The importance of Indigenous gathering practices

coltsfoot
Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) is native to Europe and is actively eradicated in parts of the U.S. However, it’s considered important by Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik gatherers. USDA Forest Service photo by Michelle Baumflek.

To the untrained eye, an old field may be unremarkable. At best it can be a place to spot wildlife, but few would consider it to have any importance to daily life. However, for the Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik communities in Maine and New Brunswick, old fields are one of numerous habitats where plants are gathered for food and medicine.

According to a study led by USDA Forest Service researcher Michelle Baumflek, understanding Indigenous gathering practices can provide new insights for forest managers, co-management opportunities, and general understanding of the environment. Critically, this understanding also increases recognition of Indigenous knowledge and people, and their primary role in conservation actions.

“It’s important to highlight how different people care for forests and plants,” says Baumflek, “There are needs and priorities specific to each community.”

The best way for forest managers to understand Indigenous gathering practices is recognizing how culture connects to the natural environment, the researchers argue. This kind of thinking that values the many relationships between cultures and the landscape is an area of study called biocultural approaches.

Forest managers looking to explore Indigenous gathering practices through biocultural approaches can begin by understanding key differences between western and Indigenous values, practices, and relationships with their environment. These differences guide actions forest managers can take to better appreciate and incorporate Indigenous people and knowledge.

Values

Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik people value plants that western forest managers do not, the study found. They often gather and use common plants and introduced species. Common plants are dependable and the Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik use them sustainably over extended periods of time. These species hold a constant place in daily life through multiple generations.

Western scientists and forest managers often work to protect endangered species. However, they could also consider the protection of common species valued by local Indigenous communities when evaluating management practices.

“We need to diversify how we think about who engages with forests and the reasons why forests and plants may be meaningful to them,” argues Baumflek.

Practices

Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik people also gather in locations that may not overlap with habitats western scientists value, like roadsides or forest field edges. In addition to expanding the range of species considered, the study suggests that forest managers also expand the range of locations they consider when discussing management actions.

sweetgrass-gathering
Sweetgrass (Anthoxanthum nitens) is an important plant for Wolastoqiyik and Mi’kmaq gatherers. They often scatter the seeds to promote new growth before gathering. If landowners or managers aren’t aware of sweetgrass gathering, they may destroy collection sites. USDA Forest Service photo by Michelle Baumflek.

Additionally, Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik gatherers practice sustainable gathering habits. Gatherers take only what they or their communities need and rotate between different gathering sites to allow regeneration.

People often gather on behalf of those who are incapable of harvesting for themselves. If gathering became formalized through a permit system, which has been proposed, officials would have to ensure that the system would not limit the amount of material a single person can gather. The study argues that if officials take biocultural approaches into account when creating permit systems, cultural nuances like gathering for others will be accounted for, creating systems that work for the people who use them.

Relationships

Both Wolastoqiyik and Mi’kmaq plant gatherers view the equal and respectful relationship between humans and the environment as a form of care. It aligns with stewardship rather than management, where humans control nature. Recognizing this difference in terminology could show respect and appreciation of Indigenous knowledge and counteract the history of colonization.

Colonization forced Indigenous people in North America to change their lifestyles through relocation and cultural assimilation programs. Some past government land management practices have shown less respect for existing relationships between Indigenous people and the land than they deserved.

Changing our perspectives

To those trying to diversify their understanding of the relationships between forests and humans, Baumflek says, “Come to your questions humbly with the spirit of respect for other knowledge systems and understand that there are things that are not meant to be shared with people outside of the community.” Look to Indigenous voices for the next steps to take and approach these changes with an open mind, she advises.

The study highlights how Wolastoqiyik and Mi’kmaq interviewees are interested in being included in management processes. This might look like a designated advisory group that would provide some governance for Indigenous people. This would allow gatherers and their practices to be validated by their own knowledge systems, rather than from the outside.

Working together on stewardship and management plans could reveal problems and solutions that non-Indigenous forest managers would not have understood otherwise. Diverse ecosystems allow flora and fauna to survive. Diverse cultures allow humans to do the same. Biocultural approaches could be the answer to preserving both.

Read the full article in Society & Natural Resources.

For more information, email Michelle Baumflek at michelle.baumflek@usda.gov.

Find the latest publications by SRS scientists.