Tabitha Robin, UBC, Assistant Professor Indigenous Food Systems ; Wade Davis, Writer, Photographer, and Filmmaker ; J.B. Williams, Ethnobiologist, Knowledge Keeper, and Storyteller
The Indigenous peoples of what’s now known as Western Canada had a relationship of reciprocity with the land. But when explorers from Europe arrived eager to tame the land and absorb its vast natural resources these two world views came to a head. And caught in between an iconic species of the Pacific Northwest—the Gary Oak—has become threatened. So how can we reconcile the harmful assumptions of the past that overlooked other ways of managing ecosystems?
Dr. Kaylee Byers and Co-Host Dr. Lyana Patrick, look to the forests, rivers, and oceans of Turtle Island to uncover the various food systems and traditional stewardship practices that existed before colonization. Ethnobotonist, John Bradley Williams shares the traditional use of Garry Oaks and how they became systematically destroyed. Dr. Tabitha Robin-Martens from the University of British Columbia shares her experience working with and studying Indigenous Food Sovereignty. Lastly, Canadian Anthropologist and National Geographic explorer Dr. Wade Davis, through insights from his career visiting communities around the world shares how we can dismantle the prevailing biases that continue to threaten the health of our planet.
Dr. Patrick is a member of the Stellat’en First Nation and Acadian/Scottish. She received her BA and MA from the University of Victoria, where she specialized in Canadian history, film studies and Indigenous Governance. She went on to study Indigenous documentary film at the University of Washington through a Canada/US Fulbright Fellowship. Dr. Patrick completed her PhD at the University of British Columbia in 2019. Her doctoral studies brought together research interests in Indigenous community health and well-being and self-determination in urban health governance models. These interests were informed in part by three years spent completing pre-requisites for medical school and several years working in the BC Government in treaty negotiations. She joined the Faculty of Health Sciences in 2019.
An icon on the brink, J.B. Williams shares the origins and challenges of Garry Oak meadows
Moving forward, Dr. Tabitha Robin Martins shares the overlooked history of Indigenous food sovereignty
How an academic divide threatens our planet, anthropology lessons from National Geographic's Dr. Wade Davis
Dr. Kaylee Byers: It’s 1592, and Michael Locke, a merchant from London, is visiting an elderly Greek pilot. Regaling Locke with a strange tale, he claims that a few years earlier, he had taken part in a Spanish Sea voyage that sailed the Pacific Coast, North of Mexico.
The ship passed 47 degrees North latitude, lands that weren’t yet on any European map. The pilot’s name was Apostolos Valerianos, also known as Juan de Fuca, and he declared that the people he met along the coast were rich in gold, silver, and pearls.
Impressed by this El Dorado-like tale of wealth, the eager merchant penned a short account of his meeting, and that note was published a few years later. It mythologized the Pacific Northwest. Europeans thought that this land, known today as Western Canada, could hold vast and lucrative riches. As colonial ships began to poke through the inlets and forests of the place I now call home, two distinct worldviews came to a head.
One chose to conquer and divide the land and profit from its wealth, and the other maintained its traditional practices of managing natural resources in relationship with the ecosystem.
Dr. Tabitha Robin Martens: Everything we needed to survive came from the land.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: And one of those views sought to dominate the other.Read Transcript
John-Bradley Williams: When the colonists got here.
Dr. Tabitha Robin Martens: Resulted in a lot of consequences.
Dr. Wade Davis: It’s neither change nor technology that threatens culture, its power.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: The worldviews of the First Peoples on Turtle Island, or what is now known as Canada, were overlooked and undervalued by the Western lens.
Dr. Tabitha Robin Martens: Taming the land or being in dominion over the land.
John-Bradley Williams: To either destroy or control those ecosystems.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: Amongst many cultural and ecological losses, one of many particular ecological treasures was threatened.
John-Bradley Williams: The Garry Oak Ecosystems is quite important habitat for past First Nations and a lot of it got destroyed.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: You’re listening to Nice Genes, a podcast brought to you by Genome British Columbia. I’m Dr. Kaylee Byers, your host, journeying with you through the genomic past to understand our present. For today’s episode, I have the distinct pleasure of being joined by Dr. Lyana Patrick.
