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Ancient Pathways, Ancestral Knowledge: Ethnobotany and Ecological Wisdom of Indigenous Peoples of Northwestern North America

By Nancy J. Turner

January 29, 2015

Review By Natasha Lyons

Nancy Turner’s new work Ancient Pathways, Ancestral Knowledge is undoubtedly her magnum opus. It is a thing of great scope, beauty, eloquence, and cohesion. Yet perhaps its greatest attribute, like all of Turner’s work, is its undeniable utility. Upon receiving this wonderful resource I immediately and happily put it to use on a variety of the questions and projects I am working on.

The resource is a two-volume set which “investigates people-plant interrelationships in northwestern North America in an effort to better understand the pathways and processes by which ethnobotanical and ethnoecological knowledge systems of Indigenous peoples in this area have developed, accumulated, spread, and evolved over time” (v.1: 3). The volumes integrate Turner’s forty years of truly collaborative research with First Nations peoples throughout the Pacific Northwest using many strands of thought, including indigenous knowledge systems, oral history, ethnographic and historical documentation, linguistics, palaeoethnobotany, archaeology, ecology, and phytogeography.

While a work of such scope could seem like a mountain of detail for the reader to tackle, these volumes are nothing of the sort. Turner’s writing is accessible, animated, and at times poetic, and the structure of the sections, chapters, and volumes is approachable and intuitive. Nancy is a person who naturally and (seemingly!) effortlessly integrates different kinds of knowledge, and this is evident in her writing. For instance, in discussing how indigenous communities, in both the deep and recent past, acquired certain types of ethnobotanical knowledge from animals, Turner explains:

[I]t seems that in the estuarine tidal marshes of the central and northern Northwest Coast, there was a three-way symbiosis between riceroot, grizzly bears, and humans. In search of nutrient-rich roots and rhizomes of sedges and other plants, as well as the riceroots themselves, grizzlies gouged out and ‘weeded’ multiple small bowl-shaped microhabitats (which they are still creating and can still be found dotted around some tidal flats)…[Since] riceroot may have been one of the most ancient foods along the coast, known to the earliest people entering the New World, it is conceivable that Asian bears were the ones that originally taught people about its use (v.2: 162).

Each of Turner’s volumes is divided into two parts with several chapters each. Part 1, “History,” examines ancient interrelationships between plants and peoples based on archaeological knowledge, linguistic histories of plant terms and knowledge within and between language communities, and the change, loss, and adaptation of plant traditions caused by contact with European explorers, merchants, and settlers. Part Two, “Development,” traces the in situ development, diversity, and dissemination of plant knowledge across space and time, including practices related to plant foods, technologies, and medicinal and healing traditions. Part Three, “Integration and Management,” explores seasonal characteristics of plants based on phytogeography, taste, patchiness, phenology, potency, and other elements of plant life at the stand, community, and landscape levels through the lens of indigenous knowledge. Turner shows how these bodies of knowledge influenced social and economic decisions around planning, movement, and organization with respect to harvesting, processing, exchange, and storage, and how these elements are underlain by indigenous principles of management and sustainability. Part Four, “Underlying Philosophy,” turns to the worldviews and belief systems that underlay indigenous plant knowledge in the Pacific Northwest. She examines how these knowledge systems have been transmitted across time and space, leading to present-day and future social mechanisms for retaining and renewing this knowledge.

Several additional elements of the volumes deserve attention. First is the Acknowledgements, which are extensive and truly show the basis of Turner’s approach to her work — despite her many accomplishments, she is humble, grateful, and giving, with a very real deference to her many First Nations teachers and respect for her professional colleagues. Second is the data tables and appendices, into which Turner has integrated immense volumes of data and knowledge accumulated over her many decades of work in northwestern North America. These resources represent such a comprehensive source of regional ethnobotany that they are worth the price of the volumes in and of themselves. There are some minor differences in how diacritics are used in indigenous terms between text and tables, but this is a minor quibble. A final noteworthy element is the lovely design of the books, including beautiful photographs, many of them taken by Turner’s husband Robert, which together create a very visually engaging and appealing layout.

In a work that succeeds in such high-level “meta-analysis” so beautifully, there is very little to critique. Rather, I had a few points of discussion about the conceptual structure of the volume. I wondered, for example, why the “Underlying Philosophy” section was presented last instead of first — an argument could be made to place the emergence of origin stories, worldview, and belief systems first, as a foundation for the text to follow. However, I think perhaps Turner chose to conclude the volume this way because it leaves the reader with at least a basic understanding of these beliefs to sit with and mull over. This basis of knowledge, in turn, creates a platform to assert how the underlying economic philosophy of sustainability can potentially inform the futures not only of First Nations communities, but perhaps more importantly, the non-First Nations majority. This point of conclusion echoes the argument made subtly throughout the volumes that ancient and contemporary indigenous knowledge is relevant to all of us, having direct analogues to many of the major concerns of our time — security of food production and water sources, sustainability of building materials and practices, and developing proactive models of healthcare and medicine (v.1: 265).

Nancy Turner’s magnum opus Ancient Pathways, Ancestral Knowledge is an amazing resource that will serve as the fulcrum of ethnobotanical knowledge in northwestern North America for many decades to come. Although I read and appreciated the volumes enough to write this review, it will take a good deal more time to absorb and utilize the many strands of philosophy and knowledge integrated into this masterwork.

Ancient Pathways, Ancestral Knowledge: Ethnobotany and Ecological Wisdom of Indigenous Peoples of Northwestern North America
Nancy J. Turner
Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014. 2 vols. 1056 pp. $100.00 cloth