Greta Rybus Idaho Photos

The Land’s First Caretakers


In order to save our public lands, we must first listen to their first caretakers. We’ll need Indigenous knowledge to protect the wild areas that remain. Welcome to The Frontline, where you’ll hear from Jonathan Ferrier, an Indigenous ethnobotanist.

Indigenous peoples have a sacred relationship to the land. These photos showcase northeastern Idaho where the Nez Perce Tribe resides. On the right, you see qemes, a wild root that’s a traditional food for the Nez Perce, or Nimiipuu, peoples. Climate change and land privatization threaten their annual harvest.

Thanksgiving is a complicated holiday for me. Its history is simple and awful. In short: English colonizers arrived in the Northeast where the Wampanoag taught them to cultivate foods that have become a hallmark of Thanksgiving. In response, these Pilgrims robbed, killed, and enslaved them.


I didn’t know this growing up. As a child, history doesn’t seem to matter. The holiday symbolized food and family. My mom knew nothing of pilgrims and death, only food. In our household, we called Thanksgiving Día del Pavo, or Turkey Day. We’d sit around the table and pass around heaping plates like the fake families I envied on TV. In my family, breaking bread over the troubles of everyday life was rare.


But of course history matters. Thanksgiving is still an indulgence of mine because of the food we cook and the time we spend with family. Today, I see it for what it is. And I share this history with the babies in my life. I wonder about my own ancestry and how Spanish colonizers impoverished Mesoamerica, robbing families like mine in El Salvador of the ability to know where we came from.


I’m a product of colonization but also a glutton who loves to bake mac and cheese for her niece and nephew. 


Welcome to The Frontline, where you’ve heard enough about me. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. Now, I pass the mic to Jonathan Ferrier, an assistant biology professor at Dalhousie University who is Anishinaabe, First Nations peoples who exist across Canada and the U.S. In our interview, he shares his thoughts on the role Indigenous people play in nurturing biodiversity—research shows!—as we see the continued destruction of Earth. This week, we’ll explore more stories on the land and the people who know them best. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we’ll need the historic wisdom of the land’s first caretakers to adapt to what’s coming.


What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Thanksgiving?


The first thing that comes to mind is all my relations of the land and how they’ve been transformed and misinterpreted by colonization.


I know that encapsulates the relationship that Indigenous peoples have with each other—but also to the ecosystem, right? Can you elaborate a little bit more?


My point of view comes from my father. When he raised me, he taught us that all of our relations were sacred—and that’s a lot different from the person growing up in front of a forest or a wetland who’s taught that these relations are resources to be managed for monetary reasons. Respecting all of our relations is an ecological blueprint that many Indigenous people share. It’s part of the way of life that the Anishinaabe call Mino-Bimaadiziwin.


This way of life is circular: It connects to the physical, the mental, the spiritual, and the emotional—the four directions. Appreciating these energies of the relations… those energies are spirits, and that’s why we’re spiritual. Keeping that connection with those relations keeps us in ecological balance. Mino-Bimaadiziwin is all about balance, balancing those energies, and those energies are those spirits of all our relations.


So this way of life—harmony, honoring those spirits—is a circular thing for us. Appreciating Native ecology is the blueprint for sustainability for all inhabitants of Turtle Island.

“Indigenous people are very scientific—it’s just that our science includes the heart.”



When you think about public lands, biodiversity, wilderness, what’s the first thing that comes to mind there?


You know, a lot of our treaties were written to put these “public lands” under the control of the state. The state is not circular; it’s linear, and it’s a management system. The state typically values 13, 14, 15 species of wildlife that should be protected. If they’re protected, the public lands can be clear cut, mined—all of these things—for profit. When settlers first got here, a lot of us were hesitant to open up the territory, but it happened. Everybody got the cedar tea, but these treaties came with a lot of violence. What a lot of people don’t realize is that we had treaties with all of our relations before the man-to-man, the Indigenous-to-non-Indigenous treaties started. We had treaties to honor with all of our relations.


How do you try to honor those relations in your scientific work? How do your identities as a scientist and as an Anishinaabe inform your work?


I get this question a lot. As a scientist, I’m holistic. I bring social sciences, earth sciences, music, dance, culture, ceremony, all into my science. Ceremony leads my science. Indigenous people are scientific. We make observations and predictions. We have medicines that are safe because we’re applying observations and research to our medicines. We have scientific inventions. You know, our creation story documents the big bang. We have star blankets with incredible symmetry and shapes. If you look around the world, there are Maya temples. Indigenous people are very scientific—it’s just that our science includes the heart.


Western science has a certain way of seeing things, but Indigenous science is definitely quantitative and, of course, qualitative. After 500 years of colonial abuse, some of our knowledge has gone to sleep. It’s not dead or extinct, as some people like to say, but it is dormant.


There have been some helpful things from Western science. One of the popular terms for blending the two—Indigenous and Western sciences—is called etuaptmumk. That’s a Mi’kmaw word for “two-eyed seeing.” It’s using the best of both worlds for the benefit of everyone. From my childhood with my dad, and learning that traditional respect, and then moving into Western science, it’s been a two-eyed seeing life for me. And as an ethnobotanist, I’ve always been quite holistic, working to tell stories with our community and other Indigenous communities around the world about our health and well-being, and the way we relate to the land and our relations.


Because Indigenous people were the first caretakers of our lands, they remain the best caretakers of the land. What do you think that means for the environmental movement? How can Western society show appreciation and gratitude for all that Indigenous peoples do, globally, to protect all of their relations?


Well, our elders teach us that before Anishinaabe proliferated, we had to understand how to have a balanced relationship with all of our relations. And only after we understood that balance could we proliferate. That’s very important because we have a seasonal way of life that’s a blueprint for living on Turtle Island. Every nation or Indigenous group has these natural ways of harmonizing with the land and this relation. The problem is that it’s not respected or understood or given the spotlight as often as it needs to be. What gets the airtime is a scientific invention for pulling carbon out of the air. Well, you could plant trees, and we could make maple syrup harvesting a staple of the economy within an Indigenous territory.


So, it’s following these traditional ways of life—these traditional blueprints—that will give us the answer for sustainability.

Update, 11/23/2020, 10:20 am ET: This story has been updated to correct a transcription error in the story.

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