Last week, researchers were thrilled to be discussing a piece of leather from an 800-year-old moccasin found in a Utah cave. This piece of history is keeping researchers busy retracing the ancient steps of the Dene people. This story is a crossroads of where science meets Indigenous oral history, as many of the Indigenous stories support scientific research on tracing the route of the Dene people.
This news comes at a time while I am in the midst of reading Braiding Sweetgrass, by botanist, Robin Wall Kimmerer. I am always struck by the fact that Indigenous peoples have occupied this land known to some as “Turtle Island,” and to others, “Canada”, for thousands of years.
Thought is emerging constantly about sustainability, and what it actually means, and how we can practice it in our daily lives. As we recognize the growing stressors on our lands, waters, and environments, the question becomes more and more prevalent. As we moved into this pandemic, for the first time since the Great Depression, (aside from the energy crisis of the 1970s) we were concerned about shortages. How many times did we see the shelves looking bare at the supermarket? It was unsettling. It makes the work of achieving sustainability more urgent.
Some say, we do not inherit this land from our ancestors, but that we borrow it from our children. In Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, she talks about reciprocity with the land that sustains us. She explains that Indigenous land based cultures practiced in traditional law, reciprocity.
The merits of a people living on a land base for thousands of years, sustaining themselves, their languages and cultures and using the resources available to them is something that is capturing the interest of researchers who are looking into sustainable resource use practices.
In forest management in particular, there is much local traditional ecological knowledge amongst Indigenous peoples who live in the various forested regions of Canada, because many of these communities are longstanding and able to recount the longest histories of a particular region.
What Kimmerer talks about in her book is not so much what people did with local resources, or how they used them, but it was the manner in which they did it that was significant.
Most traditional practices in Indigenous cultures are based on what is often called, the original set of instructions. Based on creation stories, the world was essentially created and filled with other species before human beings arrived. Human beings were known as the “Younger Brothers of Creation.” As a result, they understood that the teachers of how to live in this place would be the other species who came before. They learned that in order to flourish, there was a need for reciprocity with the land, there had to be give and take. They looked to the earth as a Mother, that provided everything they needed from Berries, to Fish, to Cedar and plant medicines.
In the Haudenosaunee tradition, there is a protocol to greet each day, that is based on a very long thanksgiving address that is called the “Words That Come Before All Else.” It is a statement of gratitude directed to everything in the world that shares its gifts. It includes, wind, rain, sun, moon, water, plants, rocks, etc… It is a thank you for all things in creation. It is based in gratitude and a sense of belonging in creation with all other species.
As science continues its research and continues to explore Indigenous cultural traditions and practices, we will become more informed on best practices in living sustainably. When we look to developing sustainable systems in using the natural resources around us, gratitude for what the earth provides, may just be the key to ensuring what we borrowed from our children, can be returned to our grandchildren for generations to come.