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The American elm (Ulmus americana), known as the tangled grain wood by the Mohawk
Photo: Jardin botanique de Montréal (Gilles Murray)

The keepers of the deciduous forest

Five nations have lived in the deciduous forest since time immemorial: the Abenaki, the Malecite, the Micmac, the Huron-Wendat and the Mohawk. Their names ­ Wôbanaki, "Land of the Dawn"; Wulustuk, "St. John's River"; Mi'gmaq, "The Allies" undoubtedly; Wendat, "The Island Dwellers"; and Kanien'kehá:ka, "People of the Flint" ­ evoke their links to the earth as well as their different origins. Traditionally, the former are part of the general cultural and linguistic family of the Algonquian, while the latter, the Huron-Wendat and the Mohawk, whose more sedentary lifestyle is due to their agricultural activities, are part of the Iroquoian family. These peoples share the same forest, which is dominated by the sugar maple, the ash and the elm, but which also contains conifers such as the pine and hemlock. It is Québec's most diversified forest, and its resources are abundant.

The gentle climate and fertile soil allowed the nations to develop farming activities, including the cultivation of corn, beans and squash. The Mohawk and Huron-Wendat made these foods part of their staple diet. The Abenaki also farmed, but like the Malecite and Micmac, they lived more from hunting, fishing and gathering. The deciduous forest underbrush overflows with herbaceous plants, some of which, like the trillium and wild leek, are gathered among other things for their edible bulbs and curative properties.

The sugar maple

The large and prestigious sugar maple (Acer saccharum) is a common sight in the deciduous forests of southern Québec. In the fall, its flamboyant colours set the forest ablaze, and in the spring it produces sap with a sugar content of approximately 3%. All the St. Lawrence Valley's Aboriginal nations have long known the secrets of its golden liquid, wood and bark.

In the traditional Mohawk religious calendar, the maple is the only tree to which a major ceremony is dedicated. Every spring, thanksgiving was offered, conveyed through the smoke obtained by throwing tobacco onto a ceremonial fire. A community feast followed. Maple sap used to be collected everywhere in bark baskets, a tradition that is still alive in Québec's Algonquin and Attikamek nations. The maple provided lumber for the Malecite and Abenaki, edible bark for the Mohawk and medicinal bark for the Micmac. The sap of other species, including the birch, was also consumed.

The basket tree

Québec's southern forests contain three species of ash, namely the white ash, the red ash and the black ash. The black ash, a tree that grows to a height of 20 metres, has a long, spindly trunk, and lives in full sunlight along watercourses or in marshy woodlands, mixed with other species. It provides thin, flexible strips of wood that the Abenaki weave with vanilla grass to make baskets similar to those of the Huron-Wendat and Micmac. The white ash, easy to bend, is used by the Abenaki and Malecite to make snowshoes, and by the Micmac to make tool handles.

An Abenaki legend...

In the beginning, there were only plants and animals on the Earth. The Great Spirit, satisfied but bored, also wanted humans to live there, and he sculpted them from a large straight ash, or mkazawi maahlakws. It was thus that the People of the East were born, and their origin explains the Abenaki people's special relationship with the ash.

The gifts of the Earth

Year after year, the Earth offers a multitude of edible, aromatic, medicinal and colouring plants. And year after year, each nation gathers a hundred or so species that contribute to the general well-being of its members. The task of gathering the plants falls mainly to the women in Aboriginal societies, and the gathering activity occupies an important place in the calendar. The Mohawk had their own thanksgiving services for maple syrup and strawberries. In Iroquoian, at least six consecutive month names also refer to stages in the growth cycle: from April to September, onerahtokha, "small leaf"; oneratakowa, "large leaf"; oiariha, "unripened fruit"; oiarikowa, "ripe fruit"; seskeha, "brush"; and sehske'ko:wa', "large brush".

The Abenaki harvest maple sap, fern fronds and wild leeks in the spring, wild strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, gooseberries and blueberries in the summer, cranberries in the fall, and medicinal plants in every season. In the Iroquoian calendar, the fall was the season for gathering acorns and nuts; the plants and fruits gathered were then eaten fresh or preserved for use as flavouring in foods such as the corn mush (or hominy) prepared by the Huron-Wendat.

From plump berries to fruit paste

“In many places, counties, islands and countries, along rivers and in the forests, there are large quantities of blueberries, which the Huron call ‘ohentaqué’, and other small fruits, which they refer to by the general name of ‘hahique’. They dry them for the winter, in the same way as we dry plums in the sun, make jellies for sick people and to flavour their "sagamité", and also put them in the bread rolls they cook in the ashes of their fires.” (Gabriel Sagard, 1624)

The plump flesh of strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, gooseberries and blueberries has always been a part of the Aboriginal diet. Their native names are also interesting. Mskikoimins, "small grass berry", and gôwakwimen, "porcupine berry", in the Abenaki language refer respectively to the environments in which the strawberry bush grows and to the thorns of the gooseberry bush. Kmu:jemin, "wood berry", and maqtewiman, "black berry", in the Micmac language describe the woody stems of the raspberry plant and the dark-coloured fruit of the blackberry bush. Pkuman, "sticky berry", the Micmac blueberry, may refer to the paste obtained by drying and cooking berries, which can be kept for several years in this form.

