If you were ever lost in the woods and needed to find food, tend to a wound or fashion a bed and shelter, you’d want Brenda Holder right alongside you. You could draw on her wisdom about the plants and trees that have been used for millennia by indigenous people.
Holder, who is Cree and Iroquois, is known in indigenous circles as a knowledge keeper – a person who understands indigenous cultural traditions. It’s a role she came to embrace through her family lineage.
Holder and several family members own and operate Mahikan Trails, an indigenous owned company based in Canmore and offering medicinal plant workshops. She grew up around Jasper, Alta., where she learned from her grandmother the many ways a plant or tree can be used for everyday necessities, or even to survive. As a young girl, she would walk with her grandmother through the forest and meadows, watching and soaking up the knowledge. Holder says she had an affinity with the plants, so her grandmother “spent a lot of time teaching me and sharing with me.”
Although she didn’t know it at the time, what her grandmother taught her would one day lead her to a role teaching indigenous and non-indigenous people the secrets of Alberta’s plant world.
“I told my grandmother, I would be a doctor. She laughed and said, ‘You may be, but just not the kind you think.’” It took Holder a long time to understand her grandmother’s words. While studying at university, she says, “It hit me pretty hard, I get it … I think I understand.”
An outing with Holder reveals her wealth of knowledge. She teaches what she learned from her grandmother and says Alberta’s forests have all the ingredients to make everyday things we take for granted. Bread? Beer? Aspirin? Yes, says Holder. But she’s not giving any of those secrets; you’ll just have to take one of her workshops to find out how.
Holder’s Medicine Walk workshops wow guests when they learn about the many wildflowers and trees that indigenous people have used for centuries. They are used for everything from getting over the flu to making jewelry or fashioning a base for a bed that keeps insects away. (Pretty handy if you’re a backcountry camper.)
She came up with the idea for the medicine walks after taking a group of school children on an outing in the woods. To her surprise, she learned they had no idea where their food came from, other than the grocery store. “There is nothing more important to human beings than the nature around us to be used for so many things. And it teaches people about our culture, too.”
Many young people, however, are “getting into the whole DIY thing.” They are interested in knowing where, for example, their beauty products and food comes from for health, environmental and economical reasons. Her programs fit right into that philosophy. “What we do is sustainable and shows a connection to the land.”
Before setting off on a walk, Holder recites a blessing that shows respect for the land. She’s wearing a well-loved hide jacket and a red, green and yellow sash signifying her family's roots. “(We are) asking permission to go into the forest and thanking the creator for allowing us to be here.”
Every few feet along the trail, Holder crouches down to talk about a flower or points out the bark on a particular tree. The Solomon’s Seal plant is good for knee and lower back pain, she tells me; the willow is not only a fire-starter but also an important source of medicinal steroids; the paintbrush holds an intensely sweet nectar. Even Alberta’s official flower, the wild rose, has endless uses, says Holder.
“It’s a wonderful plant,” she says, rhyming off various parts that can be used for: relief from a stinging nettle sting, medicine for the eyes, the heart, and as a tea. It’s also good for the nervous system. Each plant has hundreds, maybe thousands, of medicinal uses, she says.
The first day of her basic two-day sessions, held year-round, includes an easy one-or two-hour stroll through a meadow or forest. The next day involves hands-on learning that can include making creams, salves, teas or a pain wrap, many of which have been handed down by Holder’s grandmother.
“The plants lead the walk,” says Holder. “That’s how my grandmother did our walk. It’s what they reveal.”
As for learning how to make bread, beer or aspirin from the forest? She's not dropping any clues. “It’s a fun surprise for people to find out.”