Reclaiming Indigenous knowledge through plants — and film

Squamish researcher making a documentary with help of $50,000 from Storyhive

Squamish ethnobotanist Leigh Joseph first learned the value of plants when she was a girl.

"My family on my dad's side is Squamish Nation, and his mother was from Nanaimo — from Snuneymuxw — and I would always go visit her brother along the Nanaimo River. He was the first person who taught me about plant foods and the connection to health and family through plants," she said. "It wasn't so much he was teaching me as it was learning by doing and sharing meals and fishing with him, and smoking fish and then harvesting from the land and his garden."

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Later, when she discovered there was an ethnobotany field she could study, she pursued it.

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Source: Still from the documentary Sḵwx̱wú7mesh spén’em (Squamish Plants)

Ethnobotany is the scientific study of the traditional knowledge and customs of a people and their relationship to plants, including their medical and religious uses.

Joseph has recently been selected to receive $50,000 in production funding from Telus Storyhive's 2019 Documentary Edition to help her produce the film Sḵwx̱wú7mesh spén’em (Squamish Plants).

"We are looking at telling the story of how Indigenous people within the Squamish area are reclaiming and reinstating the stewardship of the land through plants,"  Joseph said.

She is currently pursuing her PhD in ethnobotany, which led to the idea for the documentary, she said.

"One of the aspects of doing research within my home community of Squamish, and other Indigenous communities, is thinking about how to approach research that makes it approachable and useful, and represents the communities that I am working with," she said.

She and Trevor Bennett of King Tide films decided to work together to use film as a community-based research tool.

"When the call for documentaries came out through Storyhive, we applied with the idea of basically shifting the narrative around Indigenous stories and offering one that is specifically healing and gaining strength, through land-based activity... primarily through building plant relationships.

Her project was one of 30 selected from 382 applications, according to a Storyhive press release.

"It is an incredible opportunity that allows us to realize this project," she said. "It is really important working within community to ensure that we are able to compensate people for their time and to bring in different creative minds to tell the story and get the visuals high quality," she said.

Squamish is rich in plant resources so a unique base for the project, Joseph said. 

For her master's degree, she undertook a restoration project in the Squamish Estuary, focussing on an edible lily called northern rice-root.

The estuary was previously home to three First Nation villages.

"There would have been a multitude of root gardens within our estuary," she said. "So, those species still exist."

Though some traditional plants are still in use, through colonization, residential school and the associated loss of language, many Indigenous people were separated from the importance of some plants, she said, but this is changing.

The documentary will be available on Storyhive next spring and there are plans in the works to have a screening at Totem Hall and other spots in the Sea to Sky Corridor.  Go to storyhive.com for more information on the documentaries they produce.

Go to www.leighjoseph.com for more on Joseph's research.

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