17 May 2020 Tending the garden
By Lila Pine
All my relations. The land. The songs. The language. The stories. The people. The dances.
The plants and the animals. The sun and the moon. The water. The earth.
The climate changing.
To understand these things from Indigenous perspectives it is necessary to begin at the beginning.
The Creation Stories.
I was born into the Mi’gmaw Creation Story which teaches us everything we need to know to live in a good way. Told properly in ceremony and in keeping with oral tradition, the story takes seven days to tell. The number seven is sacred to my people. There are seven directions and seven levels of creation. The seven grandfathers teach us respect, honesty, truth, humility, courage wisdom and love. For every action we take in the present we are taught to consider how it will impact our descendants seven generations into the future.
Our Creation Story teaches us to live in harmony with the land and with all of creation. It teaches us about the interconnectedness of things. It teaches us reciprocity.
Our worldview, informed by our Creation Story and embedded in our language, stands in stark contrast to the Western worldview, the one whose Creation Stories teach domination over nature. To the Western mind, nothing is sacred. Not the plants, not the animals, not even the water.
Not even our Mother Earth.
I was recently told by a Settler Canadian that the land’s agricultural and mineral resources were in no manner exploited by Indigenous culture and technology, as if this were a bad thing. “As such,” he said, “the land was worthless until the Settlers arrived and developed the continent.” And there we have it. The clash in worldviews so plainly put. To say the land is worthless, is to say our mother is worthless. Mother Earth, so bountiful and generous, gives us all we need to survive. We exploit her at our own peril.
To illustrate the divide between Mi’gmaw and Western worldviews, let’s take hunting as an example. To the Western mind, the hunt is a chase, the hunter in competition with the hunted. The animal runs. A life is taken. To the Mi’gmaw mind, the hunt is an exercise in patience. The hunter waits. The animal comes. Tobacco is offered. A life is given. You might say the result is the same. The animal is still dead. But, wait. The story is not over.
The meat from the animal that ran away in fear and killed in flight is tough and hard to chew. No matter, it wasn’t about the meat anyway. The animal’s head becomes a trophy, its hide and entrails discarded. The animal that gave its life in stillness offers tender meat. Every part is used for food, clothing and tools, except the entrails which are left in the place where it died to honour its spirit and to feed other animals in the forest. One hunter hunts for sport, the other for community.
In Canada, at the time of this writing, these two disparate worldviews are on full display in a standoff, clashing over climate change, pipelines and sovereignty.
Indigenous Peoples across Nations are unsettling the settler economy across the Nation by blocking railways in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs who have taken a leadership role in protecting the integrity of the lands from the extractive industries. Their territory covers around 22,000 square kilometers of sovereign, never surrendered, traditional territory in British Columbia, upon which the Canadian government, according to its own laws, has no jurisdiction.
In 1984, the Gitxsan (a neighbouring nation) and Wet’suwet’en leaders took the provincial government to court to put an end to extensive logging on their traditional territories. The case ended on December 11, 1997 in the Supreme Court of Canada with the Delgamuukw v. British Columbia decision that found the province had no authority to extinguish Indigenous rights over the land, including resources from the land. Furthermore, under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which the British Columbia provincial government adopted into law in 2019, the free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous Peoples must be obtained before government and industry can proceed with any project.
Wet’suwet’en, Canadian, and International laws recognize Hereditary Chiefs as the rightful decision-makers on their respective territories. These rights and titles have never been extinguished, nor surrendered. The Wet’suwet’en are a sovereign people. The Hereditary Chiefs of all five Wet’suwet’en clans unanimously opposed the Coastal Gas Link/Trans Canada pipeline, as proposed. Instead, they offered an alternate route that would not go through sensitive cultural and ecological areas.
But, the Supreme Court of British Columbia ruled that the permits of Coastal Gas Link (CGL) trumped Wet’suwet’en law, pitting the Western notion of industry first squarely against the Indigenous principle of environment first. In response, the Wet’suwet’en evicted CGL from their territories and blocked their re-entry. The BC government, then enlisted the RCMP as hired guns to uphold the court ruling for an industry injunction.
The land protectors were arrested on their own territory.
In an unprecedented show of solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en Chiefs, Indigenous People and non-Indigenous People alike took to the streets. Peaceful rallies, die-ins, marches and round dances took place daily in towns and cities from coast to coast to coast. Young Braves, demanding the RCMP leave Wet’suwet’en territory, erected rail blockades along key transportation routes across Canada.
These unarmed and peaceful Braves are a beacon of hope for a sustainable future. They are taking a stand to defend their inherent rights to sovereignty and the planet’s inherent right to survive unharmed. Our Creation Story teaches us to walk upon the earth without leaving a footprint. And that includes a carbon footprint. Climate change teaches us that if we want to live in harmony with Mother Earth the time to act is now.
Destroying the magic of the land
Before colonization, the Americas were rich in every kind of diversity imaginable – languages, cultures, spiritualities, genders, economic systems, philosophies, sciences, ways of knowing, and nations. Bio diversity ensured the earth was never depleted. Respect for Mother Earth ensured she was never violated.
When Europeans first arrived in the Americas they must have felt the magic of the land. Coming from congested communities, they must have been struck by its powerful expanse. They must have noticed how perfectly the people fit the place. They must have been in awe of it all.
And frightened too.
In their attempts to quell their fear and harness these lands and its Peoples to their colonialist project, European Settlers began to destroy everything Indigenous – languages, spirituality, dances, gift-giving, ceremonies, sexuality and gender fluidity. They used the educational system and Christian churches to “civilize” Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous children all across the newly established country called Canada were kidnapped and forced into residential schools where they were forbidden from speaking their own languages.
