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Birch trees are often considered a species of little value, trampled upon amidst efforts to harvest softwood.
However, a Cape Breton University project that has attracted a major research grant will look at possibly commercializing the traditional Indigenous use of birch bark oil in treating skin ailments.
The effort received a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) project grant of $856,800 for the work on maskwiomin (birch bark oil). The five-year project is one of the largest health research grants ever received at Cape Breton University.
The value that the Mi’kmaq place on the knowledge of their elders is generally well acknowledged. This research project takes a page from that approach.
Word of the grant comes after about five years of collaboration between chemistry professor Matthias Bierenstiel and Tuma Young, assistant professor of Mi’kmaq studies.
“Five years of research and 20-plus years of Tuma’s work,” Bierenstiel said, when asked what led to the grant.
Young prefers using L’Nu rather than Mi’kmaq, as it is the original name that the people called themselves.
Young said he was originally asked by Membertou Chief Terry Paul to begin the research and now those involved are comfortable with moving it to another level.
“When the settlers first arrived in the 1500s, there was a recognition of Indigenous knowledge and how to survive on the land here,” Young said. “Over time, that recognition, that appreciation … that use of Indigenous knowledge diminished to such a point where it was dismissed almost out of hand.”
Maskwiomin was historically used in the treatment of skin conditions such as rashes, eczema and psoriasis. For about a half-dozen years, Young has worked with Bierenstiel on rediscovering its usefulness through the re-telling of stories and practical experiments.
Young said there seems to be an increasing acknowledgment globally of the value of Indigenous knowledge when it comes to health and healing.
“Many of our ways of treatment are rooted in Indigenous knowledge,” he said.
CBU has been recognized for its embracement of two-eyed seeing, which blends Western science with Indigenous world views. Bierenstiel noted he brings the Western approach — the chemistry component – to the project. Part of Young’s role is to protect the Indigneous knowledge while helping to advance the research.
Young said the grant will allow him to work more closely with elders and it also places monetary value on their knowledge by paying them for their work. They have hired an elder as a community research co-ordinator.
“We’re going to be collecting the stories about how L’Nu people used maskwiomin, but also how they used other medicine,” Young said.
Bierenstiel said the traditional method of using birch bark oil involved making it over a campfire, but there can be a lot of variables that challenge the ability to duplicate results.
“Science is all about reproducibility of results.”
And so he has developed an electric reactor to safely and predictably produce the oil. From here, they will be working with researchers at Dalhousie University in Halifax to better understand how and why the oil works. They will also work with CBU nursing staff and a physician with the Nova Scotia Health Authority to collect health data.
In the notes that they received from CIHR after applying for the grant, it was the value that the project placed on elders and on Indigenous knowledge that were noted as elements that set it apart from other applications.
Bierenstiel noted the majority of the funding will pay people for assisting in the research, making a direct economic impact — both on CBU students who get meaningful research experience that at a larger school would go to masters or doctoral students, and also on elders who will receive compensation for their contributions.
“That excites them in getting into the field,” he said. “This is STEM — science, technology engineering and math — and so it’s actually an opportunity to open that to Mi’kmaq students to rediscover their own, and that’s really the exciting part.”
He added that is an advantage to students as they graduate and look to advance in their careers.