COVID-19 concerns, closures have families and communities heading out on the land

The combination of health concerns and closures is leading many families, individuals and communities out on the land, to do things like harvest medicines.

Gathering traditional medicines 'like a security I’ve never felt,’ says Deanna Brown-Nolan

Youth at the St. Theresa Point elementary school were shown how to search for Labrador tea leaves and harvest them from the snow last week. The leaves were used to make Labrador tea for students, staff, elders and others in community. (Tanya McDougall and Johnny Harper)

As many schools and workplaces shut down, families, individuals and communities are heading out to the land to put cultural teachings into practice and as a way to keep each other safe through social distancing. 

For some, this has meant taking time to teach younger generations and community members how to harvest medicines, emphasizing the importance of passing on intergenerational knowledge at a time when there's heightened concern for the health and well-being of elders. 

Johnny Harper is a language and culture educator in St. Theresa Point, a remote Oji-Cree community in northern Manitoba. 

Last week, he took a group of children into the bush to teach them how to find and harvest Labrador tea leaves. 

Usually Harper wouldn't take the class to look for the plant until September, but given the current pandemic, the school decided it was a good time for the children to learn even if that meant digging through three feet of snow to find the plant. 

Principal McDougall said making tea with students was a proactive way to teach them about health. (Tanya McDougall)

Tanya McDougall, the principal of the early education school said within an hour, the children were able to gather enough leaves to make tea at the school for a full week. Children were also able to bring some home to share with their families and elders. 

Harvesting and distributing the tea was one of the proactive things they could do, said McDougall. Harper said as a teacher, he's proud the children now know how to identify the plant, its leaves and its uses. 

"They will remember this for a long time," he said. 

Finding security in tradition

Deanna Brown-Nolan (Nadut'en and Wet'suwet'en) is an educator in northern B.C.. She saw the Facebook post about children picking Labrador tea leaves in St. Theresa Point and said it was part of her inspiration to get her family out to harvest cedar on the weekend.

"I just thought it was a good moment to really take the time to go through the ceremony, to ask knowledge holders how to do it properly in our area," she said. 

Three generations of the Brown family together for an outing to gather cedar in northern B.C. (Deanna Brown-Nolan)

Three generations of Brown-Nolan's family were able to come together on Sunday. They drove three hours together to reach a place where they can harvest cedar. 

She said harvesting medicines herself, following protocol and leaving an offering is a completely different experience from receiving those medicines as a gift. 

"When you're actually able to get the medicines… it's like a security I've never understood or felt," she said. 

"In this time of great stress, leaning on our actual ancestors and being able to taste it and feel it and touch it in your hands it just really nails home what's important — and that's going back to the yintah [land] and learning the teachings and being able to pass those on to the next generation."

Fran Brown, Deanna's mom, preparing to harvest cedar to make tea. (Deanna Brown-Nolan)

Wendy Nahanee, from the Squamish Nation, said it was the stress and fear over the virus that led her outside to harvest cedar on the weekend with her teenaged son. She said she talked to him about what a pandemic is, and assured him "our people are going to survive it." 

During her conversations with her son she remembered how her grandmother used to have cedar tea steeping on her stove almost every day. 

Not long after, Nahanee and her son were harvesting and steeping their own cedar tea and she was also able to deliver bundles to elders in the community. 

For Nahanee, who works as the executive director of the Vancouver-based organization Culture Saves Lives, the most important thing Indigenous Peoples can do right now is stay grounded, lean into and share cultural teachings. 

"Our people are so resilient. And the resilience comes from our teachings and our medicines, through our elders." 

Band funding on-the-land trips

In Colville Lake, N.W.T., Behdzi Ahda First Nation members are being offered gas and grocery money to help with trips out on the land.

The funds are part of an annual program but Chief Wilbert Kochon is hoping more people will take advantage of the opportunity soonest, especially given the school closures that are in effect. 

Wilbert Kochon, chief of Behdzi Ahda First Nation in Colville Lake, N.W.T. (John Last/CBC)

"It's a good chance to get them out there and get their parents out there with them. Instead of them hanging around here doing nothing, they might as well get out on the land," said Kochon. 

"They can set up themselves out there and just enjoy the land out there and have a good time with their kids."

Kochon said in addition to activities like fishing, "there's a lot of medicine out there they could use and they can learn down the road they could use for themselves."

As of Tuesday, there were no confirmed cases of the virus in the Northwest Territories but Kochon said they're monitoring the situation closely.

"Hopefully it passes through and doesn't come this way. But we have to be ready for it."