Section 2.1: Indigenous Knowledge & Uses of Trembling Aspen

Outcomes

Students will:

  • Examine Indigenous Peoples' understanding and varied uses of trembling aspen, industrial uses of trembling aspen, and uses of trembling aspen by wildlife.

  • Compare and contrast uses by Indigenous Peoples with industrial uses and analyze how worldview impacts the use of land and resources.

Key Terms

Extraction / Industrial / Industry / Medicinal / Traditional Knowledge

See content or Module Glossary for definitions

Indigenous Groups Mentioned in this Section

  • Anishinaabe (Ojibway): Ah-nish-ah-na-bay - Across what is now Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.

  • Dakelh (Carrier): Da-kesh - Central interior of what is now British Columbia.

  • Kanien'keha:ka (Mohawk): Gan-yan-geh-ha-ga - Southeastern parts of what is now Ontario and Northern New York State.

  • Mi'kmaq (Micmac): Mii-gê-maw - The Atlantic provinces now referred to as Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, the Gaspe Peninsula of Quebec, and the Northeastern region of Maine in the United States.

  • Nehiyaw (Cree): Nay-hee-ow - Across the prairie provinces and parts of what is now Ontario and Quebec.

  • Secwepemc (Shuswap): Suh-wep-muhc - South-central interior of what is now British Columbia.

  • Syilx (Okanagan): See-yilk - Parts of what is now British Columbia and Northern Washington.

Uses of Trembling Aspen Summary

"Knowledge belongs to the future as well as to the past: the Elders often emphasized that traditional knowledge, while rooted in ancient stories and oral histories, is current, contemporary, and sustainable." -Nathalie Kermoal, Living on the Land: Indigenous Women's Understanding of Place

Indigenous Peoples of what is now Canada have found many practical uses for trembling aspen, such as the making of canoes, tipi poles, lining for baby cradles, and as a cleaner for guns, traps, and buckskins. Many Indigenous Peoples of Canada have also found medicinal uses of the aspen, which can be applied to help liver and digestive problems, respiratory problems, and can help soothe skin conditions such as burns, ulcers, and eczema. Indigenous Knowledge of trembling aspen has been passed on for generations and is used in many Indigenous communities today.

Throughout history, traditional ecological knowledge has aided both Indigenous Peoples and Non-Indigenous Peoples alike, such as when Indigenous and non-Indigenous veterans ate the inner bark of aspen to survive the food scarcity during the World Wars in Europe. The forest industry uses trembling aspen for the production of manufactured goods. It is one of the most commonly logged trees in Canada. Although once treated as a weed, trembling aspens are now used to make oriented strand board, pulp, and paper.

Various animals also use trembling aspen for food and shelter, such as deer, rabbits, and beavers. The versatility of the trembling aspen makes it a highly sought after. This section provides a more in-depth look at the various parts of a trembling aspen and how each part is used by Indigenous Peoples, industries, and wildlife across Canada.


As you read the various uses, ask yourself how do the uses of aspen compare among groups? How does worldview impact the use of these trees?

The Wood

Traditional Uses by Indigenous Peoples:

  • Young aspen trees are used by the Secwepemc (Shuswap) People to make tipi poles. The Secwepemc People also use the wood to make drying racks, fish traps, and sweat lodge frames.

  • The Dakelh (Carrier) People used soft, rotten wood to line baby cradles. The Dakelh are also known to dig out trembling aspen to make canoes (see Figure 1).

  • Young branches are used to weave baskets, wreaths, and make furniture.

  • Aspen wood also gives unique glaze patterns when making clay pots.

  • Dry wood can be used to smoke meat and fish. The wood burns well when dry and does not snap or make much smoke.

  • Water run through the ashes can be used to create a bleaching solution that made soap when combined with animal grease.

  • Indigenous hunters boil aspen branches in water to use as a cleanser for guns, traps, and buckskins. Hunters also bath in this solution to remove human odour.

Industrial Uses:

The wood of trembling aspen has been engineered into pulp, wafer board, and oriented stand board which all have practical applications in construction. Trembling aspen wood is also constructed into and exported as chopsticks, matchsticks, and tongue depressors. The wood can make crates, pallets, and furniture and the pulp (made from breaking down the fibers of plants) from aspen trees can be used to make paper. The excelsior, or wood shavings, are also used for packing materials while aspen wood pellets are used as fuel for heating and/or cooking.

Figure 1 shows a canoe being ribbed in a Mi'kmaq camp. Please note that the above photograph shows a birch bark canoe, not a trembling aspen canoe, though the process of building a trembling aspen canoe is similar. Image by Alexander Henderson.
Figure 1 shows a canoe being ribbed in a Mi'kmaq camp. Please note that the above photograph shows a birch bark canoe, not a trembling aspen canoe, though the process of building a trembling aspen canoe is similar. Image by Alexander Henderson.
 Figure 2 shows a stand of aspens with their distinctive white and black bark. Image by DMC-FZ30.
Figure 2 shows a stand of aspens with their distinctive white and black bark. Image by DMC-FZ30.


Figure 3 shows how bark is manipulated. Please note, this is an image of a birch bark container. Image by Jason Zhang.
Figure 3 shows how bark is manipulated. Please note, this is an image of a birch bark container. Image by Jason Zhang.

The Bark

Traditional Uses by Indigenous Peoples:

  • The bark of trembling aspen (as seen in Figure 2 and 3) can be chewed to relieve headache or toothache as it contains salicylic acid, the key ingredient in aspirin.

  • The Nehiyaw (Cree) People boil the bark into a cough syrup.

  • The Kanien’keha:ka (Mohawk) People brew a bark tea to expel worms.

  • The soft inner bark was also eaten raw or roasted over a fire as it is high in vitamin C and a common food source used by many Indigenous Peoples.

  • The bark can be peeled back and tapped to produce syrup. Aspen syrup was traditionally used as an energy source.

  • Powder scraped from the bark of a trembling aspen can be used as a deodorant, sunscreen and has been said to help with cataracts (disease of the eye). Bark powder is also used to stop bleeding.

The Buds

Traditional Uses by Indigenous Peoples:

  • Young buds (as shown in Figure 4) of a trembling aspen can be used to make tea or tonic helping with:

  • Liver and digestive problems.

  • Respiratory problems such as congestion, hay fever, asthma, and bronchitis.

  • Reducing toxicity in our bodies and congestion of the digestive system.

  • Relaxation and helps combat faintness, hay fever, and internal organs issues.

  • Used as a facial skin cleanser and helps soothe skin conditions (such as eczema, ulcers, burns).

  • A drop of aspen tea in the eyes helps with snow-blindness and soreness.

  • Additionally, young buds can be boiled into cough syrups and used to treat whooping cough. They also can be used to help treat sore muscles.

Industrial Use:

  • Young buds are aromatic and are used in some commercial perfumes.


Figure 4 shows aspen buds, high in calcium, fiber, and vitamin A. Image by Matt Lavin.
Figure 4 shows aspen buds, high in calcium, fiber, and vitamin A. Image by Matt Lavin.

The Leaves

The Sylix (Okanagan) People are known to predict storms from the aspen leaves when they quiver even though there is no wind present. The aspen’s characteristic of quivering leaves has earned it nicknames such as “Wagging Tongue” and “Noisy Leaf.”

Medicinal Uses:

The leaves (Figure 5) can be chewed and applied to bee stings, wasp stings, and mosquito bites to relieve the pain. The leaves also contain salicylates, an ingredient commonly found in aspirin and they can be chewed to help relieve pain.

It is important to note that Indigenous Peoples use of trembling aspen and other plants demonstrates an extensive knowledge of the environment and medical expertise. Medicinal use of trees and plants has been a field of study for generations. One should always consult an expert before or be under the supervision of an expert.

Figure 5 shows aspen leaves which have been used for medicinal purposes as well as predicting weather. Image by James St. John.
Figure 5 shows aspen leaves which have been used for medicinal purposes as well as predicting weather. Image by James St. John.

***STUDENTS ARE NOT TO TRY ANY MENTIONED USE WITHOUT PROPER GUIDANCE***

The Roots

Traditional Uses by Indigenous Peoples:

  • Anishinaabe women are known to have eaten the trembling aspen root to prevent premature childbirth and for heart medicine.

Uses by Animals

Deer, Elk, and Moose

  • These three herbivores feed on the bark, leaves, buds, and twigs throughout the year and especially in hard winters when other food is not available.

  • These same animals often seek shade from aspen stands in the summer.

Beavers

  • Trembling aspen is a favourite food of the beaver.

  • An adult beaver can consume 1 - 2 kilograms of thin aspen bark daily.

  • Beavers use aspens to make lodges or dams and can gather up to 200 stems a year as far as 400 feet from a waterway.

Rabbits, Porcupines, and Rodents

  • These small animals eat the bark and other parts of aspen trees.

  • They tend to gnaw or girdle the bark of young trees (Figure 6), often killing the stem.

Birds

  • Trembling aspens provide important feeding and nesting sites (Figure 7) for numerous birds such as ruffed grouse.

  • Ruffed grouse are dependent on aspen to breed and nest in mid-sized stands.

  • In the winter, ruffed grouse eat the buds from male flowers.

  • Aspen also host several insect species, which provides food for birds such as woodpeckers.

Figure 6 shows a tree that has been subject to girdling, meaning the bark has been removed around the entire trunk. Image by Brian Green.
Figure 6 shows a tree that has been subject to girdling, meaning the bark has been removed around the entire trunk. Image by Brian Green.
Figure 7 shows a bird nest in the crook of an aspen branch. Image by Sowl Kristine.
Figure 7 shows a bird nest in the crook of an aspen branch. Image by Sowl Kristine.

How do Aspen Contribute to Our Communities Lesson

Examine the various uses of trembling aspen and investigate the impact these uses have on the community. Lessons can be downloaded and adapted from here: https://bit.ly/3DdJggV

Additional Resources & References for Section 2.1

Resources

References

Altamirano-Jimenez, I., and Kermoal, N. (2016). Living on the land: Indigenous women’s understanding of place. Canada. Athabasca University Press.

Burchill, C. (2010). My friend the aspen. Retrieved from https://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~burchil/pm_canoe/friend_aspen.pdf

Canadian Woodworking (2017). Woods to know: Trembling aspen. Retrieved from https://www.canadianwoodworking.com/woods-know-trembling-aspen

Norbord. (2015). Aspenite or osb? [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://osb.westfraser.com/blog/aspenite-or-osb/

Prindle, T. (1994). Trembling aspen. Retrieved from http://www.nativetech.org/plantgath/aspen.htm

Sierra Club BC. (n.d.). Trembling aspen. Retrieved from https://sierraclub.bc.ca/trembling-aspen/

Switzmalph Cultural Society. (2018). Trembling aspen. Originally retrieved from http://shuswapcentre.org/greenhouse/traditional-plant-use/trembling-aspen/

Two Feathers, B. (2012). Plant totem - Quaking aspen. Retrieved from http://native-american-totems.com/plant-and-mineral-totems/plant-totem-quaking-aspen/

UPM Pulp. (2019). What is pulp? Retrieved from https://www.upmpulp.com/sustainable-pulp/what-is-pulp/

Wikipedia. (2019). Aspen. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aspen