Alice Guss (Tsawaysia Spukwus) is a local powerhouse in the movement to relearn traditional knowledge, by any means necessary. The natural flow of traditional knowledge from elder to youth was interrupted by her mother’s stay at residential school. She has taught herself to weave from YouTube videos and uses social media to document her own experience as a cultural learner. She calls her Facebook posts her “digital smoke signals.” The best part? Her enthusiasm to share this knowledge with all. You can ask Alice anything and, if she knows, she’ll share.
On a Sunday walkabout, Alice and I discuss traditional plant use and the spring offerings on the Stawamus Village Reserve, a 12,000 year-old oceanfront community in Squamish.
Alice starts with a panoramic swoop of her finger, “So, what I tell the kids is ‘If you look 360 degrees around us, and that was our grocery store before we had Save On Foods. And again, if we go 360 degrees around us, we see our pharmacy before there was a Shoppers Drug Mart.’ A lot of people think the weeds are just weeds but those plants out there provide a lot of medicinal value.”
The stem of the stinging nettle plant was traditionally used by Squamish Nation to weave fishing nets.
As we walk, Alice shares her knowledge on the uses of in-season plants. She stoops to photograph nettles,“We usually harvest stinging nettles end of January or beginning of February and only take the top four leaves. It’s a good tea medicine. Even the actual stem itself is so strong–if we weave two strands together we can make rope and this is how our ancestors made their fishing nets. But actually, if the flowers come out, then it’s too late.”
Rosehips are full of Vitamin C when red and ripe. “Rose hips. These will turn bright red. You’ve got to cut it in half and take all the seeds out and let it dry and you can save it for tea. It’s equivalent to cranberries. Later on, it will turn bright red. The pink flowers just finished blossoming, though,” explains Guss.
Alice shares a major difference between modern and traditional medicines, “You know the beauty of it is, traditional medicine always teaches us patience. Teaches us respect. It teaches us to share and to care. It teaches patience because it takes us a while to make a medicine.” Harvested plants are placed in oil for thirty or more days to extract their medicinal properties. “Back in the day they probably would have used seal oil or bear grease, but right now we just use olive oil,” shares Guss.
She bubbles over with ethnobotanic joy, “There are traditional plant medicines for colds, headaches, bad stomachs, and sore joints. There are medicines that can clean your blood, your liver, your kidneys or help with depression, menopause, diabetes, and toothache. It’s just like a walking pharmacy.”
Tsawaysia uses modern tools to relearn traditional knowledge. She pulls out her iPhone and bends over to photograph red clover,
“This is medicine, too. But I’m not exactly sure what. I’m still learning. Want to see our sweathouse?”
Yes, yes I do. I’m learning, too.
Learn more at www.tsawaysia.com