*An interview with Dr Nancy J. Turner, ethnobotanist and distinguished professor emeritus in the School of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria and 2015 Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Fellow.
~2,900 words, around 20 minutes reading time.
Do you consider yourself primarily an ethnobotanist or do you have another way of seeing yourself?
I think I would say ethnobotanist, but within that I am a botanist, I’m a person who loves plants and is fascinated by the human interaction with plants. More recently, I say ‘ethnoecologist’ as you can’t just limit it to people and plants as ecosystems. We are all embedded in the complex world and so people’s knowledge and the role of plants must be considered in the broader context of the environment. So, I have three labels: botanist, ethnobotanist and ethnoecologist.
Describe your work/what you see as your mission.
My work has always been as a student to learn about people’s knowledge and relationships with plants and their environments and to highlight, through my writing and teaching, the importance of plants to human existence. To show in so many different ways how we are all connected with the plant world and can’t possibly live without plants. How much plants do for we humans! We don’t think about that and often take the plant world for granted, and it is at our peril we do that. We have to really, really work to recognise just how important they are to us.
How did you get into ethnobotany?
My early years were in the hills in Missoula, Montana. My father and grandfather were both entomologists, so I grew up in a family where natural history was important. So I know my interest in plants comes from back that far, because we moved to Victoria when I was 5, yet I remember all the plants there in Montana, the wild strawberries, chokeberries, pines and aspens. I had a grounding in wild nature, and when we moved to Victoria, I continued that by joining a junior natural history group. I remember feeding my friends edible wild plants, like dandelion salads, when I was 9 or 10 years old. I was also interested in lichens and mosses from an early age. When I was 14, I started to write a book about lichens, because I was sad that there were no good reference books about them.
When I got to High School, I learned of two key books. One was The Ethnobotany of the Thompson Indians of British Columbia, edited by Elsie Steedman, based on the notes of a famous ethnographer, James Teit. The other was Ethnobotany of Western Washington: The Knowledge and Use of Indigenous Plants by Native Americans,by Erna Gunther. She was an anthropologist in Washington; I met her later on. Her original book was published in 1945, and the Thompson ethnobotany around 1930. So, I knew from these 2 books there was a field called ethnobotany. It says in my High School year book that I wanted to be an ethnobotanist.
When I joined the University of Victoria in the Biology Department, nobody had heard of ethnobotany. So, to prepare myself for this field, I majored in botany and biology but took some anthropology courses and ended work on an honour thesis of the ethnobotany of the Coast Salish people of Vancouver Island. I had a wonderful supervisor, Marcus Bell, who is still with us. I also worked with a wonderful knowledge holder from the Saanich (WSÁNEĆ) nation, Christopher Paul, as well as others, and working with linguists from the University, I put together my first research project. Meanwhile, while doing the research, I looked in the biological abstracts in the library and one name came up time and time again, year after year, under the “ethnobotany” section: Richard Evans Schultes, from Harvard. I wrote to him and asked for some of his papers. He was so kind to me, and wrote back – letters in those days, no email – with a check list to choose from. I checked them all and he kindly sent them all to me. We corresponded quite a bit after that. After my marriage to my husband Robert on May 17 1969, we went on our honeymoon and during that time, my Supervisor Dr. Bell sent my paper to Dr. Schultes, who was also the editor of the journal Economic Botany,and the manuscript was accepted for publication. That was my very first publication, in 1971. So I joined the Society of Economic Botany back in those days and I have been a member ever since!
After a while, I couldn’t stop learning. My husband and I went up to Alert Bay, in Kwakwaka’wakw territory. I had met a linguist who was working with people there, who introduced me to elders who knew about plants. So in that first summer of our marriage, we stayed for a month at Alert Bay and adjacent areas, and I continued my research in ethnobotany, with my second paper published in 1973, on Southern Kwakiutl (Kwakwaka’wakw) ethnobotany. Meanwhile, I started learning from knowledgeable people in other Nations too; there are about 30 different first nations language groups in British Columbia. By that time, we had moved to Vancouver and I started looking for work. I applied for a job with Roy Taylor, then director of the UBC Botanical Garden. But the day after I met him, I asked if I could be his graduate student instead, and so I started my masters work with him, which eventually transitioned into doctoral studies. Dr. Taylor was a co-author of the Flora of the Queen Charlotte Islands (now called Haida Gwaii). So, Bob and I went up to Haida Gwaii and worked with Haida elders for a couple of summers. I also worked with and learned from Nuxalk elders at Bella Coola, and Stl’átl’imx (Lillooet) plant experts along the mid Fraser River. All of these teachers became dear, lifelong friends of ours.