Dr. Lyana Patrick: Yes.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: Lyana, would you mind introducing yourself?
Dr. Lyana Patrick: Certainly. I am a member of the Stellat’en First Nation on my father’s side, and on my mother’s side, I’m Acadian and Scottish. And I am an assistant professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: So speaking of the impacts of colonialism, just casual chit- chat, you’ve worked on a few films looking closely at how the legacy of colonialism has lingered in communities today. I was curious if you could tell us why these stories are important to you.
Dr. Lyana Patrick: I’ve always been interested in storytelling. I started off my career wanting to be a journalist, and the stories that come from Indigenous communities are a little known, and I think this is changing now. I just really wanted to be a part of that, of telling these stories. So I’m very happy to be here. We’ll be looking at Indigenous food systems from various communities across Turtle Island, but also interrogating that deeply held assumption we heard at the top of the episode.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: All right, so for this episode, I want to begin by sharing a story from our neck of the woods.
John-Bradley Williams: Well, the oak is quite important.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: There’s a species that’s an icon of the Pacific Northwest.
John-Bradley Williams: The Garry Oak Ecosystem.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: The Garry Oak, which is why I spoke with J. B. Williams.
John-Bradley Williams: My name’s John- Bradley Williams or John.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: He’s a botanist who specializes in the native plant species of British Columbia. And when it comes to the cultivation of Garry Oaks, they have quite a range of uses.
John-Bradley Williams: Yeah, it’s quite a powerful plant and important habitat for us, First Nations. It was our agriculture system. We used to harvest the acorns from the oak tree and roast them up and eat them like nuts. We also roasted them and ground them and made them into a flour to make into our traditional biscuits. And then the Garry Oak Ecosystem is important because of these particular plants and flowers we evolved to be next to. Camas is one of our original starch sources and they like to grow in amongst the oaks. And then we have chocolate lily that live in with Garry Oaks and they were our traditional rice. Then we also have in my language it’s called KEXMIN. It’s a plant that we use to treat tuberculosis when that was first introduced to us.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: Oh, interesting.
Dr. Lyana Patrick: Many species, including the Garry Oak, have a creation story passed down orally through generations in the language of the Indigenous peoples living alongside them.
John-Bradley Williams: In our stories, he was a titan or a giant person, and he was a very mean titan. He liked to kidnap and steal our children. And after scooping them up, he would run back to his house. And he would always move his house to different locations so nobody knew exactly where he lived. And when he got back to his house, he would cook the children alive and then eat them. And after eating them, he would use their bones to pick the food out of his teeth.
Our Creator had heard about him mistreating our little ones like that, sent a message with Raven telling him that he needs to behave and quit doing that. And he listened for about a day, and then he fell back into his old ways. Creator had heard about that and came back into the physical world and blew some magic into his hands, stood at him, transforming him from the giant titan into the oak tree.
And the gnarliness of the oak bark and the twistedness of the limbs reflect how gnarly and twisted he was when he was still in human form, because you got to be gnarly and twisted to cook children alive and then eat them.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: Yeah, I’d agree. Yes. However, this is where Western settlers make an assumption. They believed these Eden- like meadows where the Garry Oaks grew were naturally occurring and overlooked that they had actually been cultivated for generations by Indigenous peoples. And then a second assumption, they thought they had a better way of managing the land.
John-Bradley Williams: Yeah. We have an estimated one to 3% left of the Garry Oak Ecosystem, and that’s being very generous with those estimates. When the colonists got here, they already had nice policies and procedures set up to identify staple foods and staple ecosystems and do their best to either destroy or control those ecosystems.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: I mean, that is a huge amount to have lost. We’re at one to three.
John-Bradley Williams: When they got into our territory, they purposely developed over these fields with their own agriculture systems, their infrastructure, and all of the buildings we live in. Because if they can do either of those things or both of them, it’ll make it that much easier for them to assimilate us into Canadian culture.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: And so they already had an idea of, get rid of the Garry Oak, we’re going to plant these other plants, without recognizing the value or even appreciating and, like you say, as a means of assimilation.
John-Bradley Williams: And not really understanding that our agricultural system looks completely different compared to our visitors’ agricultural system.
Dr. Lyana Patrick: Garry Oaks are just one species in Kaylee’s and my home that is under threat. British Columbia has the largest diversity of organisms and ecosystems of any province in Canada.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: And research published in Global Ecology and Conservation states that the genetic diversity of these forests is under threat due to changes in land use, fragmentation, invasive species, and atmospheric pollution.
Dr. Lyana Patrick: The assumptions made by colonial powers have exacerbated these massive gaps in addressing habitat loss on the land.
Dr. Tabitha Robin Martens: 100%.
Dr. Lyana Patrick: Which is why we spoke to a leading voice on traditional food systems across Turtle Island.
Dr. Tabitha Robin Martens: Tansi, Sîpihkopinesîs, nitisiyihkason, My name is Tabitha, and I am an assistant professor in the faculty of land and food systems at the University of British Columbia.
Dr. Lyana Patrick: Tabitha has her own story of connecting with the land through her life.
Dr. Tabitha Robin Martens: My very first job when I was a child was picking raspberries at my grandmother’s farm, and then we would go and sell them at the farmer’s market. Food is an expression of care and is an expression of love for the land and for each other.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: Her appreciation of nature took her into an academic career, but she didn’t really have her mindset on discussing Indigenous food systems.
Dr. Tabitha Robin Martens: So my supervisor and I were at a cafe and he said, “Let’s talk through why you don’t want to do Indigenous research.” And I told him that the reason I didn’t want to do it is that all I had been exposed to were damage- centered research or the deficits of Indigenous communities, but that that wasn’t my experience. That when I went to go visit my family, I was always fed. So he suggested that I look at a topic called Indigenous food sovereignty, which was very new to the literature at the time.
There were only a couple of pieces. But I realized almost immediately as I began to read about concepts of Indigenous food sovereignty that this was already in practice in my family. So I examined 24 different food sovereignty initiatives in Western Canada happening in Indigenous communities. Their members had access to good food, to traditional food, to food that comes from the land. But what I was unprepared for was how emotional these conversations were for people. There was a lot of grieving around food sovereignty.
So when I finished my degree, on the one hand, I was learning about the beauty and the abundance of our food cultures. And on the other hand, I was seeing these emotions and I was hearing people talk about a history that I was not aware of, and I began to study the history of oppression and the history of starvation. And the reason that I did this is because an elder sat with me and said, “In order to move forward, you first have to look back and you need to find out what happened to our people.”
Dr. Lyana Patrick: Looking to the past, Tabitha looked closer at the colonial playbook that affected not only Garry Oak trees, but food systems from Manitoba and across to British Columbia.
Dr. Tabitha Robin Martens: So prior to colonization, we know from oral history that starvation was not a chronic nor persistent problem in Indigenous communities, and that the land was the most important relationship in Indigenous peoples’ daily lives. And that is we cared for the land and therefore the land cared for us. But our participation in them is critical to their futures. Our peoples were definitely working the lands, but we now know there are presence of forest gardens.
Dr. Lyana Patrick: Forest gardens, like the Garry Oak Meadows, which were tended by local peoples just as you might a garden, providing the many types of foods that J. B. Mentioned.
Dr. Tabitha Robin Martens: And bison jumps.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: Bison jumps, a traditional form of hunting bison and prairie regions whereby herds were lured over cliffs to provide significant sources of meat for the community.
Dr. Tabitha Robin Martens: And fish weirs.
Dr. Lyana Patrick: Fish weirs, a fence- like trap that would guide fish into a dead end as tides and waves and waterways push them into the next.
Dr. Tabitha Robin Martens: But this was also a double- edged sword because our so- called lack of presence on the land in ways that were colonially understood were disregarded. And I can think of very early on a concept that came from a theorist named John Locke called agrarian labor that said, in order to deserve the lands, you have to work the lands and bring them up to their fullest production capacity.
And so this very early idea, which is also tied to terra nullius, which says empty lands, but notice what we’re saying, right? We’re saying agrarian labor. We’re saying empty lands. Our use, our relationship to the land was entirely ignored.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: That dominion idea of empty lands couldn’t be further from the truth. Genomic and archeological research using ancient DNA have provided insights into the lives of Indigenous peoples. On the coast of British Columbia, an analysis revealed historic sites where salmon were selectively harvested among Coast Salish communities. These food systems existed within First Nations long before settlers arrived.
Dr. Tabitha Robin Martens: And so when our knowledges are disregarded, what the consequence is is a colonial food system. Those starvation policies saw the deliberate eradication of species like the bison, like the beaver. We see the loss of salmon in Ontario. We see the loss of cedar, the loss of otter on the West Coast. Those ideas related to colonial production have resulted in a lot of consequences, one of those being that we’re warming our atmosphere and altering the nature of our landscapes.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: I think one of the things that I’ve been reflecting on from this episode is how many other practices there are and have been used for centuries, thousands of years. What stood out for you, Lyana?
Dr. Lyana Patrick: I agree, and I feel like we’re sort of consistently bombarded with all of the crises that we’re facing ecologically, climate- wise on a number of different levels. And at the same time, there is, I think, this opportunity that’s opened up because of what’s happening. I really thought the study that you mentioned earlier, the one that used ancient DNA, the genomic and archeological research looking into the Pacific salmon, I was reflecting on it thinking about my own community and our fish practices.
So the study showed that there was an abundance of male chum salmon that was found in the locations that they were studying, and it showed that actually there was selective and sustainable harvesting practices that were being used because they were allowing the females to go to the spawning grounds so that the next generation could be able to return to the ocean.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: What strikes me from that story too is that by having that active management of salmon, you’re also able to preserve some of that genetic diversity of the salmon.
Dr. Lyana Patrick: It made me think of in our community, the Dakelh communities, we have a fish fence. And historically, we would’ve dip- netted from that fish fence. And we did that so that we could also be selective about the fish that we allowed through.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: Which overall is better for salmon health and for ecosystem health. And I’m quite excited because we’re also going to have some more genetics content coming up here pretty quick with the Garry Oak.
Dr. Lyana Patrick: Yeah. I mean, it makes me wonder, what can we do to build a path forward?
Dr. Kaylee Byers: You are listening to Nice Genes, a podcast all about the fascinating world of genomics and the evolving science behind it, brought to you by Genome British Columbia. I’m Dr. Kaylee Byers, your host.
Dr. Lyana Patrick: I’m your co- host, Dr. Lyana Patrick. We want to get more people to listen to the genomic stories that are shaping our world. So if you like Nice Genes, hit follow on Apple Podcast or wherever you get your shows. Help grow this conversation by planting your favorite episode in a friend’s ear. Wonderful.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: All right, so Garry Oaks are a keystone species which help shape ecosystems, but the assumptions of incoming settlers have had long- lasting negative impacts on these new to them ecosystems.
Dr. Lyana Patrick: But this isn’t a story about a species on the path to extinction. More so, it’s about understanding how a way of life can be tied to the land and the consequences of losing that.
Producer Sean: Garry Oaks is this iconic species.
Dr. Wade Davis: Oh, I grew up in Victoria. I know all about Garry Oaks.
Dr. Lyana Patrick: In this next chapter, our producer Sean spoke with Canadian anthropologist Dr. Wade Davis, who also holds the title of National Geographic’s Explorer In Residence.
Dr. Wade Davis: Oh, well, I mean, at the Geographic, I was in sometimes 100 countries a year. What we realized is all we could really do is to take our enormous audience, to take them to places in the ethnosphere where the practices were so incredibly dazzling that you couldn’t help but embrace this fundamental idea of anthropology, that every culture had something to say, that every culture had taken our common human genius and done something amazing with it.
Dr. Lyana Patrick: Wade has traveled far and wide learning about the various ecological systems of Indigenous communities around the world. But when he was first stepping into his career, it was during a time when anthropology and naturalists were at a crossroads, with each group making some incorrect assumptions about the other.
Announcer: Okay, are you recording there?
Dr. Wade Davis: There was a very interesting moment in 1979 on Harvard’s campus,
Announcer: Emerson Hall greeting His Holiness, the Dalai Lama.
Dr. Wade Davis: When the Dalai Lama wrapped up his first tour of the West, and that very night, E. O. Wilson, the great legendary biologist who coined the term with Tom Lovejoy biodiversity, was introducing in one theater Norman Myers, a Kenyan scientist, and across the way, His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, was giving a teaching.
Dalai Lama: We have the right to be happy.
Dr. Wade Davis: And naturally, all the students and the faculty were lined up around the block to hear the Dalai Lama. But in introducing Myers at that moment, E. O. Wilson said, and I quote, “If even Harvard students can’t get their priorities right and they’d rather be across the way listening to that religious kook, you know how far we’ve got to educate the public at large.” Professor Wilson, bless him, would be the first to regret those words, but it wasn’t his fault. It was typical of the era.
At that time, there was a chasm between biology and the social sciences that was unbridgeable. The anthropologist saw the naturalists as being elitist, and the naturalists saw human beings, particularly Indigenous people, as part of the problem. And I probably was the only student running back and forth that night between the two talks because I was so acutely aware that the forces that were afflicting one phenomena were eroding the other.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: People and nature are inextricably linked. The teachings preserved by traditional inhabitants of the Amazon, the Himalayas, and the forests of British Columbia could be a beacon towards solving some of the largest challenges we face as a global community.
Dr. Wade Davis: The central idea of anthropology, cultural anthropology, was the notion that the world in which you live in is just a model of reality. Every culture is a unique answer to a fundamental question. What does it mean to be human and alive? And when they answer that question, the peoples of the world do so in 7, 000 different languages. But the extraordinary thing is that that was just an idea in anthropology, the reality of which was only proved to be true in the last generation by geneticists who have shown without doubt that the genetic endowment of humanity is a continuum.
We’re all cut from the same genetic cloth. We carried the human spirit to every corner of the habitable world. But here’s the important idea, if we’re cut from the same genetic cloth, we share the same genius, and how that genius is expressed is simply a matter of cultural choice, adaptive imperative. There is no hierarchy in the realm of culture. Notions of the primitive and the civilized are colonial conceits. We have this idea that Indigenous people are delicate and frail and destined to fade away.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Every community I’ve ever worked with has been dynamic and alive and living and very much keen to have their voice at the table of human wisdom. In this stunning affirmation of the unity of the human experience, genetics has come to the fore to prove the truth that every culture’s got something to say, each deserves to be heard. And what that allows us to do is look critically at our own culture and ask, where did we come from?
What were the values that we absorb? And the point is that most society’s dynamic is reciprocity, some kind of iteration of the basic idea that the earth owes its bounty to people, people owe their fidelity to the earth. And this has really critical consequences. The lesson of anthropology puts the lie to those of us in our own culture, including those cutting down those Garry Oaks you just referred to, who say that we cannot change when we know we must change the fundamental way we interact with the natural world. I mean, that is what climate change is telling us.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: The path to creating a more sustainable and equitable world begins by dispelling those assumptions Wade mentions.
Dr. Tabitha Robin Martens: We’re looking at two very distinct and incompatible worldviews,
Dr. Kaylee Byers: Which is where we come back to our conversation with Dr. Tabitha Robin Martens.
Dr. Tabitha Robin Martens: So these ideas are rooted in the infrastructure of Colonial Canada and are still present in our food systems today.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: If we take all we’ve contemplated today from our relationships to each other and the land, reconciliation, doing the science, this picture forward is looking like a three- footed foot race, maybe more feet. The point is each is happening alongside the other.
Dr. Tabitha Robin Martens: I’m really inspired by this idea that our ecosystems and indeed all of creation contain a larger order of harmony and that we are an active relationship and that we have responsibilities as Indigenous peoples to towards all of creation. And so I’m inspired by the reinstatement of natural law.
And what excites me most is thinking about going back to those treaties that our ancestors made with the cedar, with the salmon, with the bison, with the moose, because those treaties ask us to take responsibility and they hold us to account for when we don’t take responsibility for plants and animals and land and soil and sun and moon and stars.
The kinds of agreements, those sacred agreements that our ancestors made, that’s where I want us to go to, is to begin to reinstate those again and for that to form the basis of our food sovereignty. And it requires accountability and responsibility on the part of people.
John-Bradley Williams: Yeah, I think our governments could, in terms of seeing my vision out, is to make their own native gardens.
Dr. Lyana Patrick: J. B. Williams also slipped in the important idea that by staying curious, that’s how we move closer to reconciliation and building a healthier future.
John-Bradley Williams: What brings me hope is that is more and more people are reaching out to knowledge keepers like myself and knowledge keepers like my mentors, like my elders.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: People are in relationship with the land. That holds true while observing the effects of colonial assumptions on Garry Oak Meadows and Indigenous communities, both pushed from where they were rooted. But as Wade Davis mentioned, the Indigenous peoples from around the world are diverse and have their own thriving knowledges.
And that diversity, well, it also holds true for the Garry Oak. Research from the Vancouver Island University studied a 121 Garry Oaks and found that they had high levels of genetic diversity, which in turn gives them adaptive potential and makes them well- suited to survive the effects of our changing climate.
Dr. Lyana Patrick: So by working with the land and continuing to do so from the perspective of people and land linked, we’ll keep seeing species like Garry Oaks in our landscape.
John-Bradley Williams: I actually went to a program called ÁLEṈENEȻ that’s learning from homeland in my language. And when it was time to decide what my project should be, I decided that my project should be recreating a functioning Garry Oak Meadow. And so I took a piece of grass or a piece of turf that was about 20 by 20 feet and converted it from that non- functioning grass into a functioning Garry Oak Meadow.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: What was that experience like for you to recreate that?
John-Bradley Williams: Restoring areas to a fraction of what they were. It was very inspiring. And in the terms that as I was working through that program and as we’re getting close to the end of that program, I began to think that, yeah, every bit helped.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: Our guests for today were Dr. Tabitha Robin Martens from the University of British Columbia, ethnobotanist John- Bradley Williams, and anthropologist and National Geographic Explorer in Residence, Dr. Wade Davis. And also a very special thanks to my co- host today, Dr. Lyana Patrick with the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University. Lyana, would you like to take us to the outro?
Dr. Lyana Patrick: I’d be happy to. You’ve been listening to Nice Genes, a podcast brought to you by Genome British Columbia. If you like this episode, go check out some of our previous ones wherever you listen from. Share us with your friends and leave us a review. You can also DM the show on Twitter by going to @ GenomeBC. And if you’re listening with kiddos or a teacher looking to spice up your lessons, we have learn along activity sheets added to the show description of each episode.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: This was so fun, Lyana. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Dr. Lyana Patrick: I really enjoyed this. Thank you, Kaylee.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: And that’s it for season three of Nice Genes. What a time we’ve had dispelling common assumptions that show up in science and society. But you’re not rid of us yet. We’ve also got a few more bite- sized Jean Shorts episodes coming your way. As we close out the season, I really want to thank everyone who’s made this season of the show possible. Teamwork truly does make the dream work. Our senior producer is Sean Holden. Associate producer is Jenny Cunningham.
Our sound design and audio mixing is Patrick Emile. Our project lead is Mandy Alcaray. For marketing is Matthew Stevens, and our creative director is Jen Moss. From Genome British Columbia, producer and social media is Sarah Lando, and our production consultant is Phoebe Melvin.
And finally, thank you all for listening in and joining this genomics nerd herd. We couldn’t do the show without you, so thanks. Is there anything else you wanted to share with us that we haven’t asked you about that you think would be important for our listeners to know?
John-Bradley Williams: Just move forward with good heart and good intent.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: I love that. That’s the absolute perfect ending.