the concepts of healing from the concepts of spirituality and the power invested in natural things within the Haida culture. Medicinal plants, along with other natural objects, are treated with deep respect and their potential for affecting peoples’ lives and health is acknowledged from the outset by those practicing traditional medicine.” What replaces the usual review of this plant for that condition is probably of more importance to those outside the Haida community; that is, a glimpse into a culture that believes that the relationship between individual plants and people is the medicine.
Turner masterfully negotiates other cultural hurdles stimulated by this fundamental belief that knowledge is born of a private, individual relationship between people and plants. She lets the Haida themselves explain why, for example, they lack a general term for plant. As one of the informants explained, “it is because all plants are living beings, individuals, just as individual humans are beings. Therefore, each individual type of plant has its own name, just as an individual Haida; there is no need to use a broader name.” These types of issues have always confounded ethnobiologists and ethnobotanists.
A paramount consideration for ethnobiologists has always been, and remains, the issue of attempting to capture oral traditions in the entrapments of the written word. Plants of Haida Gwaii helps to allay this conundrum by recording the stories that are essential for a more thorough understanding of the Haida Nation’s viewpoint. Some of these narratives are brought forward from earlier times, but there are plenty from the local people of today.
Plants of Haida Gwaii is a handsome and unique book that goes far in bridging the gap between races that view the world in very different ways. Ten useful appendices include those on Haida language; lists of food and utilitarian plants such as those used for building, dyeing, and weaving; medicinal plants; plants associated with stories and animals; introduced vegetables; and others. True to her own training in botany, Turner also includes excellent indices that reference not only English and scientific names but also the Haida plant names. Throughout the text, Turner has included Latin binomials and family names for each plant, rendering it a very professional work that belongs in every library, public or private.
Plants of Haida Gwaii serves as a literary mitigation for the devastatingly disruptive and destructive influences that the European migration had on the Haida Nation. By doing her best to truly listen to and record what the Haida people wanted to share about their relationship to the plants, Nancy J. Turner reveres their knowledge and wisdom along with the remarkable land that sustains their lush, green world. The ripples of this type of work, especially from a highly acclaimed author and ethnobotanist like Turner, travel far to set a precedent for truly honoring the astonishing diversity of the earth we all share.
—Cascade Anderson Geller Herbalist, Portland, OR