Uprooting diabetes: Riceroot grows again

By Keith Rozendal and Meg Mittelstedt

Leigh Joseph squats down in the marshy estuary toward a grey, lifeless stem poking out of the grass. In the distance, the cliff-face of the Stawamus Chief, an iconic granite dome, stands witness as Joseph digs around the base of the plant. She pulls out a clump of sandy bulblets clustered together like thick white scales and holds it up.

“This is it,” she says. She loosens the bulblets and scatters them into freshly-tilled earth behind her, taking care to ensure that each tiny piece is covered.

These “riceroot” bulbs once fed the members of the Squamish Nation and other Aboriginal groups all along the northern Pacific Rim. They are known as Lhásem in the language of Joseph’s father, a hereditary chief of the Squamish Nation. Joseph, a University of Victoria grad student hopes the plant — nearly lost from the Squamish collective memory — will catch on as a healthy alternative to starches imported by Europeans. She believes riceroot can help to reduce the obesity and diabetes that burden this Aboriginal community with disabilities and early death.

Riceroot bulblets

In fact, Joseph has made it the ambition of her master’s thesis in ethnobotany — the study of the inter-relationships between people and plants — to re-establish the threatened riceroot lily at the base of the Squamish food pyramid. She sees it as the first building block of many in revitalizing the complex system of traditional foods that once provided both good nutrition and a healthy lifestyle for her people.

“The ideal is to create a harvest site for riceroot and to have it be an alternative form of carbohydrate,” she says. The plant is nutritionally similar to the potato, which displaced traditional root vegetables in Aboriginal diets after being introduced by European settlers.

Joseph’s thesis advisor, Nancy J. Turner, has studied B.C.’s traditional food and medicine systems for more than 40 years. Turner says that the diet eaten by Indigenous groups all along the province’s coast was not only “very healthy,” but it also facilitated a physically-fit lifestyle.

“People are very active, busy and interested when they’re out getting their food, so it’s a very holistic kind of system,” Turner says.

The backyard grocery store

But Joseph must first bring the plant back from the brink of extinction in the traditional territory of her ancestors. That’s why she began cultivating riceroot — the lily species Fritiallaria camschatcensis — in a carefully guarded location in the estuary near the town of Squamish, B.C..

Joseph loves this estuary.  Not just the beauty of it, but the way it feels to imagine herself transported back to when there were three Squamish villages along these tidal flats, near where the Cheakmus and Squamish Rivers run into Howe Sound. As she works, she imagines her ancestors surrounding her, participating in the harvest. She imagines a time when, as she puts it, life was about “understanding your environment so well that you could go and gather your food from the grocery store of your surroundings to sustain yourself.”

Growing up on Vancouver Island, Joseph remembers visiting with her great-uncle and aunt, Chester and Eva Thomas, near Nanaimo. The couple served up meals from their own backyard that made a lasting impression on the young girl.

“We would always share a meal from Chester’s garden or salmon he had caught in the river and smoked on the property,” Josephs recalls. “Pretty much everything they ate came from their property or the river in front of their house.”

She now credits these early experiences as influencing her decision to pursue studies in ethnobotany.

“I remember understanding at a young age what he was saying,” Joseph says. “The food you put in your body is medicine. It’s important you understand where that came from. Those influences really stayed with me.”

Fading from memory

As a young adult, Joseph spent several summers working alongside her aunt, Joy Joseph McCullough, for Squamish Nation Education in the Squamish Valley. They collaborated on an ethnobotany field guide and a calendar with harvest times for traditional plants. It was here that Joseph first encountered riceroot.

“This one plant kept coming up,” she says. “People would have heard from another community that there was this plant that was like rice but it was a traditional plant, so it was easier for our bodies to digest because our ancestors used it for thousands of years.” Riceroot, which produces a bell-shaped, coppery bloom, is also known as “People’s Rice” in some Indigenous communities.

See some of the beautiful, and nutritious, native plants eaten by coastal First Nations (no audio)

The plant is a very important traditional root vegetable for First Nations all along the coast, says Turner. Along with its relatives, Chocolate Lily and Yellow Bells, riceroot was one of the few sources of carbohydrates in traditional diets.

The Squamish people knew it had been cultivated in garden settings, and Joseph discovered that there had once been extensive family-owned root gardens up and down the coast that were actively cultivated and managed. But only elders seem to have had memories of the plant, due to changing dietary habits and the disruption of the plant’s estuary habitat. The knowledge of how Aboriginal people had managed their gardens had been nearly lost.

