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Uncovering the surprising link between black huckleberries, Indigenous culture, and wildfires in the Okanagan

With help from generous donors Barry Silver and Ethel Johnston, UBC Okanagan student Rebekah Ferguson is uncovering what the black huckleberry can tell us about fire management.

Rebekah Ferguson

The black huckleberry is one of many Indigenous plants that are threatened by the increasing severity of wildfire. But we can learn a lot from this innocuous looking plant.

Rebekah Ferguson, a first-year Master’s student in the Irving K. Barber Faculty of Science at UBC Okanagan, was recently awarded the Barry Silver and Ethel Johnston Award for Environmental Science. She is researching the effects of wildfires on the black huckleberry—a key cultural and food plant for Indigenous communities.

“I am so grateful to have received this award. It has helped ease the financial burden of pursuing graduate studies,” Rebekah says. “The goal of my research is to provide information about the response of huckleberry to wildfires of differing severities—and give insight into the effects of post-fire management on plant habitat, abundance, and berry productivity.”

Prior to fire suppression, many Indigenous peoples in the province performed cultural burns to renew the land and reduce the build-up of flammable materials. However, when the government began to manage BC forests, Indigenous peoples were no longer allowed to perform these burns, resulting in a build-up of fuels in many forests in the province—contributing to the severity of some wildfires occurring in recent years.

“Black huckleberry is a key food and cultural plant for the Syilx Nation and many other Indigenous communities across the region,” says Rebekah. “Climate change, land use, and fire suppression are likely to continue leading to larger, more severe wildfires in the Okanagan, which poses a threat to huckleberry and other culturally important plants.”

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Rebekah was inspired to attend UBC Okanagan because she lived in Kelowna for a while when she was young and has always loved the region. Her parents are from Alberta, and her father’s family are Red River Métis—which made her research interactions with the Syilx Okanagan Nation all the more meaningful.

“Indigenous peoples have been managing the land here in BC for thousands of years. They have so much knowledge and expertise about how to manage the land in a sustainable way,” says Rebekah. “I think it’s really important that we listen to them and work with them to manage the land in a way that benefits everyone.”

As a recipient of the Barry Silver and Ethel Johnston Master of Science Award in Environmental Science, Rebekah appreciates the ecological focus of the donors’ support.

“It’s also just nice to be recognized for work in your field,” she adds—with words for others considering donating to support UBC students.

“If someone’s on the fence about donating, I completely understand,” says Rebekah. “While it’s a big commitment to donate and support a student you may not even know, we really appreciate it—and it does help a lot.”

Looking ahead, Rebekah is optimistic about how her work will enrich her life—and the people she helps.

“My hopes for the future are to continue working with Indigenous communities. I really do enjoy the work that I do,” says Rebekah.” I appreciate seeing communities come together and work to protect their land, their food systems and revitalize their cultures.”