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This plant medicine teacher is reclaiming Anishinaabe names for species. Why that could be good for the planet

Some conservationists and climate scientists believe the key to protecting endangered plants and animals may lie in efforts to preserve Indigenous languages. Joe Pitawanakwat is doing his part by learning — and teaching — about Indigenous plant medicine.

Reviving Indigenous languages could help tackle climate crisis: environmental experts

Joe Pitawanakwat is an Anishinaabe plant medicine teacher from Wiikwemkoong First Nation, on Manitoulin Island in Ontario. The knowledge he shares was passed down from his grandmother. (Andrew Nguyen/CBC)

Originally published on Sept. 12, 2021.

Joe Pitawanakwat is walking slowly along a forest path, but his mind is racing as he surveys the bounty of medicine plants before his eyes.

"There's jiichiigominaawashk." He points to a big stalk full of dangling white flowers, also known as tall white lettuce. "The plant has milk that we use to get rid of warts — jiichiigom," he said on CBC Radio's Back to the Land.

"This is one of my favourites, miskwaabiimagoons." He lightly touches the smooth-edged leaves of a plant called dogwood in English. "The dogwoods we use to help with arthritis."

One after another, the 30-year-old Anishinaabe from Wiikwemkoong First Nation in Ontario rhymes off the medicinal and food qualities of plants and trees. He cheerfully introduces himself to each plant, not in English but in Anishinaabemowin.

"Learning about plant medicine, you need to be able to address the plant by its name," Pitawanakwat said. "It's just respect, like a simple courtesy that you extend to every other person."

WATCH | Joe Pitawanakwat shares how traditional medicine plants are used:

Meet the Indigenous educator keeping Anishinaabe medicine plant names alive

2 years ago
Duration 8:14
Plant medicine educator Joe Pitawanakwat has made teaching about medicine plants — and preserving their Anishinaabemowin names — his life work. He takes Back to the Land host Duncan McCue on a walk through the woods to share how certain plants are used in Indigenous cultures.

He has spent years working tirelessly to learn about Anishinaabe-mshkiki, or plant medicine. But despite his deep well of traditional plant knowledge, English is his primary language — and he carries a small list of plants for which he does not know the traditional names.

"Not knowing the name of a plant haunts me," Pitawanakwat said.

A 2014 study estimates that roughly 30 per cent of both the world's languages and animal species have declined between 1970 and 2009. Some conservationists and climate scientists believe the key to protecting endangered plants and animals may lie in efforts to preserve Indigenous languages.

A red-legged grasshopper is perched in Red-osier Dogwood berries in the autumn. (Jennifer Bosvert/Shutterstock)

"As people have adapted culturally to living and surviving in all these different habitats, a tremendous amount of knowledge of flora and fauna ... is essentially encoded within the Indigenous language," said Jonathan Loh, a conservation biologist at the University of Kent in England.

"If a language starts to be lost, very often that knowledge is lost as well."

Dual extinction crisis

Loh started investigating the global connections between species diversity and language diversity several years ago.

"If you look at a map of the distribution of languages around the world and you compare it with maps that show the distribution of mammal species or bird species, you see an extraordinarily similar picture: The hot spots of linguistic diversity, in so many cases, coincide with hot spots of biological diversity," he said.

Jonathan Loh, who researches biological and cultural diversity at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England, says when languages are lost, so is knowledge of Indigenous flora and fauna. (Submitted by Jonathan Loh)

The pressures facing the world's plants and animals, such as globalization and increased consumption, often threaten languages as well, leading to what Loh calls a dual extinction crisis.

"They are both facing this critical threat: We're losing languages and species at an unprecedented rate."

That worries Deborah McGregor, an associate professor at York University in Toronto and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous environmental justice, who suggests that Indigenous languages contain world views that offer solutions to the climate crisis.

"Anishinaabemowin recognizes the land as living and — probably more startling to a lot of people — as having its own agency. It's embedded within our languages to recognize that the planet has a say and that it is trying to tell us something," said McGregor, a member of Whitefish River First Nation in Ontario.

"Climate change is the Earth trying to tell us what's happening to her."

Learning from grandma

Pitawanakwat's journey to becoming a keeper of traditional Anishinaabe plant knowledge began in an unlikely way: He was trying to woo a girl.

