Choosing the path of sustainability
By Sue Tiffin
Long after Dr. Dan Longboat finished his talk to a crowd of about 70 people, he was surrounded by people asking questions, shaking his hand, and posing for pictures with him.
Longboat, or Roronhiakewen (He Clears the Sky) spoke on the topic of A Way of Life: Indigenous Knowledge to Sustain the World on Aug. 10 at the Minden Hills Community Centre as a summer speaker at an Environment Haliburton event. An associate professor in the Chanie Wenjack School for Indigenous Studies at Trent University, director of the Indigenous Environmental Studies and Sciences program and acting director for the Indigenous Environmental Institute, Longboat is also a Turtle Clan member of the Mohawk Nation, and citizen of the Rotinonshon:ni (Haudenosaunee - People of the Longhouse) originally from Ohsweken, the Six Nations community on the Grand River.
EH board president Ryan Sisson, a former student of Longboat’s, introduced his professor by saying he is celebrated for his traditional knowledge, which he embeds into his teachings, lecturing and teaching on diverse topics including Indigenous environmental knowledges and philosophy, Indigenous responses to environmental issues, interactive science and Indigenous knowledge systems, Indigenous education, pedagogy and Indigenous ways of knowing as founded upon Indigenous languages and cultures.
Longboat first congratulated and honoured the audience, which he acknowledged as an older crowd, for the work they do in putting thought toward environmental issues, and in so doing, being concerned about the welfare of their children, grandchildren and family.
He said through his presentation he hoped to promote a sense of compassion, empathy and connection for the natural world, offering different words and framework for what he suspected the crowd had already thought about.
“I want to show you the relationship - the community of way of life,” he said. “Many of you know the importance of it, I’m just giving you another perspective of that connection.“
Longboat spoke to the audience about the history of the Haudenosaunee (who the French refer to as Iroquois and the British refer to as Six Nations). He explained a powerful system of government, with hereditary chiefs, male and female leaders, and helpers who support the leadership in emphasizing participatory democracy, ensuring all people in the clan family have a voice.
When the leaders get together to make decisions, Longboat said they ask three questions regarding the decisions they make.
“Number one, what will the impact be of this decision on the peace and the welfare of the people that exist right now. Two, what is the impact of that decision on the earth, and on creation, on the water, on animals, on birds, on all the different things that we have a responsibility to care for, what will the impact be. And the third thing is what will be the impact of that on future generations, how will that impact the welfare of future generations.”
“It’s interesting to see that if we had a system of government in place now that has made a decision-making process that follows that line then we’d be living in a different world right now,” he said. “You wouldn’t have many of the issues that we are being impacted with now.”
Longboat said his people believe that when the creator had all of nature and creation the way he intended it to be, he made four sacred colours of human beings. He gathered beautiful black rich earth from the forest to create a black man and woman. He scooped white foam from a waterfall to create white man and woman. He took red earth to make the red man and woman, and he took the delicate yellow bark from the inside the tree to create yellow man and woman.
“All the things in the natural world, it’s all tied together,” said Longboat. “Even though we may not have the intellect or the capacity to understand the complexity of how the natural world works because it’s way beyond the human mind – we know bits and pieces of it and have a good understanding of it, but the intricacies of how that works is beyond human capacity.”
Everything in the natural world has a purpose and responsibility and connection, he said.
“Even though we might not quite understand it or really get to where we can grasp it, everything we see from the smallest little bug all the way to the biggest bird, to the smallest little plant to the biggest tree, to the sun, the moon, the stars, the water, the earth, everything that you see, we understand those things as being alive, and they’re all tied together."
Longboat said the creator gave everything in the world original instructions, which tie back to protecting life. For example, deer were told that many things would depend on them, and that when the gardens had ceased to provide anymore in the fall, deer should sacrifice themselves to help humans. He explained the ceremony that happens prior to hunting, with weapons piled in the centre of a longhouse being danced around. Thoughts are put into tobacco, which is burned, and the deer is acknowledged for giving itself to men. Later, parts of the deer’s body are used to adorn leaders.
“In the same way the deer has given up its life as a sacrifice to care for us the people, those male leaders give up their life to sustain and to sacrifice themselves for our world,” he said. “We have hereditary chiefs, appointed and put in those positions, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, for their entire life, until they become older.”
When the creator saw the four sacred colours of human beings had not followed the original instructions of loving one another and caring for another, he said he would separate the people into the four corners of the earth.
“[The creator] gave us our original instructions as well: love one another, care for each other, sustain and share with one another, always be generous and have great care and empathy and compassion for each other,” said Longboat. “He says learn how to live within the cycles and balances of the natural world, and let nature be your teacher.”
In contrast to western traditions in which most of the knowledge comes from men, Longboat said the Indigenous knowledge system differs in that “none of the knowledge we have among our peoples has come from the minds of men and women.” He said Indigenous people will turn to creation and the natural world for help when looking to solve an issue, and that putting positive energy into something that exists in the world creates a connection.
“Everything you see in the world is tied together in this way, everything is in a reciprocal relationship, they help us, we help them,” he said. “Just like in your own families, you care for your children and your grandchildren, you live and sacrifice your life for them … we sacrificed a lot of our lives to sustain the welfare of those children. We have helped them, then they are at a certain age where they are able to help us. Everything you see is tied together in a reciprocal relationship.”
There would come a time, the creator said, that all four sacred colours of human beings would come back together again, and that would be the time they would have to determine whether life would continue, or not.
“No other time in human history have we had to face so many issues, the complexity of so many issues that we have to face right now,” said Longboat. “No other time in human history have we had to worry about issues around water, amount and quality; we have issues around global contaminants and toxins; loss of biodiversity; extinctions of species; loss of habitat; desertification; issues around food and food security …all under the umbrella of climate change.”
Longboat made note of Skeniateriio, or Handsome Lake, who around 1790 received a number of dreams from a visitation of messengers.
“He told the people this, there will come a time, he says, because of the activities of human beings, that the earth will start to heat up,” said Longboat. “There will be certain trees and animals and plants that we will no longer see among us again. Animals and different things will behave differently. Their coats will start to turn white. That’s the time, that’s telling us, those animals and certain things are happening in the natural world, he says to watch out for these things.”
Longboat told the audience there are two pathways that human begins have the ability to engage in. One pathway leads to a focus that carries on sustaining life.
“[If] we as human beings pursue that process, then if we so choose, we will enjoy the benefits of that,” he said. “We will enjoy abundant health, we will enjoy happiness, peace, love.”
“But I can tell you,” he said, “we’re not going to resolve those things in trying to think that there’s only one way to see the world. It’s an opportunity now for all four sacred colours of human beings – and now there’s a whole bunch of other shades that are involved in that – to bring our knowledge together, to work for the continuation of life, for the benefit of our children, our grandchildren, their grandchildren, and all the other things in the natural world that are depending on us as the human beings to fulfill the responsibility of living to care for nature.”
Longboat concluded his talk in the same manner in which he began, by thanking the audience members for teaching their children and grandchildren, acknowledging he had witnessed tremendous change in the nature and passion and commitment of young people in the past 25 years.
He offered to donate his speaker fee to the local school or a student in need.
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