New field guide identifies wetland plants important to Indigenous people

·4 min read
The wetland behind Lincoln Elementary School is protected by the Nature Conservancy of Canada. The new field guide shows 50 plants that grow there and are important to Indigenous people. (Ducks Unlimited Canada - image credit)
The wetland behind Lincoln Elementary School is protected by the Nature Conservancy of Canada. The new field guide shows 50 plants that grow there and are important to Indigenous people. (Ducks Unlimited Canada - image credit)

People who visit the Lower Lincoln Wetland for outdoor learning or field trips have a new resource about many of the plants that grow there.

A field guide of 50 of the many plants in the protected area behind Lincoln Elementary Community School has been compiled by Wolastoqi plant experts Cecelia and Anthony Brooks.

The guide was published by Ducks Unlimited Canada and includes information about the plants' traditional and modern uses, as well as GPS points so they can be easily located.

Not every plant that grows in the wetland is included, said Cecelia Brooks, even though she considers all of them "culturally significant."

Shane Fowler/CBC News
Shane Fowler/CBC News

"We may not use it, but it all has an effect on the ecosystem."

Some have been left out on the instruction of elder medicine keepers, who have seen too many traditional Indigenous medicines appropriated or exploited, said Brooks.

"I get it," she said, "They are plants and they're everywhere, but the knowledge comes from our ancestors."

She gave the example of ground hemlock, which was traditionally used for poultices and a tea rich in Vitamin C, and in recent decades was used to develop a chemotherapy drug.

Ducks Unlimited Canada
Ducks Unlimited Canada

"I'm glad they're helping people," said Brooks, "but I wish they would credit the people that the knowledge comes from.

"Our communities are the poorest in the country and yet they continue to take our knowledge without credit or without sharing. And not even asking. They just do it."

The plants and uses in the booklet, she said, are "all in the public domain."

Ducks Unlimited Canada
Ducks Unlimited Canada

Some are boiled for decoctions, others are soaked overnight for infusions. Others are used as building materials.

Many of the medicinal uses have been backed up by modern science, she said.

"It's interesting how our ancestors knew so much," she said, "without laboratories."

They used much the same process as modern scientists, said Brooks — "make an observation, form a hypothesis, do an experiment and either accept or reject it."

Ducks Unlimited Canada
Ducks Unlimited Canada

Key differences, she said, are that Indigenous science doesn't claim to be objective and it includes a "layer of spirituality."

Sometimes people ask how Indigenous people came by their knowledge of plant medicines, said Brooks.

And some medicine keepers reply that, "If you listen, the plants will talk to you."

Ducks Unlimited Canada
Ducks Unlimited Canada

"It sounds kind of odd to people, but it's really the way it works.

"The plants have spirits."

Brooks cautioned people not to attempt to use any plant or mushroom unless they have a positive identification.

On a recent outing, she said, someone found something they thought looked like a carrot but was actually poison hemlock.

Ducks Unlimited Canada
Ducks Unlimited Canada

It's always best to check with an expert, she said, such as someone from the New Brunswick Museum or the UNB herbarium.

"There are many look-alikes," she said, and the entire plant — including the flower, leaves and root, is required to know for sure what something is, as well as information about the conditions in which it was growing and the surrounding plants.

There are also some ailments that are beyond the scope of herbal medicine, she said, recalling a recent call she got from someone interested in possible treatments for gangrene.

Ducks Unlimited Canada
Ducks Unlimited Canada

Brooks's advice was to get to an emergency department as soon as possible.

Some plants that are culturally significant to the Wabanaki are absent from the Lower Lincoln Wetland, and Brooks would like to see them planted — namely muskrat root, which is used as an immune-system booster.

It's one of the few plants, she said, that are still being used, despite the separation of Indigenous people from the land through colonization.

"We need areas to collect that medicine," she said, "where people could harvest with peace of mind knowing it's not contaminated."

Ducks Unlimited Canada
Ducks Unlimited Canada

The Lincoln Wetland Natural Area would be a good place for it, she said.

It includes 21 acres, or 8.5 hectares, with a mix of marshes and old forest, including endangered butternut trees. It was donated to the Nature Conservancy of Canada in memory of Gwen Ferris.

The Nature Conservancy has been developing the property in the last few years, in collaboration with the school, to make it more accessible, said Paula Noël, the group's program director in New Brunswick.

There's now a trail that starts behind the school. It includes a short loop through the woods, she said, and a trail that goes right out to the river.

Ducks Unlimited Canada
Ducks Unlimited Canada

It's a "spectacular spot," said Noël, with a variety of habitats and uncommon species.

Students at the school use the area as an outdoor classroom, she said, so the booklet prepared by Brooks may be useful to them.

"It sounds like it will be a great opportunity for them to learn about the plants that are there and maybe more importantly the traditional uses and knowledge of the Wolastoqi people."

"I think it will be fantastic for the students and maybe even for the public to learn a little bit more about the site."

Ducks Unlimited Canada
Ducks Unlimited Canada

The general public is allowed to visit the area as well, she said, though it's best to go outside of school hours for parking.

Anyone who does go during school hours is asked to sign in at the school office.