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

May 26, 2022
Aerial shot. Credit: Troy Moth

New 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.

New research published this week in the Journal of Archaeological Science, 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,” said Chelsey Geralda Armstrong, an assistant professor of Indigenous Studies at Simon Fraser University who has been working with Nuchatlaht Nation for over a year.

Mark Worthing, Coastal Projects Lead, Sierra Club BC & Chelsea Geralda Armstrong, assistant professor, Indigenous Studies at SFU, take a crabapple core sample. Credit: Nuchatlaht, Troy Moth.

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.

“These forest gardens demonstrate how our laws were activated through our people and through the living knowledge of the land and water itself,” said Tyee Haw̓ił Jordan Michael of the Nuchatlaht Nation. “These ancient forest gardens were not tended by the British, they were stewarded by my people long before the queen knew the taste of crabapple.”

Despite the government’s endorsement and adoption of UNDRIP (United Nations Declaration on The Rights of Indigenous People), the provincial government has refused to recognize the Nuchatlaht’s rights to their ḥaḥuułiʔakʔi (territory) with lawyers claiming in court that the First Nation ‘abandoned’ their territory.

Left, quuxʷap̓aḥ (wild rice root). Right research collaborator Curtis Michael. Photo Credit: Lichen Project, Troy Moth

Researchers, industry, and the provincial government often fail to acknowledge that Indigenous peoples’ actively tended and stewarded both terrestrial and aquatic landscapes in their homelands. Outdated and prejudiced labels like “hunter-gatherers” have not been helpful in countering this narrative. Nor are the labels accurate, considering the extent to which so-called “hunter-gatherers”— globally and through time — cultivated and modified their lived environment, sometimes across millennia. The failure of previous Western thinkers to recognize the extent of Indigenous cultivation has lent to the myth that Indigenous peoples did not use the land, when in fact they were actively managing their territories.

“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,” added Chelsey Geralda 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).

​“Learning to see the land in a different way and understand cultural keystone ecosystems as part of Indigenous food sovereignty stewardship is critical for non-Indigenous people to deepen our appreciation for how Indigenous love and care has created the ecosystems we normally observe without the knowledge to see,” said Sierra Club BC Coastal Projects Lead Mark Worthing, who also worked on the project.

This new research not only shows how the Nuchatlaht actively managed large tracts of nisma (lands) in their ḥaḥuułiʔakʔi (territory),it also invites non-Indigenous people living within Indigenous territories to educate themselves on the extent of Indigenous involvement in the creation of the landscapes around us and their continuing management.

“Once you start spending time on the land you can see the characteristic landscapes of Indigenous stewardship are everywhere, from the tops of mountains to the bottoms of valleys,” added Worthing.

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