I found that the more you learn, the more interesting it becomes, and I began to see how important this knowledge was. There was a concern that the younger generations in these communities didn’t have the time to record what they were learning so I acted as a generational bridge to help document this knowledge. This is what I have done all my life. It has been endlessly fascinating and has been such a wonderful profession.
Who have been the most influential people on your career?
The ones I have mentioned were very important, Richard Schultes, Marc Bell, Roy Taylor, Christopher Paul and all my Indigenous teachers. But I must also mention the networks that my friend and ethnonutritionist Harriet Kuhnlein introduced me to. Harriet and I spoke at a conference at “Botany 80” at the University of British Columbia in 1980, which is where I first met many famous ethnobotanists including Robert Bye, Richard Ford, David French and others. Harriet and I then travelled to the Society of Ethnobiology (SoE) meetings in Missouri a couple years later and that is when I joined the Society, got involved and have been a member ever since. These societies, the Society for Economic Botany (SEB), SoE and the International Society for Ethnobiology (ISE) are vital. Most ethnobiologists and ethnobotanists belong to at least one of these organizations, so we keep meeting every year. Every meeting I go to, having gone to most since 1982, feels like a big family reunion.
Most importantly, there are my many Indigenous teachers showing me their ways of being and looking at the world of plants and nature. There are so many, but to name a few, Florence Davidson, Nonnie – Bob and I lived for a summer with her. She was the sweetest woman, and a weaver of baskets and mats in cedar bark. Clan Chief Adam Dick, Kwaxsistalla, of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation, who sadly passed away a couple years ago. I worked with him since the early 1990s and became a dear friend. Annie York from Spuzzum, Fraser Canyon, co-author of our Thompson (Nlaka’pamux) ethnobotany. It is funny to think that for the first ethnobotany book I ever saw, Steedman and Teit’s Ethnobotany of the Thompson Indians, I ended co-authoring a sequel to it with Annie York, with a lot of references to the original. Christopher Paul, whom I mentioned before, was my first teacher from Saanich Nation. Out on the West Coast, Dr Richard Atleo, Umeek. A Nuu-chah-nulth hereditary chief from the Ahousaht First Nation, he is still a dear friend. He was co-chair of the Clayoquot Scientific Panel, looking at forest practices in Clayoquot Sound back in the early ‘90s. Also the teachers from Hartley Bay, Helen Clifton, Chief Ernie Hill Jr. and others. And from Bella Coola, Dr. Margaret Siwallace. From Hesquiaht, Alice Paul. And Dr. Mary Thomas, a wonderful Secwepemc (Shuswap) elder. There are so many others I wish I could mention. I could go on and on!
Then there are my “sisters”, who are my age, some of whom have adopted me, given me names. I have a name, K’ii’iljuus NaanGa, from my Haida sister Barbara Wilson, whose own name is K’ii’iljuus. The “NaanGa” in my name means “grandmother”, even though K’ii’iljuus herself is about my age. It is because I introduced her to plants and that is what someone who looks after plants is called: “grandmother”. Joan Morris, Sellemah, of the Songhees Nation, shared her own grandmother’s name, Sellemah, with me, so I hold that dear. Also another name, from Kwaxsistalla, Clan Chief Adam, who gave me the name Galitsimgaa – the name for the woman who is in charge of a whale washed up on beach, which is a big honour. I also have a Tahltan nickname, “Berry woman,” Jije Eghaden, from the grandparents of my dear friend Dr. Judy Thompson, Edōsdi. So many other dear friends: Pauline Waterfall, Kim Recalma-Clutesi, Belinda Claxton… I could go on and on.
What was the highlight of your career? A moment you were proud of?
