Karen Joseph, CEO of Reconciliation Canada, speaks to a gathering of spiritual leaders, elders and youth at Turtle Lodge in Sagkeeng First Nation, Man., in August 2017. (Photo courtesy of Reconciliation Canada)

Topics: Ethical Living, September 2019 | Opinion

In this climate crisis, listen to Indigenous wisdom

We have broken natural law. How do we regain our balance?


As we reflect on climate change, we must be prepared to understand the root of this reality — we have broken natural law. This is the crisis of our time.

What is natural law and how can we find our balance again? To understand this, we need to first reconnect with our spirit, the core of our being, which connects us to the Great Spirit and the Earth. It gives meaning to all aspects of life, including our relationships with one another.

Our spirit defines our true identity as stewards of the Earth. We need to understand this deep part of our nature. Indigenous people have always lived believing in the power of the spirit. The Earth herself is a living entity with a spirit, which gives her purpose, duties and responsibilities. Knowing the Earth is alive is fundamental to having a sacred relationship with her.

The spirit in each of our beings carries moral and ethical principles of what should be the basis of our human conduct. We understand these principles as natural laws, and they govern all life. All living beings, including Mother Earth herself, are governed by natural laws — whether they know it or not.

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The symbol of the circle reflects the power of natural law. We see it in the sun, the moon and the Earth. We also see it in the cycles of the seasons and of our life givers, the women. The Law of the Circle — Onjinaywin in our Anishinabe language — says that whatever we put into our circle returns to us multiplied.

Our elders warn: “Be careful what you put into your circle.” If you harm any living beings, nature dictates there will be a consequence, which could be real­ized not only for yourself but also your children and descend­ants. Every act of kindness also sets off a chain reaction with the powers of nature that support life.

Indigenous peoples have known natural laws of living and surviving on the land. What humanity needs most now is to learn the rules of conduct we must follow in defining a sustainable relationship with the Earth and each other. Some examples include: don’t take more than you need from the land to survive, because if you take too much, your greed will increase; treat all life with respect, and abundance will return to you; and show gratitude for whatever you receive from life, and life will return its blessings.

When we act according to these sacred teachings, we draw the same force that we have given nature. Love draws more love. Acting with courage draws more courage. Our biggest challenge as humanity is to shift from negative to positive values that support the natural laws.

Our elders warn: “Be careful what you put in your circle.”

I humbly propose working with Indigenous Knowledge Keepers to help understand natural laws and lay down values that are in support of life. Knowledge Keepers share an understanding of the ways and teachings of their people with integrity and authenticity. They still speak our ancient languages and have kept our ceremonial ways of seeking and sharing knowledge. They are the ones whom our communities have traditionally sought out for guidance. There are a few of us still left among our Nations.

If you want to learn, we invite you to come into our sacred environments, present tobacco, listen and engage in our processes of seeking know­ledge. By taking care of the land, we begin to learn the values and practise the behaviours required to maintain real success — founded on strong relationships with all life on the Earth. This ensures our survival as a species that chooses to be kind and giving. Nature reciprocates generous behaviours.

The land has meant everything to our existence as Indigenous peoples. It is in the spirit of this responsibility, and our leadership role as Knowledge Keepers, that we come forward to share this knowledge left to us by our ancestors, with everyone who has arrived on our homeland.

We seek direction from the spirit of the ancestors in cere­mony and through connecting with the land because the land also has a voice. The ceremonies of the pipe, the rattle and the drum represent our sovereignty as a people. They are the tools we know how to use and the gifts we carry to connect in gratitude with the higher spiritual intelligence that enforces natural law.

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One element of our work as Knowledge Keepers is conducting the rite of passage for young women and men entering adulthood each spring. They find their own identity and purpose by going into ancient ceremonies, guided and led by the grandmothers and elders.

A boy becomes a man by giving of himself through fasting for four days and seeking a vision or dream on the land that will give him his purpose and meaning in life. The girls are brought to the grandmothers, who provide ceremony and instruction on their responsibilities as sacred life givers and water carriers.

As the Knowledge Keepers of our Nations, we welcome the opportunity to be a part of the process in seeking direction for the very serious issue of climate change. We want your help, and we want to offer ours, drawing on each other’s strengths and knowledge, to help define a new vision for humankind. Together, we can change the whole narrative in this country.

It is important to leave a legacy for our children that can ensure they can have a future. This will require a change of heart, a heart that acts with kindness and respect.

Excerpted from a pres­entation given at the National Climate Change Science and Knowledge Priorities Workshop in Ottawa last February. Edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the September 2019 issue of Broadview with the title “Listen to the Knowledge Keepers.For more of Broadview’s award-winning content, subscribe to the magazine today. 

Elder and Knowledge Keeper Dave Courchene is the founder of the Turtle Lodge International Centre for Indigenous Education and Wellness in Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba. Turtle Lodge is a central place for traditional Knowledge Keepers from across the continent.


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