Gitsaex Village in Laxyuubm Gitselasu (Ts'msyen) in northwestern British Columbia. Photo credit: Storm Carroll.


Restoring ancient forest gardens in First Nations communities in British Columbia

August 30, 2023

Chelsey Geralda Armstrong, an assistant professor in Simon Fraser University’s (SFU) Department of Indigenous Studies and associate member in the School of Resource and Environmental Management, is collaborating with a team of researchers, along with the Gitselasu, Sts’ailes, Nuchatlaht, and Quw’utsun Nations, to explore issues of food insecurity by reclaiming Indigenous knowledge and lands. 

The research project, titled Cultivating Resurgence: A Deep Time Approach to People-Plant Relations and Indigenous Food Sovereignty, is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) through an Insight Grant.

Reviving ancient forest gardening techniques

As a historical ecologist interested in how humans interacted with the natural landscape in the past, Armstrong’s research has challenged colonialist narratives by uncovering ancient forest gardens and other land-use and land stewardship practices. 

By bringing together university researchers and Indigenous knowledge keepers, Armstrong and her collaborators established that Indigenous peoples were purposefully managing the land and cultivating plants within British Columbia’s forests, long before contact with settlers. 

Through techniques such as archaeological surveys, radiocarbon dating, studying the formation of tree rings, analyzing soil and plant fossils, as well as surveying plant species and ecological diversity in these areas, Armstrong and her collaborators learned that ancient forest gardeners encouraged sources of food and medicine — such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, and herbs — to thrive. 

These activities helped to meet the community's needs and asserted community sovereignty and laws, all while also stewarding the ecosystem's long-term health.  

In the next chapter of this research, Armstrong will continue these efforts to reconstruct the past, while also mobilizing this knowledge in community through a self-organizing Forest Garden Network. 

“We are working with health coordinators, food systems specialists, and heritage managers who oversee community gardens and heritage sites,” says Armstrong. “We plan to restore forest gardens where they have been found, but we are also planning demonstration plots of forest gardens in community. We want to support projects that are already going on and matter to the communities.” 

Through this work, Armstrong’s goal is to support food security initiatives well underway in the participating communities. 

Collaborating with Indigenous communities

To undertake the project, Armstrong will be joined by an interdisciplinary team of researchers and community partners. In addition to Armstrong, the team includes SFU faculty member Dana Lepofsky from the Department of Archaeology. Joining the project from the University of British Columbia (UBC) are Nlaka’pamux scholar Jennifer Grenz, a faculty member in the Department of Forest Resources Management, and Michael Blake, professor emeritus in the Department of Anthropology. The project’s collaborators also include archaeologists Jacob Earnshaw and Patrick Morgan Ritchie. 

The research team will partner with the Sts’ailes, Gitselasu, Quw’utsun, and Nuchatlaht First Nations to lead the project collaboratively. “As academics, we have an impulse to focus on things like mapping and inventorying the historical and ecological legacies of forest gardens, but we also have community-specific goals that we are prioritizing,” Armstrong explains. “We determined the research questions that we are addressing by working closely with the four partner communities to co-create and co-implement management plans, as well revitalization plans and strategies to meet each community’s needs.”  

Pacific crabapple (Malus fusca) seeds germinating (top left) and beaked hazelnut fruits (bottom left), two indicator species of forest gardens in Ts'msyen and Coast Salish territories. Right: Armstrong working in the field

Reclaiming Indigenous knowledge to address present-day challenges

In addition to improving food security for Indigenous communities, the research also has the potential to make a difference on a global scale. “We know that soil erosion and the loss of organic soils threaten our food systems globally,” project collaborator Jennifer Grenz explains. “In forest gardens we see a trend opposite to that of soil erosion in industrial agricultural contexts. We see increased organic loading in the soil we analyze in forest gardens, compared to the surrounding areas of the forest.” Alongside farming, the project also has implications for changing logging practices and other industries that impact the environment.

In Armstrong’s experience, university researchers who work with Indigenous communities also have an important opportunity to support Indigenous sovereignty by providing powerful evidence for court cases related to land-claims. Archeological evidence, such as the radiocarbon dating of cultivated plants, can be used in initiatives to establish the presence and sustained use of the land by Indigenous peoples. 

Alongside the potential global impact, the project will have a personal impact for many community members through hands-on opportunities to connect with the land and apply Indigenous knowledge in their everyday lives. “This knowledge is not lost,” says Armstrong, a settler scholar who supports land-based initiatives. “We often hear that it has just gone dormant. People want to incorporate this knowledge into their lives.”