I have loved being a teacher. I feel it is a huge privilege helping people in their careers. I came late to it, I didn’t have a career for many years, I finished my PhD in 1973 and had my oldest daughter in 1975, then two more in ’78 and ‘85. All that time I wasn’t employed in a paying position, though I continued in fieldwork on small grants or on my own. So when my youngest daughter got to school age I applied for my first job at the University of Victoria, in the School of Environmental Studies and was lucky enough to get the position, possibly because I had published a few books and monographs, and had maintained a solid research and publication record. Over this time I’ve had over 80 graduate students, many, like Edōsdi, Indigenous. Some now have PhDs or are Professors, and to help them along the way has been so satisfying. I must say I couldn’t have done it without my husband of 51 years, Robert D. Turner. He has been a major part of my path, and a writer and a historian himself. And our three daughters have always been a big part of my life, and a source of pride and joy.
Also, gaining the honour of the Indigenous names I mentioned before from the families I have worked with is something very special.
And a lowlight? Was there ever a point you looked at yourself and thought what am I doing/how the hell did I get here? A moment you needed support and encouragement?
When I was still an undergraduate student doing work with Christopher Paul, my first Indigenous teacher, whilst doing my honours thesis at Tsartlip. I was doing research in library, and I came across a book by an ethnologist called Homer Barnett. It was about the Coast Salish of Vancouver Island. In this book’s introduction was a description of Christopher’s father, Tommy Paul. It is a beautiful description, about what a kind and knowledgeable person Tommy was, and how much Barnett appreciated the knowledge that he shared. I took the book out to show Christopher what was written about his dad, and left it with him for the week. However, this upset some of my colleagues in anthropology. This was because I had shown a book to an ‘informant’. In those days, this was a big no-no. It was feared that you would ‘contaminate’ an informant’s knowledge. These people told me that if you interview someone who has read a book, how do you know if they are talking about things from their own knowledge or from the book? I could not believe it! I was sent down to the (BC Provincial) museum and lectured severely by the ethnologists there. I was told that if I didn’t know how to this work properly, I shouldn’t be doing it! I just about gave up at that point. At that time, there were no courses on ethnographic methods as there are now. I was just working blind, doing what I thought was best. It was so upsetting to me that I had done something that was considered so wrong. However, looking back on it, I think I was right. I think they were wrong.
What would be your top advice for students of ethnobotany?
The advice I always give my students is follow your passion. You don’t want to do something your whole life that you don’t enjoy. We only have one life as far as I know. I talk to people who are now retired who say, ‘I wasted my life doing such and such.’ Everyone has their own love, something that they find joy in. Find yours. Don’t worry about the money and you will find a way through one way or another. This is what makes life so endlessly fascinating. We are so lucky to be alive and we need to make the most of it.
What do you do in your downtime? Any secret hobbies?
I have a row boat and I love to row around my home of Protection Island. I wrote a chapter called ‘Rowing around the island’ for a book called Love of the Salish Sea Islands Read here:
I also love gardening and belong to the community gardening group here on the island and love growing native plants. I also love reading, music and being out and about in nature. We have a golden retriever named Annie who we dote on; she is like our fourth daughter, now that the others have flown away. Sadly I cannot row her around but as a water dog she gets excited, jumps out, almost capsizes us and gets water everywhere!
What is your favourite plant and why?
I get asked this a lot, and it has to be the wild rose. There are several native Rosa species here in British Columbia. They are beautiful and scented, with all kinds of ethnobotanical knowledge associated with them. The flowers attract so many different insects, and the hips are rich in vitamin C, and are a fallback emergency food for people in winter and early spring, and are also an important food for wildlife. In the database I mentioned (posted on the University of Victoria’s D-Space), there is a native name for wild rose in all the 50 or so languages and dialects included.
What do you see as the most important mission of ethnobotany for the future?
The huge crises with climate change and loss of biocultural biodiversity are the two single, related, most important issues in the world right now. As humans, we just can’t go on living the way we are living right now. We are homogenising the world for one thing. If you look at the creation of pastureland or plantation forests, for example, in New Zealand, Scotland and China, they are identical. We have done a terrible job of bringing our backyards with us, especially we Europeans. We travel round the world and cause all sorts of havoc to local and Indigenous species. We over-harvest forests, fisheries and destroy habitat at an alarming rate. We cause pollution and waste energy. Our “carbon footprint” is immense. We need to find the value of less destructive ways. We need to enjoy the beautiful world without impacting it so deeply. We need to work with Nature and natural processes, not against them. We need to learn to use resources in a way that does not diminish them and these large-scale international corporate companies that go in and harvest fish, create monocultures, only think about maximising current production without a thought to impacts on the future. These are challenges we have to face if we want to slow climate change, support local and Indigenous Peoples, and conserve all the other species with whom we share the planet.
