Jessica shares her experience of curating an ethnobotany conference and more

Friday December 21, 2018

By Jessica Dolan, North America Program Coordinator for the North American Community Environmental Leadership Exchange (NACELE) 2015

Greetings GEN and NACELE colleagues!

Both 2017 and 2018 have been full of combined academic and community-based projects for me. I co-coordinated the Society of Ethnobiology Conference, which was held in Montréal at the Jardin Botanique de Montréal in May 2017. The conference brought together 180 people from around the world to speak, listen and learn on the themes of Ethics, Advocacy, and Allyship in Ethnobiology. The Kanienkehà‘ka (Mohawk) Nation hosted us on their land which meant that conference-goers were treated to a number of meaningful Haudenosaunee ceremonies. I worked with friends and colleagues who were also NACELE 2015 participants such as Peggy Pyke-Thompson, Kevin Deer and Richard Nolan, to plan different elements of the conference. With Peggy, and other environmental leaders from Akwesasne, Kahnawà:ke, and Kanesatake, we planned a panel on “Haudenosaunee Perspectives on Environmental Responsibilities,” in which participants of the Akwesasne Cultural Restoration Program presented at the conference. Kevin opened and closed the conference, and he and Richard hosted a very meaningful field trip to their community of Kahnawà:ke, just south of Montreal. A Kahnawà:ke catering company Kwe Kwe Gourmet catered the conference banquet, and Peggy Pyke-Thompson’s grandson, Donovan Thompson, and his singing society led participants in traditional Haudenosaunee social dances. Another highlight of the conference was the keynote delivered by ethnobotanist, professor, and water protector Linda Black Elk.

Jessica presents the art piece she created during a NACELE workshop titled “Using art to celebrate resistance and renewal”, led by Monaeka Flores.

I also co-taught on the McGill Indigenous Field Studies Course, which is a wonderful cross-cultural Indigenous education course that takes place at McGill University in Montréal, and in the Mohawk Community of Kahnawà:ke. Designed for university students across disciplines, the course is created for those professionals who are likely to work with Indigenous people and communities, to provide an introduction for addressing cultural sensitivity and professionalism, through an immersive, cross-cultural, self-reflective experience in an Indigenous community. It is a great model for other regionally-based courses to dispel racism, stereotypes, and facilitate understanding in their communities, organizations, and institutions.

Later in the year, I joined the staff of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne Department of the Environment, where I worked a four-month contract. During this time, I worked with Peggy-Pyke Thompson, Henry Lickers, and the rest of the staff there, many of whom participated in NACELE 2015. It was an honor to have the chance to learn from the oldest Indigenous environmental department in Canada, and to be able to contribute to their ongoing environmental work. MCA Environment is a model for integrating Indigenous knowledge and science. At the same time, many parts of that area of Saint Lawrence are still considered an Area of Concern and in need of restoration from post-industrial contamination. Much can be done working to support the health of Native species. 

I have continued to work with Peggy and other mentors to refine a project (for which we are still seeking funding), to create a culturally-rooted field guide to common Haudenosaunee and Algonquin edible plants. I will write this guide by combining community-based research, archival data, and botanical science. It will begin with those plants traditionally used in the environs of Mohawk territory and Algonquin territory to the north and east. This project brings together linguistics (Mohawk, Algonquin, English, Botanical Latin, French), botany, and traditional ecological knowledge. The purpose of the guide is to create an accessible and user-friendly resource to support programs and education within communities that address concerns of food sovereignty, species changes that are occurring due to climate change, language revitalization, restorative relationships with land and plants, and repatriation of cultural information from archives and museums. It will be possible to branch out to include other Haudenosaunee languages and regional variations in plant use, once we have a base.

Thus far, our partners at Plenty Canada (Larry McDermott, NACELE 2015), the Frontenac Arch Biospehere and Algonquin 2 Adirondacks have expressed a sense of alignment with this exciting project. We agree that, as climate change shifts species compositions and ranges, it is all the more necessary to create educational tools based upon Indigenous knowledge that engender community-based local education of plants and traditional knowledge. Identifying the species and understanding the relationships between them is vital for food sovereignty, for adaptive resilience to change, and for enacting citizen stewardship and our environmental responsibilities. 

I took the summer off to welcome my daughter into the world! Naia Simone Ohkwari Dolan was born in the beginning of June. Come January, I will return to teaching and research again. Thank you for inviting me to share here; I so enjoy reading about the vital work being done around the world by environmental caretakers and cultural change-makers! Together we make each other stronger in the good work of cross-cultural education, advocacy, community restoration, and protecting Mother Earth.

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