A paternalistic fantasy of superiority imagined schools lacking in respect and human decency by any measure. Unrelenting assaults on children who already knew more about living with the land than their teachers ever could must have been fueled by a deep sense of inferiority manifesting as superiority, coupled with the need to wield power over others.
These were not the good intentions of innocent people. They knew what they were doing. They understood that in order to control our thoughts and dreams they had to control our tongues. The cruelty of taking the spoken word away from the speaker is itself unspeakable. To this day, in the Americas, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere, literacy systematically separates us from our languages, leaving the physical tongue in place to choke on the language of those who cut the symbolic one off from its mother.
Underneath this inferiority (disguised as superiority) complex, made palatable through cognitive dissonance, is the issue of land. It has always been about the land. Canada is a nation built on racism, manifested most clearly by the so called “Indian Act” which is, at its core, a land grab. Its goal is the dispossession of Indigenous lands, by any means necessary, including the elimination and assimilation of Indigenous Peoples, in the interest of private property and resource extraction.
On December 15, 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) released its multi-volume, 4000-page final report detailing the physical, psychological and sexual abuse of Indigenous children held captive in Canada’s residential schools. A summary report, released earlier in the year outlines 94 calls to action that would begin the process of “establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples.” The idea of reconciliation captured the imagination of non-Indigenous people across the nation. Indigenous people were more circumspect.
Reconciliation assumes a priori relationships of reciprocity where all sides take responsibility for their part in the conflict or the breakdown in relations that led up to the need for reconciliation in the first place. If something was taken or stolen it must be returned. If damage was done it must be repaired. Apologizing for stealing land, for example, is not enough. You have to give the land back.
Canada is not even close to taking the first step towards reconciliation. Children are still being taken away from their families and communities, stolen land has not being returned, Indigenous languages are still not spoken in their places of origin. The Canadian government is still in the business of defining who is and who isn’t Indigenous under the aforementioned Indian Act. Treaties are not upheld. Nation to nation relations are nowhere in sight. Reconciliation is beginning to sound a lot like assimilation.
A relationship of unforgiveable forgiveness
Let’s imagine, for a moment, that meaningful reconciliation is possible. What would it look like? Before reconciling with each other, each group must first reconcile with themselves. Both groups need to find a way to enter into a relationship of unforgiveable forgiveness.
How do you ask for and how do you offer forgiveness for the unforgiveable?
Non-Indigenous peoples living on Indigenous lands, otherwise known as Settlers, must reconcile aspirations of reconciliation with what they are still doing and what their ancestors have done. They have to figure out how to reconcile the part they played and continue to play in what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report refers to as cultural genocide. Reconciliation means, in part, to fix the Settlers – white people are victims too – for seven generations white kids have been taught that they are superior. What happens to them when they realize that they are not? Settlers believe capitalism is good. What happens to them when they realize they have to figure out how to walk in balance on this earth?
For our part, Indigenous Peoples must reconcile with ourselves. We need to heal from the trauma of residential schools, including intergenerational trauma. We need to revitalize our languages, revive our ceremonies and reeducate ourselves and our youth. And we need to take back what is ours. Before entering into a relationship of reconciliation with non-Indigenous peoples we need to strengthen our intergenerational, intergender and intertribal relations.
And, we need to reaffirm our relationship with the land.
Land is everything. It contains languages, stories, histories. It provides water, air, shelter and food.
Land is home.
And herein lies the deepest rift between the worldviews. The Western mind would have us believe that people own the land, to do with as they will. Indigenous Peoples know that it is the other way around. The land owns us. It is our inherent responsibility to care for her. That means building sustainable gift economies based on biodiversity and local gardens.
We are at a pivotal moment, not only in Canada, but in the world. It is time for everyone to choose which side of the ideological divide they are on, the one that prioritizes the sanctity of Mother Earth, or the one that would dominate her.
Dr. Lila Pine, of Mi’gmaw descent, is a New Media artist and Indigenous thinker. She teaches Indigenous Media and New Media courses at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. She received her MFA from York University in Toronto and PhD from the European Graduate School in Switzerland. In 2011, she defended her dissertation, entitled “Memory Matters: Touching the Untouchable”, which theorizes oral, literate and “electrate” cultures, as well as the divergence and convergence of Indigenous and Eurocentric ways of knowing. Lila is the Director of Saagajiwe, Ryerson’s Indigenous Communication and Design network, whose mission is to facilitate the creation and dissemination of Indigenous thought and ways of knowing and doing. The name Saagajiwe, given by an Elder in a sacred ceremony, is an Anishinaabemowin word which means something like the first ray of light. Not simply the first ray of light in the morning, but rather the first ray of light since the beginning of time. Lila’s research seeks to develop a way of “seeing” sound in order to identify distinct qualities in the speaking of different languages. It employs digital art creation as a scholarly research tool and it engages Indigenous research methods to shift perceptions around the relationship of language to worldviews and ecological concerns. Lila is also collaborating with Buffy Sainte-Marie on a project called Creative Native: Youth Mentorship in the Arts Initiative, which brings touring multi-arts festivals to First Nations communities across Canada. The festival showcases local and professional Indigenous entertainers and artists of all kinds, while building a corps of local Indigenous youth who take leadership positions in doable jobs and then mentor their peers at subsequent community events.
Photo at top: Once banned by Canadian law under the Indian Act, a Powwow is an inter-tribal gathering of First Nations across Turtle Island where elders, children, women, men and two-spirit people, in full regalia, come together in friendship to share dances, drumming, crafts, stories and food and to celebrate the end of winter. This digital “painting” created in Photoshop by the author captures the colourful regalia and movement of the dances.