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Maskwi’omin: A Birch Bark Antibiotic
July 2, 2018
Green Teacher

MODERN MEDICINE is a result of the scientific study of biology, chemistry, and, in some cases, accidental discovery. In K–12 science instruction, teachers have access to a multitude of resources which reflect the developments of Western medicine, but there are very few resources available to share alternative perspectives. In every region of Canada there are Indigenous people who have acquired local and applied scientific knowledge based on traditional forms of authentication and knowledge sharing. Though more resources are becoming available, it can be difficult to access this knowledge as a teacher or as a scientist. In the past, traditional wisdom was often disregarded in favour of Western scientific approaches to discovery and Western validation of knowledge. However, as we begin the process of reconciliation in Canada, an important aspect of this process is to acknowledge the contributions of non-Western scientists to innovation and technological advancement both for the progress of university research and in the education of K–12 students. This article outlines how university partnerships with Indigenous communities can bring traditional knowledge to the forefront, and additionally how this inclusive scientific approach can be translated to high school science education.

Learning to Learn About Traditional Local Knowledge
Cape Breton University (CBU) is located on Unamaki (Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia), the traditional territory of the L’nu.i Faculty researchers and instructors have been working to strengthen the community’s partnership between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people since the inception of the university. During a friendly, informal debate about the nature of science and knowledge, Tuma Young, a Mi’kmaw professor in Indigenous Studies, and Matthias Bierenstiel, Chemistry professor, discovered that they had a shared interest in the medicinal properties of local plants. Young shared the Mi’kmaq tradition of preparing an ointment of birch bark-oil to provide relief for a variety of skin conditions, and Bierenstiel was intrigued. Bierenstiel’s own work involves researching the potential for alternative commercial products derived from the Acadian forest. Both researchers began to work together to study the potential of birch bark-oil ointment. It was found that in Membertou — an urban Mi’kmaw community located within the town of Sydney — the knowledge of the traditional preparation of birch bark-oil has almost been lost due to the colonial legacy that impacts all Indigenous communities in Canada. Only two Elders could be found who remembered using and preparing the oil, so the process of discovery also became one of re-discovery as the members of Membertou gathered together to collectively remember birch bark-oil usage. Building on the community’s knowledge, the group re-discovered the traditional practice of preparing oil. In an equal partnership, CBU researchers met with community members and Elders to build upon trust and to support bi-directional knowledge sharing to move forward together.

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