THE LEGACY OF MUIN'ISKW - 
TRADITIONAL ECOLOGICAL KNOWLEDGE

 

This text is taken from the script for an interpretive program that Muin’iskw used to give at Kejimkujik National Park in 1998

Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK)

Modern technology has taken us to the Moon and given us a view of the Earth as a single round whole. The indigenous people of this land have always had this kind of knowledge of the Earth.

In ancient times, the Ancestors of North America lived without a written word. Hence, it was the spoken word – the information was handed down orally from generation to generation in our languages – which is the basis of transmitting our traditions, our knowledge, and more so, our understanding of the world around us. Our Elders, knowing the ancient teachings, are the instruments of social and environmental changes. They are now telling us that one of the biggest problems we are facing in terms of the earth – and of the whole of humanity – cannot be tackled by technology. Although we do have the technology to do the job – that is, to heal the Earth – what is need more is to change the attitudes that we all carry in our minds and our hearts. A change in the world-view needs to occur. If this does not happen, then Mother Nature will do it herself, and she is well capable of this, as it has happened before.

In our oral history, it is told that there were four periods in the past when the Earth was created and then destroyed, once by fire, then by wind, then by ice, and then again by water. In each one of these time periods, there was a situation in which humanity had some great lesson to learn, and each time there was a mistake made. Sometimes there were warnings, or people could see that they were making a mistake, but they were unwilling or unable to correct the error, and finally Nature herself made an adjustment.

In the face of rapid changes of the Earth caused by science and technology, and the ecological crisis that has started to unfold, there has arisen the need to explore alternative views that may help Nature rather than destroy her. Many have found that indigenous philosophies offer some of the most profound insights for cultivating the kind of sustainable relationship we need with the Earth, and the spiritually integrated perception of Nature needed to address what has now become a global crisis of the ecology.

My belief is that my people have a science of our own: traditional ecological knowledge, or TEK, as it has come to be known. As this knowledge was being instilled within me by my Elders years ago, I decided that my goal in life would be to share what I know of my science. This would be my contribution to the unborn generations yet to come. Up until now it has only been Western science that mattered. The rest of the world could have culture or philosophy, but it wasn’t considered that anyone else could have “science.” A lot what is in the First Nations’ world view falls beyond what would normally be thought of as science in the Western sense, but there are some things that could be considered to be direct parallels – for example, the knowledge that my people had about the environment. TEK comes from a wide variety of experiences within the environment; from working with the land; from being part of the land; from absorbing the feeling of one’s surroundings when out on the land; and by listening to legends, stories, and the experience of others with the land. So my feeling was that, if I could find a way to talk about TEK, and about how much sense it makes as a holistic viewpoint, then perhaps society would see something they could learn from my people. Then, maybe, we could all work together in harmony as a team, beginning that healing process on Mother Earth.

One thing that is important to mention here is that, if my people had tried to share their knowledge of the environment before now, it would not have worked, for two reasons. First, society as a whole was not ready to listen. Second, it was not time for us to share. Our belief system says that there is an appropriate time for everything, and there is also an oral tradition that says there was a definite decision made long ago that the knowledge of the Ancestors was not to be shared. This decision was based on a prophecy that told of a time when consciousness would go through darkness, and the knowledge we carry would be blocked from our memories. Our people knew this cycle would last for hundreds of years.

The first stage of this would involve the sites of knowledge - in our case, the petroglyph sites – becoming off limits; our traditional universities would be closed. Knowledge would no longer be recorded, nor would the old stories be told.

In the second stage, our people were told that the ancient teachings would have to be preserved within family structures, and moved to the personal domains of our own hearts. At that time, only two connections would stay open: we would keep our languages alive, because so much of our Ancestors’ knowledge is in those languages; and we would always keep our spiritual contact with the Creator. It was understood that this layering of activity would encode the teachings on our consciousness, just as our Ancestors carved their knowledge into the rocks. And, like the rocks, the knowledge in our consciousness can be accessed, but only at the right time and with the correct key.

In our teachings we learn that all things placed on this Earth are sacred, and that the most sacred life form is the Earth herself. Earth is alive, and she is a spirit. She is not, as the colonizers have regarded her, simply a planet or a biosphere. She is our sacred Earth Mother, the one who nurtures us, provides for us, and protects us. We should treat her with respect, compassion and gentleness. We should not be harming her, desecrating her, exploiting her, or polluting her in any way. Respect is the highest principle. My people were instructed to live in harmony with Nature. We were ordered by our traditions to respect our Mother Earth, who provides for the needs of all of us: the plants, the four-legged ones, the two-legged ones, the ones with wings, and those with fins.

