Keynote Address: Nii Gaani Aki Inini (Leading Earth Man) – Dave Courchene
Canadian Parks Conference 2017
The Banff Centre – March 8, 2017
Our survival depends upon each of us finding the way to live from the heart.
Everything begins with spirit and this is where we must begin. We are all spiritual beings and we have lost our way, the way of the Spirit. We have limited our world to the mind.
We have designed our world disconnected from the land and its natural laws.
My people come from a lineage of complex traditional societies and governments that sustained our ancestors since the beginning of time. From those ancient societies we learned teachings, values and traditional practices that ensured our survival and future generations. We were taught to understand our earth and the natural laws that kept us in balance within it. We have deep inherent reverence for the land. Our traditional knowledge and valid contributions with respect to stewardship of our lands can no longer be suppressed.
It was understood by our ancestors that a new people would arrive on our land to come and learn the ways of our people. They would help us to take care of the land and join in us our guardianship of the land.
The real guardian of the Earth is the Earth. The Earth loves us so much, she provides everything for us. She provides the food. She provides the water. She provides the medicines. She provides the shelter, the clothing. And most of all, she provides the spirit of love to all of her children. She loves us, she teaches us through her natural laws, and she corrects us when we go astray.
If we are going to move forward as a civilization, we must return to the land to seek guidance and direction. When I speak of the land I speak of the animals, birds, fish and the plant life. I speak of the trees, the water, all that hold the secrets of life.
The Earth holds nothing back in revealing the secrets of life, if we open our senses to receive the teachings.
The human being does not have the strength to match the strength and the power of the earth. Ultimately it is the land that we must all return to, to find resolve to the current crises we are living in.
It is my understanding that the mission of the Federal Parks is to act in the capacity of guardianship.
I would like to explore that notion from our perspective as the First Peoples.
As a people we have always regarded guardianship as a sacred duty and responsibility. This understanding begins with knowing that the Earth has a spirit and is truly a living entity.
In our belief system we are taught in the teaching lodges of our nations we owe our life, our existence to the Earth. We are taught to treat all life found on the Earth with complete respect. All life born from the earth also has its own individual spirit that defines its meaning and purpose.
We have a law called Ogichitibakonikaywin – the Great Binding Law of the Creator. This law tells how we are all connected, how we are all related – connected to the spiritual origins of our own physical creation, and connected to the source of our life, the Earth.
Essentially, what we do to the land we do to ourselves and affects the future of all children. We have certainly reached a point, a crossroads, where we must now consider a true relationship with the Earth.
This is where I believe we can contribute as First Nations. We have to reconcile with the living entity we call Mother Earth, for abandoning her, for neglecting her, for not showing any gratitude for how she provides all our needs.
It really begins with a simple gesture of gratitude, expressed in prayer and offerings.
If we were a truly civilized society we would have the values that show respect for all life; no separation, no division, no disconnect from the land. A civilized society would live and promote peace.
We must stop the war against the Earth, or we will all perish.
The damage we have done will require a major investment in the trillions of dollars to help in restoration.
Land guardianship is the fundamental issue. It is the only foundation from which we can build a future for all our children. Our sacred homeland is the link that binds all else on the current front-lines of our struggles.
As recognized and respectful partners we must both lead in this new direction where we are ultimately accountable to our children and future generations. We have much to share with you as partners, just as you instinctively carry the same hopes and aspirations. We must recognize that land management in this new generation is different than it has been in the past, both in intensity and character.
As society changes and practices evolve there are fundamental natural laws, and values, that need to be maintained and followed to protect the intimate relationship with the land and all life dependent on it.
As we acknowledge that mother earth has a spirit, and so it is with each of us. Spirit is within each of us. We are challenged to nurture that spirit, and it begins with having a relationship with the earth. The earth provides medicines that nurture the spirit.
The animals also have a special relationship with us, helping to nurture our spirits. In our relationship with the animal world, we are taught and guided toward understanding natural law.
Recently, the Buffalo were introduced into this National Park. In keeping with the spiritual relationship we have with the Buffalo, who was there to welcome them when they arrived? Who was there to talk to the spirit of the Buffalo?
True guardianship is aligned with nature, speaking and listening to nature in what she has to say.
The Buffalo have arrived at this time to bring a message. Who will access that message? Only those that have the gift to speak to the Buffalo. This is a natural gift indigenous people have.
Today, as in the past, the land is our very source of human survival – being on the land connects us to spirit and natural laws, both of which guide, teach and ensure our continued existence. Our ceremonies, feasts, offerings firmly established our spiritual link to the land. Our seven sacred laws – respect, love, courage, honesty, humility, wisdom and truth must once again lead us in this journey forward.
The Seven Sacred Laws
In our belief system, we have seven laws that are represented by seven animals. These seven laws act as the foundation of a way of life that we create and build that is sustainable, that reflects respect for all life. This of course will require a change of heart. It will require a commitment of the heart.
It is the spirit of seven animals that we call upon to teach us and remind us of the seven laws, beginning with the law of Respect – Represented by the Buffalo. Respect is to be a giving and sharing people, first and foremost, following the example of the buffalo who gave its whole being for the life of the people.
Love – Represented by the Eagle – is what our country should be all about, loving the Great Spirit, loving Mide-Aki, the land, loving ourselves in the way we were created, loving each other in the highest way, as the eagle brings vision that is always based on love. Through the unconditional love of the Great Spirit, we have all been given the ability to have vision.
Courage – Represented by the Bear – is to live from the heart, having the courage to be ourselves. It takes courage to do the right thing for the sake of the children, the way a mother bear would die before seeing harm come to her cub.
