Ethnoecologist awarded Killam Research Fellowship

by Valerie Shore


Turner at Hartley Bay showing some crab apples.

What patterns of ecological knowledge lie buried in the traditional ways that Indigenous Peoples perceive, use and care for the natural resources around them?

Dr. Nancy Turner (environmental studies) will spend the next two years finding out. She’s one of 10 Canadian researchers recently awarded a prestigious Killam Research Fellowship for 2007.

Administered by the Canada Council for the Arts, the fellowships support distinguished Canadian scholars who have established an outstanding reputation in their area of research and who are engaged in projects “of broad significance and widespread interest.”

The award is worth $70,000 a year and allows UVic to release Turner from teaching and administrative duties so that she can concentrate full-time on her research. The fellowship term begins in January 2008.

Turner is a leader in the study of plant knowledge and traditional plant use by First Nations in Western North America. Over the past 35 years, she has worked closely with BC First Nations elders—her teachers, collaborators and friends—to document their knowledge and understanding of plants, ecology and use of natural resources. The work is helping to perpetuate traditional knowledge and customs that have been threatened by cultural and lifestyle changes.

In recent years, Turner has delved into ethnoecology, a relatively new field of study which looks at the linkages between ecosystems and social systems. For her Killam research project, she’ll examine “overarching” patterns of ecological knowledge that define Indigenous cultures in Western Canada.

“These patterns will give us insights into cultural and ecological relationships, past and present, that have existed among Indigenous Peoples,” explains Turner. “There are many lessons to be learned as we seek ways to restore threatened ecosystems and to renew and revitalize Indigenous cultures and languages.”

The patterns Turner uncovers will help inform policymakers as they address the impacts of industrialization, urbanization and globalization on traditional and local food systems.

“For example, we can learn and possibly reinstate some of the approaches that First Peoples have developed to maintain and enhance their food resources,” Turner explains. “We can identify focal species and habitats and work to regain the cultural profile they once held, to increase their productivity and, in doing so, can support Indigenous Peoples in their efforts to maintain healthy diets and healthy environments.”

Turner is the author or co-author of dozens of articles, monographs and books including Plants of Haida Gwaii (2004), The Earth’s Blanket, Traditional Teachings for Sustainable Living (2005), Plant Technology of British Columbia First Peoples (1998), Food Plants of Interior First Peoples (1997) and Food Plants of Coastal First Peoples (1995).

Among Turner’s many honours are the Canadian Botanical Association’s Lawson Medal for lifetime contributions to Canadian botany (2002) and the R.E. Schultes Award (1997), which is considered the top international award in ethnobotany. She is a member of the Royal Society of Canada and the 2006 winner of UVic’s Craigdarroch Gold Medal for Career Achievement in Research.

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