The ethnobotany of the Chipewyan of northern Saskatchewan
Marles, Robin James
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Ethnographic, botanical, and historical research have been combined to describe the continuing dynamic interrelationship between the Caribou-Eater Chipewyan of northern Canada and their botanical environment. Summer and winter fieldwork was conducted in 1980-1982 at Fond du Lac, Stony Rapids, Stony Lake, and Black Lake, Saskatchewan, and Gravel Hill Lake, Northwest Territories. Twenty-five Chipewyan over the age of fifty contributed information on the uses of at least 72 species of plants, including foods (34), medicines (52), and materials in technology (34) and ritual (5). These numbers represent the compilation of small personal repertoires of potentially useful plants, most of which are rarely if ever used now. Consumption of fruit (e.g. Vaccinium spp., Rubus spp.) is still common but plants have had only limited seasonal dietary significance. Some indigenous fruits and vegetables (e.g. Vaccinium, Allium, Epilobium, Typha) have excellent potential for development as crops to provide local nutritional and economic benefits. Only one herbal medicine (Acorus) continues to be used frequently. Snowshoe construction is the only technological art employing plant materials (Betula wood) still frequently practiced. The potential for the economic development of such crafts is poor, but Chipewyan technology provides useful patterns for future exploitation of northern resources (e.g. snowshoes, meat drying racks). Ritual use of plant materials is rare. Tinder fungus divination and scapulimancy are attributed the functions of relieving anxiety and reducing indecision. Chipewyan plant taxonomy is mainly on the genus and species level, where some taxa show a close correspondence to scientific classifications. At least one useful plant (Acorus) appears to have been introduced in the study area. Floristic changes due to environmental degradation at village and trail/road sites indicate the fragile nature of the subarctic botanical environment. As an appendix to this study, ten Chipewyan medicinal plants were subjected to a preliminary, qualitative phytochemical screening for alkaloids, steroid saponins, cardiac glycosides, and anthraquinones. The results provide a starting point for the pharmacognostic evaluation of these plants.