Cowichan Elder connects the survival of language and culture to his world of plants
There’s a mystery — and a challenge — surrounding Dr. Luschiim Arvid Charlie’s new book, Luschiim’s Plants: Traditional Indigenous Foods, Materials and Medicines, co-authored with Dr. Nancy J. Turner.
“Basic knowledge of (plant) names I say in several places, (but) not in so many words. I give a hint to increase knowledge, and it’s up to that person to go and get that knowledge” , said Charlie.
After all, this is how the teachings of plants and their secrets were passed on to him.
“One of my uncles shared some very important things with me, but he waited to see how I was going to get this knowledge that he had shared with me. And it wasn’t until 30 years later that he gave me the rest of the knowledge that comes with that information,” Charlie said.
This knowledge was eventually passed on to him by his uncle because in those 30 years Charlie had “lived as I should”.
The younger members of Charlie’s own family begin to learn the secrets of plants. Yet the Cowichan elder, who was born in Quamichan in 1942 and has lived his entire life in the Duncan, British Columbia area, realizes that the Hul′q′umi′num′ language and the traditional knowledge about plants is not sufficiently assimilated by the younger generations.
He says he was prompted to record his knowledge after speaking with an elder who said there was no need to learn about plants and their medicinal or sacred value because “the medicine of the ‘white man is better than ours’.
To this sentiment, Charlie points out that viruses can become immune to Western medicine over time.
Shortly after his conversation with the elder, Charlie met Turner in the 1990s.
Turner is internationally known for her work in ethnobotany, the study of plants and cultures. She has worked with First Nations elders and cultural specialists in northwestern North America for over 50 years, helping to document, conserve and promote their traditional knowledge of plants and environments.
“Every time we met, maybe the next six, seven, eight years, we shared so much. We just said, ‘Damn, it would be nice to document some of it, the knowledge.’ She started writing everything I said. I knew all the Hul′q′umi′num names, the Indian names, of all the trees, shrubs, grasses. I had to teach them the English names,” Charlie said. “I still have a few names to learn. I know Indian names but not all English names.
This knowledge, according to the book, was passed on to Charlie by his elders. This knowledge, Charlie adds, surrounded him.
“I grew up with it. You live with it every day,” he said.
But as he lived with it every day, he also became painfully aware of how much knowledge was fading away.
“The more I learned, the more I discovered how much we don’t know, how much we lose. For many years… that’s what I’ve realized, how much we lose and that’s one of the reasons this book comes out. We lose so much. I put the basic names and some very basic uses in there,” he said.
And so the duo co-wrote Luschiim’s Plants, Traditional Indigenous Foods, Materials and Medicines. The project started in 2005 and ended in 2020.
Charlie says Turner was respectful in his approach and with his knowledge of Hul′q′umi′num.
The book is full of wonderful photographs, most taken by Turner, and the general Hul’q’umi’num’ botanical names and terms relating to the use of plants are prominent.
Luschiim’s plants point out that many of the plants described are no longer as plentiful as they once were and warn people to harvest “sustainably, guided by the frequency and abundance of plants and the impacts that harvesting could have”.
While the medicinal value of plants is shared by Charlie, he is not as open about the ceremonial context.
“Some of our ways can be very sacred, and I guess I could say secret. It’s no different than some of the things that some churches have. Some things that you practice but aren’t shared openly,” he said. -he declares.
He also points out that the terminology used by doctors and lawyers cannot be understood by everyone.
“It’s the same with this. Some of the words that need to be known the ordinary person can’t hear or learn,” Charlie said.
“On the other hand,” explains Luschiim’s Plants, “cultural knowledge about the everyday uses of plants for food, medicine or technology is meant to be widely shared and passed on to future generations, for better understanding and valuing of them. plants and where they grow.
Luschiim plants include a linguistic writing guide with the pronunciation of the words Hul’q’umi’num’. The plants highlighted range from algae to mosses and liverworts to shrubs and vines and are associated with the Quw’utsun culture. There are almost 200 species examined.
Charlie hopes that Luschiim’s Plants will inspire young people and people to take up the study of plants and “learn the Hul’q’umi’num way”.
As for the Hul’q’umi’num’ language, Charlie admits he’s more than optimistic about its continued use. He mentions his nephews, nieces and grandchildren who canoe, play lacrosse and soccer.
“All of these sports teach them to develop their language that goes with it. Some of them come to deepen their knowledge that way. They use the modern method, listen and, of course, they write it down,” Charlie said.
“I hope anyone looking at the book can learn the languages, as well as the writing system.”
The Plants of Luschiim: Traditional Indigenous Foods, Materials and Medicines is published by Harbor Publishing. It is available in-store and online.
By Shari Narine, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Windspeaker.com, Windspeaker.com