Jackie Finnie is a Metis elder raised in Manitoba, and involved with many neighbourhood programs at Lake Trail and the wider community. Jackie teaches traditional drum-making, and is full of enthusiasm for sharing her knowledge with young people. We took the class on a walk in Morrison Nature Park, for a November wildcrafting mission.
Dan: I’m working here at Lake Trail with the Living History Project, bringing out the local community history and local knowledge of the area. And for that reason we’ve brought in Jackie Finnie, who lives in the area and is really knowledgeable about the local flora and fauna and plants. We’re going to go out and do a bit of wild crafting, look at some local medicinal roots and some stuff we can gather and eat out there. Even at this time of year which is freezing winter there’s still stuff that we can do, so thanks for coming, Jackie.
Jackie: Thank you for the invite. I think all of our young people should really be informed because it doesn’t matter, you can break down in a car in a strange area and if you’ve been injured you really can get disoriented, you could get out of the car and wander into the woods, but if you have it engrained in you what there is that you can utilize, then it’s in your subconscious, it’s going to come. You’re going to get hungry. You’re going to look around you and think “oh, I can eat this”, so it increases your chance of survival. There’s a lot of different ways of finding your way in the woods. I have a difficult time with getting around in BC because I’m Manitoba born and bred. My husband was in the navy, but he and I spent a lot of time out in the bush because we both love nature, we both love hunting, and it’s very important to know how to survive if you are out there.
Dan: I see it like you’re using nature as your emergency tool kit. So if you’re able to identify just four or five common plants that are around, if you have an accident, go “oh, I scraped my leg. Well, I could just chew up some plantain leaf and use it as a poultice”.
Jackie: And then put the whole plantain over top of that and then, even grass is helpful, if you find a long stem of grass. You can use grass to tie it off because there are a lot of grasses that are very strong. The creator put everything we need on earth to take care of ourselves.
Ann Marie: Thank you so much for coming in, Jackie, and sharing your knowledge with us.
Jackie: Well, I am very pleased that I got invited because this is my life. Since I was a little kid like that, my grandmother taught me. She never got an education, in southern Manitoba she couldn’t go to school because her mother was Cree. So they moved to a Cree settlement and she couldn’t go to school there because her father was part French, and so she was denied an education. She could not read nor write, but she spoke five languages fluently, and she was the most respected woman in our community because she knew how to heal just about anything. I know now that the one man that came to her with ulcerated legs, the doctors wanted to cut off his legs. She cured him with the root of a water lily plant, that I had to go out with my little boat and rescue out of the swamp and bring home – and within three months she had that man’s legs looking like a new little baby’s bottom. They were just beautiful, clean and pink. And now I know that what was wrong with his legs was cancer, so my grandmother cured cancer – and there’s many ways of curing cancer that the doctors won’t even try. But go to an Indian medicine woman and she’ll help you.
My grandmother was a healer, and I tried to learn as much from her as I could. But I left home, I went in to study lab and x-ray technology in the hospital. We were not protected like they are in the hospitals now. Now you’re in a separate room, the radiation doesn’t get anywhere near you. Where I was, the x-ray machine was where Dan is. The waves went across there. I was standing about here behind a lead-lined screen with a lead-lined apron, and receiving all the x-radiation into my back from the bounce-off from the plates. I got very sick and I had to give up my studies.
I’ve always been interested in healing, and the greatest healer, and the one thing that will eventually cure you is your own body. And eat fresh fruit, fresh vegetables and as much of it as you can eat raw, because it contains and keeps more of its nutrients. And lean meat. Stay away from really fatty meats and poultry. Me too! I have quit eating wheat and I’m trying a gluten free diet and I’ve lost, I would say, about 20 pounds.
That’s why we have to take care of it before we’re sick, we have to drink the roots of dandelion, we have to drink some of this terrible tasting stuff. You can use it and make tea and boil it like spinach – so dandelion is an extremely important plant. I love it because I’m a bad girl and I make wine out of it, out of the blossoms. And the little blossoms in the spring, you can take those and pull all those little yellow things off and eat it, and you can sprinkle it on salads. That was taught to me by a little four-year-old. She decorated our salads with a dandelion flower that we’d picked. And stinging nettle, although you have to be careful how you pick it, can be boiled and eaten. Stinging nettle is also an important plant because it has a lot of medicinal value. The plantain is edible and it also is nutritious. There’s two types – the broad leaf plantain and then there’s the long leaf plantain.
If you get a book out of the library that says edible plants of BC, you can learn a lot more, because out in the bush there’s food all around you and in the spring, berries, yes, and throughout the year there are all different types of berries. Also the leaves on your huckleberry plant, your blueberry plant, are very medicinal but they can also just be eaten. If you don’t find any berries on a huckleberry bush you can eat the leaves. Don’t go hungry out there. Best of all, don’t get lost – and if you get lost, don’t get lost without water because that’s one of the most important things. We can go for a long time without eating but we can’t really survive without having water – and some places if the water is not really good and you can get some moss, whether it’s off a tree or anything, you can pour your water through the moss and that will filter out a lot of the impurities so that the water will become potable.
But I guess the best thing is if we go out there and you all see how many plants you can recognize, how many you can say what it’s good for, and then we’re going to see if we can find some dandelions and we can take the roots and make tea out of that. We can also make tea out of the roots of the Oregon grape. How many of you have seen Oregon grape and know what it is? Don’t try and eat the berries raw. It’s disgusting. They can be made into one of the most beautiful jellies that exist, the Oregon grape jelly is just delicious but raw they’re not so good. Let’s see. If we’re ready we can go because we have got the most gorgeous day.
(the group gathers outside the school)
(after some walking, they stop by an embankment)
Dan: What have you got there, Jackie?
Jackie: Oregon grape. See, the whole bank of it right there. The one that kind of looks like holly, it’s got prickly leaves. That’s the one that has the big purple clusters of berries in the spring that turn really quite dark. They are not edible raw because they really taste horrible, but they make wonderful jams and jellies. The root of this particular plant can be dug up and cleaned off, brewed and made into a tea which is very nutritious. So that’s the first plant.
Now, I know there are a lot of edible ferns but whether this particular one is edible or not, I’m not too sure, but the one that comes out curled in the spring I believe that is edible. So fiddlehead, I’ve only known fiddleheads from back east but I’m not too sure… If I was hungry I would probably eat it anyway. And maple trees, you can get the sap from the maple tree if you cut a hole, and the sap is nutritious, but of course it’s much, much better if it’s boiled for a long time to make syrup. You can make marvelous candy out of it, so the maple tree is nutritious and it does have a lot of vitamins and minerals in it, also. And it has the big leaves. If you watch that you can always tap a maple tree and get some sap to drink.
If you find water and it’s not drinkable, if you collect yourself some of the moss and strain it through it’ll separate a lot of the bits and pieces and stuff that you don’t want to ingest. Use the moss as a filter. And I would recommend if you find a tree with the moss on it, it’s much better, because it’s not on the ground where it can get contaminated by animals walking over and doing their thing, or whatever. So tree moss is the best to use as a filter. In some of the tree moss there’s a little fern which is extremely medicinal. It’s good for the heart and it tastes like licorice, that’s the big bonus part. If you find any show it to me.
The red willow, your red willow bushes are another good source of making tea. Did you know that is where the big drug companies got their acetyl-salicylic acid, which is aspirin? So if you’re hurting when you’re lost, find yourself some red willow, strip the bark, mash it, and put some boiling water over it and you’ve got an excellent source of pain relief. Wherever we go we’re surrounded by medicines and food. That’s why it’s important to learn those things, especially if you decide you want to become a naturalist and be out in the woods. See, I think that’s all red willow over there. It stands out so nicely. You can use red willow any time of year. If you had a headache you could take some now and go and make tea and drink it.
Now, there is the stinging nettle that grows over there by that baseball back thing. If you have arthritis, like for me, if I go and rub my finger in stinging nettle it will take the pain out of arthritis and help your arthritis to heal. Any other part of your body that it touches is affected and will have little bumps and be very itchy and sore but for people with arthritis, especially in the knee, if you go and you rub your knee in the stinging nettle, it’s very beneficial, that’s how the elders used to do it long ago. So stinging nettle can also be picked when it’s young, boiled as spinach, very nutritious, and you can use the roots.
Dan: The sting on the nettle, some people say it feels good. I don’t think so.
