From the Tar Sands Region of Alberta, Canada:
The Healing Walk, continued.
August 5, 2012
“I was impressed by your prayer yesterday.” Tantoo was folding her tent. She was about my age, a Cree, and had recently moved back to the Anzac community after living on the West Coast. She has done some acting and filmmaking.
“My worldview was incubated here in this community, Anzac.” She began. “Years ago we didn’t have a road. There was just a train that came through one part of the week. Two days later it would go back to Edmonton. That kind of situation builds a knit in the community. I remember going to a campsite far from home when I was a child. We were berry picking, and Mom made a streak into the bush and pulled a cup off a tree. People would leave things for other people; there was no sense of ownership. The same thing with cabins in the bush – you were welcome to go in and use whatever is there – it is meant for that. It’s a community that is intertwined. I felt a breech between people at an early age when I went to the city and saw the distain for my people.”
“Yes: a lack of respect. It hurt. Because the people who raised me were all kindness and compassion. It was the way, the way. You just knew intrinsically that the Earth is alive: everything is alive.”
“It wasn’t like a realization… ”
“Oh, no. It’s like breathing, and if you take anything from the bush, you leave something. Tobacco was a sacrament. You leave it as a gift. You appreciate. And you recognize the bounty of this living Earth. And I was thinking, ‘I wonder what kind of sacrifice Syncrude and Suncor put down! (Laughs.) And judging by the effects it’s having on people, if they did put something down, they better put something else down because it’s not in balance. They haven’t given anything back that’s of any value. There’s been no gratitude. When the deposit was discovered it wasn’t ‘Oh! Now we can do this for the people; now we can do this for the Earth.’ There was no breath of gratitude. Indigenous people are still connected to the Earth, despite the attempt to sever our relationship to the Creator. The thread was pretty thin when we started coming back, but that is what has sustained us through the barrage, the genocide, the holocausts.”
“Do you feel people are coming back now?”
“Yup. Communities have been healing. We’re taking back our culture, taking back the creator, taking back fundamental relationship understandings.”
“The worldview you are expressing now: you were born into that. I was not born with it…”
“That’s right, my father’s people (She is Meti) didn’t discover that the Earth was alive until the sixties. We’ve been trashed. They considered us primitive… not quite as intelligent… not capable of huge concepts. How would we have any answers to anything?”
“I see a lot of people in mainstream society in America and in Canada that are looking for something.” I said. “They’re not sure what they are looking for, but they need help.”
“They do. And unfortunately they don’t look in the right places. But… now, maybe they will. With climate change, they finally realize it affects all of us, not just Indians. With the tar sands it was just Indians. It doesn’t really matter – they die easy.” She laughed, and looked me in the eye knowingly.
“It’s the climate issue that has brought me here from Kentucky. You have the tar sands here; we have mountaintop removal. There’s fracking everywhere. But the issue that ties it all together is the climate. That’s why I decided to seize on this issue.”
“Imagine reaching in with your dirty hands and grabbing a piece of liver out of the human body, or a hunk of pancreas. That’s what it means that the Earth is alive. This is all a part of her body. It’s a cancer. The Earth has cancer. People think they can keep doing it. They can’t be that stupid.”
“No, they’re not stupid. They’re working within a worldview which is limited by money, and they make their decisions based on profit.”
“And they made sure we didn’t get our hands on the money. They handled us for generations. That was a really smart tactic on their part – to tear the children away from their families and leave the parents with no children. And to program the children that their parent’s ways are the ways of the devil – teaching them to fear it. Ripping their language away. The Bible has not based on natural force; that was taken out of it. There are some pieces missing to the Bible, and not only that, it was written by men. It was distorted for the purposes of their own power. Nature doesn’t lie to you.”
I felt the strength of the living world in her words, but a weakness in how they were heard by others. “Now that society is going to have to reconfigure itself,” I asked. “How are we going to live on the Earth, how are we going get human activity within our understanding of the whole Earth system? How are we going to do that?”
“They’ve got to recognize natural force, and that means solar energy, wind energy. That’s the only thing that’s replenishing. A Hopi elder shared with us one time a vision they had gotten in their spirit councils. He said, ‘Today, people have every confidence in the cycle of condensation – of clouds and rain, etc.: every confidence in it. But if things keep going as they are, the Earth will suffer a stroke. When that happens, there is no cycle.’”
“Years ago, when Earth awareness was rising in the larger society,” she went on. “I was very excited that they were using some or our quotes from our chiefs and some of our understandings were moving into the environmental movement. It was a key time. Then, Reagan came along and said ‘If you’ve seen one red cedar, you’ve seen them all,’ and the whole structure just went in the other direction. So we have poison all over the Earth now. We weren’t incorporated in to be in the front lines. Our drum wasn’t brought in; our songs weren’t brought in; our ways weren’t brought in. We didn’t have that respect.”