Our sacred instructions come from the Elders, who received their knowledge from their Elders. We are told that the remains of our Ancestors, their artefacts and memories, stories and history, are all buried within Mother Earth for a reason, to fulfill the original instruction of taking care of our Mother by giving back to her. By giving back all that she gave to us during our brief Earthwalk, we honour her with our final gesture. We show that we remember, carry, and pass on those original instructions.

The spirituality of my people has often been mistakenly equated with religion, but it actually forms part of a much larger world view. Spiritual teachings regarding TEK refer not just to a higher power, but more so to the respect and reverence that First Nations peoples had for the land, and for all the resources they depended on. TEK is just a basic form of knowledge which anyone can acquire through observing and experiencing their environment over time. Of course, how these observations and experiences are interpreted is culturally determined; therefore, TEK is the culturally- and spiritually-based way in which my Ancestors related to their environment. It is knowledge from time immemorial, founded on generations of continuous occupancy spent carefully observing the ecosystem from within.

For thousands of years my Ancestors utilized the natural resources of their local environment in an ecologically-sustainable manner. This fact has only recently become of interest to the Western scientific community as a valuable source of ecological information. A growing body of literature attests not only to the presence of a vast reservoir of information regarding plants and animal behaviour, but also the existence an effective indigenous system of self-management which relied on a sophisticated yet simple database that determined strategies for the conservation of natural resources.

TEK is both cumulative and dynamic, building upon the experiences of earlier generations. It included a system of classification, a set of empirical observations about the local ecology, and a system of self-management that governed hunting, trapping, fishing, and gathering of natural resources. TEK varied in quantity and quality among individuals of any community or cultural group, having been passed on by word of mouth, through direct hands-on experiences, and of course by stories and legends.

I want to share with you now a legend I have heard, which tells about the time when Glooscap, our Mi’kmaq cultural hero, went and found food for my people:

Glooscap saw that the Mi’kmaq people were hungry, so he took it upon himself to go and speak with his brothers and sisters, the animals of the forest and waters. He wanted to see if they could help by offering themselves as food for the people.

So Glooscap began his journey into the deep forest. He had travelled for four days and nights when he came upon a river. There he set up camp, and settled down for the evening. Just before dark, Salmon came to the shoreline, and spoke to Glooscap. Salmon asked Glooscap what his purpose was for coming into the forest and stopping at their river.

Glooscap told Salmon, “I have come to the forest to seek food for my people.”

The Salmon asked, “What kind of food are you searching for?”

Glooscap replied, “I am searching for Moose. I want to ask if he will offer himself to feed the people who are hungry.”

Salmon was silent for a time, and then said, “I, too, will offer myself to feed your people.”

Glooscap is very pleased, and to show his appreciation to Salmon for his gift, he offers tobacco to Creator, asking that the spirits of any salmon who offer themselves in this way would be returned where they rightfully belong. Glooscap then took only as much salmon as he needed, and continued his journey into the forest.

After travelling again for four days and nights, Glooscap arrived at the edge of a bog. He set up camp, and just as he settled by his fire, Moose appeared and asks him, “What is your purpose for coming to my bog?”

Glooscap replied, “I have come to your bog to seek food for the Mi’kmaq people.”

Moose then asked, “How can I help?”

Glooscap replied, “If you would offer yourself as food to my people, I will make sure that your spirit goes to its rightful place, with honour and respect.”

Moose agreed, and once again Glooscap took only what he needed, and offered tobacco in honour of the generosity of the Moose.

Glooscap then gathered up the salmon and moose, and started his journey home. Once again he travelled for days and nights, finally arriving safely back in the land of the Mi’kmaq. The people are humbled to see that Glooscap brought plenty of food. They celebrate with a feast, and they drum, chant and dance to honour and acknowledge the spirits of Moose and Salmon.

Indigenous economies have been a diversified mix of hunting, fishing, and gathering, all using a balance of human intervention or care, in accordance with the spiritual and cultural system’s reliance on the generosity of nature. The ability of First nations to use resources in a sustainable way stemmed from a combination of several factors, including:

  • appropriate local environmental knowledge;

  • use of suitable methods for exploiting the resources available;

  • a philosophy and environmental ethic to keep exploitative abilities in check; and

  • rules by which the relationship between animals and people may be regulated.

