Squamish ethnobotanist creates new plant teaching tool

Monday, April 22nd, 2024 4:07pm


Image Caption

Styawat Leigh Joseph with her new botanical resource, the Held by the Land card deck. It's being used in the field and in the classroom.
By Odette Auger
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Ethnobotanist, researcher and community activist Styawat Leigh Joseph of Squamish First Nation has created a new guide to Indigenous plants.

It’s in an illustrated card deck format and is based on her doctoral work on Indigenous plants and their uses. Illustrations are by Indigenous artists Sarah Jim and Ocean Hyland.

The Held by the Land Deck includes 45 cards describing plants and their properties and comes with a 48-page guidebook that shares plant stories and traditions, along with recipes for food and beauty.

The deck grew as an extension of her recent book, Held by the Land, which is an illustrated introduction to Indigenous plant knowledge. She introduces the reader to plants through personal experiences, helps identify the plant, its habitat, and provides a recipe for its use.

Joseph says she’s excited “to see it all come together and hold it in my hands.” She said it was a process of paring down information from the book for the card deck.

“The format lends itself to bringing the cards into the field,” she explained.

In creating the deck, Joseph had in mind “my community members, my family, as well as other Indigenous communities, first and foremost,” she said.

Styawat Leigh Joseph
Styawat Leigh Joseph

It’s a botanical resource that's from an Indigenous perspective that could be adapted for different regions if people within that community wanted.

It’s also allows increased access to information, Joseph explained.

“When I was going through my undergrad and master's, there really weren't Indigenous voices in botany that I could really turn to.”

The book and card deck work to create safe spaces for people to access information about plants and the land.

“A lot of the ethnobotanical references are old ethnographies, written in really difficult, racist ways and language throughout. So you kind of have to sift through that to find the kind of meaningful plant information.”

The entire approach is different when guided by cultural knowledge, she said.

“There was just no reflection of that relationality with plants and with the land if I was reading strictly botany papers.”

Joseph uses her heritage hand-in-hand with her Ph.D in ethnobotany, weaving Indigenous science with cultural knowledge into her work.

“I feel that this Held by the Land book and the plant deck kind of bridges the two in a sense. They do have the ecological habitat information and plant identification information, more technical botany information, but also the relationship-based knowledge and learning and storytelling as well,” Joseph said.

“Sharing Indigenous plant wisdom keeps ancestral tradition alive.”

That’s the guiding principle behind Sḵwálwen, (meaning heart), an Indigenous skincare line that Joseph created to honour Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) plant knowledge and ancestral traditions.

Although it’s a difficult time for small businesses, Sḵwálwen has been growing, while keeping community and Indigenous representation at the centre of her work, she said.

In the book, Joseph said being in relationship with plants means identifying how to uphold her side of the partnership in respectful and reciprocal ways.

For example, she gives back to the plant by replanting seeds or root segments in her garden and back on the land.

Joseph encourages people to grow their own native plants.

“If you're wanting to harvest and create with them, then that's a great way to not put pressure on well plant populations.”

Although the deck was just published this month, Joseph is grateful for the support it’s received. She’s already received stories from people about how they are utilizing the deck from the trails and in the classrooms.

“People have talked about pulling a card, almost like an oracle card, to sort of look at connecting further with plants and teachings. And also using the deck as flashcards for learning language. And so it's really neat beyond the trailside identification. I'm excited to continue hearing how people are utilizing the deck.”

The Held by the Land card deck and book can be found directly at https://skwalwen.com/

Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.