New Brunswick

Cecelia Brooks uses elder teachings and science to reinvent traditional foods and medicines

Cecilia Brooks is an elder of Wolastoqey, Mi’kmaq, Mohawk and Korean ancestry who now calls St. Mary's First Nation home. She cooks, makes products with plant extracts, leads medicine walks and is reviving traditional harvests.

She has foraged far and wide. Now she’s really digging into her Wolastoqey roots

Cecelia Brooks loves plants and cooking and sharing her knowledge. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

The second in a series of weekly stories about Wabanaki elders — knowledge keepers, teachers, healers and spiritual guides — who have made remarkable contributions in their own communities and beyond.

Cecilia Brooks is an elder of Wolastoqey, Mi'kmaq, Mohawk and Korean ancestry who calls St. Mary's First Nation home. She specializes in traditional plant knowledge.

Brooks grew up in different countries because her dad was in the U.S. military.

He was her first teacher of traditional Wolastoqey knowledge, but she got her first taste of foraging from her Korean mom.

Wild plants are a big part of the Korean diet, said Brooks.

Her mom would pick and eat mushrooms and greens, such as dandelion, plantain and goldenrod.

Brooks became a "foodie" at a young age. As she got older she consulted field guides to find out what she was eating. And she continued to expand her palate.

The Elders: Cecelia Brooks

2 years ago
Duration 5:21
Featured VideoSt. Mary’s First Nation Elder Cecelia Brooks has a degree in chemistry with a minor in biology, but she holds a passion for traditional plants used in ceremony and medicine.

Though she lived away for a long time, she kept close relationships with family in Canada, including older cousin Valerie Brooks, who shared some of what she knew about traditional medicines.

"She was the first one to introduce me to muskrat root," said Brooks.

It's used as an immune-system booster, she said, and it's harvested along the river after the first frost.

"Oh, it's cold! You have to put your hands down in that icy water and the mud."

Brooks said her cousin would send her a batch of muskrat root each year and she'd break some off to use when anyone in the household got sick.

When it came time to make a decision about university, Brooks was hesitant about going into science.

But that's where aptitude tests and her guidance counsellor were pointing her. 

She decided to try a biology course and ended up loving it.

She minored in biology and majored in chemistry for a bachelor of science degree at the University of Tennessee.

That expertise came in handy when she moved back to Canada in 2006. 

Cecelia Brooks is also the Water Grandmother at the Canadian Rivers Insitute at the University of New Brunswick. (Maria Burgos/CBC)

When she couldn't find a job, she started making body care products with plant extracts and selling them at a farmers' market.

She learned more about traditional plants from elders she met when she went to work for an association of First Nations chiefs and the Maliseet Nation Conservation Council.

One of her favourite medicine people is Josie Augustine of Elsipogtog.

"The knowledge this woman has is really remarkable," Brooks said.

She also met Albert Marshall, the Mi'kmaw elder who developed the concept of two-eyed seeing.

Two-eyed seeing means considering things from more than one perspective, such as through the double lenses of Indigenous knowledge and western science.

That's exactly what Brooks does.

She takes what she learns from sources such as peer-reviewed scientific journals and then talks to elders about it to find out what they know and hear what they think.

"I take both ways and apply it," said Brooks.

"It's not perfect, but it's better."

Brooks was still working for the chiefs when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its calls to action, and she started to feel she could be doing more to share her knowledge.

She remembers being in a meeting with government representatives and finding out they didn't know very much about Indigenous people.

"I would sit at the table and tell stories. And they were all very fascinated. But it really drove it home that if they don't know — and it's their job to know — how about the average Canadian? I bet they know less." 

Brooks and her son Anthony on an early spring walk in Odell Park in Fredericton. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

She was able to do some direct cultural education at the University of New Brunswick.

At the end of her course, Indigenous Issues and Perspectives in Natural Resources Stewardship, students would tell her they had learned a lot.

"Some of them were actually angry," she said.

They couldn't believe they'd gone through so many years of schooling without learning more about Indigenous Wabanaki peoples. 

