Getting back to her roots

Native rice root plant the focus of Squamish Nation member's Masters studies

By Western standards, a garden or a farm is an easily recognizable, defined space for producing crops. But for the coastal First Nations, specific plants were tended in their natural environment, making their agricultural efforts invisible to the European settlers when they arrived.

Leigh Joseph, a Masters student in ethnobotany at the University of Victoria, is researching one such plant native to the Squamish estuary that members of the Squamish Nation once harvested as a major food source - the northern rice root, also commonly known as the chocolate lily or Indian rice.

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"A common misnomer was that when European settlers arrived they looked and saw a landscape that to them looked like it was being wasted," said Joseph, "but what was happening was a lot of plants in their native environment were being really intensively cultivated and weeded and fertilized, often with seaweed.

"There were traditional root gardens all through the estuaries here and up and down the coast," she said. "Elders in the 70s... had the memories of rice root harvesting; they remembered their mothers and grandmothers going to harvest at a site further up the river."

Today, rice root is listed locally as a threatened species. It has an edible root system that looks like a handful of rice grains clumped together in bulblets. A coveted sign of wealth at winter potlatches, it was an important source of carbohydrates in the traditional First Nations diet high in proteins and fibres. It could be eaten fresh but was often dried and preserved for winter use.

Joseph, whose father is a hereditary chief with the Squamish Nation, grew up in Victoria. As an undergraduate student, she spent her summers in Squamish working for the Squamish Nation Education Department (SNED), during which time she was introduced to the department's project of reintroducing traditional foods back into the Squamish Nation diet.

"We didn't have elders that were still holding the knowledge for the plant use in the estuary," said her aunt Joy Joseph-McCullough, associate director for SNED, "so that's why we collaborated with Leigh."

Motivated by the department's interest in estuary plant use, Joseph said she began to look for a plant to research that people were interested in. Rice root kept coming up.

"One of the reasons why I focussed on this plant was in the last four or five years working here, it's come to my attention that people have been talking about this plant and the majority of people who talk about it haven't necessarily seen it before," Joseph said. "For me, from a research standpoint, looking at how a plant that once was considered such a central food plant comes back into people's psyches before the physical plant is actually there, it's that idea of addressing health concerns by connecting to traditional foods."

Using field ecology methods, Joseph has been collecting data to determine the prime conditions of the rice root plant. The goal of her research is to establish, in collaboration with the Education Department, an experimental and educational garden on the side of the estuary owned and managed by the Squamish Nation as a learning centre. The goal is to eventually sustain a certain level of harvesting there.

"We want to make more of a difference in our diet, to return back to our traditional diet for health purposes," Joseph-McCullough said. "The Indian rice or the chocolate lily... there's an enzyme in it that our bodies as First Nation people naturally digest and we use everything up as opposed to store-bought rice. It's harder to digest for our bodies.

"There's a reason why we're having such a high rate of diabetes, because our bodies aren't used to it."

Working closely with the Squamish River Watershed Society (SRWS), Joseph's research has generated a great deal of interest from the general Squamish community - an interest she described as "meaningful."

"We're delighted to be working with Leigh Joseph and to be able to provide her assistance in her graduate research studies on the rice root lily," said SRWS executive director Edith Tobe. "We recognize the cultural significance of re-introducing historic food sources for Squamish Nation in her field of ethnobotany and making it part of the current diet for Squamish Nation and the value that the rice root lily has to the ecosystem."

Remarking on the strong cultural ties she feels to Squamish and its people, Joseph said her education and research have given her a way to "come home" to a place she considers home as much as where she grew up.

"I think the amazing thing about connecting to traditional foods is it also links you to your territory, your language, culture," she said, "and so I think it addresses people, their mental health, physical health, emotional health, often it's quite a healing thing to reclaim something from your past that you know you've been connected to through your ancestors for thousands of years.

"Knowledge of these traditional foods and medicines is, I really feel, coming back in a really good way and the community is really ready for that."

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