Wednesday, September 24, 2008


Qwaxsistalla stands overlooking his family’s Tekilekw. He points out three distant ridges on surrounding mountains which, when triangulated with a single wooden post, mark the corner of a root garden that has been cultivated by his family for thousands of years. He looks over a grassy floodplain thick with a multitude of colourful flowering plants.

Chief Adam Dick is sharing this knowledge with the people of Kingcome Inlet and the world by hosting a traditional harvest, pit-fire cook, and feast to celebrate this year’s crop. This type of feast, honoring the traditional ways in which his people tended, harvested, and relied upon the plants that grow on the flood plain estuary, has not been held in over seventy years.

In order to document this historic event he invited several leading academics, graduate students, and myself. Abe Lloyd, a graduate student at the University of Victoria, with the guidance of Chief Adam Dick has spent the past year cultivating the family plot of land using traditional methods.

Several small boats brought everyone down to the Tekilekw and the harvest began using traditional yew tools to dig out the edible roots used as a food source by coastal first nations. Three of these plants have root strands, which vary in thickness and must be cooked properly to avoid indigestion while providing proper nutrients. Springbank clover (Tuxsus), Pacific silverweed (Dliksem), and Nootka lupine (Kwani). The fourth plant harvested was Riceroot lily (Xukwem), which has a bulb which divides into small ovals, some of which must be replanted to allow the plant to regenerate.

Elders, adults, and children participated in the harvest, which was bountiful. Stones from a nearby landslide were collected for their fire resistant properties. Sword ferns, Salal bushes, and Thimbleberry bushes were gathered. The roots were cleaned and tied together in small bundles using plant stocks. The riceroot bulbs were wrapped in pouches made from Thimbleberry leaves. A hole was dug in the sandy soil. A fire was built with cedar and rocks were laid in the coals.

After a ceremony, hosted by Chief Adam Dick and elders from the village, an alder post was held up in the middle of the pile of hot rocks. Whole Salal bushes were thrown on top of the rocks. Next a layer of Sword fern fronds was placed to cover the entire pit. Whole potatoes, carrots and onions were placed on the ferns. More ferns were laid on top. Then the traditional roots, wrapped in Thimbleberry leaves and contained inside a cloth bag for each of the 4 types of roots, were placed on the ferns. Whole Thimbleberry bushes were placed to cover the entire pile. Two large canvas tarps covered everything and water was poured into the hole left when the alder post was removed. The entire pit was covered with a thick layer of sand.

Pit cooking of the harvested roots took three hours. A ceremony with elders in traditional regalia honored the opening of the cooking pit. A wonderful feast commenced inside the Big House, followed by a dance that celebrated the animal kingdom with drumming, masked dancers, and a teller of the story.

The events of this week-end were documented by Dr. Nancy J. Turner, an ethnobotanist and professor at UVic, along with Dr. Douglas Deur from the University of Washington. Between them they have written many books on the subject of first nations along coastal British Columbia and their relationship with the environment. They are changing the perception established by early anthropologists, which claimed that local first nations were hunter-gatherers who ‘randomly’ accessed the land’s resources. This theory is being replaced by evidence that first nations actively cultivated the land in order to reap larger crops, altering the natural landscape to increase plant productivity.

Together they published “Keeping It Living: Traditions of Plant Use and Cultivation on the Northwest Coast of North America” based on information provided by Chief Adam Dick who now resides in Qualicum Bay.

Known traditionally as Qwaxsistalla, he is the Clan Chief of Kawadillikala (wolf) Clan of Kingcome Inlet and was educated in the ways of his people by the Chiefs and his grandparents who sheltered him from the residential schools imposed on his generation. This system, imposed by the Canadian government, strictly prohibited indigenous language, culture, and beliefs. The knowledge that remains is now being passed on through events like this harvest celebration.

All along the coastline of British Columbia, rivers run through estuaries that were traditionally cultivated by First Nations. Many of these have been destroyed or are being threatened by development, pollution, and other human activities. Locally the estuary floodplains of Englishman River, French Creek, Little Qualicum River, and the Big Qualicum River as well as smaller estuaries such as those of Craig Creek, Shelly Creek, Morning Star Creek, and Kincade are no exception. This Sunday help celebrate BC River's Day.