Fruits as big as damsons

The hawthorn does not ripen until the fall, when its fruit – "as big as damsons" said a surprised Jacques Cartier in 1535 – is ready to be gathered and eaten. Like the cherry, plum, cranberrybush (pimbina) and serviceberry, the hawthorn has many a story to tell. The Iroquoians were mainly responsible for its propagation. To flourish, the plant needs a large, dry site, which the Iroquoians were able to provide by clearing new fields. The bush has at least four different names in the Mohawk language, depending on the colour, shape and size of its fruit, the haw.

Other plants bear edible berries used in cooking, in drinks and as elements in a game of chance. For example, the Iroquoians produced a preparation of cherries and powdered meat, and the Abenaki still today make pimbina jelly. The Micmac used to prepare a drink from plum bark, and the Iroquoians a tea from serviceberry branches. The Huron-Wendat, however, used plum stones to make six dice for one of their games, better known among the Iroquoians as the peach-stone game.

Well-travelled nuts

Acorns, hickory nuts, walnuts and hazelnuts: all have been part of Aboriginal history for more than 7,000 years. The stone anvils used to break them can still be found today on archaeological sites. The presence of walnut shells on Île Verte, 100 km north of the butternut's distribution area, is a living reminder of how far the plant travelled as far back as the year 1200. Jacques Cartier, at a meeting with the Québec City Iroquoians (Stadacona) in the Gaspé Peninsula in July 1534, mentioned the presence of caheya nuts, probably from the previous year's harvest. The presence of butternut trees in Kitigan Zibi (Ottawa Valley) may also be an indication of the Algonquin influence over the tree's distribution area.

Traditionally, it was the women and children who gathered and prepared the nuts. The Huron-Wendat boiled acorns repeatedly in ashes to eliminate their bitter taste. The Mohawk used nuts to make bread and corn mush, and the Iroquoians extracted nut oil that they used to season pumpkins, squash and other vegetables, or even as a hair lacquer.

The power of herbs

Herbs have secret powers that can not be revealed only through experiments. In some cases, knowledge of their properties was derived from stories, dreams and revelations. In Huron-Wendat tradition, remedies were handed down by a mythical bear. An Iroquoian variant of the story credits the Bear clan as the source of herbal knowledge. The fact that medicinal plants are often referred to as grandfathers by some Iroquoian tribes is not really surprising, because the Aboriginal people often refer to the bear in this way.

The First Nations pharmacopoeia is sometimes complex, as is the task of gathering herbs. The Malecite and Micmac gather plants, beginning with the exposed part, at dawn, when the power conferred by the sun is judged to be at its height. The Micmac make a remedy composed of seven mixtures each containing seven different plants, since the number seven is a key symbol in their cosmology.

Wild ginger, witch-hazel, maidenhair fern, toothwort, bloodroot and Indian hemp are just some of the plants with beneficial properties used in medicine for their healing effects, in dye-work for their various colors, and in weaving, such as Indian hemp that used to be collected and spun by Huron-Wendat women.

Women of the corn

Corn first sprang from the grave of an Iroquoian woman, emerging from her breasts. Corn is often represented by a woman in Mohawk and Huron-Wendat mythology and it was cultivated by women.

As soon as the men had cleared an area, the women began to work the soil, armed with small hoes. They then planted corn in mounds of soil, usually followed by its sister crops, beans and squash. A field could contain thousands of mounds, since corn accounted for up to 65% of the Iroquoian diet. The first green corn harvest took place in August for the Mohawk, and like sowing and the fall harvest, it was an occasion for many feasts and ceremonies. However, soil exhaustion and lack of firewood forced villages to relocate periodically, approximately once every 15 years.

Called Indian corn by the Europeans, corn (or maize) originates from America. The Aboriginal peoples developed many different varieties, at least five of which were cultivated by the Mohawk: one variety of flint or "soup" corn, two of starchy or "bread" corn, one sweet corn variety and one popcorn variety. Corn was often exchanged for furs from the North. It was introduced into the north-eastern portion of the continent some 3,000 years ago.

Plants of light and spirit

Tobacco and sunflowers, plants of light and spirit, were grown everywhere by the Iroquoians. Tobacco was cultivated by the men in some regions where they were apparently the only ones to smoke it. It was said to "soothe the mind and sober thought", and was used in religious ceremonies, at healing sessions or at feasts where smoking was the only activity. Tobacco is still grown at Kahnawake, near Montréal, and is still used in ceremonies.

Sunflowers, plants of light, were grown for their seeds, which yielded oil used for cooking or as a hair lotion. The flowers were probably also the model for some decorative patterns found in Iroquoian art.

A Huron-Wendat legend...