We need to slow down. Stop moving around, stay still and put roots down, dedicate our lives to looking after the place we are in properly instead of trashing it and moving on. Those are lessons that Indigenous People around the world know. They can teach us more about how to make wherever we are into our home, to look after it and value it well. To live lightly on the land. Ethnobotany, ethnoecology are fields of study and research that can help us understand the importance of place, the importance of locally based knowledge, and of our role in living sustainably on the land.
*An interview with SEB Student committee member Kim Walker, July 2020. This is part of a series interviewing ethnobotanists on their career path and experiences. To read more of these, click on the Interview/Bio category in the side panel. If you have someone you would like to recommend for interview, please email Kim at email@example.com
i love so much this your story because i am one of the interesting in plants.
Hello, Nancy. My grandpa, Skipper King, led the junior naturalist group you mentioned joining in Victoria. Also, I worked as a secretary at UBC School of Community and Regional Planning when Bob was a graduate student there. I remember him as one of the nicest students I ever encountered there. Later, my daughter was in one of your classes at UVic. I’ve been doing family history research, and got some Ancestry “hints” about Grandpa today, which led to various googlings, and for some reason to this page!
Hi Janice, how amazing to hear from you! i read your response to Bob and it brought back good memories for both of us. Your granddad Freeman Skipper and your grandma Elsie King were so important in my life, for so many years. i’d love to keep in touch with you and hear how you and your family are doing. Nancy
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I have a question, as I am interested in studying ethnobotany, but I wonder if we should be listening directly to indigenous voices, both those within the field of ethnobotany as well as those who share their experiences on the internet. How would you explain the role of an intermediary in the process knowledge sharing in a time of rapid change and great need. I know it is a big question! I mean this very openly and not critically, as I said, I myself am confused interested in the field.
Thanks for contacting us with your question. You’re right, it’s a big one! But glad you are asking it in consideration of studying ethnobotany. We should always question and challenge the ethics and dynamics of our practice. Below are some of my personal reflections. We encourage you to ask other ethnobotanists too, who may have differing thoughts:
The field of ethnobotany does include researchers who identify as indigenous (so in some cases their voices are directly heard) but more should be done to support their work and encourage others to join. It would be great to see more initiatives such as scholarships for indigenous community members in place to increase accessibility to those studying or considering it as a career.
Ethnobotany is an evolving field and ethnobotanists are moving toward more radical practice and scholarship with indigenous people and their knowledge systems re-centered. See this paper for example, particularly the section on self-sufficiency and sovereignty (which speaks to indigenous people’s rights to self-determine research objectives, agendas, methodologies and use of data). It also talks about the evolution of the field of ethnobotany since its inception (expressed as 6 phases) which may help you understand where the field has come from and where it is headed: https://bioone.org/journals/journal-of-ethnobiology/volume-41/issue-2/0278-0771-41.2.170/Ethnobiology-Phase-VI-Decolonizing-Institutions-Projects-and-Scholarship/10.2993/0278-0771-41.2.170.full
Keeping the above in mind, an ‘outsider’ ethnobotanist can have a valuable role to play in communicating knowledge between different audiences and fields – bridging indigenous and other knowledges such as Western scientific knowledge.
Western scientific knowledge has a lot to learn from indigenous knowledges, as well as from plants. Robin Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass brings these knowledges together in a way that is productive and hopeful.
Ethnobotanists work with all manner of communities and individuals, including many that do not identify as ‘indigenous’. Sensitivity in considering the role of the ethnobotanist as intermediaries in all of these situations is imperative.
If you are interested in studying ethnobotany but conflicted about your role as an intermediary you might consider researching the ethnobotany of your own culture or locality, giving you the opportunity to share knowledge from an ‘insiders’ perspective. Although this is not possible for everyone, it can be just as rewarding – if not more.
Hope this helps, and do let me know if you have any more questions. You can email us firstname.lastname@example.org
Harriet, Student Committee
Yes, thank you for this detailed response. I think it is very meaningful to consider ethics within our spheres of work and life.