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Seeking Direction from the Knowledge Keepers of our Nations: An Indigenous Perspective

By Dave Courchene 

This article is an excerpt from a presentation given by the author at the National Climate Change Science and Knowledge Priorities Workshop hosted by Environment Canada at the Shaw Centre in Ottawa on February 21, 2019.

As we reflect on the current issue of climate change, we must be prepared to understand the root of this reality.

The reason we have climate change is because we have broken natural law.  What is natural law and how can we find our balance again?

There’s no doubt about how much man has evolved, to create so much comfort, that we are all enjoying today, yet at what expense to the earth. 

As much as there have been advancements in this regard, we have not evolved morally and ethically. This is the crisis of our time. 

We have left our spirit behind, our spirit that defines our true identity and destiny as human beings, which is to be stewards of the earth.

We need to understand this part of our nature, that deep part of us that we refer to as the spirit.

Indigenous people have always lived believing in the power of the Spirit. The challenge for many to understand is that the earth herself is a living entity with a spirit, which gives her purpose, duties and responsibilities. Knowing the earth is alive is a core truth fundamental to having a sacred relationship with the earth.


The spirit in each of our beings carries moral and ethical principles of what should be the basis of our human conduct.  We understand these moral principles as natural laws.  Natural laws are innate to all living beings.  They are the invisible laws that govern all life.  All living beings, including Mother Earth herself, are governed by natural laws – whether they know it or not.

At the end of the day, we determine who we are by what we do, through our actions.

To the Indigenous, the symbol of the circle reflects the power of natural law.  We see the circle in the sun, the moon, the earth; in the cycles of the seasons, and in the cycle of our lifegivers, the women. 

There is a natural law of the earth, the Law of the Circle – Onjinaywin in our Anishinabe language.  Whatever we put into our circle sets the consequences of our actions, and returns multiplied.

Natural laws and forces of nature are self-enforcing, more powerful than any human laws we could possibly create.  Every act of kindness sets off a chain reaction with the powers of nature that are in support of life. 

Our elders warn the people, “Be careful what you put into your circle.” If you harm any living beings, nature dictates there will be a consequence, which could be realized not only for oneself but also one’s children and descendants.

Indigenous Peoples have known natural laws of living and surviving on the land. What humanity needs most now is to learn the natural laws – the rules of conduct we must follow in defining a sustainable relationship with the earth and each other. Some examples of natural law: 


  • Don’t take more than you need from the land to survive.  If you take too much, your greed will increase.
  • Treat all life with respect, and abundance will return to you.
  • Show gratitude for whatever you receive from life, and life will return its blessings.
  • Give back to the earth by returning her love, and making offerings, a common practice of Indigenous people, and the earth will continue to sustain you.

When we act according to our sacred teachings, we draw the same force that we have given from nature.  Love draws more love.  Acting with courage draws more courage into your life.  Like attracts like, spiritually.

Our biggest challenge as humanity is to shift from negative to positive values that support the natural laws of the earth.

I humbly propose working with Indigenous Knowledge Keepers to help understand natural laws, and lay down values that are in support of life. 

The Turtle Lodge is a central place that respected traditional Knowledge Keepers from across the continent have declared their central house of knowledge.  These are Knowledge Keepers who still speak their ancient languages, who know and have kept the practice of our ceremonial ways of seeking and sharing knowledge; the ones who our communities have traditionally sought out for guidance; the ones who know the natural laws and teachings of our people. 

There are a few of these Knowledge Keepers still left amongst our Nations.  If you want to learn, we invite you to come into our sacred environments, present tobacco, and listen and engage in our processes of seeking knowledge.

Indigenous Knowledge Keepers can help support humanity in coming to terms with our true destiny to become true stewards of the land.  By taking care of the land, we begin to learn the values, and practice the behaviours required to maintain real success – founded on strong relationships with all life on the earth, including all peoples of the earth.  Loving and taking care of the land ensures our survival as a species that chooses to be kind and giving.  Nature reciprocates generous behaviours.

The land has meant everything to our existence as Indigenous Peoples.  It is in the spirit of this responsibility, and our leadership role as Knowledge Keepers, that we come forward to share this knowledge left to us by our ancestors, with everyone who has arrived on our homeland.

Our approach to seeking direction is to begin in a ceremonial context.  Our ceremonies are not for show. The ceremonies of the Pipe, the rattle and the drum represent our sovereignty as a People.  They are the gifts we carry, the tools we know how to use, to connect in gratitude with the higher spiritual intelligence that enforces natural law.

One element of our work as Knowledge Keepers at the Turtle Lodge is conducting the rite of passage for young women and men entering adulthood each spring.  In their rite of passage, youth become connected to the land, the original mother and teacher for us all. They find their own identity and purpose by going into ancient ceremonies, guided and led by the Grandmothers and Elders. 

A boy becomes a man, giving of himself by fasting for four days, seeking a vision or dream on the land, that will give him his purpose and meaning in life.  It is true that all men must be initiated by Woman to understand life's sacredness. And so a young man must seek a vision for himself on a Vision Quest and be initiated by Mother Earth.

The young girls who have just begun to bleed for the first time are brought to the Grandmothers, who provide sacred ceremony and instruction for them on their responsibilities as sacred life givers and water carriers, and how to honour and take care of themselves as women.

As the Knowledge Keepers of our Nations, we welcome the opportunity to be a part of the process in seeking direction for the very serious issue of climate change. We want your help, and we want to offer ours, drawing on each other’s strengths and knowledge, to help define a new vision for humankind. 

Together, we can change the whole narrative in this country. It is important to leave a legacy for our children that can ensure they can have a future.  This will require a change of heart, a heart that acts with kindness and respect.

--Known as Nii Gaani Aki Inini (Leading Earth Man), Elder Dave Courchene (Anishinaabe Nation, Eagle Clan) is recognised internationally for his spiritual leadership and stewardship of indigenous knowledge. He is the founder of the Turtle Lodge Central House of Knowledge in Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba, Canada, a renowned center for sharing traditional Indigenous knowledge and for action on climate change.