Aerial shot. Credit: Troy Moth

Ancient Forest Gardens in Nuchatlaht ḥaḥuułiʔakʔi (territory) illuminate hishuk’ush tsawalk (everything is one) nisma (land) and caaʔak (water) stewardship

June 19, 2023

by Melissa Shaw

Research combining archaeological, ecological data and traditional ecological knowledge has identified ancient orchards and forest gardens on Nootka Island, located off the west coast of Vancouver Island, demonstrating active Indigenous cultivation on the land.

Published in May 2022 in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the latest research shines a light on how Nuchatlaht (Nuu-chah-nulth) people have cultivated plant foods in their ḥaḥuułiʔakʔi (“Ha-houl-thee”, territory) since time immemorial. Forest gardens — ecosystems stewarded for their fruit, berry, and root plants — were recently identified on Nootka Island by Nuchatlaht knowledge holders, archaeologists and botanists at Simon Fraser University and the New York Botanical Garden.

“These orchards and forest gardens are unlike anything growing in ‘natural’ ecological distributions of plant species, demonstrating active Indigenous cultivation on the land and concerted efforts to manage forests in ways recognizable to western European food cultivation worldviews,” says Chelsey Geralda Armstrong, an assistant professor of Indigenous Studies at Simon Fraser University who has been working with Nuchatlaht Nation for over a year.

This is the first academic research project to document the material evidence of cultivation and land stewardship in Nuchatlaht territory, including practices like ciciḥʔaqƛmapt (crabapple) orcharding, quuxʷap̓aḥ (wild rice root) gardening, qawii (berry) patch stewarding, and controlled burning.

The research also shows how these ancient food-forests, some with trees hundreds of years old, continue to grow adjacent to large archaeological village sites on Nootka Island despite government displacement and harmful logging practices. The research was solicited by Nuchatlaht Nation, who are pursuing a claim of Aboriginal Title to roughly 200 square kilometres of Northern Nootka Island. Their case is currently being heard in the B.C. Supreme Court.

“Indigenous peoples’ legacies of plant cultivation and management can have profound effects on contemporary forest structure and species composition long after traditional cultivation was oppressed by colonial governments,” says Armstrong. “This work builds on previous research showing that contemporary plant communities that appear ‘wild’ may in fact reflect legacies of historical and ancient plant stewardship.”

The research further demonstrates Nuchatlaht stewardship by documenting over 8,000 culturally-modified trees located deep within Nootka Island’s forests. The dense concentration of archaeological sites and modified ecosystems indicates Nuchatlaht people actively occupied, managed, and utilized their territory. They did this from the worldview hishuk’ish tsawalk (everything is one).