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Uprooting diabetes: Riceroot grows again

By Keith Rozendal and Meg Mittelstedt

Leigh Joseph in the Squamish River estuary. Photo: Nancy Turner

Leigh Joseph squats down in the marshy estuary toward a grey, lifeless stem poking out of the grass. In the distance, the cliff-face of the Stawamus Chief, an iconic granite dome, stands witness as Joseph digs around the base of the plant. She pulls out a clump of sandy bulblets clustered together like thick white scales and holds it up.

“This is it,” she says. She loosens the bulblets and scatters them into freshly-tilled earth behind her, taking care to ensure that each tiny piece is covered.

These “riceroot” bulbs once fed the members of the Squamish Nation and other Aboriginal groups all along the northern Pacific Rim. They are known as Lhásem in the language of Joseph’s father, a hereditary chief of the Squamish Nation. Joseph, a University of Victoria grad student hopes the plant — nearly lost from the Squamish collective memory — will catch on as a healthy alternative to starches imported by Europeans. She believes riceroot can help to reduce the obesity and diabetes that burden this Aboriginal community with disabilities and early death.

Riceroot bulblets

Riceroot bulblets. Photo: Leigh Joseph

In fact, Joseph has made it the ambition of her master’s thesis in ethnobotany — the study of the inter-relationships between people and plants — to re-establish the threatened riceroot lily at the base of the Squamish food pyramid. She sees it as the first building block of many in revitalizing the complex system of traditional foods that once provided both good nutrition and a healthy lifestyle for her people.

“The ideal is to create a harvest site for riceroot and to have it be an alternative form of carbohydrate,” she says. The plant is nutritionally similar to the potato, which displaced traditional root vegetables in Aboriginal diets after being introduced by European settlers.

Joseph’s thesis advisor, Nancy J. Turner, has studied B.C.’s traditional food and medicine systems for more than 40 years. Turner says that the diet eaten by Indigenous groups all along the province’s coast was not only “very healthy,” but it also facilitated a physically-fit lifestyle.

“People are very active, busy and interested when they’re out getting their food, so it’s a very holistic kind of system,” Turner says.

The backyard grocery store

Lhásem, also known as riceroot flower (Fritiallaria camschatcensis) Photo: Leigh Joseph

But Joseph must first bring the plant back from the brink of extinction in the traditional territory of her ancestors. That’s why she began cultivating riceroot — the lily species Fritiallaria camschatcensis — in a carefully guarded location in the estuary near the town of Squamish, B.C..

Joseph loves this estuary.  Not just the beauty of it, but the way it feels to imagine herself transported back to when there were three Squamish villages along these tidal flats, near where the Cheakmus and Squamish Rivers run into Howe Sound. As she works, she imagines her ancestors surrounding her, participating in the harvest. She imagines a time when, as she puts it, life was about “understanding your environment so well that you could go and gather your food from the grocery store of your surroundings to sustain yourself.”

Growing up on Vancouver Island, Joseph remembers visiting with her great-uncle and aunt, Chester and Eva Thomas, near Nanaimo. The couple served up meals from their own backyard that made a lasting impression on the young girl.

“We would always share a meal from Chester’s garden or salmon he had caught in the river and smoked on the property,” Josephs recalls. “Pretty much everything they ate came from their property or the river in front of their house.”

She now credits these early experiences as influencing her decision to pursue studies in ethnobotany.

“I remember understanding at a young age what he was saying,” Joseph says. “The food you put in your body is medicine. It’s important you understand where that came from. Those influences really stayed with me.”

Fading from memory

As a young adult, Joseph spent several summers working alongside her aunt, Joy Joseph McCullough, for Squamish Nation Education in the Squamish Valley. They collaborated on an ethnobotany field guide and a calendar with harvest times for traditional plants. It was here that Joseph first encountered riceroot.

“This one plant kept coming up,” she says. “People would have heard from another community that there was this plant that was like rice but it was a traditional plant, so it was easier for our bodies to digest because our ancestors used it for thousands of years.” Riceroot, which produces a bell-shaped, coppery bloom, is also known as “People’s Rice” in some Indigenous communities.

See some of the beautiful, and nutritious, native plants eaten by coastal First Nations (no audio)

The plant is a very important traditional root vegetable for First Nations all along the coast, says Turner. Along with its relatives, Chocolate Lily and Yellow Bells, riceroot was one of the few sources of carbohydrates in traditional diets.

The Squamish people knew it had been cultivated in garden settings, and Joseph discovered that there had once been extensive family-owned root gardens up and down the coast that were actively cultivated and managed. But only elders seem to have had memories of the plant, due to changing dietary habits and the disruption of the plant’s estuary habitat. The knowledge of how Aboriginal people had managed their gardens had been nearly lost.

Shifting diets, declining health

A dish of riceroot served at a traditional foods feast

A dish of riceroot served at a traditional foods feast Photo: Nancy Turner

Still, people were excited about the plant and its possible healthy effects. “The major context in which people spoke about it,” Josephs says, “was wanting to regain control over their own personal health, particularly dietary-related health concerns,” such as type 2 diabetes.

“They were looking to traditional foods and traditional medicines to do that.”

Joseph’s grandmother, Rose, suffered from diabetes. Leigh remembers her carrying a cooler full of medicines, for reasons Joseph didn’t understand at the time. Now, she knows that diabetes and other diet-related illnesses take a large toll on Indigenous communities. These illnesses are “something fairly new that can be traced back to a really recent, but significant, shift in diet and level of physical activity,” she says.

In fact, a 2009 Health Canada survey found that British Columbia’s Aboriginal residents are 40 per cent more likely to have diabetes than their non-Aboriginal counterparts. Over the four years of the study, diabetes diagnoses among the B.C. First Nations increased by more than 15 per cent.

“When you see more and more youth being diagnosed with diabetes at a young age,” Joseph says, “it hits home.”

Chief Ernie Hill Jr., a hereditary chief of the Gitga’at in Hartley Bay, B.C., recognizes his community’s shift toward introduced foods and its negative effects.

“I firmly believe that the diabetes here has occurred because of the change in diet,” he says. “If we go back to our original diet — the sea — maybe it will help curb some of that.”

He adds that his community is trying to change children’s eating habits but it’s an uphill battle. The region gets food supply by airplane, and it’s cheaper to fly in a box of potato chips than a box of apples.

Hunting for knowledge

Pit-cooking Photo: Nancy Turner

As a master’s student working in the remote village of Kingcome, Joseph took part in an historic event. For the first time in nearly 75 years, members of this Kwakwaka’wakw village piled into boats to head downriver toward the estuary flats where they collect riceroot and other traditional vegetables.

The freshly harvested roots were pit-cooked — a combination of roasting and steaming in stone and leaf-lined fire pits — just outside of the community’s central longhouse.

The occasion was pivotal for Joseph. She wanted to see the event replicated in her own Nation.

“Witnessing that moment when a food that had been eaten in that region for thousands of years is again being consumed by the people there — it really hit me how much it means. It’s so much more than fuel for your body,” Joseph says. “It’s connecting to these sites where your grandmother or your great-grandmother would have cultivated and worked the land.”

“It really does nourish the spirit.”

However, bringing this nearly-forgotten knowledge back “from beneath the longhouse floorboards” — an expression the elders use to describe the process of regaining traditional knowledge — is no small task.

Joseph describes her journey to revitalize riceroot as a “treasure hunt.” She has scoured ethnographic literature, including Turner’s reel-to-reel tape recordings of Squamish elders in the 1970s speaking about traditional plants.

Turner says Joseph's project represents a growing interest in traditional knowledge among First Nations youth.

Overcoming obstacles

In the Squamish Nation, however, the plant’s re-emergence faces numerous threats. Most of the estuaries along the Burrard Inlet and Howe Sound shores have been developed or disrupted, leaving little habitat for the sensitive plant. In the Squamish River estuary, industrial pollution has left mercury in the soil.

Modern tastes may prove an additional challenge. Those who are new to the plant may balk at the lightly starchy root – which Joseph says tastes like a slightly bitter cross between a potato and rice. The flower has been described as having an odour like “poo-filled smelly socks” and is pollinated by carrion flies.

Youth assistants from the Squamish nation in the riceroot gardens Photo: Leigh Joseph

But the project takes aim squarely at these obstacles.

With two youth assistants, Joseph is testing the soil for salinity and for mercury contamination. Preliminary soil analysis results indicate traces of mercury in a small number of riceroot plots. Joseph is currently working with the Squamish River Watershed Society to determine if mercury levels fall within acceptable levels for human consumption.

As for the smell and the taste, Joseph has a strategy: start young.

Joseph makes a point to include youth in the riceroot restoration project. In addition to the young assistants who worked with her in the estuary garden, Joseph has invited preschoolers to a pit-cook of traditional foods. Culture camps for Squamish youth help her teach youngsters the importance of the environment and the food systems of their ancestors.

“You become attached to and desire to eat the food that you are exposed to as a child,” Turner explains. “The less traditional food people eat, the less they tend to really crave it.”

Because of the integration of her project with the classroom, Joseph believes the riceroot gardens will continue to grow and be maintained by the Squamish as a diabetes-fighting alternative to other starches. “If, down the road, the estuary gardens can be established as a harvest site for the Squamish Nation, that’s kind of the ideal,” she says.

“I think there’s no substitute for getting out and digging in the dirt,” she says, “and bringing a food back and having that feeling of satisfaction of providing for yourself.”

“It’s an emotional thing to feel a connection to the past in that way.”

Kids at a Squamish youth and culture camp Photo: Leigh Joseph

Kids at a Squamish youth and culture camp Photo: Leigh Joseph

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Keith Rozendal will be writing about science and medicine for The Vancouver Sun this summer.

Meg Mittelstedt will be working with the National Film Board of Canada and CBC’s The National.

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  1. [...] If you’re interested in native plants, First Nations’ traditional diets, and health, this article is for you. From Indigenous Reporting: Uprooting diabetes: Riceroot grows again [...]

  2. [...] imagine my students, eager young journalists who want to tell an important story about a hardworking ethnobotanist and her passion to treat diabetes. What do they do, when asked to sign a document that requires they seek individual and community [...]

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