Shifting diets, declining health

A dish of riceroot served at a traditional foods feast

Still, people were excited about the plant and its possible healthy effects. “The major context in which people spoke about it,” Josephs says, “was wanting to regain control over their own personal health, particularly dietary-related health concerns,” such as type 2 diabetes.

“They were looking to traditional foods and traditional medicines to do that.”

Joseph’s grandmother, Rose, suffered from diabetes. Leigh remembers her carrying a cooler full of medicines, for reasons Joseph didn’t understand at the time. Now, she knows that diabetes and other diet-related illnesses take a large toll on Indigenous communities. These illnesses are “something fairly new that can be traced back to a really recent, but significant, shift in diet and level of physical activity,” she says.

In fact, a 2009 Health Canada survey found that British Columbia’s Aboriginal residents are 40 per cent more likely to have diabetes than their non-Aboriginal counterparts. Over the four years of the study, diabetes diagnoses among the B.C. First Nations increased by more than 15 per cent.

“When you see more and more youth being diagnosed with diabetes at a young age,” Joseph says, “it hits home.”

Chief Ernie Hill Jr., a hereditary chief of the Gitga’at in Hartley Bay, B.C., recognizes his community’s shift toward introduced foods and its negative effects.

“I firmly believe that the diabetes here has occurred because of the change in diet,” he says. “If we go back to our original diet — the sea — maybe it will help curb some of that.”

He adds that his community is trying to change children’s eating habits but it’s an uphill battle. The region gets food supply by airplane, and it’s cheaper to fly in a box of potato chips than a box of apples.

Hunting for knowledge

As a master’s student working in the remote village of Kingcome, Joseph took part in an historic event. For the first time in nearly 75 years, members of this Kwakwaka’wakw village piled into boats to head downriver toward the estuary flats where they collect riceroot and other traditional vegetables.

The freshly harvested roots were pit-cooked — a combination of roasting and steaming in stone and leaf-lined fire pits — just outside of the community’s central longhouse.

The occasion was pivotal for Joseph. She wanted to see the event replicated in her own Nation.

“Witnessing that moment when a food that had been eaten in that region for thousands of years is again being consumed by the people there — it really hit me how much it means. It’s so much more than fuel for your body,” Joseph says. “It’s connecting to these sites where your grandmother or your great-grandmother would have cultivated and worked the land.”

“It really does nourish the spirit.”

However, bringing this nearly-forgotten knowledge back “from beneath the longhouse floorboards” — an expression the elders use to describe the process of regaining traditional knowledge — is no small task.

Joseph describes her journey to revitalize riceroot as a “treasure hunt.” She has scoured ethnographic literature, including Turner’s reel-to-reel tape recordings of Squamish elders in the 1970s speaking about traditional plants.

Turner says Joseph’s project represents a growing interest in traditional knowledge among First Nations youth.

Overcoming obstacles

In the Squamish Nation, however, the plant’s re-emergence faces numerous threats. Most of the estuaries along the Burrard Inlet and Howe Sound shores have been developed or disrupted, leaving little habitat for the sensitive plant. In the Squamish River estuary, industrial pollution has left mercury in the soil.

Modern tastes may prove an additional challenge. Those who are new to the plant may balk at the lightly starchy root – which Joseph says tastes like a slightly bitter cross between a potato and rice. The flower has been described as having an odour like “poo-filled smelly socks” and is pollinated by carrion flies.

But the project takes aim squarely at these obstacles.

With two youth assistants, Joseph is testing the soil for salinity and for mercury contamination. Preliminary soil analysis results indicate traces of mercury in a small number of riceroot plots. Joseph is currently working with the Squamish River Watershed Society to determine if mercury levels fall within acceptable levels for human consumption.

As for the smell and the taste, Joseph has a strategy: start young.

Joseph makes a point to include youth in the riceroot restoration project. In addition to the young assistants who worked with her in the estuary garden, Joseph has invited preschoolers to a pit-cook of traditional foods. Culture camps for Squamish youth help her teach youngsters the importance of the environment and the food systems of their ancestors.

“You become attached to and desire to eat the food that you are exposed to as a child,” Turner explains. “The less traditional food people eat, the less they tend to really crave it.”

