National Indigenous History Month: Learning From the Land

In honour of National Indigenous History Month, this article aims to describe the significance that the land plays in Indigenous culture, and how all humans can further develop their own relationship with nature.

The month of June is National Indigenous History Month in Canada. This is a time to listen, appreciate, and learn about Indigenous culture that has graced Canadian lands for centuries. The recent discovery of 215 children buried in a mass grave site in British Columbia at Kamloops Indian Residential School has sparked outrage and grief, bringing many Canadians attention toward the horrible mistreatment of indigenous peoples in the past and present. The history of Canadian colonization seems to be finally receiving the attention it deserves. Though lately the media has been flooded with sad and horrific news regarding the history of indigenous people in Canada, I want to focus this article on appreciating and bringing to light the beauty of their culture. There is connectivity in the way they lived that is desperately missing in today’s society. Now, nature is an afterthought, pollution and waste mean growth for businesses. At one point in Canada, there was an understanding between the land and humans, no such thing as one above the other, just growth on equal plains, harmony.

Figure 1 – Ontario’s new Park Prescription program.

It is truly amazing what a little bit of spare time and some trees can do for our health. Spending 120 minutes in nature per week is said to improve both physical and mental well being. Studies have shown that after only 5 minutes of immersing yourself in a nature setting, one can experience boosts in both self esteem and mood. In a world where we can learn almost anything through the click of a screen, we forget how much we can be taught from just listening, not looking for any answers. We learn and heal without even trying, just being. For thousands of years Indigenous peoples in Canada studied the land, becoming experts in all facets of nature. They realized that one is not greater than the land, rather each person is part of a universal web of existence. We are all a piece of the land. If we are to take, then we must give back. Mother earth does not need us to survive, but we sure do rely on her.

Land based learning was not part of any curriculum or mandatory course, it was just a way of life. By recognizing the physical, mental, and spiritual connection each person has with the land, they can harness that power to excel their own life, while preserving the great gift that is nature.  Thousands of years of this land based learning has compiled into magnitudes of valuable teachings and lessons often described today as traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). These are the lessons learned from hundreds to thousands of years of direct contact with the environment. Indigenous culture has land intertwined with their law and spirituality. This is key in truly understanding their connection with the environment because it makes them responsible for taking care of nature’s well being. There is a responsibility to care for the land because it cares for them.

In the majority of current western society, land is something that is owned, bought and sold as a commodity. Writer, illustrator, professor, and Palkyu woman Ambelin Kwaymullina’s definition of land is drastically different, describing land as “Country is loved, needed, and cared for, and country loves, needs, and cares for her peoples in turn. Country is family, culture, identity. Country is self.”. The relationship does not need to be with a singular piece of land, rather is symbolic with all areas of land. This way of life creates a symbiotic relationship between the natural environment and humans, allowing each to prosper, one not overpowering the other. There are so many areas in today’s society where this mindset can be introduced and would greatly improve the way we treat the environment, and how we live our own lives. Through sustainable hunting practices, non intensive agriculture, natural healing, and much more, Indigenous peoples were able to respect and keep the land they lived on healthy for thousands of years.

When European influence arrived in Canada the traditional and sustainable way of life was ripped away, and with this change brought the start of environmental degradation in North America. The way of life for Indigenous communities was taken from them, but their ideologies lived on. Now more than ever our world can learn from not only their knowledge of the land, but also their mindset. Lately we as humans have been taking too much from mother earth without giving back anything in return, a price we are set to pay for.

Figure 2 – Quote from Thomas Tinmouth.

No matter who you are or where you live in the world, there is always room to further develop your relationship with nature. Whether it is as simple as going for a walk or picking up some trash, going on a camping trip or participating in a clean up, I promise you will feel better afterward. Mother earth really could use some appreciation right about now, a thank you for not only its tangible value in our everyday lives but also its intrinsic value. We all have a role to play, shown true by Indigenous communities in Canada for centuries as they lived in harmony with the land, protecting it as nature provided plentiful amounts for all to enjoy.  A way of life that worked for the soul, the planet, and each other.

The moment Europe came to Canada the world was set on a new course. The symbiotic relationship between human and land died when colonization was born. At some point we decided we were above nature, detached from the very system that gave us life. The plants, trees, sun, and moon, working in perfect harmony to create opportunity. Beauty which seems beyond our capacity to appreciate its full being. Nature owes us nothing, but we owe it everything. We owe silence not to environmental activism, but to the chainsaw ripping down our forest. We are not above a system that we grew from. We are above nothing, we are a part of everything. Protecting nature means protecting ourselves. We are nature. That is my takeaway.

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