THE LEGACY OF MUIN'ISKW - 
LISTEN TO WHAT THEY TELL US

 

This text is taken from the script for an interpretive program that Muin’iskw used to give at Kejimkujik National Park in 1995

 

The older I become, the more I remember the lessons I was taught as a child. I didn’t realize it then, but now when I reflect back to my childhood, the stories that my Elders told me were those of respect, especially for our Mother, the Earth.

The lessons I am taught today as I sit with my Elders are still about the environment, but unfortunately their voices are ones filled with sadness and concern. They are concerned about the impact we have on the environment and, more so, what it will be like for our future generations. Especially if we continue to take, take, and take from Mother Earth and not give back, or even leave enough for re-generation.

Let’s talk a bit on human impact, and what we as human beings are contributing to our environment. Because we are probably the fiercest of all competitors and predators, we certainly exert a vast amount of pressure on the environment, through pollution, technology, and most of all our sheer demand for space. But to say that the greatest threat to our environment is from the size and growth of our population would be too simple. Why, you ask? Well, one has to realize that human numbers never act alone. There is always the combination with consumption levels and technologies we use to meet our needs and of course to dispose of our waste. This then becomes total impact. I suppose this means that the more sophisticated we become, the more selfish we will end up to be, and in turn, the more harm we will do to our Mother Earth – our environment.

So, what do we do about our selfishness, and more importantly, where do we begin in healing Mother Earth?

First of all, as an Aboriginal person I believe that, for the long term, humanity can only exist through an inter-weaving of nature and culture. We have to realize that we cannot continue to go at the pace we are going, and expect no change in our environment. This inter-weaving is not as complex as it may sound. Actually, it is quite a simple task, and the fact is that Aboriginal people – my people – have been doing it for thousands of years. Now, this is not to say that we have to give up all our technology and become Stone Age people again. Instead, we must become more aware of our actions and their impact on our surroundings.

So how does one do this? Well, it all begins with respect. Respect is something which is taught to us at a very early age, whether it’s for another human being, plants, or animals. As a Mi’kmaq, my traditional ways and values are based on our ancient teachings and sacred instructions which have been passed down from generation to generation, and these were all built upon respect.

For my Ancestors, the Earth was always a sacred place, for it is our mother. Like our Aboriginal women, Mother Earth is a giver of life. She gives us air to breathe, water to drink, and she provides us with the staples of life: food, clothing, and shelter. All of these are precious gifts which were granted to us by the Great Spirit, through Mother Earth. Unfortunately, we have taken advantage of her for far too long.

Chief Seattle is credited with the following words: “We are part of the earth, as it is a part of us. Earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the Earth. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand of it, so whatever he does to the web, man does to himself.”

Interesting – a spider’s web is a good example of the inter-weaving idea which I have mentioned. In the web of life, every strand is reliant on the animals, plants, water, air, sun, and so on.

This passage for me certainly contains powerful words – words which we should all keep in mind. But the words which come back to me day after day are those spoken by Charlie Labrador, a hereditary chief whose bloodline stems from the woods and waters here in Kejimkujik. He once told me: “When the Great Spirit made Mother Earth, it planted the tree, which is perfect. It made the water, which is perfect. The sun and moon, the winters and summers, all are perfect. The environment as it was put forth was perfect.”

So, when we re-assess the issue, it is not the density of human population, or even technology, instead it is our attitudes, our knowledge and experiences, which are steering us away from the simplicity of life, and thus the respect for it.

Since time immemorial, the Mi’kmaq people learned, understood, and respected the laws of Nature. These laws were laid down by the Great Spirit, creating a strong relationship between people and the environment. These natural laws, as they were laid down, were never to be altered or broken – this was to ensure that the balance in all of creation would be maintained.

It is our belief that, in order to protect these laws, the Great Spirit Kji Niskam placed them within a circle. The circle certainly has an effect on all aspects of our lives, for it is a continuum, having no beginning and no end. Aboriginal people everywhere consider the circle a most powerful force, and therefore sacred.

Let’s look at how this circle theory actually fits in with ourselves and our environment. Every living thing on earth evolves around a circle, in a circle, or with a circle. Our very own existence is accomplished in a cycle: prior to conception, we believe that we are spirits, and upon conception we follow a path that takes us through our cycle from birth, through childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and elderhood. Eventually or cycle is complete and we return to our original form as spirits. Then this cycle repeats as we return to Earth again and again, learning and growing.

When one looks around, one notes that every living thing in nature re-occurs year after year, generation after generation. It is this circular pattern which determined the availability of food for early aboriginal people whose reliance was totally on Mother Nature and what she would offer, and more importantly, when it was offered. For example, during the spring and summer months, the Mi’kmaq people fished and gathered their food at the shore. In the early fall they moved inland from the coastal areas and continued their fishing along rivers, and began their hunts, while in the winter months they mainly hunted larger mammals. The seasons – spring, summer, fall and winter – all evolve in a circle, and in turn, certain foods became available during those seasons.