A young girl from the Falcon clan died far from her village, and was sent back to her community in the body of a giant falcon. She emerged from the bird's cremated body with her hands full of seeds that she planted in the ashes. The seeds grew into tobacco, and the girl taught her people how to use it.

The Tree of Peace

The white pine can grow to a height of more than 35 metres and is one of the largest trees in Eastern Canada. It flourishes in full sunlight, and is easy to spot because of its size and shape. In the forest, it serves as a point of reference for the Algonquin, and has always been used for a variety of purposes by other nations. For example, the Iroquoians would hollow out pine trunks to make dugouts, the Huron-Wendat built fences of pine logs, and all the First Nations made pine-based remedies. In addition, the pine has becomed the emblem of the League of the Iroquois and a symbol in myths, diplomatic discourse and Iroquoian artistic representations. The pine, the Tree of Life, the Tree of Peace and the Celestial Tree, was one of the strongest images used by Grand Chief Kondiaronk in a speech made the year before the Great Peace of Montréal treaty was signed in 1701: Today, the sun has scattered the clouds, revealing this wonderful Tree of Peace...

The Three Sisters

Legend has it that corn, beans and squash are like three beautiful and affectionate women who enjoy each other's company. They are traditionally known as the Three Sisters, or De-o-ha'-ko, which means "Our life" or "Our support" in Iroquoian. The three plants formed the basis of the ancient Huron-Wendat and Mohawk diet. Planted, harvested and eaten together, they also shared thanksgiving ceremonies, as they were blessed in the spring, evoked in prayers for abundant rain in the summer and celebrated in the fall, at harvest time. A song sung by Iroquoian women describes the harvest in these terms: "The Three Sisters are happy because they are home again from their summer in the fields."

Intercropping of the Three Sisters is still practised today, and produces excellent results. The broad leaves of the corn plant protect the squash from the wind and sun, while the squash leaves prevent weeds from growing and also help retain soil humidity. The beans fix nitrogen levels in the soil and climb up the corn stalks towards the sunlight.

The art of the longhouses

Aboriginal architecture reached a summit in north-eastern North America with the majestic Iroquoian longhouses. The ancient villages of Stadacona and Hochelaga, along the banks of the St. Lawrence River, had dozens of these houses, each measuring an average of 25 metres in length and 6 or 7 metres in width and height. They each housed 5 or 6 families of about 5 people. Built by the men, they were known as Karonta'seronnion by the Iroquoians and ganonchia by the Huron-Wendat. Their tunnel-like structure was obtained by means of vertical and horizontal arrangements of logs, and they were covered by long strips of bark, preferably elm or cedar. Inside, fires were lit down the middle and were shared by the families living on opposite sides of the house. Porches were found at one and sometimes both ends, and were used to store corn and firewood.

The longhouses were typical of corn-growing societies with more sedentary lifestyles, and were used for more than a thousand years, finally disappearing in the 18th Century. They are still part of the Mohawk and Huron-Wendat identity. Smaller long homes are still used by some northern Algonquian nations such as the rectangular kichiihchauukimikw of the Cree which can house 2 or 3 families in winter and the shaputuan of the Innu, a similar construction.

Tangled grain wood

The American elm (Ulmus americana), known as the Okárati or "tangled grain" wood by the Mohawk, is easy to recognize from its flared silhouette, fan-like branches and gracious parasol-shaped canopy. It is one of the largest trees in the deciduous forest. Its Mohawk name refers seemingly to the fact that its wood is difficult to split because the fibres are tangled together; indeed, it can only be cut when frozen.

The bark of the different elm species is used for a variety of purposes. For example, the Abenaki used it to make coffins, the Huron-Wendat to make containers of all kinds, and the Mohawk to cover their longhouses, to make barrel-like containers or, with the twisted bark, to make dog harnesses. The Iroquoians used it to make bark canoes that were not as strong as the Algonquian birchbark canoes, but could nevertheless transport up to 20 people at once. A single piece of elm bark was stretched over a wooden frame and sealed at both ends. The Micmac still produce a dye from elm bark, while the Mohawk boil it with oak bark to make a herbal preparation used as medicine.

The mystery of annedda

The Americas have given the world a large number of plants such as corn, potato and tomato, but also coca and cinchona, used for their therapeutic properties. If there is one plant that would have deserved this kind of attention but did not receive it, it would be the annedda, which saved Jacques Cartier and his crew on their second voyage to Canada, in 1535. During the winter, several members of Cartier's crew died of scurvy, caused by vitamin C deficiency. At Cartier's request, the Iroquoians of Stadacona, who knew the remedy for this, administered a decoction of annedda to the survivors. They were cured in the space of a few days. According to specialists, annedda is surely a conifer, probably the white-cedar (Thuja occidentalis), which used to be known as the arbor vitae, or tree of life, because it "preserves life".

The Mohawk are well aware of the cedar's beneficial properties, and use its leaves to make a herbal tea. The wood of this very old tree is often used to construct frames, and appears to guarantee long life to objects such as Algonquian canoes, Micmac and Malecite arrows, and Algonquin basket frames.

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