By David Courchene
It is said in the lodges of our people that we have reached a tipping point. Earth changes are already in effect, and serious changes must take place if we are to create a sustainable world.
There is nothing more important at this time than to address climate change.
Today, much of our planning should consider preparing for these changes that are inevitable. That is our first challenge.
Then, laying down a foundation for the future in becoming better stewards of the land.
We have entered into a time of great change and opportunity. As Indigenous Peoples we can offer part of the solution to climate change, adding our contribution to the various shared approaches that can lead to a well-defined vision. The issue of climate change gives us an opportunity to take our rightful place in our homeland. As a People we can offer a leadership that is grounded in values and teachings, that connect us to spirit and the land. With our leadership come duties and responsibilities.
We need to share with all our brothers and sisters who have arrived on our homeland why we love the land so much, and hope that they will join us and taking care of the land.
The leadership of our Grandmothers is significant. Our Women have always carried out a specific role. They act as the voice of the sacredness of water. They are in constant ceremony, with songs and words of gratitude for this element of life. In order to have life, one has to have good, clean water. This is not our reality today.
We have all been contaminated by the poisons that we have put into the land and water. This has led to contaminated blood, which leads directly to many of the sicknesses we face today. What the old people warned us about is very true: what do you do to the land you do to yourself.
How can we break free from this insanity motivated by greed and quest for control and power? We are destroying our planet, our home. We have literally spent the inheritance of our children.
Working in alliance with nature and her natural laws is the key to ensuring our survival. Mother Earth, the root of all life, like all living beings, is a living entity with her own spirit. We need to develop a deeper, more respectful and sacred relationship with her.
In this time of change and opportunity, we must position ourselves in the forefront of a movement that leads us back to the original instructions we were all given in living our humanness. These original instructions come with well-defined duties and responsibilities. We all have the universal responsibility to be true caretakers and true stewards of the land. We have failed miserably in this regard, which has resulted in climate change.
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. As a Peoples we have survived on our homeland for many thousands of years, having a respectful, sacred and reciprocal relationship with the earth, showing gratitude through our ceremonies.
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.
Much of what has been done to the earth in recent times has been by those who have lacked understanding of natural law. We are related to all the living beings within Creation. Everything is interconnected and interdependent. Everything we need to live and survive comes from the land. Nature is the most powerful teacher and healer, who gives us all we need to live and thrive in life.
At the end of the day, we determine who we are by what we do, through our actions. 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 show gratitude is when we will receive abundance.
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.
There are seven animals that come from the land to bring us the laws that act as the foundation of how we must live and survive off the land.
It is these animals that came to us in spirit, that were chosen by the Great Spirit.
You cannot live these laws limited to the mind. They are lived in practice. This is what is meant by living from the heart, listening from the heart, speaking from the heart.
When one is living these laws, one is rewarded with abundance and life.
When you break these laws there is a consequence that the negative lived out by the law of nature will be returned to you, multiplied. Any act that is lived out in opposition to the sacred laws comes with a price. There is a teaching that will come. This is choosing to learn the hard way. The hard way tends to bring pain. The good way reaps abundance – a good life.
What is needed immediately is an educational awareness of natural laws, followed by an implementation framework, through sustainability initiatives envisioned through traditional Indigenous processes, which create an alliance with nature. This is where Indigenous people can play an important role.
Our biggest challenge as humanity is to shift from negative to positive values that support the natural laws of the earth.
As much as our Original Nations have been negatively impacted by genocide, there are those amongst our nations, our Knowledge Keepers, who have survived with their identity intact, their languages, their ceremonies, and knowledge of the laws that can become a foundation for a more sustainable world.
I humbly propose working with Indigenous Knowledge Keepers to help understand natural laws, and lay down values that are in support of life.
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.
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.
The Knowledge Keepers have maintained a connection to the spirit world, which holds the ultimate governance and intelligence. Their dreams and visions continue to guide us to live in balance with all of Creation.
At the present time, we still have a small number of our traditional Knowledge Keepers on hand, ready to embark with young people on this task. Much of the knowledge they carry is embedded and coded in our original languages.
There are many sacred lodges throughout the country where our ceremonies are being freely practiced, where our Knowledge Keepers are urgently working to help our people heal from the trauma of a genocide that has not yet ended, and sharing and teaching the People our ceremonial traditions and natural laws that ensured our survival for thousands and thousands of years. Many of these lodges have now opened to non-Indigenous people, to share our understanding with the newcomers who have arrived on our homeland.
The Knowledge Keepers need to be recognized for what they can contribute to this urgent issue of climate change. They can take a much more active role in being a part of an educational process and other proposed solutions.
We should begin with young people of all cultures, preparing them and teaching them based on our traditions, how to have a sacred relationship with the earth. We can hold teaching gatherings and ceremonies, especially rites of passage, which connect them to natural laws and their personal identity, role and responsibilities of stewardship.
An important element of our work as Knowledge Keepers 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.
There needs to be an investment in Indigenous infrastructures and where we create the environment for the true Knowledge Keepers – the ones who are fluent in the language and rooted in the ceremonies of our people – to do their work, to gather, seek direction in a ceremonial context, and offer vision and frameworks for climate solutions.
Ancestral schools of knowledge, conducted through alliances among our First Nation communities, should be supported. They can offer an Indigenous perspective on having a sacred relationship with the land.
Recently we had a meeting with the President of the University of Manitoba and the Dean of Environmental Studies, who approached us to find a way for our traditional knowledge to become a significant component in educating the students, in regards to the environment.
I was opposed to the idea of indigenizing their institution. My position was that they support the model that we will design when it comes to the sharing of our traditional knowledge. We want to reverse the trend of students going into their environment, and rather bring them within our structures that have been designed and defined by our Knowledge Keepers. Our challenge is to remove ourselves from the colonial ways that still prevail. Decolonizing our minds must become a priority in our recovery. Our discussions with our partners are continuing.
We need to fully support and establish our own places of higher learning. Our sharing of our knowledge has to be fully autonomous and led by the Knowledge Keepers of our Nations. We are in an ideal position to establish our role of leadership through the sharing of our knowledge. We need to develop opportunities for all young people to experience our understanding, perspective, and way of life. It is only in exercising our true identity as a People who know and love the land, that we will all be liberated.
Together, we can change this whole narrative of confrontation in this country.
Change will never happen from the top. It begins on the ground. We must promote a vision that is inclusive, representing the diversity of all approaches. 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.
-- David Courchene is a knowledge keeper of the Anishinabe Nation and founder of the Turtle Lodge, an international center for Indigenous education and wellness, located in Sagkeeng First Nation, Manitoba, Canada. He made the made the above presentation at the One Basin One Governance (Water is Sacred) Conference in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, on September 18, 2019.