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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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