Let’s look at the shelters of the early Mi’kmaq people. The wigwam was built using a circular pattern, for it is believed that the positive energy within the wigwam could easily flow, readily bouncing off the walls and not getting caught up in corners as it does today in our square houses. A lot of our ceremonies are still carried out in circular patterns. When we speak within our group, or carry out healing rituals, these are usually done in a circle. Even today, we stand or sit around a fire or drum when we gather.

Birds are a good example of a species following the laws of nature within the circular boundaries. Take a look at a bird’s nest – I have only seen those made in a circular form. The Eagle and the Hawk are regarded as messengers in our culture, for they fly closest to the Great Spirit, and as they soar to the heavens, they soar in a circle. Another example is the wind – when it is at its strongest, it whirls in a circle.

This circle theory can be applied to any living thing, and it is more than just a theory – it is part of life, just as life is part of the circle and part of the web. This set up was put in place to protect us. Unfortunately, today we are taking our environment for granted. It seems that we are constantly trying to alter it in some way to meet our needs, and to meet them FAST! And the sad part is that it doesn’t really seem to matter how we accomplish this, or what we may destroy in the process. Society today is moving so quickly that we don’t even give ourselves much time anymore to sit back and really reflect on the simple things in life, and what Mother Nature has to offer.

Now, since life evolves in a cycle, it means we are actually working on circular time, so no matter how quickly we try to advance, we will eventually end up back at square one – or maybe I should say “circle one”? You know today’s concept of time is that of linear time, that what you did yesterday is in the past. But have you ever heard the expressions “What goes around comes around,” or “That which you do to others will eventually be done to you”? As an Aboriginal person, I strongly believe in these expressions.

Did you know there is such a thing as “Indian Time”? Unfortunately, some people have used this term for the wrong reasons. Indian Time actually means Mother Nature’s time. For every living thing, there is a time set aside. There is a time for fertility, time for growth, time for regeneration and degeneration. Actually, Indian Time is a way for Nature to balance itself out. If we had no balance, we would probably not be here tonight.

Take for example a flower. It begins with a seed which is fertilized. It grows to maturity, and then it regenerates. This process actually takes time. You don’t see this flower shooting up within a matter of a few minutes, or even a day. It takes its time. If all plant life grew at a fast pace, this would take too much out of Mother Nature, depleting her of energy and nutrients. So, for this there has to be balance, between Mother Nature and the flower, all done on Indian Time. A river in the springtime flows feverishly, because there is so much water there, but by mid-summer the river will have slowed down. Again, there is balance, Indian Time. A star will remain a star for millions of years, unless it begins to burn too fast, in which case the star will simply burn up.

I guess the point I am trying to make here is that everything is set at its own pace and time. If it goes beyond these, it simply goes off balance. Unfortunately, because of man’s sophistication and our pace, we are now altering the environment to a point where we are actually creating an imbalance with Nature. For this, Nature is now in turn beginning to plead with Man.

I sat down with an Elder one evening for a cup of tea – and a bit of knowledge, I suppose – when out of the blue, Kisiku asked me a question. He said, “Have you ever wondered why there are so many whales that are beaching themselves?” Well, this is a question which I have certainly asked myself at one time or another. Anyhow, Kisiku continued on: “Why do these big animals come ashore?” I replied, based on what I have heard and read about this phenomenon, that it is a well-know fact that all marine mammals, whether it be whales, seals, dolphins or such, may strand individually from time to time because of an illness they which they may have. But it is the mass strandings involving many individuals which Kisiku, myself, and others have wondered about, for if these animals are not sick, why do they come ashore with such compelling, seemingly suicidal determination?

Kisiku again begins to speak: “The whale is trying to give a message to Man, but Man does not want to listen or hear. The whale is a large mammal; he is considered the chief of the sea. Of all the sea mammals, nothing in the sea fears it – even the little fish, they swim around the whale. Not long ago, all the animals got together in a Talking Circle. There it was decided that the whale would be the one to speak with Man. He would bring the message that Man was harming Mother Earth with all his pollutants, putting them in our rivers, streams, oceans, land, and air.”

So, next time you read or hear about the whales being stranded onshore, keep in mind this story that Kisiku shared with me, as I have shared it with you, for the whale is willing to give up its life to save Mother earth – our environment.

I guess one does not realize it too often, but there are all kinds of messages being sent to us. Unfortunately, we cannot see them or hear them. Kisiku tells me that Mother Nature has a way in sending us these messages to let us know something is wrong. “Look and listen, and do it well,” he would say.

