Courchene: The Need to include Indigenous Knowledge in Discussions on Nuclear Waste Management

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“The Need to include Indigenous Knowledge in Discussions on Nuclear Waste Management”

By Elder Dr. David Courchene (Nii Gaani Aki Inini – Leading Earth Man)
Presented at the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories Environmental Remediation Management (ERM) Programme Launch
December 5-6, 2019
Hilton, Lac Leamy, Gatineau, Quebec
As the First Peoples of our homeland, we have evolved with an understanding and knowledge that has helped us to survive, supporting the natural laws of the land. Many of the challenges we face today require a much better understanding of our duties and responsibilities in taking better care of the Earth. There is no doubt that in order to meet these challenges, we must find ways to work together as citizens of the Earth. As the First Peoples, we are open to sharing our knowledge that can help create a foundation of greater understanding. We share who we are through our traditions, languages, stories and ceremonies. Our knowledge of nuclear energy and its waste is very limited. We rely on the technical people to educate us and make us aware of this technology, and also of its waste. In spite of having limited knowledge of this technology, we do have an understanding about relationship with the Earth. Our task today is to find the spirit of developing relationship. The only way we can move forward is with respect for each other, in allowing everyone to share their understanding and knowledge. In working together, we can set a foundation based on principles and values of respect. It is hoped that through the guidance of the Spirit, we will find a way to create a model of true relationship with each other and the Earth. As a People we have a responsibility to share what has helped us to survive. We have a sacred relationship with the land. With that relationship come duties and responsibilities. Whatever is taken from the land has to be received with words, acts, and offerings of respect and gratitude. As Elders and Knowledge Keepers one of our roles is to put a ceremonial context to addressing relationship, and also, to go to the direct source of the Earth herself to seek direction in our current challenges. In our belief system we have always regarded that all life has a spirit – that the Earth herself is alive and has a spirit. We see this is the greatest challenge of humanity today – the ability to acknowledge the spirit in the land, and to understand the natural laws that we have to comply with. Natural laws were put in place to ensure we would not destroy the Earth, to whom we ourselves are connected, and to ensure balance is maintained. Natural laws are not negotiable; they demand our compliance. We have disrupted natural laws, which has helped create our current environment of contamination and climate change. Today we are all confronted with this challenge: Are we willing to change our behaviour, or do we continue down this path, disrupting natural law? The Knowledge Keepers of our Nations always reminded us to be careful not to disrupt nature’s laws. We must do everything with love and kindness for all of life. What we do to the land we do to ourselves. That is the law. To do anything in opposition of love, respect, or kindness will bring severe consequences. The most valuable gift given to humanity is free choice, a gift we must use wisely. Our choices should be motivated by values that support life. Nature will support those that are in alignment with the natural laws. Natural law has become more evident than ever with the issue of climate change. No matter what we do in life, natural law always applies. Nothing we create or build is exempt. It is the power of Mother Earth that holds the final say in the outcome of whatever each of us does. And the Earth will never allow us to destroy her. It has been understood by the Elders that all life is to be respected. All life is interconnected in the web of life. Each life form has its purpose in ensuring balance and harmony. There is a delicate balance in the circle of life. The elements that we depend upon for life have been compromised, affecting the health of our children today. The recent extinction of many species has severely damaged the web of life. We become distressed, depressed at what we see happening to our world. The youth are afraid for their future. They resort to protests, hoping they will be heard. In most cases their marches and rallies are landing on deaf ears. Some countries are criminalizing these acts of protest. And yet demonstrations continue. Protest has not always been the most effective tool in addressing our differences. It can quickly escalate to self-righteousness and sides become polarized in self-defense. The challenge is to work together to create a spirit of unity and a common bond amongst us all, for the sake of our children and the land. Our knowledge and experience as the First Peoples, I believe, can help. According to the Elders of our Nations, the element of spirit is the most important element of our being. Where we have failed as humanity is to acknowledge the spiritual aspect of nature, and of ourselves as human beings. To feel our spirit, we have to create a deeper relationship with the Earth. When we do this, we feel a greater desire to protect what we love. As we experience more of nature, the stronger the pull toward it. This is the spiritual understanding of the law of gravity. Mother Earth continues to pull us toward her, for our nourishment, our comfort, for our life, and for our teachings. The Earth is in great trouble today, because of what we have done to her, as we witness a lot of technology created by humankind that does not fall in alignment with nature’s laws. To help heal the Earth, we must begin