Because of the integration of her project with the classroom, Joseph believes the riceroot gardens will continue to grow and be maintained by the Squamish as a diabetes-fighting alternative to other starches. “If, down the road, the estuary gardens can be established as a harvest site for the Squamish Nation, that’s kind of the ideal,” she says.

“I think there’s no substitute for getting out and digging in the dirt,” she says, “and bringing a food back and having that feeling of satisfaction of providing for yourself.”

“It’s an emotional thing to feel a connection to the past in that way.”

Kids at a Squamish youth and culture camp Photo: Leigh Joseph

Ancient Harvest: Millennia-old wapato,unearthed during recent road work, are aboriginal potatoes.

COURTESY KATZIE DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION Surrey North Delta Leader. Powered by Ancient Harvest.
North Delta Leader – June 20, 2008
A 3,600-year-old native village site uncovered during road work for the new Golden Ears Bridge is being hailed as a globally significant find that suggests aboriginal people here were Canada’s first recorded farmers. The ancient discovery has electrified archaeologists who say it may help reverse long-held notions of pre-contact natives as hunter-gatherers who didn’t actively garden or otherwise manage the landscape. It also shines a new spotlight on the accelerating loss of First Nations heritage sites in the Lower Mainland to make way for new high ways, bridges and development.The site was found more than a year ago but has been kept quiet throughout a 10-month excavation that wrapped up this spring. And it will soon be paved over.
The Abernethy connector is being built through the ancient village to link the Golden Ears Bridge to Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows. But rather than oppose the road work, the local Katzie First Nation headed up the dig themselves.The band’s development corporation signed on to excavate any sites found during bridge construction. The multi-million-dollar deal gave band members job training in archaeology and more control in saving their own heritage if anything significant was found.Nobody was more stunned than Katzie First Nation chief negotiator Debbie Miller when Katzie workers began to unearth scores of artifacts and implements in the middle of the road right-of-way. “Every day you could see bucket after bucket and say, ‘Look, look, look,” she recalled. “There are hundreds of thousands of pieces – everything from stone to wood.” They’ve found what are believed to be house structures, cookery, arrow points, digging sticks – in short, all the evidence of human habitation. But it is the wapato or Indian potato – a root vegetable that would have been grown in the Pitt polder mud and cooked as a source of starch –that has generated the most excitement.The tubers were found almost perfectly preserved in a rare “wet site” where water kept them submerged and ensured they never rotted, along with basket fragments, braided rope and other artifacts that don’t normally survive centuries let alone millennia.
The wapato were found atop a layer of carefully placed charred rocks built over a spring-fed gravel area. Researchers believe it’s an intentional wapato garden – the rocks were intended to help spread the water evenly and to keep the plant from rooting deeply, making it easier to harvest and potentially boosting yields. “It has global importance,” said SFU associate professor of archaeology Dana Lepofsky, who rates it as possibly the Lower Mainland’s most significant find to date. Until now, the oldest evidence found of gardening in B.C. dated to between 300 and 400 years ago on the central coast, where aboriginal people tended clover and silverweed in the intertidal zone.
Researchers suspected the Katzie had grown wapato at least that long because of stories from the band’s oral history.
But the discovery of the Katzie wapato, radiocarbon dated to 3,600 years ago, becomes the oldest example so far of  horticulture in B.C. and Canada. “In the Pacific Northwest, there is nothing even remotely this old,” Lepofsky said.
Tribes in warmer parts of southeastern North America had begun growing seed s like sunflower, quinoa and maize as early as 5,000 years ago. But they didn’t plant root vegetables.“There’s really nothing comparable in North America,” said  Lepofsky. It sheds light on a mystery that has puzzled scientists: how did coastal aboriginal people – thought to be reliant on hunting, fishing and gathering – develop such large and complex societies associated more with agrarian civilizations? It now appears, Lepofsky said, that the people here did garden and actively change their landscape, not simply harvest what grew naturally. In a land where rivers wriggled with salmon, veggies might seem unimportant. But Lepofsky believes the humble wapato was actually a hot commodity.
Analysis of aboriginal bones shows every member of coastal society – rich or poor, men or women, slaves or children – got plenty of protein from fish. “Salmon was in such abundance, protein was not a problem,” Lepofsky said. “I think carbs were in much higher demand. That’s the reason why wapato was traded by the Katzie up and down the Fraser Valley.” Europeans who first arrived here didn’t recognize aboriginal gardens because they weren’t neatly tended plots with fences. Instead, the newcomers saw virgin wilderness that wasn’t being used. “It was ‘wasted’ and up for grabs,” Lepofsky said. “That philosophy was fundamental of the move to put First Nations on reserves.” She said there are “huge implications” today, as evidence mounts that aboriginal people did manage the land and resources.