Unfortunately, man today, when he wants to know something, he goes up to his satellite and tells you, for example, what the weather will be life. Kisiku would say, “You know, Man does not have to go up there, for the message is here with the animals, plants and trees. Take for example a leaf on a tree, it will show us when it is going to rain. How? By the leaf curling itself inward, or turning upside-down.”

It is my Ancestors’ long tradition of constant observation of Nature, acquired as part of their daily struggle to survive, that provided guidance to them on what adaptations were possible – in other words, how much they could take without causing an unbalanced situation to occur. They knew that in order for the balance of Nature to work, they had to ensure that they took only what they needed, and no more. For example, when it was egg-laying time, they would not take all the eggs from one nest, for they knew they needed to leave something to ensure the regeneration of that species of bird.

I want to share with you an interview I read, which took place between a priest and a Mi’kmaq chief back in the 1700s. I hope this will provide you with a bit of insight as to how my people were still thinking, even after contact. The priest began the interview by asking a question of the chief: “What did you do, my children, before the arrival of the Europeans in this region? How did you occupy yourselves? How did you spend your time?” The chief replied, “Father, before your arrival in these parts where God decreed we should be born and where we have grown like the grasses and the trees you see around you, our most common occupation was to hunt all sorts of animals so as to eat of their flesh and to cover ourselves with their skins. We hunted both small and large game birds, and chose the best and the most beautifully feathered birds to make ornaments for our heads. We killed only enough animals and birds to sustain us for one day, and then, the next day, we started out again.”

What have we become? What are we doing to Nature? Today we hear of depleted fish stocks in our oceans, and clear-cutting in our forests, and pollutants emitted into the air. It’s unfortunate to say this, but it seems that wherever Man settles, natural habitats must suffer. And did you know one of the most abused occupants of the earth is our trees? They are cut down, mutilated, and destroyed so that Man can have more space. My Ancestors saw the tree as a living entity from the plant world. They know that the plant world was responsible for every breath we take.

So as progress marches on and Man continues to cut down trees to make open fields for farming and towns, to build houses and furniture, the thin line of balance is becoming worn. Because of clear-cutting, land is eroding as the wind is able to pick up speed across the miles and miles of open land. Wildlife as it was known by my Ancestors is beginning to disappear. There are still mixed forests, open meadows, magnificent old-growth conifers, and profusions of wildflowers, but how long will they be able to take abuse from us? I guess the question is, will we be able to save this? Man has become too materialistic, and because of his obsession to won things, Mother Nature has suffered, and is suffering immensely.

Our clear blue-green oceans, rivers, and streams are beginning to respond to Man’s abuse also, and water is so essential for life. As one listens to what is happening world wide with our water supply, one has to seriously wonder how long it will be before everyone will have to start rationing the use of water. In some parts of the world, this is already happening. Without water, we cease to exist, for it is so much a part of creation, and therefore of that web system, yet we pump millions upon millions of litres of waste into our water systems, rivers, lakes, and oceans each day. In man’s consumer-conditioned artificial reality, he justifies what does by arguing that progress – yes, progress in technology – will solve the problems. That is, if a problem arises. And if that doesn’t work, then the other way would be “out of sight, out of mind”.

Grandfather once told me a story about water, which I will share with you. He said that water is not prejudiced. It does not pick or choose who it will rain upon. It washes and gives life to all living things. It rises to the highest points in the sky, and when it falls to earth it then travels to the lowest point it can, eventually reaching its lowest point at sea level. Upon reaching this level, water evaporates and rises once again, to begin its humble yet noble serving cycle. Because of this, our Elders tell us that we should not dispose of our waste in water. Good waste, they say, should first be put back to Mother Earth, where it will become decomposed, giving its nutrients back to the soil. If we use our resources properly, there should be very little waste. However, if we pollute our water, it will in turn pollute us. “Listen well to this,” Grandfather would say, “and remember my words. Sure we live in a big country, but eventually Nature’s cycles will return to us what we have disposed of in the first place.”

Today I cannot help but feel sadness when I recall my Grandfather’s words. What he said was so true. I guess what he was telling me was that we should treat the environment the way we would like to be treated. As I look around me today, I see a society that is out of touch with the simplistic yet complex beauty of Nature. Our Ancestors saw this beauty, and they practiced a deep respect for the environment with their actions and their stories. They listened attentively to what Mother Nature had to say, and what the animals had to say.

I feel as an Aboriginal person – as a Mi’kmaq – it is my inherent duty to do what my Ancestors did. Their legacy was not the monuments, towers, or other man-made creations left behind by people that wanted to be remembered as contributors to “civilized progress.” Their legacy was enough respect for Mother Nature that they did not disturb her, leaving the complex simplicity of the environment as they found it.

These are the lessons we could learn from, for the modern world may need traditional wisdom more than traditional people need the modern world. Let’s begin the healing and show respect for Mother Nature and our environment – if not for us, then for the next generation.

 

 
Updated: 01 Apr 2016 Print Page