Indigenous Knowledge Keepers and Scientists Unite at Turtle Lodge
“The longest journey we will ever make as human beings is the journey from the mind to the heart.”
— Chief Darrell Bob, St’at’imc Nation, quoting Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq (Kalaalit Nunaat, Greenland)
Twenty respected Indigenous knowledge keepers and western scientists, witnessed by 150 official observers and guests, met and formed alliances over 4 days from September 9–12, 2017. The gathering took place at the Turtle Lodge, an international center for Indigenous education and wellness, located in Sagkeeng First Nation, Manitoba, Canada. Over the past 15 years, Turtle Lodge has been a center for sharing Indigenous knowledge through events, ceremonies, conferences, and summits that include people from around the world.
“The Turtle Lodge is our house, our place of strength, where our leadership as elders and knowledge keepers is rooted,” explained Dave Courchene, founder of the lodge, who built it based on a vision he received. “Our sacred lodges and outside in nature are the places where our ceremonies live and are practiced in their fullness. Using our sacred places for these meetings and practicing our ceremonies makes our alliance and work together all the more powerful, as we are supported and inspired by the forces of nature and spirit.”
The gathering was chaired by Courchene, a knowledge keeper of the Anishinabe Nation, who has shared Indigenous knowledge on the international stage alongside the Dalai Lama, and David Suzuki, who is recognized as a world leader in sustainable ecology. The scientists who attended were challenged to open not only their minds, but also their hearts. It was convened to help offer answers to a public challenge made by Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, who stated at the COP21 in Paris in 2015, “Indigenous Peoples have known for thousands of years how to care for our planet. The rest of us have a lot to learn and no time to waste.”
The intention of the gathering was to highlight the importance of spirit and ceremony and a foundation of values that
underpin Indigenous knowledge. Speaker after speaker insisted that the solutions to effectively adapt to our changing Earth lie in embracing values and teachings found through the observation of the Earth itself, values they referred to as “spiritual laws” and “natural laws.” For the scientists, the goal was to gain a holistic context for their observations.
“My whole thrust in my interest in engaging scientists and the Indigenous community is [that] science can’t work without the whole context,” said Suzuki. “In focusing on the parts, science loses the emergent properties. Traditional
Native knowledge keepers and elders are a resource in seeing the world in a way that is rooted in the land. We need humility and a way to see the bigger picture. The answers this world is seeking can be found in Indigenous knowledge.”
What unfolded was a powerful sharing of two systems of thought—Indigenous prophecies and scientific predictions
side by side—and a great deal of overlap emerged. Through Indigenous protocols of ceremony, the gathering provided a ceremonial context for the building of alliances, sharing, and decision-making. “Being hosted in a sacred lodge, a place of strength and leadership for Indigenous peoples, creates the environment for Spirit to lead the gathering and reinforces belief in a spiritual connection, gratitude, humility, and respect for the sacredness of life in whatever we do,” said Courchene.
The Indigenous knowledge keepers spoke often of not overstepping ceremony in the process of coming to an understanding with scientists, a concept that was new to many trained in Western academic thought. “Spirit and ceremony are critical elements missing in most discussions about climate change and what to do about it,” said Suzuki.
“Indigenous Peoples have lived in their places for untold millennia. Is this a coincidence? What is the importance of ceremony? Let’s listen, and explore, together,” said Miles Richardson of the Haida Nation, who co-facilitated the gathering along with Courchene and Suzuki. Richardson is helping to organize a spring conference in Vancouver called Scientia: A Conference on the Intersection of Traditional Knowledge and Science; he came to this gathering to receive guidance in setting a ceremonial context for his 2018 initiative.
Indeed, the knowledge keepers answered the call. The entire first day was devoted to ceremony, setting the stage for discussions through a deeply experiential process that left knowledge keepers and scientists alike moved and uplifted. Beginning with the lifting of a Sacred Pipe, which had been commissioned by a national group of Indigenous elders in the fall of 2016, the group gave thanks and sought blessing, sanction, and direction from the spiritual realm in an ancient ceremony practiced by Indigenous people for thousands of years. A water ceremony followed, in which Indigenous grandmothers and women sang a water song and shared teachings on the significance of water and our individual responsibilities in taking care of this element of life.
In an act of both love and leadership, Indigenous elders representing nations from across the continent came together to offer a ceremonial gift of adoption to the scientists gathered. As the drums sounded, a young bear dancer, 14 years old and raised traditionally in the mountains of his west coast Xaxl’ip First Nation, led a procession of scientists to stand on buffalo robes in the center of the Turtle Lodge. Each scientist was given a handful of earth to hold in their hands while four traditional elders addressed them.
The Indigenous knowledge keepers spoke of their right to invoke this ancient ceremony of making family as the original people and leaders of their homeland, and offered a welcome to the scientists as full citizens of the First Nations and of the land that is commonly referred to as Turtle Island. With the adoption, the elders explained, came duties and responsibilities as members of the nation, to learn and follow natural and spiritual laws of the land, and to be kind to one another and to the Earth. The adoption ceremony invoked a powerful spiritual relationship in being a welcome part of the Indigenous family, in which they were given permission to raise their families, live their lives, and engage in activities on this land to advocate for and support the wellbeing of the whole nation and all life on and around Turtle Island.
Indigenous knowledge keeper, AJ Felix, of the Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, spoke eloquently to the new adoptees: “Now, because of this ceremony, you will come to feel how we feel about the land; how we feel when the wind blows and when the water crests. You will even feel what it has been like for us, in trauma and poverty, and what we have gone through as a people. You will understand what we feel as Indigenous people, because you are now one of us, part of us.”
In the three days that followed, a Turtle Lodge Declaration was drafted by Suzuki, which was amended and signed by the 20 scientists and knowledge keepers on the table. The document was taken to Manitou Api, an ancient sacred petroform site located in the center of the continent, about a 90-minute drive from Turtle Lodge, on the last day of gathering for ratification through a special ceremony. Although formal agreement has not yet been reached on direct actions, discussions did move toward establishing youth training in Earth restoration and stewardship and the development of a green economy. It was agreed in principle that this training should be founded on and led by Indigenous knowledge, natural laws, and protocols, and incorporate the best of scientific expertise, technical skills, and knowledge.
Courchene encapsulated the spirit of the four-day gathering thusly: “Climate change is really about human change—a change of the heart. We can create a new economy and new opportunities for the nation based on stewardship. We have an opportunity to set a completely new narrative based on our ancient values and principles. We come forward as elders and knowledge keepers to continue to share our knowledge to provide a direction that can help us move forward to a much more sustainable Earth.”