by healing ourselves. Charles Darwin said, “Evolution doesn’t favour the strongest – it favours the ones who best adapt to change.” Most simply put, evolution favours the ones that have kindness, who support the natural laws. As the First Peoples, we have had to evolve and adapt with the changes that were suddenly a part of our world. There was a deliberate attempt to erase our identity as a People, but we adapted and survived. What helped us to survive was our ancestral relationship with the land, treating her as a living being, following her laws that ensured an alliance. The land helped us survive, maintaining our value of life’s sacredness. As difficult as today’s challenges are, we must embrace the coming changes by continuing to adapt and evolve. What has not changed is that our faith and belief as a People remains firm in our love of the land. What has not changed in our identity are the values – the natural laws – that have kept us rooted to the land. The forces of nature will always determine the outcome. Nature rules. The Earth will be the deciding factor in putting an end to our destruction of the land, like a mother correcting her children. We will come to understand what compliance with natural law really means: that we have to find a much simpler, much less materialistic, way of life. More people are beginning to realize that we cannot continue to abuse and take too much from the Earth. There is a heavy price to pay for this abuse. This is why we have climate change. We have to be much more careful with the waste we create, that causes so much potential damage. Losing our connection with nature has also brought about so much distraction with the social media and internet. The youth are totally absorbed into this technology. Most of the youth of our Nations have no land-based experiences and no land-based knowledge. The change that we speak of must come from within each of us. By finding our true spiritual identity within, we will understand our true responsibilities as human beings. Change will grow from one who has found themself. The one becomes the seed of a new life. This is natural law. One seed that is in alignment with the natural law will be supported by Nature to grow into many seeds. Nature always rewards those living within her laws with more life – one seed of a tree can grow into a forest. It is the seed of peace that must be planted in our world. Nature will ensure that it will grow. When we live from the spirit of kindness we will find the joy in life. This is the healing we all need. Our best chance to heal will come from the land. The more we are able to reconnect in nature with ways that make us feel good, the more we will want to be on the land and experience the life it generates. What will help us to change? What should be considered is support for young people to be involved in Indigenous-led land-based experiences, to connect with the land in such a way as to learn the natural laws of the land. They should experience our traditions, our teachings, and the land in its beauty – the wind, the water; the night sky, the stars that have a story to tell. Our best chance for change rests in the hands of the youth, who when properly guided by the Knowledge Keepers, can learn to create those deeply rooted relationships and make the right choices for their future. At the Turtle Lodge we have a proposal that would put our intentions into action. At many of our national gatherings at the Turtle Lodge with our Knowledge Keepers, along with scientists and academics, it has been proposed that we establish a centrally located Indigenous ancestral school of knowledge, as a means to educate young people. We are interested in pursuing such an initiative, which would reflect a community-based model of training youth in natural laws and Indigenous land-based teachings and approaches. The training would emphasize building a spiritual connection to the land, and protocols of relationship with the land, medicines, water, animals and natural world, as well as our duties and responsibilities within the family, community and Nation. Training youth as guardians and stewards of the land, and developing Indigenous leadership in rotating stewardship approaches to nuclear waste, would also be an outcome. The Turtle Lodge was agreed to as a central location for where this Indigenous knowledge-based training could begin. The learning environments would be within the traditional lodge, the sacred sites, on the land and water, with shared teaching sites in different communities within a regional network, as well as the trap lines, waterways, bush camps, and hunting grounds. This training would be open to all young people in the country, with Indigenous Knowledge Keepers as the lead instructors and Indigenous youth taking a lead as mentors to other youth. What is required are resources to develop the ancestral school of knowledge and to support 20-40 youth annually for tuition and living expenses in a proposed two-year training program. Both industry and government have a responsibility and role to play in restoring reconciliation in our territories, and we are confident that the right support will come. All that is needed is our willingness to join in efforts to teach our children. We have an opportunity today to move towards setting a new paradigm that can change the current narrative of confrontation in this country. Together we can set the stage that unites us in our diversity, by inclusiveness. As the First People our hope has always been to be an equal partner in seeking solutions and being an equal participant in the decision-making process. If we are able to accomplish this, it will set the stage on how we can find the proper solutions together.   — David Courchene, Hon. LL.D. – 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. 

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