Jackie: No, if you have arthritis it does. To steam it, just get a little bit of water and heat it and just put your stinging nettle in there and it doesn’t take much heat to make it edible.
How many of you have touched stinging nettle? It doesn’t feel good, eh? Wait till you have arthritis. It’ll feel wonderful. No, don’t get arthritis.
But remember, any time you are gathering anything in the wild, only take what you need and leave the rest for someone else that maybe has a need for it and for the plant to regenerate itself so that it’s not destroyed. That is one of the most important things: Never take more than what you need at that particular time. It’s Mother Nature’s larder and we have to protect it. We have to know there are other people coming behind us that may need the same things we are needing right now. So, number one, never trample plants. Always be mindful of where your feet are going and mindful of keeping things protected. That’s what we are. We are mother earth’s protector. And if we see somebody else doing damage then it’s up to us to say “oh no, let’s not do that”.
Horsetail. Like I say, we didn’t have this on the prairies but I’ve learned about it here. There’s two types of horsetail. There’s the tall and the short horsetail and I believe it’s the short horsetail that you can make a drink out of.
That’s one of the things I’d call a weed. In my garden it’s a weed.
In your garden it’s a weed. Well, everything was a weed at once until we domesticated it. Right here you’re stepping on something that is very helpful. Now, if you’re lost, find yourself a nice big tree, an evergreen tree with a good branch spread. Get some of the branches and lay them on the ground. That makes a bed for you, because you shouldn’t be right on the ground when you’re sleeping, it’s wet and it’s cold. All the air space created by the branches will trap your body heat, and keep you from losing too much more of your body heat. Because the very dangerous thing is to get hypothermia which is lowering of the body’s core, so you have to try and keep yourself warm. And if you can always remember to carry a little package of matches in a waterproof container with a little piece of the abrasive part of the matchbox with it so that you can scratch that and start a fire, and underneath big evergreens where the branches are a little lower to the ground, you can make a little fire. It doesn’t have to be a big fire, ‘cause you don’t want to set the woods on fire too. Although that is a way of getting people to come and find you!
Now, salal are big bushes that grow all over the forest and all over the land in BC. It’s a broad leaf and it stays green all the time. They cut and use it in flower arrangements. And the salal berry is very nutritious. It is not as tasty as a lot of other berries. You can make salal berry jam, but if you’re out in the woods and you’re hungry, salal berries in season are very good. They’re not extremely tasty and don’t feel good in your mouth but persevere. If you’re hungry everything tastes good. And watching the birds and the animals, what they’ll eat, is a very good idea.
The same with mushrooms. You should know your mushrooms. Never eat a mushroom that has not been a personal friend of yours for a while.
(more walking – spotting a fern high up on a tree)
…. Grab some of that for us and see if it tastes like licorice? Very slight hint of licorice in there. Maybe it’s because it’s older and it’s winter that maybe, I’m gonna keep chewing anyway… a very light hint of… I think it’s the wrong time of the year. Oh, now I can taste the licorice. Yeah. It’s strange. All of a sudden it just hit my tongue.
(they find some oregon grape)
…okay, just get hold of one, maybe this one that’s right down here. Get down under the bottom there and see if you can pull it up. Okay, maybe two of you can. The root is what we’re looking for. And then two big strong men stand behind them and catch them.
(the group reconvenes in the classroom)
Okay, as in everything else, anything that we are going to put into our bodies we should clean first. Now, if you’re out in the woods and there is no place to wash it in that way and water is at a premium, you can set it in the sun, let it dry, and then just brush off all the dirt till it’s pretty clean, then try putting a little bit of water over it to get off any of the rest of it.
(some students clean the gathered root)
The root would dry and then you could brush it off before trying to wash it, and then you find a nice clean rock that’s big enough so when you’re pounding you’re not going to hit your fingers. Okay. Hold it and pound the root a bit, then break it into pieces and put it in something with water. If you’re at the beach, you can find a big seashell to boil water in. Actually you can use big seashells to cook in, but you probably won’t find any out in the woods. Sometimes people have used pieces of wood with a hole in them. Make sure that you soak the wood good before you put it in the fire. This way it won’t catch fire before your water comes hot enough to put your root in, to allow it to steep a bit before you drink it. That also sterilizes the water and makes it hot enough to take the goodness out of the root. Oh, this is tough, this is a good hard root. We might need a hatchet to whack this up. Okay, we’ll save all this here because that is the outer bark and it’s all been washed. Okay, a little pot that we can boil the water. Everybody just needs a little taste anyway, just a teaspoonful. That’s good.
How many can tell me what’s one of the things that you don’t go into the woods without? Water. Good. Now, I know it’s frowned upon, but a person should always have a small knife with them. You know, you can use it to cut things. I like the size of your knife. And you can use it to cut up things and to very gently use it to loosen soil around a root that you might want to utilize.
(checking the teapot on the stove)
So, it’s steeped. Now, I’m brave so being as I’m the one that conned you into this, I will take the first sip – and then everybody can come up and get a spoon, and maybe we’ll have to rewash some of them and then you can have a little taste. I’ll taste it first. If I choke and gasp and fall on the floor don’t drink it, okay? You know something, we’re in the bush. We don’t have strainers in the bush. Oh yes, the moss, but right now all the sediment is down at the bottom and it looks very clear. It is very bitter but it’s not that bitter that you can’t stand it. And if you’re out in the woods and you do make it and there’s a maple tree nearby cut a little thing in the maple tree and get some of the maple sap and put it in and that’ll sweeten it up. Okay, all you brave people, get up here and have a taste and then we’ll wash the first ones.
Okay, that’ll do. I promise it won’t kill you. It’s bitter isn’t it but it’s not going to harm you. And if you’re lost and you need something to keep your vitamins and minerals up so you don’t get beriberi, scurvy or any of those things, it would be a last resort. Dandelion root is much nicer, especially in the spring. Actually you can use the whole dandelion plant, so now they have finally realized the goodness of dandelion and they are growing it organically and selling it for a very high price in local supermarkets along with a lot of other different ones added to it, but I’m so happy that they now realize the worth of the poor little dandelion.
How many types of horsetail are there? And what are you going to do, go on line and research it? Your computer can tell you so many things. It can’t tell me anything because I don’t know how to use it. But I am thinking that I will go to the Evergreen Seniors and see about learning how to access the things on computers that I would like to know. I used to know everything, but now I’m older I realize that I don’t know everything. And I would love to be able to go on line and find out the things that I don’t know because to help everybody else, I have to know.
To me, knowledge is a burden that will never break your back. It doesn’t matter how much knowledge you stuff into your head, you can still carry it around and you can still walk tall and not have it drag you down. This is the most wonderful part of your life, being able to be in school. There are a lot of children that don’t have that opportunity. So we are very, very fortunate in that we can go to school until grade 12 and learn all we can and then we can access becoming university or college students, because the more knowledge you have the more you’re needed in your communities. Although we still need some ditch diggers but oh, that’s hard on the back, so I don’t know, do you have some questions that you might like to ask?
How did people know what to do? And did pioneers pick this up off of the aboriginals that lived here, or how did all this knowledge get translated and passed down.
The truth is that had the original Canadians not stepped in and helped the first shiploads of people that came, they would not have survived their first winter. They would not have survived their first spring, because they did not know the plants and medicines and how to take care of themselves, how to erect structures, they came from big cities where everything was already built. They came from small farms where all the foods that they knew were what they grew and everything here looked different. There they had domesticated carrots. Here, carrots were wild and the onions were wild. Garlic and gingers were all wild. In Canada, all across, we had wild ginger which, in some places in the prairies we call it wehkesk in our Cree language. Here they have other names for it. I’m not familiar with all the names because they are all in different languages.
The European men, of course, they never brought their women with them. They took the Native women as their spouses, and the Metis were born – and I am proud to say it doesn’t matter who takes over Canada, whether it’s the British, whether it’s the French, or whether it’s the original people, because I have French, Scottish and Cree blood, so they can’t get rid of me. I’m staying! It was the original people that were here that knew how to survive that taught the newcomers.
How many of you learned anything today? Oh, that’s a plus. Were you all bored out of your minds? Good, because if you’re bored and not listening you don’t learn anything and it’s a bad day if you don’t learn at least one new thing and I learned that you’re all wonderful students, so that’s my learning for today. I’m glad to be able to share some of my knowledge, and just remember these are the best days of your life and the more you can cram up into here the better off you are. Thank you.