British Columbia

How ancient forest gardens could impact Nuchatlaht First Nation's land claim

New research is shining a light on how the Nuchatlaht people cultivated plants for centuries on Nootka Island in B.C., and it could have a significant impact for the First Nation's claim of Aboriginal land title to more than 200 square kilometres of the island.

Findings challenge some commonly held beliefs about plant cultivation in the territory, researchers say

Researchers, seen here taking a crabapple core sample, have worked with Nuchatlaht knowledge holders to identify forest gardens. (Nuchatlaht/Troy Moth)

New research is shining a light on how the Nuchatlaht people cultivated plants for centuries on Nootka Island in B.C.

The findings, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, challenge some commonly held beliefs about plant cultivation in the territory and could have a significant impact for the Nuchatlaht First Nation's claim of Aboriginal title to more than 200 square kilometres of land on Nootka Island, off Vancouver Island's west coast.

Chelsey Geralda Armstrong, assistant professor of Indigenous studies at Simon Fraser University, says archaeologists and botanists have worked with Nuchatlaht knowledge holders to identify forest gardens, ecosystems of managed plants fruits, berries and root plants.

Armstrong says the forest gardens can be easy to spot in dense forest if you know what to look for. 

"They can be like an orchard you would think in your mind — clear rows, nicely spaced," she said.

She says the research confirms what Nuchatlaht knowledge holders have long known, and challenges notions that ecosystems in North America were wild, untouched "Gardens of Eden" prior to the arrival of settlers.

"When you look at these forest gardens, yes, they look wild, but now that you see these human impacts on them, it breaks down that narrative," she said.

LISTEN | Research shines light on Nuchatlaht people's plant cultivation on Nootka Island

The findings, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, could have significant implications for the Nuchatlaht First Nation's claim of Aboriginal title to roughly 200 square kilometres of Nootka Island in B.C. Professor Chelsey Geralda Armstrong joins us for more.

The research comes as the Nuchatlaht are in B.C. Supreme Court seeking Aboriginal title over an area of land 300 kilometres northwest of Victoria, mostly made up of Nootka Island and much of the surrounding coastline.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) also looms over the case — as B.C. passed legislation in 2019 to align its laws with a document that states "Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired."

The First Nation is the among the first to make a claim according to the terms of a groundbreaking three-point test set by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2014 to establish Aboriginal title.

To meet that standard, the Nuchatlaht must prove they occupied the land exclusively in 1846, when the British claimed sovereignty through a treaty resulting in the present-day boundary between Canada and the United States.

Researcher Chelsey Geralda Armstrong says the research challenges notions that ecosystems in North America were wild, untouched 'Gardens of Eden' prior to the arrival of settlers. ( Nuchatlaht/Troy Moth)

Armstrong says archaeologists are increasingly becoming involved in land claims cases.

Many Indigenous communities, which have an oral tradition, find it challenging to meet the burden of proof in modern courts. Archaeologists are increasingly being asked to bridge the gap. 

"Western scientific methods like archaeology and historical ecology are really powerful tools for nations to show, 'No, we've been here, we've been using the land.'"

The research also shows Indigenous people's contributions to the creation and maintenance of the region's ecosystems. 

"Science has been really good at getting the message out that biodiversity is a good thing in our forests, in our terrestrial-marine ecosystems," she said.

"A lot of the time that biodiversity has been created and maintained by Indigenous peoples. And we know that it's not just in Nuchatlaht territory, but also globally."

With files from Jason Proctor and The Canadian Press

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