Resource managers ordered to return an area to a “wild” state may have to think harder about what “wilderness” is. For archaeologists, the new discovery is exceptional. For the Katzie, working side-by-side to remove tools their ancestors once held and the vegetables they intended to eat, the dig has been an emotional journey into the past. “It was overwhelming,” says the Katzie’s Debbie Miller. The site was divided into a gridof squares and material was painstakingly excavated down in layers about 20 centimetres at a time. Two-thirds of the 90 employees on the job at its peak were Katzie band members. The arrangement flows from a 2004 benefits agreement the Katzie signed with TransLink, in which the band pledged to cooperate in exchange for a $1.8-million payment and promises of band employment and business opportunities.
More money has flowed from the bridge-building consortium, the Golden Crossing Constructors Joint Venture, for the actual archaeological work by the Katzie Development Corporation. Acutely aware of their responsibility to deliver, Miller bristles when initially asked if the find could delay completion of the bridge.That won’t happen, she insists. And indeed, TransLink’s now projects the bridge will be finished by next June, ahead of schedule. Despite months of fieldwork, just five percent of the site was actually excavated. But under B.C. law, that’s considered sufficient to constitute a representative snapshot.
Now that the dig is over, the bridge builders have obtained a site alteration permit, allowing road crews to rapidly excavate the rest of the site with heavy equipment – with monitoring in case more artifacts emerge. Preload will follow and then paving. Then, in mid-2009, the first motorists to cross the Golden Ears Bridge will unknowingly roll over the ancient site.
“That’s the way this thing works,” Miller says. “The site gets altered so significantly it no longer exists. The proponent builds its project and moves forward.”She speaks in precise, clinical terms about the business arrangement and the rules on how much of a site gets the feather duster treatment and how much can be attacked with big yellow machines. How does she keep her chin up through a process that will obliterate such an historic site? “I hate the whole thing,” Miller confesses. “I am so saddened and disillusioned that something that could be our equivalent to the Sphinx or the Pyramids or Stonehenge in
this province gets to be just picked up and set aside.”
Had the band known in advance the road would go over such a site, Miller said, it’s possible they would have fought to change the route. But ultimately, the Katzie gave their word and are living by it. “No, I’m not happy. But my business is to make sure we do a professional quality job. I can tell you one thing, we have done that.”The challenge doesn’t end now that what could be recovered has been dug up, bagged and itemized. Researchers will want access to the artifacts indefinitely.And the Katzie aren’t yet sure how they’ll store it all properly, along with the several thousand other pieces already in their possession. “This just exponentially increases our responsibility,” Miller said. “Many of the wet site pieces will need to be curated. We don’t have the ability to do that.”
Neither the bridge builders nor TransLink are required to contribute to the ongoing cost of curating found artifacts.
“It’s just a monumental task we’re going through.” SFU’s Dana Lepofsky doesn’t fault the Katzie for the choice they made.
She says the Katzie archaeology team did a “phenomenal” job excavating the site. But having to scramble so a bridge can open on time isn’t the same as if the site had become a long-term research project. Lepofsky’s preference is clear.
“In my perfect world, the site would have been either left entirely or excavated slowly over 30 years with huge public involvement and turned into a place people could visit forever – in the way it would have happened almost anywhere else in the western world. “France, Japan – you pick the country – a site like this would have been preserved,” she said. “To me it
should have been non-negotiable. It should have been turned into a heritage landscape for all people and all generations.”
Road work crews have now begun final removal of the site, according to officials at the Golden Ears Bridge project office. The excavation is to be finished by mid-July.

When Mother Earth has nothing left to give, we need to slow down


Posted by Kimberly Shearon at Jan 16, 2015 06:00 AM |

Pictured: Glen Gobin, Tulalip Tribes.

By Karen Campbell, staff lawyer 

When the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Expansion Project review began in April 2014, it was on a fast-track to approval. The 2012 changes to the National Energy Board Act established a truncated process that would have seen a decision on this massive project by fall 2015. However, the project has since hit multiple snags, including a delay in any approval until spring 2016, unprecedented protests relating to Kinder Morgan’s drilling activities on Burnaby Mountain (described in this DeSmog.ca post), and increasing community and First Nations opposition.

