Traditional Indigenous Knowledge on Climate Change

Traditional Indigenous Knowledge on Climate Change

By Elder Dr. Dave Courchene (Nii Gaani Aki Inini – Leading Earth Man)

Ki Ta Ski Naw Conference, University of Winnipeg, Canada, November 9, 2019

We are in a time, when the issue of climate change has become so politicized. So much effort has been put into creating greater awareness of the seriousness of this issue by both the youth and the scientific community.

As the awareness is increased, with the young people taking a lead in offering their voice of concern, the issue of the fossil fuels has polarized society, between industry and the environmentalists.

Most would agree something must be done to prepare for further changes. The scientific community has given predictions of the potential outcomes if changes are not made. These predictions should be of great concern for all of us.  We are also seeing that the ecological crisis we are facing today will influence the movement of people towards places that they feel they can best survive.

From our point of view as Indigenous Peoples, we see all of this as a spiritual crisis. The root of the problems we face such as climate change is our inability to change our behaviour.  It comes down to the simple fact we lack respect for the Earth.  Much of what we have created lacks the foundation of respect for the Earth.

Until we are prepared to change our behaviour in how we treat the Earth, we are continuing to set the course for our own self-destruction.

What is missing is an understanding that the Earth is a living entity.  Knowing that she is alive is fundamental to having a sacred relationship with the Earth.

The Earth has a spirit; the Earth has intelligence. We come to know the Earth by knowing ourselves, connecting with our own individual spirit. The spirit of each of our beings comes with and carries moral and ethical principles of what should be the basis of our own conduct. We understand these moral values as natural laws.

Natural laws are always in effect, and we all need to learn about these laws, and our roles and responsibilities of stewardship, in order to live a good life. 

There is a great truth and that is that the ignorance of natural laws is the real cause of human suffering.  All the laws of Mother Earth are based on respect, love, kindness and sharing. They are all positive – they teach us that we are all connected. There is one law that our people have always practiced in order to show an expression of love to the Earth:  it is you never take more from the land than what you need in order to survive.  The minute that you take more than you need, you open yourself to this value of greed – that is what is happening. The thing with greed is that it can never be satisfied.

We should be preparing by laying a new foundation of our relationship with the Earth.  There is a critical need to have a collective vision that is reflected in how we treat people, how we treat life, and how we treat nature, that models a way of life connected to the natural laws of the land.

The key to our survival rests in the hands of Mother Earth.  Abiding by her laws will require living a much simpler lifestyle, with values that reflect respect and kindness for all life. We are going to have to detach from much of the technology that has been created. This will not be easy, because it has created so much comfort and entertainment. Essentially it has disconnected us from nature, and the natural flow of life.

Everyone matters. Each of us has something to contribute to and it will take a combination of individuals with different skills. Our survival depends upon each of us supporting the natural laws every day.  How we are all going to take care of the Earth is a collective vision. The challenge in humanity today is that they want everybody to think the same or be the same.  Part of the answer is in you, part of the answer is in me.

The first thing we need to do as individuals is to understand our personal identity, our gifts and our purpose. In order to join together as a collective we need to value the uniqueness in each one of us.

As the Original free and independent peoples of our homeland, we have always relied on visions, dreams and our spiritual experiences to give guidance and direction in life.  That experience is an experience of being connected to the Earth, to the Spirit. Whenever the Spirit gives a vision to an individual it always becomes a vision for the collective; it always leads to a vision of peace for humankind and for the Earth.

The foundation we create must be based on that collective vision and natural laws. These laws are self-enforcing.  They cannot be broken without a consequence.  This is what causes climate change.  The Earth is responding like a mother would, to wake us up to teach us, to feel what we have done to her.  It is unfortunate that we will have to go this far in order to learn.  There is no power that man has that can prevent the forces of nature from unleashing her forces in order for us to learn, to learn our true purpose as human beings.  If we are to survive, we must follow the rules of conduct as dictated by the natural forces.

We have to stop fighting each other, which is the politics being played out. Our vision must unite us in our efforts to survive.

We need to begin the process of returning to the land as individuals who join together in connecting with the spirit of the land.  We need to receive our education from the land itself.  Nature is the true teacher of understanding life, the rules of conduct we should have in living and surviving.  The process of education from our Indigenous perspective necessitates forming relationships with living beings in our environment, including the living and breathing Earth itself. 
In our culture we are encouraged to spend as much time as we can on the land, getting in touch with the Earth, feeling the presence of spirit in the world.

We all need to make our way to the land, to recover and to heal the human spirit. We have to feel nature, feel the sun, feel the wind, feel the breeze, feel the rain, and listen to the voice of nature, through the sounds of the animals, sounds of the birds; to listen to messages that come from the winds; to hug the trees, to lay on the land, to feel the love of the earth.  We need to listen to the waters in the rapids in the falls, to see the beauty of the land; to see the stars twinkling in the night sky, to see, feel the power of the full moon; to greet the sun at sunrise in gratitude for the blessing of life‘s gifts, to touch the land with your bare feet.

The spirit in the land will guide us, teach us, and ultimately give us our survival.

Our heart has always been in the land as Indigenous people and because of that, we hold a knowledge and an understanding that we want to share. Our knowledge keepers still speak the ancient languages and have kept our ceremonies, our ways of seeking and sharing knowledge. They are the ones whom are traditionally sought out for guidance. There are still a few left among our nations waiting for those who want to learn about natural laws.

As much as the youth are sounding the alarm and raising the bar of concern on climate change what is still missing in the conversation is the voice of our Indigenous knowledge keepers. People are not paying attention to what we are saying about spirit and that the Earth is a living entity.

There has been much talk in this country about reconciliation.  True reconciliation is behaving with high moral conduct, reconciling with the land and truly listening to what the Indigenous People have to offer in our leadership on our homeland.

We have a deep love for the next generation and have hope based on our visions and our prophecies, for a positive future.

It is important to leave a legacy for our children that can ensure that they can have a future. This will require a change of heart, a heart that acts with kindness, respect and humility.

–Dave Courchene – Nii Gaani Aki Inini (Leading Earth Man) is a respected Anishinabe Elder and Knowledge Keeper who has devoted his life to creating a healthy environment for current and future generations. He founded the Turtle Lodge Central House of Knowledge in Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba, Canada.

[Originally published in Cultural Survival:]