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Jessica Shenandoah

Community Building Through Foraging

In collaboration with

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Story by Stephany Hildebrand
Photos by Stephany Hildebrand

For Jessica Shenandoah, foraging is all about preserving traditions, amplifying Indigenous knowledge, building community, and protecting plants for future generations to enjoy.

The day my mom and I met Jessica to forage for wild ginger in a forest in Cornwall, she arrived on site with three Mohawk community members: Eddie Gray, Louise Ingle, and Vickie “Sodi” Horne. Unfamiliar to one another, we walked into the woods quietly, searching for the root with heart-shaped leaves and medicinal properties. I don’t remember who spotted the first plant but we all stopped and paused. Eddie, a local Elder who has led medicine walks for more than 15 years, said words of thanks to the plant. We passed around a little leather bag filled with tobacco and each person sprinkled some tobacco near the ginger. No one picked this first plant, an important traditional tenet in many Indigenous cultures.

For Jessica Shenandoah, foraging is all about preserving traditions, amplifying Indigenous knowledge, building community, and protecting plants for future generations to enjoy.

The day my mom and I met Jessica to forage for wild ginger in a forest in Cornwall, she arrived on site with three Mohawk community members: Eddie Gray, Louise Ingle, and Vickie “Sodi” Horne. Unfamiliar to one another, we walked into the woods quietly, searching for the root with heart-shaped leaves and medicinal properties. I don’t remember who spotted the first plant but we all stopped and paused. Eddie, a local Elder who has led medicine walks for more than 15 years, said words of thanks to the plant. We passed around a little leather bag filled with tobacco and each person sprinkled some tobacco near the ginger. No one picked this first plant, an important traditional tenet in many Indigenous cultures.

As members of the Mohawk Nation,  Eddie, Louise, Sodi, and Jessica observe a set of traditional rules and guidelines that go beyond what other non-Indigenous foragers may follow:

• Always give thanks to the plant before picking.

• Show reciprocity by offering something to the plant (tobacco, a song, or a thought, for example).

• Never pick the first or last plant you see. (Jessica says she waits until she sees the third plant before she gathers anything. Leaving the first two means ensuring pollination can continue.)

• Collect only 10 to 20% of what is available to ensure their viability for future generations.

• Collect with a positive mind so this good energy can be transferred to the medicine.

The respectful observance of thanking the plant seemed to break the ice and as the group continued to walk together, the conversations started flowing. From my perspective, a bond was quickly forming between my mom, Nancy, and the Mohawk foragers. They seemed to appreciate her knowledge and deep respect for the natural world and from this, symbiotic energy blossomed. The group stopped often to look at other plants and share their personal treasure trove of information about them.

After collecting what they needed, the foragers slowly made their way back to their cars. Jessica and Sodi returned to my mom’s home to see her garden, and the gathered foods she processes to enjoy through the colder months. I could see the trio deepening their relationship as they chatted freely about nature’s bounty.

A few weeks passed. On a drive through town, my mom noticed that a large swath of the forest—the forest she had walked with her new friends a few weeks earlier—had disappeared. Cornwall Gravel was clearing the land to make way for a housing development project. My mom called Jessica in a panic and the two discussed what could be done to save some of the ginger. Jessica then reached out to Grand Chief Abram Benedict who then contacted Cornwall Gravel for permission to access the property.

The company was not only gracious but accommodating in their response. They listened, granted permission to go to the property, and sent one of their representatives to join our group—which swelled to ten people—on a foraging and rescue mission. We filled several large bags with plants, soil, and leaf litter. Some of this was donated to members of the community, including organizations like the Akwesasne Freedom School, and some was planted in protected areas.

Rescuing medicinal plants and wild foods before development takes place is very important and necessary, says Jessica, the Camp Coordinator for the Thompson Island Cultural Camp. In her role, she leads cultural training, medicine walks, and traditional food tastings. She is also credited with spearheading an initiative last summer to provide packages for the community’s Elders filled with traditional foods and medicines that were picked and processed by students who attended the camp. From her experience with Cornwall Gravel, Jessica holds hope that other developers might contact her to visit properties where projects are planned so medicinal plants and wild food can be recuperated and relocated for future generations to enjoy.

In the spirit of reconciliation, a collaborative approach between foragers and developers is a win-win approach for all.

In collaboration with

Perch Magazine - Logo

Story by Stephany Hildebrand
Photos by Stephany Hildebrand

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