One of the drivers of this frustration is the NEB’s continued refusal to hold public hearings in the part of the country that will arguably be most directly affected by the proposal: Burnaby, the pipeline terminus and the point at which the bitumen would be loaded onto tankers to travel through the Salish Sea.

Thus, in 2014, First Nations and indigenous groups that wanted to give oral evidence to the NEB panel about their traditions, their worries, and their way of life were required to attend at other locations in the province.

In late October, representatives of four United States tribes – the Lummi, Suquamish, Swinomish, and Tulalip Tribes – travelled up the Fraser Valley to Chilliwack to share their history, their concerns, and their worries about the Kinder Morgan expansion with the NEB. This is one of the lesser-told stories of 2014.

The four tribes have lived on the coast and relied on the Salish Sea for their way of life since time immemorial. Like the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation — whose lands and waters are in and around the tanker terminal in Burnaby — they are all Coast Salish nations. While most people recognize the Canada-U.S. border as the political separation between the two countries, for the Coast Salish, that border is simply a line on a piece of paper. Better than most, they understand that the potential environmental and cultural harms Kinder Morgan’s project could inflict won’t stop at the border.

Along with their representatives from Earthjustice — Ecojustice’s sister organization in the United States — these tribes are taking a strong stand with Canadian First Nations to oppose this pipeline. The importance of place is such that these tribes are dedicating time, resources, hearts and minds to opposing Kinder Morgan’s proposal. The reason is simple: The way they see it, Mother Earth has nothing left to give.

One by one, indigenous elders, leaders, youth and fishermen stood before the NEB panel. They spoke of their connection with the sea and its resources and how any expansion of tanker traffic would further harm their lives, their economies, the ongoing practice of traditional ways of life, and the tribes’ continual efforts to protect the health of the Salish Sea. They expressed their deep concerns about increased threats to the Salish Sea, such as the risk of a catastrophic accident and oil disaster — something that seems inevitable with the large-scale pipeline expansion.

The testimonies shared by these tribes and other Coast Salish nations are a potent reminder that deep knowledge and connection to land and sea is something that we all need to develop.

From the fur trade to forestry to oil and gas development, Canada’s industries have a long history of drawing down resources and moving on — showing little concern for the finite capacity of the natural world or respect for connection to place. But that pattern cannot continue indefinitely. Tar sands extraction is more extreme than previous resource grabs. Not only are we running out of oil to extract and forests to log, the atmosphere is hitting the point where it can no longer absorb our carbon emissions without grave climate impacts.

We must learn from people who have a deep connection to place and accept that the earth has limits that must be respected. We must recognize that the harmful impacts from this pipeline will not respect international borders.

Communities like the U.S. Tribes and Canadian First Nations that have been here since time immemorial remind us that we who live here now have a duty to protect our home.  Unless we do, we will continue down the path laid out by multinational energy companies, where nature and the opposition of local communities are seen as mere logistical challenges to be overcome by re-routing pipelines through mountains and writing fat cheques. And eventually we will still have to come to terms with the reality that Mother Nature has no more to give.

Photo credit: Chris Jordan-Bloch/Earthjustice

– See more at: http://www.ecojustice.ca/blog/when-mother-earth-has-nothing-left-to-give-we-need-to-slow-down#sthash.Ob5xXS9Z.dpuf

Rate of environmental degradation puts life on Earth at risk, say scientists

Amazon rainforest
 The view from the Amazon Tall Tower Observatory in the middle of the Amazon forest. Researchers say that of the nine processes needed to sustain life on Earth, four have exceeded “safe” levels. Photograph: Reuters


Land rights in burma in pictures

The Guardian

Friday 16 January 2015 

Since the passing of the Farmland Law in 2012, farmers have been seeking restitution of land seized under the military junta. The government has drafted a land-use policy, to be finalised this year, but many fear the registration process will create legal disputes, dispossess women and leave thousands of farmers with insecure rights

Land use in Burma is complex and important: more than 65% of the country’s workforce is in agriculture. But land laws are outdated and often contradictory. Throughout the decades of dictatorship, land grabbing by the military was commonplace. The government recently drafted a national land use policy, which will be finalised early in 2015. However, there are fears it will fail to address historic land grabbing by the ruling elite, that it threatens to dispossess women, and that it will leave thousands of farmers with insecure rights to their land