Fran Morberg-Green is a First Nations heritage interpreter at Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre in Dawson City. I read these words as I learned more about the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in’s long history in what we now call Dawson. Fran’s words resonated with me. Fireweed establishes itself in “disturbed” areas. Think of it’s common name: fire weed, the plant that establishes itself after a fire, the plant that is everywhere. Fireweed is nothing if not resilient.
Near Dawson City, the scorching effects of colonialization which began with the Gold Rush included deforestation of the land, rearrangement of the land (when you drive into Dawson huge piles of rocks and tailing ponds greet you), removal of traditional fishing camps, disease, fishing and hunting detrimentally affected, repeated resettlement, broken trading routes and relationships, the introduction of alcohol, loss of language and culture to name just a few. Despite all this, the people of Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in are still there and the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre is just one sign of their flourishing.
When we first arrived, the fireweed was in full bloom – swaths of pink, magenta, violet along road sides, in the crevices of steep cliffs, along the banks of the Yukon River. Sometimes, because they are so plentiful, you stop seeing them – I mean really seeing them, in the way we become blind to the blazing yellow of a patch of dandelions during a Saskatchewan spring. Through August, the blossoms fall, revealing spiky long red capsules which contain silken seeds. The capsules open and curl, releasing the seeds. Slowly, the capsules fall off. The leaves and stem change colour – I have seen every colour from red to scarlet to salmon to burgundy to purple/purple to orange to rust to yellow. All of this in a background of green, green, green. There are not enough descriptors in the English language to cover the range of shades and hues of the fireweed plant in late August. From a distance, communities of fireweed can seem to be a dusty pink, a blood red or a vermillion. I am wooed by the colours but also by the fascinating variety of postures this plant seems to take. Sometimes tall, upright and elegant, occasionally droopy and dejected, many times looking as if caught in the middle of a beautiful dance.
Martha Louise Black (left), a champion of the Yukon, a politician and an amateur botanist urged the territory to choose the Prairie Crocus as its official flower in 1954. She felt that fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium) was too “common” to merit special status as the territorial flower. The prairie crocus embodied the spirit of Yukoners, springing to life even with snow on the ground after the harshest of winters. For most Yukoner’s, however, the resilient fireweed was the plant best suited to represent the Yukon. They politely waited until Martha Black died in 1957 and named fireweed as the territorial flower.
Although fireweed grows elsewhere in Canada, it is here in Yukon that it has wound its way into my heart.
Fireweed has been used for centuries for medicinal purposes; early shoots can be steamed as a vegetable, young leaves added to salad, and pharmaceutical companies use fireweed in some skin care products. Here in Yukon, there is fireweed honey, firewood beer and fireweed tea! We bought books at Mac’s Fireweed Books, visited the Fireweed Community Market, both in Whitehorse, and enjoyed a fantastic musical duo called Fireweed and Flannel in Kluane.
I couldn’t resist including this sweet paragraph about fireweed:
“Fireweed’s tiny seeds ride the wind like parachutes and begin new life where fate carries them. Even in clear-cuts, roadsides and burns, fireweed plants itself and rises up – stately, steadfast and strong. It rarely stands solo. Fireweed builds a thriving plant community through spreading seeds and lateral root networks. In summer, rose to violet-colored flowers bring immeasurable beauty to stark landscapes. They are so papery thin that they appear luminescent. I blush sometimes when I take a close look. They remind me of the tender blaze of love, or a sweet encounter that leaves me breathless and awed.” – Elise Krohn, http://wildfoodsandmedicines.com/fireweed/
I might not have noticed the fireweed if not for Fran Morberg-Green’s words. I might have just seen a colourful “weed”. I might have seen it, but not really seen it. Something like the resilience and resurgence of Indigenous people and communities here in Yukon (and elsewhere in Canada) – if we take the time to really look, so much is happening. I see Indigenous people rising up everywhere I look – here in Yukon in the thriving cultural centres (like Dänojà Zho) that are a vital part of each community we have visited, and are doing much to shift the dominant narrative of the gold rush. In the resurgence of carving and other art forms among young people. In the art and activism of Christi Belcourt. In grassroots movements like Idle No More. In those defending the land, at Grassy Narrows, in Northern Saskatchewan, on the BC Coast… all across this land. In the persistence and sheer integrity of Cindy Blackstock. In people learning the language of their ancestors. In ceremony. In the quiet actions of many of my friends who have broken the cycle and who are working day by day for good in their communities and in their families. In those who have the courage to speak out against injustice, again and again and again. The list could go on and on. There is much richness and wisdom and colour and variety, so many ways for we settlers to learn. As David Suzuki recently said, “We in the dominant society need First Nations…we need something they have held onto despite everything we have done to them and that is the sense of connection to the land”, the earth as our mother, the animals and plannts and rocks as our relatives.* I echo those thoughts of Dr. Suzuki and offer these photos of our amazing relative, fireweed, … my own prayer for resilience and resurgence. Rise up!
*David Suzuki being interviewed by Rosanna Deerchild on CBC Radio’s Unreserved, August 28, 2016