A forest garden orchard in Nuchatlaht territory, British Columbia.

Indigenous Forest Gardens Help Bolster Land Rights Arguments


The people of the Sts’ailes Nation have lived for 3,000 years on the banks of the Harrison River in British Columbia, its icy blue waters framed by mountains and fir trees.

Evidence of their long presence on this land is visible in the remaining crabapple and nut trees that were once part of the nation’s forest gardens. What’s left today are some gnarled trees and overgrown bushes hidden among other old forest growth of pines and spruce. But these gardens were once full of plants carefully selected and nurtured to provide an important means of subsistence.

Forest gardens were a method of agriculture in which practitioners cleared the land around or near villages, planted crops, and managed with agricultural methods like controlled burns and fertilization to increase the productivity of the plants. Traces of species like Pacific crabapple, beaked hazelnut, wild cherry, and others have been found in recent years — in some cases, still growing even more than a century after they were tended. They would have been selected for their nutritional value and, in some examples like the crabapple, long-term storage.

For anthropologists, ethnologists, and other scientists, the existence of these gardens belies the long-held hunter-gatherer theory that maintained that the region’s Indigenous peoples didn’t change and nurture their lands. Instead, experts now believe this method of agriculture and land manipulation helped communities like the Sts’ailes thrive.

The traditional Sts’ailes territory of roughly 802,150 acres (324,620 hectares) — their current reserve is about 2,260 acres — was able to sustain its inhabitants through both good and difficult times because of its rich resources and the deep connection the community had to the land, said Kelsey Charlie Sr., who sits on the Sts’ailes Council, and whose traditional name is Teixweltel. The word lhemeqwatel, he said, “means that you can get anything off of it, that it’s going to provide everything for you. And that includes those forest gardens and other cultivated things that they used for survival.”

The land that was home to the Sts’ailes Nation is just one area where there is evidence that forest gardens were created and nurtured by communities of First Nations, the collective name given to most of Canada’s Indigenous peoples. While there is not a definitive catalog of the forest gardens, there are remains of them up and down the coast of British Columbia — some known, some still used by communities, some being rediscovered.

Chelsey Geralda Armstrong, a historical ecologist, researcher, and assistant professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, has been working with First Nations communities, including the Sts’ailes, to rediscover, confirm, and document the gardens, complementing traditional knowledge cultivated over time, sometimes for thousands of years.

A forest garden at Gitsaex, in the Kitselas Canyon, northwestern British Columbia. From above, forest gardens visually stick out because they contrast with the surrounding conifer forests. Chelsey Geralda Armstrong and her team did an in-depth study of this site, finding that the oldest conifers were about 81 years old, while the oldest crabapple was 108. Visual: Storm Carroll, courtesy of Chelsey Geralda Armstrong

For one First Nation, the Nuchatlaht First Nation, Armstrong’s work was also referenced in a legal land claim against the province of British Columbia and the Attorney General of Canada before the Supreme Court of British Columbia. The case, which was filed in 2017, went to trial over 54 days between March 2022 and March 2023 — “far shorter than Aboriginal rights cases that have been advanced before this court,” as the judge wrote in his decision. It was decided in May of 2023, and had a follow-up hearing in March of this year. The province has argued that the lands were abandoned and not continuously inhabited by the nation and so the nation has no legal claim to them.

But according to the Nuchatlaht, these lands were never ceded, meaning they were never part of an agreement between settlers and the nation, or surrendered in any way, which is the case with most of the lands that make up the province of British Columbia today. The nation is seeking the legal land title for part of Nootka Island, a small island nestled among the nation’s traditional territory and along the coast of Vancouver Island. The current land claim totals about 77 square miles; at stake is the nation’s ability to manage the land, live on it, protect precious salmon and waterways. In April, the court decided in favor of the nation for an area of just over 4 square miles. The nation’s lawyer said they will appeal with the British Columbia Court of Appeal for recognition of the full land claim.

The nation commissioned Armstrong to conduct a study in support of their case, and she also acted as an expert witness. Such efforts to combine traditional community knowledge with Western scientific methods are helping to pick away at the argument of terra nullius, or vacant land, said archeologist and cultural anthropologist Tanja Hoffmann, a research fellow at the University of York’s Heritage for Global Challenges Research Center. “How much more proof do we actually need that Indigenous people were here, are here, and will be here?” she asked.

Humans have shaped almost all of the planet’s ecosystems, said Alex McAlvay, assistant curator at the New York Botanical Garden’s Institute of Economic Botany. “A combination of fire, pruning, transplanting, tolerating what comes up, selecting — very few places on Earth seem to be free from this,” he said. “And this has kind of overturned the idea of the hunter-gatherer as someone who just wanders around randomly picking berries or harvesting roots.”

Danielle Macdonald, an anthropological archaeologist at the University of Tulsa and co-editor of the 2022 book “More Than Shelter From the Storm: Hunter-Gatherer Houses and the Built Environment,” said the forest gardens provide clear evidence that Indigenous peoples had a deep relationship with their environment. “Archaeologists and anthropologists are really starting to see that people are making a sense of place, and there is this deep engagement,” she said. And “as we start to think more about how people are utilizing plants, we can start to tease out these more nuanced relationships.”

Armstrong’s work supports the idea that some forest environments in British Columbia that were once considered wild are, in fact, often the result of careful shepherding and agricultural practices. There is similar evidence in the Colorado Plateau, the Guiana Shield in South America, and in Arizona, in some cases in areas that have been developed, exploited for natural resources, or turned into protected areas, like the Grand Canyon National Park.

Nonetheless, Armstrong added, “Despite decades of research on the topic, this idea of Indigenous peoples’ homelands as being culturally mediated and highly influenced spaces is still so utterly contested in courts, in public policy, in environmental regulations.”