“Even from the environmental movement.”
“Yes. I will always remember that sensation when I heard Reagan on the radio. There was a massive chill in my body. Society just moved completely away from the Earth. I felt the world had gotten away from us, but back home here there was hope yet, there’s hope yet – we haven’t destroyed it. Our air is not like in California. But nobody was listening, even among my own people. They were elbowing me out of the way, ‘Don’t talk like that, we need the money,’ you know? So we’re all being educated.”
“I think with climate change we’re all beginning to experience it. We’re in a better listening mood now.”
“Well, you keep on working on that. Open up their ears.”
Melina Laboucan Massimo
Melina works for Greenpeace Canada. If you will remember from the first page of this book, it was her outreach to the people of Appalachia that resulted in my coming here to Alberta. She was a key organizer in the Healing Walk. But her community of about 500 Lubacon Cree is from the Peace River tar sands region, several hundred miles from here.
“Before my dad’s generation, people lived off the land – horse and wagon. With his generation the paved roads came. His parents hid him when the residential school people came, but he has Masters in linguistics and education. His job title is Aboriginal and Cree Curriculum Development. A lot of people used to live by subsistence, but because they are being pushed off the land, or the land is leased out, they cannot live off the land the way they used to. They can’t pick berries or gather medicines. Gardens used to be family based, but now agriculture is more of a business.”
“So, when did you become aware of the destruction of the tar sands industry?”
“People didn’t really talk about the tar sands per se, even up to five or ten years ago. It was always called oil. There was a lot of conventional oil, so it became normalized. Just oil. But there hasn’t really been a discussion of the difference between oil and tar sands, which is an unconventional type of fossil fuel. No one ever thought of it that way. It wasn’t until my Masters work that I started researching tar sands. I saw that the deposits lay exactly where my community is, and where we are right now, and I saw how big the project is. It’s one of the biggest projects in the world. It’s a huge project area. So I came to realize that this oil and gas lifestyle that I’m not a big fan of – that’s why I don’t like living in Alberta sometimes – it’s so resource driven – is going to get worse. That’s why I decided to focus my work more on environmental issues. As a native person, I’ve always been about the land, about our abilities to practice our livelihood and our traditions on the land. It’s a lot bigger issue than I realized at the time; that’s why I started working on it full time.”
““It’s a global dimension. That’s why I’m here. So, where does your passion for the land come from?”
“I grew up in a northern, rural community with no running water, no infrastructure, but my Mom moved us into the city for a better education. It was a big culture shock, like, this is totally not what I expected. I was shocked. There were so many more resources, libraries, books. But growing up with grandparents that lived off the land – fishing, trapping, hunting – and going out on the trap line with them or in the horse and wagon – just seeing how beautiful and diverse the boreal forest is, and the ecosystems and all the life that was there and how it provided for our families with clothes, beading, and moccasins, medicines, and food. That’s what I grew up with. Every time we would go visit my grandmother, she would cook up moose meat and give us banik (deep-fried bread). People would always give each other meat or berries. I Learned from my Dad how to harvest certain medicines. You know that this Earth sustains us and gives us life. It makes you want to protect it all that much more. This isn’t just a piece of real estate. Developers who are not from here don’t have that connection. They think its just some plot of land, but it’s our territory, our homeland, where our ancestors are buried. It’s not just us standing in the way of “progress;’ it’s us caring about the very foundation of how humans can even live in a good, healthy way on the land.”
“That seems to come naturally…”
“It’s a cultural thing. You kill the land; you kill us; you kill the land; you kill our culture; you kill our livelihood. It’s not like you can kill this plot of land and we will just move to the city and become consumers.”
“Do you feel there is a revival of indigenous cultures? Are people moving back?”
“The policy of removing children to residential schools – they basically stole the children from their communities from the age of five to eighteen – what the Prime Minister called ‘removing the Indian from the child, was basically white-washing the children and taking the culture out. We’re still recovering from that. It’s a lasting legacy. I don’t even want to tell some of the stories; it’s the most horrific thing. Some people never recovered their culture. If you have your culture beaten out of you during your formative years, it’s going to affect how you think, how you live, how you raise your kids.
“When I came to Louisville – I don’t remember if I said anything to the crowd about it, but when I walked in and saw this picture of a mountaintop removal site, I remember thinking, ‘That looks exactly like the tar sands.’ Then hearing everyone’s stories about the contamination, deaths in the families, etc. It’s the same thing.”