He would take her to visit his grandmother, Tackla Pheasant, who often entertained the lovebirds with stories about plants that her mother harvested in the woods and meadows of Mnidoo Mnising, or Manitoulin Island.

"My grandma was raised — and raised most of her kids — without access to a hospital," Pitawanakwat said. "So when it comes to sickness and injury, she had to know what medicine to use.

"We have hospitals and hospitals on wheels, and she raised her kids with plants!"

Pitawanakwat, left, is pictured with his grandmother, Tackla Pheasant. (Submitted by Joe Pitawanakwat)

The old woman began sending the young couple into the bush to retrieve Anishinaabe-mshkiki.

"I brought her leaves from, like, 30, 40 different species of trees, like a deck of cards. She knew every single one by name," Pitawanakwat said, adding that she hadn't spoken some Anishinaabemowin plant names out loud for decades.

English plant names sometimes eluded his grandmother, which made for a language barrier. Pitawanakwat spoke Anishinaabemowin as a child but shifted to English when he went to school.

Slowly, he discovered that the uses of plants are often woven into their Anishinaabemowin names. For example, the bark of wiigbimish, known as basswood in English, was traditionally used by Anishinaabe to make rope — wiigop.

"When you learn what the sounds mean and tease out what that is describing, you will understand utility, taste, locations," Pitawanakwat said. "That brings a very important context to everything."

When three of the treasured keepers of plant teachings at Wiikwemkoong First Nation died, Pitawanakwat dropped out of college to devote himself to learning from his grandmother. He understood how precious her plant knowledge was — and what was at stake if it was lost.

Kristy Pitawanakwat, Joe's wife, collects and cleans plants. (Submitted by Joe Pitawanakwat)

Reciprocal relationship with the Earth

Language loss is especially acute in the Americas and Australia, where hundreds of Indigenous languages are endangered. Linguists predict 50 to 90 per cent of the world's 7,000 languages may not be spoken by the end of this century.

The University of Kent's Loh said he believes efforts to protect the environment must go hand in hand with trying to protect cultural diversity.

"If we want to protect forests and manage them in a way that's sustainable into the future, I think conservationists should learn from the practices and knowledge of Indigenous peoples who've lived in the forests for thousands and thousands of years," he said.

"If we lose those cultures, we lose the understanding of ways in which those forests could be managed and protected."

Deborah McGregor, an associate professor at York University and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous environmental justice, suggests that Indigenous languages contain world views that offer solutions to the climate crisis. 'Climate change is the Earth trying to tell us what's happening to her,' says McGregor, a member of Whitefish River First Nation in Ontario. (Submitted by Deborah McGregor)

Declining language fluency is often accompanied by loss of traditional skills, such as hunting, fishing and medicinal use of plants. McGregor of York University maintains that revitalizing Indigenous languages helps promote an understanding of sustainability based on reciprocity rather than extraction.

"The language itself is nature based. So that's where you're going to learn about, 'OK, how do we ensure that the medicines are going to flourish? How do we ensure that the wildlife is going to have fresh water? That the fish are going to be taken care of?'" she said.

"Embedded within [Indigenous] language revitalization is ... the ecological knowledge that would enable people to have a respectful and reciprocal relationship with the Earth itself."

'Tending to the creator's garden'

Teaching about medicinal plants has become Pitawanakwat's life's work.

The courtship under his grandmother's tutelage led him to marry his girlfriend, Kristy. They started a small business in Peterborough, Ont., called Creator's Garden that offers workshops to First Nations about plant medicine — even when the pandemic forced him to teach online.

"Tending to the creator's garden, that is our job. That's what we learn about and teach about," Pitawanakwat said.

He acknowledges that Anishinaabemowin is an endangered language, with fewer and fewer fluent speakers. Still, he takes heart in tireless efforts by Anishinaabemowin teachers to keep the language alive.

"It's been my experience that the easiest way to learn about the language has always been outside, on the land," he said. "That's where it makes the most clear sense in every way. It's a perfect expression of this territory."


Duncan McCue

CBC host and reporter

Duncan McCue is host of Helluva Story on CBC Radio, and Kuper Island, an eight-part podcast on residential schools for CBC Podcasts. He is also the author of a textbook, Decolonizing Journalism: A Guide to Reporting in Indigenous Communities. Duncan is Anishinaabe, a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation. He's based in Toronto.

Back to the Land produced by Zoe Tennant