Cultivated rice root from the forest garden at Gitsaex. The plant is an important starch food. Visual: Travis Freeland, courtesy of Chelsey Geralda Armstrong
In a stewarded landscape of rice root meadows in Gwininnitxw territory, Chelsey Geralda Armstrong studies an excavation site. Visual: Kira Hoffman, courtesy of Chelsey Geralda Armstrong

The legal justification for taking First Nation lands, said Hoffmann, is directly linked to the colonial view that Indigenous peoples weren’t using all of their lands and so “they were essentially in the colonial eyes ripe for the taking.” It’s a concept that continues to be used against Indigenous peoples, she added, and “the work that Chelsey does with the communities is just picking away at that argument.”

So far, efforts to cite the remnants of cultivated gardens to support First Nations’ land reclamation claims have failed to gain much legal traction. Hoffmann has worked for decades with another nation located in what’s now known as British Columbia, the Katzie First Nation, including as part of a team that worked to counter plans for a bridge that would cut through the nation’s fishing territory. In the process, they discovered a 3,800-year-old coastal wetland garden where Indigenous peoples farmed a tuber plant called Wapato. (The bridge was built anyway.)

Armstrong’s recent research, the result of seven years of work, documents seven forest garden sites near the British Columbia coast. Her team found 155 species of plants, 15 of which are significant indicators of forest gardens: those that are edible, culturally significant, and show evidence of having been cultivated by people. One forest garden, at Gitsaex, in the Kitselas Canyon, was then chosen for a more in-depth examination. The samples they took comparing forest trees and crabapple trees found that the oldest conifers were about 81 years old, while the oldest crabapple was 108.

These gardens aren’t grown like conventional Western ones, Armstrong said. “It’s not a net turnover of species like agriculture, but enhancing what you want and keeping out what you don’t,” she said. “Over time, that produces an edible landscape.”

The legal justification for taking First Nation lands, said Hoffmann, is directly linked to the colonial view that Indigenous peoples weren’t using all of their lands.

From above, forest gardens visually stick out because they contrast with the surrounding conifer forests. Armstrong’s team uses soil and tree ring analyses, radiocarbon dating, paleoethnobotanical data, physical measurements, along with historical aerial images and newer satellite imagery. In addition, the researchers take plant inventories, dividing gardens into plots for closer study.

But the first thing Armstrong did was talk to people in the community. In such research, she’ll ask questions like, “Where are the good places to harvest?” “Where did grandma go?” That traditional knowledge and language offers many clues, she said, which she can use to focus her research.

Charlie Sr. of the Sts’ailes Nation says ecosystems that have thrived for thousands of years with balance and harmony have been knocked off-kilter. At the same time, he added, more and more people are returning to these places to gather the plants that their elders used.

“It’s a very, very simple thing,’’ said Charlie Sr. “The way our elders said it was that we had agreements and arrangements with all living things.”

Nancy Turner, an emeritus professor at the University of Victoria who wasn’t involved in Armstrong’s research (although they have worked together in the past), was an expert witness in a landmark case decided in 2014 involving the Tsilhqot’in Nation, which recognized a First Nation’s title to their traditional territories for the first time in Canada. She said that Indigenous claims were long ignored or dismissed “without recognizing all of the intricate knowledge that they had, and the ways that they were promoting and tending and caring for their land.”

The current test for land title in British Columbia is evidence of regular and exclusive use of land before 1846, said Gordon Christie, a law professor at the University of British Columbia. Proving regular use has been a challenge for the Nuchatlaht First Nation in its current B.C. Supreme Court claim, he said, in part because of the mountainous nature of the land. “They have to show these things that are very hard to show,” he said.

In 2021, however, five years after Nuchatlaht’s case was launched, Canadian passed federal legislation to affirm the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, suggesting a shifting approach to First Nations’ territorial rights. “I think it’s pretty fair to say that the U.N. Declaration envisions Indigenous peoples having rights over their territories that is more expansive than what the Supreme Court of Canada’s been saying for the last 25 years or so,” Christie said.

An appeal would be another step on a long road — and an expensive one for the nation, who would pay for it — if the case goes all the way to the Canadian Supreme Court.

The bigger context for this case is that it could push higher level courts to rethink title tests, said Christie. Those are based on an early way of thinking, and the U.N. declaration is much more progressive, he said. “Canada has signaled on the federal level, and the B.C provincial level, that they want to embrace the U.N. Declaration,” he said. “Well, here’s an opportunity to do so.”

Armstrong also won an Insight Grant from the Government of Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, along with four First Nations, to put together a manual to help Indigenous communities identify and restore their own forest gardens. The group also want to create a network of nations so they can share forest garden knowledge. Along with her colleagues, Armstrong has also been working with the Nuchatlaht Nation to create a geodatabase to survey everything on their land and to help them better manage their land, particularly against encroachments like logging and trespassing tourists.

An appeal would be another step on a long road — and an expensive one for the nation, who would pay for it — if the case goes all the way to the Canadian Supreme Court.

But the priority of these communities is to restore their forest gardens in some form. “At the end of the day, this is the goal: Bring these places back to life,” said Armstrong.

The Sts’ailes, like the Kitselas, are using Armstrong’s work to refurbish their forest gardens. Clearing competing plants has already helped, with particular attention being given to the crabapples, which are flourishing.

Charlie said that part of the community’s snoweyelh, or law of everything, is their responsibility to take care of the land. “Our elders always told us that we never owned the land, but we were a part of the land,” he said. “And if we look after it, then it will look after us.”

Danielle Beurteaux is a journalist based in Montréal.