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Northern Research Station
One Gifford Pinchot Drive
Madison, WI 53726
(608) 231-9318
(608) 231-9544 TTY/TDD

Sustaining Forests

Culturally and Economically Important Nontimber Forest Products of Northern Maine

Plant Knowledge in the St. John River Watershed

Intergenerational celebration at New Sweden's Midsommar celebration

Knowledge about plants in the St. John River watershed is as diverse as the peoples who live there.  The Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, Scotch-Irish, French-Acadian, and Swedish communities have special knowledge of cultural uses of wild plants, while individuals also acquire, adapt, use, and share knowledge.  As a result, many plant knowledge systems exist in the St. John River watershed, forming a body of expertise about plants that is important to people here.  Read on to learn more about this plant knowledge, including how knowledge is acquired and transferred, with examples from the region.  This section ends with a brief discussion of intellectual property rights related to wild plant knowledge.


Content knowledge---

is information about a plant’s ecology and biology, its material, cultural, or economic uses, and the ways it is harvested and processed.  Such information can be written in books, stored in memories, shared in stories, found in online databases, drawn on maps, and communicated in words, images, numbers, or other means.  Content knowledge is sometimes easily found in a reference book or field guide.  Other times it is unwritten and resides only in experienced gatherers.

For example, an herbalist who began trying to preserve and perfect her own family’s medicinal formulas soon found herself invited to neighbors’ homes to hear and record their family formulas.  These neighbors recognized that that their knowledge would not survive if not shared outside the family.  Another woman learned the Mi’kmaq language as a child.  As an adult, that language became her key to being able to learn about plants and their uses from elders in her community.


Process knowledge---

is what gatherers draw on to put content knowledge into practice.  Process knowledge develops as gatherers understand, apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate content.  Over time, people sharpen their skills, modify their strategies, and increase their expertise.  In the example of the herbalist above, all the family formulas in Maine might still have been headed for demise if she did not possess the skills to use them.  She had to recognize plants in the field, gather them at the right time and take the right plant part, process them in the right way, and combine them correctly so that the resulting product would be safe, stable, and effective.

Process knowledge includes adapting practices based on new information or observations.  A Mi’kmaq gatherer describes how she was taught to pull sweetgrass by its roots for positive identification.  Now that sweetgrass is less abundant, she cuts off the tops of plants so that they can grow again.  A snowshoe maker describes how he learned some techniques NOT to use by repairing other snowshoes.  He developed his own strategies after observing the strengths and weak points of others’ work.

Process knowledge also includes using strategies to find wild plants.  Such strategies require knowledge of both general habitats and specific locations for a species.  Some gatherers only have eyes for a few species, while others view the entire landscape as a mosaic of potential food, medicine, and craft supplies.  For example, one basketmaker can distinguish subtle differences in dozens of wetlands where he’s looked for a single species, the brown ash tree, while an herbalist works with dozens of plants and keeps mental ‘files’ on all of them.


Knowledge acquisition and transfer---

is how people learn the information and skills (the content and process knowledge) they need to gather plants.  This learning takes place through formal and informal channels.  People in the St. John River Watershed report learning through conversations and outings with family and friends, including elders inside and outside their community.  Some knowledge comes from reading books, researching on the internet, or sharing information through social media.  People without family connections to gathering may also get started by taking classes and workshops.

Some gatherers share their knowledge by teaching, offering demonstrations, accepting apprentices, and even producing DVDs.  Knowledge is frequently passed more informally to friends, family members, children, social groups such as knitting circles, and sometimes even to outside researchers (for which we are very grateful!).  Knowledge sometimes passes unbeknownst to the gatherer.  When she picks, uses, or discusses a plant in the presence of an observant child, that child may use such a memory to build his own gathering practices later in life.

Widespread concern about loss of wild plant knowledge exists among gatherers.  While some report increasing demand for their knowledge, others say that their children are not interested in learning.  However, some gatherers themselves report not being interested in learning from their elders until adulthood.  Loss of knowledge can occur as a result of several factors.  When a gatherer becomes too busy, sick, elderly, or otherwise unable to gather plants or share knowledge, he may not pass on information to the younger generation.  When someone cannot obtain the plant she needs because it has become scarce or because landownership and regulations make it inaccessible, her practice suffers as does her ability to pass on skills.

Social stigmas also can interrupt the transmission of wild plant knowledge.  For example, when many First Nations and Native American children were interned in boarding schools and forbidden to speak their native language, transmission of traditional plant knowledge was suppressed.  When a generation does not learn traditional practices, the knowledge on which they are based is easily lost as elders die without passing on their wisdom.  The dwindling number of Native American and French Acadian language speakers magnifies the potential for such loss in the St. John River watershed.

 

Concerns about sharing and intellectual property rights---

are part of wild plant knowledge systems.  Some gatherers choose not to share the location of gathering sites to ensure their exclusive access and/or to protect sites from what they fear will be abusive practices.  Some Native American gatherers feel that it is inappropriate to share information about spiritual or medicinal uses of plants with people who may not honor or show proper respect for these traditions.

People who develop plant-based businesses or specialized techniques may be concerned about losing intellectual property rights (and income) if they share too much.  Intellectual property refers to valuable knowledge and creative ideas that can be protected through patents, copyrights, or other legal means.  Gatherers have reason to be concerned about sharing their knowledge too freely.  In cases throughout the world, indigenous knowledge holders in particular have lost out as traditionally-used plants were patented without regard for the welfare of the community that brought that knowledge into being.  Many efforts now exist, including this guide from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, to protect the intellectual property rights of traditional knowledge holders in such scenarios.

 

To learn more about how knowledge systems impact gatherers and the plants they use, read these gatherers’ stories:
Richard Silliboy
Natalia Bragg
Glenda Wysote

 

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Last Modified: 05/24/2010