By Alvin Manitopyes
Traditional knowledge is very powerful. This knowledge is our birthright. It was given to our people when we were placed here on Mother Earth with sacred instructions on how to live as caretakers of Mother Earth. But if it is not used and shared, then it becomes useless.
My uncle used to say the transmission of traditional knowledge is a sacred process. There is a protocol to it: Presenting tobacco, having the elders speak, listening carefully while they shared teachings and history and stories. That’s how we learned.
He said it’s up to each of us to decide whether or not we use that knowledge for the benefit of our families and for our people. He warned that if we don’t take responsibility as fathers, mothers, parents, grandparents to learn and live according to that knowledge, it’s like we’re running away from the Creator.
Today, our people are suffering from disease and alcoholism, and it has become a war. The greatest battles are against alcohol, drugs and addictions. Our greatest ally is our culture and spirituality, because that’s what gives us strength and keeps us healthy.
The teachings are not only important for the benefit of our people and communities, they are reaching all the citizens of the world. People around the world are starting to recognize that traditional indigenous knowledge has many lessons that can be shared so that all can benefit. That’s in fulfillment of one of our prophecies that a time will come when the world will turn to indigenous peoples and ask, what can you teach us? This is why traditional knowledge is very crucial.
The traditional belief of my people is that Creator placed us here as the Original Peoples of North America to be caretakers of Turtle Island by living under the natural laws of this creation. Each indigenous nation was given original instructions about upholding natural laws, and we understand that our very existence is an expression of the Creator’s love.
The laws of the Creator are written in nature, and these great laws instructed us to live in peace and harmony with all forms of life, with all humanity. Our Mother Earth is a source of all life, whether it be plants, crawlers, four-legged, winged-ones, or human beings. If we listen, observe and respect her, she will continue to provide sustenance, and recycle the food and medicine we consume, and make them available to her children and grandchildren.
Like Mother Earth, women are the givers of life and must be respected. Indian people believe that all women are sacred, that all women symbolize Mother Earth. Traditionally, there was no competition between gender in indigenous societies, as men and women understood their roles based on balance between genders. This is one of the many teachings we can teach the world.
Trees can teach us valuable lessons if we look closely. According to the Cree, the pine tree symbolizes the Creator, as the branches look like a man holding his hands up to the heavens praying to the Creator. This is the ancient way of praying amongst my people.
The spruce tree is a tree that symbolizes Mother Earth as the branches spread outright, like a woman embracing the Earth. Like people, some trees are strong and straight, symbolizing truthfulness and honesty, and others are crooked, representing dishonesty. Some trees like willows are flexible, like people who are open-minded to change.
Oak trees are rigid and deep-rooted, and some people display these characteristics. Some smaller trees are overshadowed by bigger trees as they struggle to benefit from the warmth and life-giving force of the sun. The trees in the forest reach out to one another with their branches symbolizing a happy, healthy community. Humans can learn about unity and brotherhood from trees.
When my people transplant a tree to the center of the Sundance lodge, this tree symbolizes the great spiritual transformation that people can change their hearts and their lives to live as the Creator intended. We strive to be like that tree, which knows no sin. When we witness the wonder and diversity of Mother Earth, we also learn to witness the beauty, wonder and diversity of the children of Mother Earth and the Creator.
The great plan of the Creator is for all human beings to experience the sacred energy of Mother Earth, to walk upon her in a sacred manner. Creator planted a spirit into every form of life so that we could learn her great natural laws.
Today, we are witnessing how far mankind has strayed from the original instructions. This is why we are living in a world that is out of balance.
There are signs in nature that signal this world is out of balance, such as global warming which causes unpredictable weather and natural disasters. The sacred blanket in the sky that covers Mother Earth is weakening, causing natural calamities which threaten food security. Even the birds are getting confused with their migration patterns, as we have geese returning in the middle of winter.
As an Indian man, I do my best to teach my grandchildren the ancient knowledge that our connection to Mother Earth is an energy that flows through our veins. We carry the truth of this beautiful land in our hearts. It is important for Indian children to understand that the Earth is our mother whom we must treat with utmost respect and honor. Like our ancestors, our children will realize that the Earth does not belong to us, that we belong to the Earth. They will learn to take only what is needed, and give back a little to acknowledge the spirit of the life form that gives them life.
Indigenous elders were given the responsibility to guide the younger generations into the future, and they are concerned that indigenous knowledge is at risk of being forgotten.
Elders are asking parents to consider the negative influences of this world such as drugs, alcohol, gangs, rap music, and wearing clothing with skulls which attracts dark, evil forces. Our children must be taught that all people are under obligation to protect their spirits from negative energy, and the ultimate authority is the Creator.
It’s very important that we teach our children to take responsibility to carry on our role as caretakers of Mother Earth, and to live in harmony with themselves, with their families, their communities, with the larger world.
It’s important that our oral tradition with our languages be brought back to be restored amongst the people, for that’s our very connection to the spirit world. We must always remember traditional knowledge is the very strength of our identity as indigenous peoples.
*Alvin Manitopyes is an enrolled citizen of the Muskowekwan First Nation and is also of Plains Cree and Anishnawbe ancestry. He works with organizations that focus on youth, wellness and environment, and is a consultant for the Public Health Agency of Canada.
*The article is an excerpt from the first International Roundtable Supporting Ancient Indigenous Knowledge that was held at the Turtle Lodge on the Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba in early summer. Traditional healers, elders and spiritual leaders from around the world attended to share knowledge and encourage respect for traditional teachings.