"I realized then that people are very, very anxious and eager to learn about our culture," said Brooks.

Brooks says Odell Park is an example of what the forest looked like hundreds of years ago. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

She and her son designed their medicine walk business —  Wabanaki Tree Spirit —  for people who want to connect with and understand Indigenous people better.

On a typical walk, they'll start with the history and significance of Odell Park.

It has hemlock trees that are 400 to 500 years old.

"This is what the forest would have looked like prior to European settlers getting here," said Brooks.

They'll talk about any plants they come across and traditional uses for food or medicine. 

Brooks usually brings a bit of conifer tea and tells how it was used to treat Jacques Cartier's crew members who were suffering from scurvy when he arrived in the 1500s. 

Wabanaki flint corn was grown last summer at the Hayes Farm in Fredericton. (Hayes Farm/Facebook)

That's something she came across in a journal of ethnobotany. Scientists were trying to figure out what kind of tea the crew members had been given. Some said it was arborvitae, or cedar.

Nobody really knows, she said, and it doesn't really matter, because they're all "loaded with Vitamin C."

Brooks said her favourite is fir, but hemlock and spruce are good, too. 

Acorns are another little known part of Wolastoqey food culture, said Brooks.

Bur oaks provide the best acorns for cooking, she said, because they have "very little tannin" and don't have to be leached out as much.

"They're delicious," she said, but "for all intents and purposes, it's a lost art."

She harvested some last year from a stand in Grand Lake Meadows.

"I feel like we're connecting with our ancestors when we do that," said Brooks.

"I know they're smiling."

Brooks prepared acorn shortbread for a "Taste of Wabanaki" event earlier this year, along with corn soup, wild rice hash and sun-dried tomatoes. 

She has a story for every item on that menu.

Corn was a staple of the Indigenous diet, said Brooks, and the soup was a recreation of something her dad used to eat as a kid.

Wabanaki flint corn is multicoloured and hard-shelled. (Hayes Farm/Facebook)

All he remembered was that his aunt stuffed hardwood ashes into her old silk stockings and boiled them with corn for a long time. 

This would have created lye to break down the hard outer shell of the corn kernels.

Student Tabi Evans tries her hand at grinding hominy corn on a metate to make flour. (Hayes Farm/Facebook)

When it was time to rinse the corn, her dad and his brother had to go to the spring and bring lots of water back in buckets. 

After much experimenting Brooks "finally came up with the right formula," using canned hominy, yellow-eyed beans and salt pork. 

It was a "beautiful soup," she said, but it still wasn't quite right because the available hominy was made with dent corn instead of flint corn. 

Flint corn is named for being as hard as flint. It has less starch and water content than the other types of corn, which include sweet, flour, pod and popcorn.

A wild-rice-harvesting expedition in the fall of 2020 in the St. John River or Wolastoq watershed. (Ducks Unlimited Canada - Atlantic/Facebook)

Government seed banks in Canada didn't have the flint corn she was looking for either. But she was finally able to track some down at a "corn-ference" in Maine.

A farmer in Unity had been growing an acre of Wabanaki flint and selling corn meal to local natural food stores. 

Brooks said he offered her a free bag of seed, and it's now being grown at the Hayes teaching farm in the Devon area of Fredericton. 

Wild rice growing in the Wolastoq watershed. Brooks says it grows all over the place and she hopes to teach more people how to harvest it. (Ducks Unlimited Canada - Atlantic/Facebook)

The wild rice was picked last fall in what Brooks believes was the first harvest of its kind in this province in more than 100 years.

Several people from Mi'kmaw and Wolastoqey communities took part, she said.

After the rice was picked, she demonstrated how to "dance" on it to remove the husks and winnow it to remove the chaff.

"It's so much fun," she said.

The tomatoes, Brooks had grown and dried last summer.

She does as much drying and preserving as possible and wants to teach those methods as a way to improve the food security, health and well-being of her people.

"When the Europeans came, the first thing they took from us was our food," Brooks said. "We have to get that back."

"Then we can get other things back."

With files from Myfanwy Davies