“Both here and in the U.S.” she continued. “People are always pitting the environment against the economy. That’s the thing that frustrates me most. The economy doesn’t keep us alive; it keeps us functioning. The environment is what keeps us alive.”
“Yeah. We’re not trying to do away with the economy; we’re just trying to put it inside the environment.”
“Right. I just wish there was a way we could be transitioning off fossil fuels to see what a world would look like with solar and wind. I think it’s the mind frame that is really different.”
“What you were describing before,” I added. “About the supposed conflict between jobs and the environment, is how the environment looks from within the economic paradigm. The environment doesn’t fit in; it’s a threat, an anomaly. But the economy, if it’s looked at within the ecologic worldview… there’s a place for it. We may have to develop alternative energies, but why not? That makes jobs, too!”
“Right! Exactly. It’s all about domination and control of the masses. The oil companies have their infrastructure set up and they don’t want people to stop buying their products. And the people getting a wage from it are really participating in their own demise. I guess that’s coming from a different worldview.”
“It’s cultural teachings that give you a different understanding of the world – how to acknowledge what’s important in the world. Being out on the land makes you appreciate what it is.”
“Is that what’s living through you in your work now – your experience of being close to the land as a young person?”
“Yes. Those are some of the best memories I have. I remember going on the horse and wagon with my cohcum and my mosum. They would go out into the bush for a month or two at a time. There were summer and winter camps. It was seeing that from a young person’s eyes –it’s so vast. I thought it was never-ending, all encompassng. It was so dark at night, and so quiet.”
“That is the world you live in.”
August 6, 2012
According to today’s Nation of Change, The dry summer is causing water temperatures to near 100 degrees, killing off thousands of fish in the streams and rivers in the U.S. Almost 40,000 shovelnose sturgeon were killed in Iowa last week as the temperatures in the water came to 97 degrees. Sturgeon, catfish, carp, and many other species of fish in the lower Platte River are boiling in the drought stricken heated waterways.[i]
“It’s something I’ve never seen in my career, and I’ve been here for more than 17 years,” said Mark Flammang, a fisheries biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. “I think what we’re mainly dealing with here are the extremely low flows and this unparalleled heat.”[ii]
The living being of the Earth is not an abstraction for the indigenous peoples of Northern Canada, nor is it, I believe, for indigenous peoples anywhere. It is not a realization from scientific studies of ecosystems and weather – not a Gaia hypothesis. It comes of culture, of early childhood teachings and direct exposure to plants and animals, rivers and streams, lakes, forests, and storms. But this understanding of life does not fit the larger society, and indigenous peoples everywhere have found it squeezed out of them through systematic programs of assimilation.
But it has come back. The Cree and Dene people I have spoken to are no longer embarrassed by who they are. They talk openly of spirits, of Mother Earth, of the living forces of air and water, and know that their words to each other are understood as spoken. They feel that their ways speak to humanity as a whole, though few are hearing what they say.
The reality of a living Earth is not present in mainstream culture. One cannot speak of it without apology in normal social relations. At the office, or with friends, we do not speak of water, air, or Earth in spiritual terms, as we cannot be sure what is heard on the other end of the conversation. Spirit is fancy, imagination, superstition; it is not experience. If it is explained, it is not understood. When we hear of the Mother Earth Accord, we think, ‘Sure, they can talk that way – they’re Indians,’ but we cannot talk that way ourselves.
Science has come to understand life in terms of complexity. There are so many chemicals seeping through membranes, so many genes directing new growth, so many electrons flying between neurons, that life somehow arises from the traffic. We know more and more of how it works, but we do not know what it is, or where it comes from. I do not believe we ever will know what life is through science, or through the perceptual experience on which science is based. I do not believe we will ever see, feel, smell, taste, or hear life itself. Even in interpersonal relations, we see how people move, hear what they say, and watch how they react to pleasure or pain, but we do not hear or touch life directly; we only assume it is there. Awareness of life is a leap of spirit. The order people create in what they do and the symbolic impact of the sounds they make with their mouths leads us to believe they see and feel as we do, but we do not see or feel it directly. We know it is there, yet we do not perceive life as an object. We know there is life in our friends and family only because our hearts are open to them.
The trees do not speak in words, and the lakes and streams do not flow in the language of English or Cree, but the Earth moves always toward higher creation and new birth. The birds and fish create order as they hunt and build nests. The forest grows back where trees have fallen. This is what Henry Basil saw along the shores of his homeland after years of street life in Edmonton, and what Melina’s grandparents showed her at Peace River. We cannot see or touch directly the subtle life of the Earth any more than that of friends and family, but it is there. The Earth is alive. It is bigger than science or language.
[i] Nation of Change, August 6, 2012.
[ii] GRANT SCHULTE | Associated Press, August , 2012