Contributed by Jessica Dolan, McGill University, ISE Member

Teyotsihstokwáthe Dakota Brant, Yonenyákenht Jesse Brant, Tewentahawiht Antone, and Sakoieta Widrick in front of the mound garden we just finished weeding (mounds to the right). Companion planting of corn, beans, and squash in mounds is a traditional technology that has many benefits for the plants, the soil, and the people who eat the food! Dakota shared how it is important not to “baby” a garden by taking out all of the weeds and watering it too much. Weeds help the soil retain moisture, and overwatering can lead to weak root systems. Jesse shared that on a nutritional level, some foods are more ideal for men or women; for example, red foods are a men’s food and green ones are good for women.

Shé:kon, hello! My name is Jessica Dolan. I’m a PhD student currently doing research in Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) communities on how people are putting Haudenosaunee ecological knowledge and traditional philosophies into practice in environmental stewardship projects. There are 17 Iroquois communities located within the political boundaries of the United States and Canada, but my research is mostly based at Six Nations of the Grand River, Ontario. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy includes the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora nations. As the name suggests, people of all six nations live at Grand River.

I am interested in how people throughout Haudenosaunee communities are drawing connections between the continuous revitalization of cultural knowledge and the natural world.  Here, revitalization does not mean bringing something back that is dying (as resuscitation does), but rather active continual engagement in the stewardship of culture and the environment. This revitalization takes place in the form of building a personal relationship with nature that is properly situated within Haudenosaunee worldviews.

Like others in the field of ethnobiology, I believe traditional ways of life contain essential ways of knowing and being for humankind to have healthy relationships with each other and with the environment.  In addition, my research is motivated by a principle that is analogous to one in traditional medical systems: in addition to treating the symptoms of an illness, it’s important to treat the cause. In the case of the degradation of the Earth, I believe the cause is the principles that underlie the drive toward constant economic growth that requires increasing consumption of natural resources in a globalized capitalist economy.

It’s important for North Americans to know that Indigenous Knowledge is not only held by people in remote, far-away places, but also in communities not all that far from major North American cities. One thing that is significant about Haudenosaunee ecological knowledge is that it is an Indigenous philosophy of pathways to social-ecological balance held by people whose lands have been some of the most polluted areas of North America throughout the 20th century. For example, Six Nations of the Grand River is surrounded by one of Canada’s centers of agricultural and industrial production, yet it holds the largest extant stand of Carolinian forest within Canadian political boundaries.  The plant volume and diversity may be great at Six Nations of the Grand River, but toxic run-off from upriver agriculture and industry permeates the Grand and some of the smaller waterways. While there is a strong cultural-environmental ethic and traditional knowledge practice at Six Nations, that is also threatened by urban sprawl, the problem of toxic and solid waste storage, and industrial and agricultural development opportunities. In this respect the old saying is true: the poison is beside the cure.

Many traditional people throughout Haudenosaunee communities continue an ancient practice of acknowledgement and relationship with the natural world. Some people are actively choosing to learn and engage in these ways of life because their families did not raise them in it; others do it because it is just what they have always done. There are also many people who commit a great amount of their time to participating in cultural revitalization through the study of one or more Iroquoian languages, while raising their children as speakers to have their heritage language as their first language, thereby revitalizing the indigenous knowledge that is encoded in the traditional language patterns.

Throughout cultural and educational events that I have participated in – as well as the interviews I’ve been doing – I’ve heard people describe how revitalization of traditional knowledge is essential to the survival of Haudenosaunee cultures and Mother Earth. This philosophy is part of the Great Law of Peace, the foundational oral history of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.  The Great Law contains guidance on the political organization of traditional government and on the social organization of the clan system.  But it also contains instructions on how individuals can come to peace within themselves and with their communities, so those communities can then live in peace with other communities.  Continuous enactment of peace is essential to the principal of the Dish With One Spoon, a Haudenosaunee philosophy, which is the peaceful sharing with equanimity and moderation of resources of the natural world.

Traditional teachings show how war is bad for the environment, and also that it is necessary to maintain personal physical and mental health (internal environment) in order to have a balanced relationship with our external environment, the one around us.  From the grassroots to the policy level, environmental management is not only about managing the non-human natural world, but also addresses “social management” that supports healthy communities. In turn, if individuals and communities are healthy, that will be reflected in our relationship with the natural world.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many people at Six Nations of the Grand River speak about the importance of transmitting the cultural knowledge of growing and preparing traditional foods.  This year, Six Nations Farmer’s Market and Community Garden coordinator Jennifer Hill organized a workshop series to educate community members about traditional agricultural knowledge.  The topics of each month’s workshop correspond with the traditional cycle of ceremonies; it began in January after Midwinter ceremony. Each month, Elders and knowledgeable people speak on such subjects as Haudenosaunee seed varieties; how to tap maple trees and boil sap; how to plant corn, beans, and squash in mounds; the nutritional benefits of flint corn; how to use wild plants such as Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) as a natural pesticide for flint corn; the medicinal properties of strawberries and their leaves, and more.

Young and old participants exchanged heirloom seeds, knowledge and a lot of laughter at the seed exchange in March 2011.

On March 30th, the Six Nations Farmer’s Market and Community Garden, the Indigenous Knowledge Center, the Joint Stewardship Board and others hosted a seed exchange where about 75 participants from throughout the Haudenosaunee communities exchanged dozens of Haudenosaunee heirloom seed varieties of corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers, among others. In May, workshop participants planted a community garden in the center of Ohsweken at Six Nations of the Grand River.  The Six Nations Farmer’s Market will have its grand opening on August 6th in the village of Ohsweken.

This yearlong hands-on community education series has already demonstrated to hundreds of people the necessity and benefits of sustaining biocultural diversity.  It reinforces community health through the transmission of cultural teachings about plants (plants can show us a lot about how to have good relationships with each other), and by making fresh produce readily available. It also supports knowledgeable people from the community who have been planting and continuing traditional techniques of tree tapping and medicine gathering, by giving them a space to share what they know.

My research at Six Nations of the Grand River is done in partnership with the Indigenous Knowledge Center at the Six Nations Polytechnic (, and the Joint Stewardship Board.  The Joint Stewardship Board is a working group devoted to building Haudenosaunee ethics and traditional knowledge into practice in environmental stewardship projects, and to building guidelines for equitable environmental consultation within co-management agreements.

Here I am hugging two trees that are hugging each other, growing on a tree trail at Six Nations of the Grand River, where trees are identified by signs with their names in English, Mohawk, and Cayuga.

My thesis will examine the principles and practices of Haudenosaunee environmental knowledge based upon literary references, the perspectives of people who I have interviewed this year, and the learning I’ve done through participating in workshops, cultural events, gardening, volunteering as a councilor at a traditional knowledge youth camp, and living in the community.  I will discuss through the examples of two case studies successes and challenges of applying this consciousness to co-management partnerships and community projects.  I hope that the benefits of my writing will be to support the revitalization of traditional knowledge, and to contribute to awareness building about environmental ethics and protection throughout Six Nations communities, in the mainstream, and in academia. If you would like to know more about my research, please contact me at [email protected].   That’s all for now. On:en.