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A Year of Learning – Nettle Harvesting

Multicoloured graphic for National Indigenous History Month
Exploring Musqueam Culture through Nettle Harvesting: A Year of Learning

This past year, our Heritage Programmer has had the privilege of building a special learning relationship alongside Musqueam Elder Thelma Stogan, through the art of harvesting local nettles – a plant of profound significance in Musqueam traditions.

Stinging Nettle, ᶿəxʷt̕ᶿəxʷ, is a versatile spring green known for their medicinal properties and practical uses that hold a special place in Musqueam culture. Each gathering session became more than just a lesson in herbalism and learning about the ecology and surroundings; it was a journey into history and connection. She generously shared stories and teachings, imparting wisdom about the land, seasons, and respectful practices passed down through generations. Read about her journey and cultural lessons learned here:

Nettle Harvesting

From how to tell if the plant had already bloomed and was too late to use for teas, or how to use frog leaf to help stop the stinging sensation after an accidental run-in with some nettle stems, Elder Thelma shared the ins-and-outs of harvesting nettle plants to make a strong, sturdy twine. The timing was crucial – harvesting took place once the nettle had gone to seed, usually in Summer and even sometimes early Fall.   

Step 1: Picking – Using gloves for protection and cutters, cut at the bottom of the stem close to the ground.

a field of green nettles with a forest background
Location of nettle collection – musqueam first nations

The long, durable fibres from the stalks make long-lasting twine and rope. Elder Thelma explained that many coastal communities used nettle twine to make fish nets prior to the introduction of hemp, nylon, and other types of materials used for modern nets. She explained how these plants went from tall, green, luscious plants to a durable and strong rope.

Step 2: Stripping – Strip the stems of their leaves by running your hand from the bottom of the stalk to the top.

bright green leaves with Frog Leaf stems pointing upward.
Frog leaf – used to relieve pain from stinging nettles, bee stings, and cuts

Step 3: Splitting – Stinging nettle fibre comes from the outer layer of the stem; the next step is to separate these fibres from the woody pith at the centre of the stem. In order to do this, the stem must be split open. Using a rock or a hammer, the entire length of stem is pounded flat.

Step 4: Removing Inner Layer – Once split open and laid flat, there are two layers: the inner woody part, and the outer fibrous bark. The outer bark is the part that is kept.

long green multi-leafed stems of stinging nettle laid on white paper
first batch of collected nettles, freshly cut

Step 5: Braiding / Twisting  – Twisting or braiding long strips together.

multi-leafed stems of stinging nettle laid on white paper to dry
collected nettles drying

This year-long journey has been transformative, expanding our knowledge and enriching our perspectives on stewardship and cultural heritage. It reminds us of the invaluable wisdom held within Indigenous traditions and the importance of building respectful, collaborative relationships rooted in understanding and mutual respect.

Beyond learning some practical skills of identifying and respectfully harvesting nettles, the time spent with Elder Thelma has fostered a deep appreciation for the Musqueam way of life. Over these past months, Lucy has had the privilege to learn about tradition, the special relationship with the land and with nature, and the importance of reciprocity in all aspects of life.

We are very grateful for the opportunity to learn from and alongside Elder Thelma and the Musqueam community, and look forward to continuing this journey of learning, growth, and cultural exchange.

National Indigenous History Month and National Indigenous Peoples Day

June is National Indigenous History Month, and on June 21st, we celebrate National Indigenous Peoples Day. We take this time to recognize and honour Indigenous peoples’ rich histories, diverse cultures, and enduring contributions.

The west coast of our province alone has 203 distinct First Nations, each with their own languages, traditions, and histories. Indigenous Peoples’ Day reminds us of the province’s rich Indigenous heritage and the vital role these communities play in our cultural and economic fabric. It’s a day to honour the past, celebrate the present, and look forward to a future that embraces and respects Indigenous cultures and contributions.

Britannia Shipyards National Historic Site – National Indigenous Peoples Day demonstrations

June 20 (Thursday), 2024 at 3pm-5pm in Festival Field next to Murakami Garden – Nettle rope-making demonstration with Elder Thelma

June 21 (Friday), 2024 at 11-12pm and 2-3pm in Festival Field next to Murakami Garden – Nettle rope-making display