Indigenous gardens take root at Mount Allison University

14 Aug 2019

Local plants with important uses, meaning in Mi’kmaw culture to be highlighted across campus

Raven Elwell is spending her summer tending to Mount Allison University’s campus grounds. The fourth-year environmental science student is working to establish several Indigenous gardens on campus, which include local plants with important meaning and uses in Indigenous culture, most notably the Mi’kmaq community.

ThreeSistersGardenElwell is working with several individuals in the campus and wider community on the project, including Dr. Jesse Popp, Mount Allison Geography and Environment professor and recently-named Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Environmental Science, as well as members of Fort Folly First Nation, Indigenous Elders, and fellow Mount Allison students.

“The garden project is one we had talked about previously on campus. It’s exciting to see it fall into place this year,” says Elwell. “I’ve enjoyed working with so many members of the community, including Doreen Richard [Mount Allison’s first Indigenous affairs co-ordinator and member of the Board of Regents], Nicole Dubé from Fort Folly, Jesse Popp, [fellow students] Laylia Bennett and Mihar Raouf, and the campus grounds crew, who have been so helpful throughout the summer.”

Popp says the gardens serve as an important educational resource and help share Indigenous knowledge in a meaningful way.

“We’ve worked with the University to design several gardens. One focuses on the medicine wheel, and another is called the Three Sisters garden, which includes corn, beans, and squash,” explains Popp. “We’re looking forward to sharing these with the campus and wider community in the fall.”

ThreeSistersGarden_pic2The Three Sisters garden, located near the University’s Sweat Lodge, constructed in 2018, is intended to help show how certain plants grow better when placed together, much like how people can accomplish more when working together. The garden includes two plots to help illustrate these partnerships. One plot has the plants planted together, while on the other side the plants are separate so people can see the difference in their growth.

IndigenousGardens_flagpoleThe second garden is located at the heart of campus, around the Mik’maq flag in front of the Chapel. It is a decorative plot designed in the colours of the Mi’kmaq medicine wheel: white, black, red, and yellow. A garden of sweet grass and sage, used for Indigenous ceremonies, has also been planted on campus.

Elwell’s summer internship also includes identifying existing native plant species on campus. These species will be marked with new signage in English, French, and Mi’kmaq, highlighting their importance and use among Indigenous communities.

“We’ve identified 15 different species of plants on campus for the project to date, including cedar, oak, birch, and maple trees,” says Elwell.

Growing up in Cape Breton and Millbrook First Nation, NS, Elwell was always interested in plants and helped in her mother’s garden. This summer marks the first time she has tended to a vegetable garden, with great results. The team recently picked their first harvest of several squash in the Three Sisters plot with one that weighed in at over one and a half kilograms.

Elwell’s internship is supported through Future Ready Wabanaki, a branch of Future Ready NB that seeks to specifically support Indigenous students through experiential learning opportunities and building job-readiness skills.

The team plans to organize garden tours for members of the University and wider communities this fall and are currently making plans for a community presentation and feast to share their findings from the summer project.

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