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Erica Oberndorfer (PhD Project Overview)


The shared stories of people and plants: Cultural and ecological relationships between people and plants in Makkovik, Nunatsiavut (Labrador)

I enjoy hearing people tell stories about plants. These stories help teach us how relationships with plants are practiced, how plants are cared for, how knowledge about plants is taught, learned and shared, and how the lives of people are influenced by their relationships with plants.

We don’t often think of plants as having much of a voice, but plants have their own stories to tell about people. In many places, plants express a narrative of people-plant relationships by acting as “footprints” of past and contemporary cultural practices on the land. The distribution of plant species and the plant communities of cultural places help tell the ecological story of people-plant relationships.

I am interested in these shared stories of people and plants, and my research aims to better understand these stories from cultural and ecological perspectives. I hope this research can encourage discussion on the cultural aspects of northern biological systems, and the ways in which the health of cultural and biological systems is deeply intertwined.

Back to Erica’s profile page

To view additional project information, updates, and trip reports please visit the Reports page of the Community site.

Preliminary research

This work is based in the Inuit Community of Makkovik. Makkovik is located on the northern coast of Labrador (55°07′N 59°03′W) and has a population of approximately 360 people (Inuit Community of Makkovik 2014). It’s accessible by flight year round, by ferry in summer, and by snowmobile in winter. Makkovimiut (Makkovik community members) have longstanding cultural traditions: going out on the land and sea, harvesting wild foods, crafting, language, and community celebrations are important. The region has attracted visitors for centuries, including European settlers, Newfoundland fishermen, and Moravian missionaries. 

It is important that this project be grounded in the research priorities of Makkovimiut (Makkovik community members). I am grateful to Carol Gear, Community Liaison Officer in Makkovik (Nunatsiavut Government) for her ongoing guidance on developing respectful research relationships and relevant research projects with her community.

During three preliminary visits to the Inuit Community of Makkovik in 2012/2013, I spoke with Makkovimiut about community research priorities on the topic of people-plant relationships, as well as project outcomes that would be of benefit to residents. Of the many research ideas that emerged during these discussions, we are focussing on two interrelated priorities:

Part 1 - “The stories people tell about plants”: Makkovimiut see a need to document the relationships that people have with plants. Through audio recordings and photo-documentation (and, eventually, videography), we are documenting the cultural practices that help express these people-plant relationships. A central project goal is to develop a community guide to plants based on these research activities. We are also working on applying project lessons to programs in education, health, and tourism.

Part 2 - “The stories plants tell about people”: Family settlement sites in the bays and islands around Makkovik are important cultural places where plant knowledge is learned and practiced. Over the years, cultural practices create ecological signatures at these family places, so that plant communities come to tell their own stories about the people who live here. We aim to better understand the cultural-ecological relationships at family settlement sites, and in doing so address community priorities for continued learning about the plants of family places, especially for young people.

Project update (as of January 2014):

Part 1: In summer 2013, I officially began working with Makkovimiut plant experts. We used audio-recordings to begin documenting oral narratives about plants. We also focused on documenting cultural plant practices through active sessions, both in-town and on the land, in order to focus on in-context learning. These practices included collecting plants to make dyes, digging blackberry sod to smoke fish, making a smokepot to keep away flies, berry-picking, harvesting plants for teas and medicines, making spruce beer, collecting saltwater grass for grass sewing, and going for walks to look at plants.

Part 2: During 2012 and 2013, I visited family settlement and archaeological sites around Makkovik with local guide Sheldon Andersen and Nunatsiavut Government Conservation Officer Errol Andersen. The purpose of these visits is ultimately to listen to the “stories plants tell about people”: in other words, to better understand plant community patterns at important cultural areas through ecological research. Ecological questions for Part 2 of the project need to be based on the cultural knowledge of Makkovimiut plant experts. As we come to learn more about the “stories people tell about plants” (Part 1), we will be in a better position to ask these ecological questions and inform future methods in plant ecology.

Participation and communication

Makkovik is a warm and welcoming community, and there are many ways to get involved in community life. The Craft Centre is a great place to work on plant-based crafts. We hosted an evening workshop on plant dyes in September 2013, and a berry painting activity for kids (and kids-at-heart) during the Trout Festival in July 2013. We hope to offer more plant workshops in winter 2014 and onwards.

The Trout Festival is a wonderful time to visit Makkovik and enjoy a full week of activities: boat races, cribbage tournaments, games for kids, fireworks, presentations on local history, and the delicious Trout Supper. This year, I participated in the invigorating swim race in the Labrador Sea - somebody has to finish last!  We all got an appreciative cheer for braving the iceberg-chilled waters.

There are a variety of ways to communicate project updates and receive important feedback in Makkovik.  It’s always a pleasure to join the Elders’ dinners and present a slideshow, and to call a game of plant bingo. Local CIML radio is a popular way to communicate project news and advertise upcoming events. I’ve also given presentations at the Community Hall, and at the Craft Centre during the Trout Festival.

At the suggestion of community members, I’ve started a project Facebook page called “Makkovik – People and Plants.” The site contains photos, community reports, and event notices. If you have any suggestions for something you’d like to see on this Facebook page, we would be happy to hear from you.

We work to ensure that community voices are heard in parts of the project that are traditionally more academic. Community advisors actively participated in my comprehensive exams, and we work closely with community partners in developing conference presentations. We look forward to continuing to collaborate on project outcomes of benefit to Makkovimiut, and we will update our progress on the Facebook page and this website.

Links to community reports, event posters, pamphlets, and presentations can be found below.

If you have questions on any parts of this project, or suggestions on how to improve it, we welcome your feedback.

Project funding

We are very grateful to our funders for their strong support of this project:

Tongat Wildlife, Plants and Fisheries Secretariat:

Nasivvik Centre:

Canadian Northern Studies Trust:

Northern Scientific Training Program:

Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council:

National Wildlife Research Centre:

Carleton University:

Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, Carleton University:

Other Relevant Links

Inuit Community of Makkovik:

Nunatsiavut Government:

Tourism Nunatsiavut:

OKâlaKatiget Society:

Destination Labrador:

Labrador Institute:

Makkovik weather:

A Digital Flora of Newfoundland and Labrador:

Them Days:

Labrador Heritage Museum:

The Rooms:

The Labradorian:

Happy Valley-Goose Bay:

Tongat Wildlife, Plants and Fisheries Secretariat:

Nasivvik Centre:

Canadian Northern Studies Trust:

Northern Scientific Training Program:

Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council:

National Wildlife Research Centre:

Carleton University:

Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, Carleton University: