DGES Doctoral student Erica Oberndorfer shares stories of her fieldwork in Labrador

This past summer,  Erica Oberndorfer, a 2nd year doctoral student working with supervisor Dr. Gita Ljubicic,  started preliminary field work in Labrador. Her focus is “The shared stories of people and plants: cultural and ecological relationships between people and plants in Labrador.” She is interested in the role plants play in culture – and equally interested in how the human use of plants affects plant communities, and affects the distribution and abundance of culturally-important species.

In July, I traveled to Makkovik to speak with residents about their local priorities for research on the topic of people and plants.  Makkovik is on the north coast of Labrador in Nunatsiavut, the Labrador Inuit Land Claim Area. I arrived right at the peak of the Makkovik Trout Festival and got to sample smoked trout artfully done a hundred different ways.  At the evening dancing festivities, I was told that I even danced like a trout, but I’m sure it was meant kindly.Makkovik

Through generous gifts of time in the aftermath of the Trout Festival, I began to learn about local research priorities from Makkovik community members. I also had the chance to look at local archaeological sites with Nunatsiavut Government Conservation Officer Errol Andersen, and to see some of the vegetation communities that have been shaped by historical relationships between people and plants in the region.

I returned to Makkovik in September, and joined guide Sheldon Andersen and Conservation Officer Errol Andersen for more directed vegetation survey work at archaeological sites.  The blackberries (Empetrum nigrum) were at their peak on offshore islands and made a significant contribution to my caloric intake throughout the week. Sheldon also made sure I was well-lunched on toast, char and other country foods, and well-watered with strong tea.

As a more riparian complement to my coastal work in Makkovik, I surveyed the vegetation communities of archaeological sites along the Churchill River, an hour and a half’s drive out of Goose Bay on the Trans Labrador Highway. This time I was accompanied by local guide and field assistant Scott Michelin, who is a keen observer of local vegetation and also impervious to blackflies.

Churchill River

As the days shorten here, the birches and willows turn copper and gold and the redberries (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) continue sweetening in the frost. I’ll be back in Makkovik in the winter to continue working with community members on developing a research proposal, and I’ll be focusing on more research avenues in the Goose Bay area. In the meantime, my Labrador linguistic education continues (flankers, blasty boughs, flummies), and by the time this is in print I will hopefully have staggered to the end of the Trapline half-marathon – the full marathon runs from North West River to Goose Bay to remember the trappers who left for their inland traplines each fall.

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