Honesty – Represented by the Sabé or Bigfoot – is being honest with ourselves, speaking and living our truth from the heart. Honesty is refusing to lie or engage in gossip about others; simply, being true to our words. Honesty is never judging or condemning others, rather to speak well of others, honouring their uniqueness within the human family.
Wisdom – Represented by the Beaver – is about using the gift the Great Spirit gave each of us to serve, and build a strong family, community and Nation. Our gifts do not belong to us as individuals, but belong to all the people, to serve the good of the Nation. If the beaver did not use his gift to build, his teeth would grow long and he would die. Similarly if we do not use our gifts in a good way for the benefit of the Earth and the brothers and sisters of our nations, we too would die spiritually, and experience the negative consequences of natural law.
Humility – Represented by the Wolf – is about showing gratitude for life received, never overstepping the natural laws of Mother Earth. Humility is to know that not one of us is ever above or below our fellow human beings. We are all equal in the eyes of the Great Spirit.
There is so much we could learn from the wolf. The teaching of humility was especially important for the leaders of the Nation.
The teaching of Truth is represented by the Turtle. Our motherland is referred to as Turtle Island. To know and live truth is to walk and live all the Seven Sacred Laws. Living truth means living in the spirit of Respect, Love, Courage, Honesty, Wisdom, Humility and Truth. It is when we live truth that we will know peace and find the truth of our humanity. Our spiritual constitution is written on the turtle. The turtle lives in the water and on the land to remind the world of the truth we should be living by.
The animals that represent the seven laws ensure that we have a close relationship with the land – an alliance with nature. The animal world are our brothers. They live with each other in harmony, and bring us teachings, as do the trees. It is the land that gives meaning to our lives. It gives us our language, our teachings, our life.
This is the beginning our Elders have identified, as we have expressed it in the Great Binding Law.
In order for positive change to happen it will require knowledge and an awareness that can help us understand our duties and responsibilities of being true stewards of the land, guided by the seven laws.
When you are able to walk the spirit of these teachings is when you become truly free, it is then that you receive the full support of the universe, and the forces of the Earth itself. There is no struggle, but rather catching the natural rhythm of the Earth. You become a part of the land. You become the land.
These laws can’t be legislated, simply because you can’t legislate morality. These teachings must be lived from within us, from the heart, the spirit. It is these laws that align and connect us with the natural laws of mother Earth. When these laws act as the foundation of everything we do in life, we live peace not only with ourselves as human beings but also with the land.
First Nation Knowledge Keepers Taking a Lead Role in Guardianship
I see an opportunity with the Parks to set the stage whereby our knowledge keepers take a lead role in helping define and implement what is real and true guardianship.
Everything begins with spirit. I have a vision of seeing our elders and knowledge keepers helping to reconnect with the land, helping to restore the significance of spirit.
On the issue of land guardianship and management, recognize the opportunity for us to be equal partners in acting as real guardians of the Earth. It will only be then that we can truly address the whole issue of truth and reconciliation.
Guardianship also includes supporting the rights of our children by supporting rites of passage for all children to go to the land, to connect with the source of life. We have a law, Abinooji Kakekwewin – which means “teachings that are given to a child that last forever that can only be given by a woman.” The original mother, Mother Earth, is the one who can provide those teachings.
It is our biological mothers and grandmothers who come the closest in reflecting these original teachings.
The vision quest has been a rite of passage for young boys to have a solid connection to the land as they reach out for their vision, as the boys are initiated and taught by the Earth herself. Everything they learn is about the Earth. We will never be men until we are initiated by the land. I would propose that all boys in this country be given the opportunity to go on this rite of passage.
The girls are taught by the grandmothers about their sacred responsibility as women to be life-givers, emulating and reflecting the greatest mother of all, Mother Earth. Women have a very special role of honour, responsibility and leadership in maintaining the balance of our sacred way of life.
Recognize our rightful place of leadership, in helping to take care of the land. As we take care of the land she will take care of us.
I propose we implement a totally new direction based on the development of a distinct relationship. A relationship not grounded on fear, mistrust and control, but one based on the genuine commitment to change the status quo. The foundation of this relationship must be to genuinely listen with our hearts and spirit, not only our minds.
It will require a change of heart, a change of the way we do things, to a way of life that treats all life is sacred.
If you are prepared to build a partnership that will truly value and respect our participation then I am confident that the land will begin to heal and work with us in our efforts to change. We have so much to contribute in the area of land management.
We cannot continue down the current path we are on. Many today realize this.
As the First People, we still hold onto the protocols that connect us to the land. All we ask is for the support and opportunity to be a significant part of defining, and putting into action, true guardianship.
Recognize our leadership role in helping take responsibility for the national and provincial Parks!
An important element of putting these protocols into practice involves positioning the Knowledge Keepers and the Elders of our nations, who have maintained the laws of the ancestors, in their rightful place of leadership, guidance and influence, as an independent, non-partisan group.
There is a group here in Canada called ILI, the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, who are taking a lead in promoting and advocating for guardianship. Their initiative deserves our support.
Indonesia is an example of a country that has turned over leadership of its national parks to Indigenous people.
If we can ever reach a level of understanding and respect towards a real partnership, then great change is not a dream but an achievable goal.
It has been prophesized by our people that there would one day come a time when we would take our rightful place of leadership on our original homelands. Where we go from here is totally dependent on the willingness to accept our offer to work together.
The party that one day accepts our offer without condition will be recognized in history as one who blazed a new and vibrant trail of true reconciliation and partnership. Others will follow.
Nii Gaani Aki Inini – Leading Earth Man (Dave Courchene), Anishnabe Nation, Eagle Clan is the Founder of Turtle Lodge.