Conservation strategies would then have been created, such as hunters and trappers following a system of rotation to allow areas to rest, allowing the population in those areas to renew. Another tool would have been the monitoring of animal patterns; for example, monitoring the moose population as determined by observing the number of occupied yards and the size of the groups using them, and the frequency of sightings of females accompanied by young. Whether one was hunting moose or any other animals, the parameters monitored were those that experience showed to be important indicators of the condition of the game population. These were also useful indicators for management decisions concerning the sustainability of upcoming harvests.

Other important principles of sustainable harvesting were that one only took what one needed, that all parts of the animal were used, and that the meat and hides were shared with other members of the tribe according to need. I can still remember my own father coming home after a successful moose hunt. Sometimes he would come home with four or five moose. This wasn’t because he was being greedy; on the contrary, he would keep only what our family needed, and give the rest away. My community knew of his ways, so whenever he was home after a successful hunt, they would soon be over to get their share.

Where Western science and TEK diverge most notably is in their explanation of ecological processes and their different concepts of environmental management. Western science separates the natural and physical world from the human world. Phenomena are explained in terms of a set of laws which are continually tested over time through the accumulation of more quantified data. The natural environment is viewed as something that can readily be manipulated by humans to meet their needs.

My Ancestors, on the other hand, saw themselves and nature as being linked, much like the strands of a spider’s web. Animals, plants, and people each represented an integral part of the whole system. Animals and plants were seen as social beings, and were not to be separated from people. This was the natural order. We also frequently refer to a higher power, known to us as the Creator, who is responsible for ensuring that overall order is maintained in this system. As mere human beings, we should not attempt to interfere with the course of Nature – just as everything else has its place in the natural cycle, so do we. Above all, we do not have any greater power or authority beyond other living organisms.

Laws and standards govern TEK, just as they do Western science. Furthermore, laws and standards govern animals as well. For example, consider the bear. For my people, Bear is the keeper of the western door, and represents knowledge, healing, and protection. Bear is also fierce, and his claims are non-negotiable. Western science understands this trait to be a threat to people, but for Bear, the rules are simple. When marking his territory, Bear will stretch as far as possible up a tree trunk and use his claws to score the tree’s bark. When other bears pass by, they are challenged to meet his standard. If they cannot reach his mark, natural law requires them to leave his territory. Man does not understand this law, and so creates confrontation by blundering into marked territory.

Welo’daqn, or the good life, is seen as being based on regeneration. This is how our Ancestors traditionally understood the world, and came to live within natural law. Two principles are essential to this model: cyclical thinking and reciprocal relations.

Cyclical thinking is common to First Nation societies. It is an understanding that the world and all parts of the natural order – the moon, the tides, women, our lives, the seasons and ages and time itself – all flow in cycles. Within this understanding is a clear sense of birth and rebirth, and the knowledge that what one does today will affect one in the future.

The second concept, reciprocal relations, defines responsibilities and ways of relating between humans and the ecosystem. Simply stated, the resources of the environment, whether they are rocks or cranberries or porcupines, are recognized as animate, and as such they are gifts from Creator via Mother Earth. Our Ancestors believed that the animals, plants, trees, and even rocks had spirits, and that they gave themselves by choice to humans for their use. In return, humans were expected to treat them with dignity and respect. Within this context, one cannot take life without a reciprocal offering. Usually tobacco, our own hair, or some other token is given in recognition of our reliance on Mother Earth. If the proper traditions of respect regarding the methods of taking from the environment, and of proper disposal of the remains, were not followed, it was believed that these spirits would no longer offer themselves to the hunter or gatherer – the resources would simply not be found when needed.

Furthermore, among my people the animals are seen as spiritual guides and helpers, and human qualities are often attributed to them in the old legends. For example, my Spirit Guide is Muin, the Black Bear, and I was given the name Muin’iskw, or Bear Woman, because I am a protector and I carry knowledge of medicines, like my guide.

Elders, when telling stories, will often speak of a time when animals and plants were able to communicate with each other, and with humans. To see one of my people speaking with a tree should not carry a message of mental instability; rather, this is a scientist, engaged in research, for just like that tree, the roots of TEK go deep into the history, body, and blood of this land. So when we sit and listen to the stories and legends being passed down to us by our Elders, we are actually integrating and synthesizing all of the living relationships and event of that moment in life. Further, when we rely on a story to guide us, we are not only integrated with the natural environment and the living relations all around us, we are also connected with the timeless past and culture of our Ancestors.

This is how our people came to learn so much about the ways of the animals, and of the environment as a whole. This is the basis of TEK. This is how our science came to be.

 
Updated: 27 Mar 2016 Print Page