Blair Stonechild, professor of Indigenous studies at First Nations University of Canada, has worked with Indigenous elders for more than four decades. His latest book, Loss of Indigenous Eden and the Fall of Spirituality, will be published in the spring.
Whenever major resource projects are proposed, Canada frequently encounters Indigenous resistance. In the case of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, their reason is preservation of their spiritual, cultural and social integrity on their own lands. These have enabled them to thrive successfully for millennia.
We are faced with a clash of two very different ideologies – one that places high priority over harmony with nature against one that believes that nature exists primarily to be exploited for financial gain. The roots of this ideological divide go well beyond European contact with North America. The rift actually occurs at the point of the rise of civilization, at which time humanity decided to dominate nature.
This was a major break from Indigenous ways and has led to misunderstandings between the two sides since. A real “meeting of minds” over such differences has never really occurred despite the relationships stemming from aboriginal and treaty agreements.
The sad fact is that since non-Indigenous peoples arrived on Turtle Island, Indigenous peoples have been “economically inconvenienced.” Moreover, their lands have been desecrated – plants, animals and land no longer have sanctity, but rather they are treated as mere commodities to sell or to create the next job.
Academics and philosophers concerned about the trajectory of contemporary society realize there needs to be a major shift in our thinking about development. Endless resource exploitation, economic growth and population expansion are unsustainable. Unfortunately, our current systems do not seem capable of planning for or dealing with such challenges. Our collective failure to deal with climate change is a prime example.
The average mammalian species will survive for an average span of one million years. Modern humans have been around for 200,000 years. That leaves only another 800,000 years to go. As a species that considers itself so clever, one would think this should not be an issue.
If compared to the lifespan of a centenarian, we are like a know-it-all, self-centred 20-year-old who has decided to live recklessly and take everything now. We can well guess where that type of individual ends up. Today humanity lacks spiritual insight and maturity, which Indigenous peoples possessed and could keep them on track to survive a million years.
A recent newspaper article states that “reconciliation means making one system compatible with another, not Indigenous law trumping Canadian law at the behest of some self-appointed aristocrats.” However, reconciliation is elsewhere defined as “the action of making one view or belief compatible with another.” The insinuation is that Canadian law, the way it is conceived, is clearly superior to Indigenous ways.
In questioning who speaks for First Nations, the article concludes “one would hope that whatever structure evolves is based upon universal suffrage and democratic principles, rather than some form of feudal genealogy.”
Indigenous societies have one of the most democratic of systems. They learned respect for themselves and their environment through their spirituality. They knew that it was wrong to damage nature and realized that following their beliefs was the best way to nurture peace and prosperity. Elected band officials are there to interface with dominant society and its government, but the elders remain our moral leaders.
I heard many biblical stories while in Indian residential school. We prayed a dozen times a day as this was a central tenet of the schools. Churches in charge of running these places viewed us as “savages” in need of a good dose of Christianity.
I recall the story of Adam and Eve, who were told by God that they could eat of any tree in the Garden of Eden except for one – the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. For if they did so, “You will surely die,” God said. One of the first elders whom I learned from, Ernest Tootoosis, told me, “We lived in the Garden of Eden, and we never abused the gifts of the Creator.”
I have concluded that innumerable Indigenous peoples lived in the Garden of Eden prior to Adam and Eve. They never violated God’s command to not think they were in charge and could do as they wished with creation. Indigenous peoples, such as the Wet’suwet’en, are still trying to continue to live in their Garden of Eden. And numerous non-Indigenous allies support that. But modern civilization and its constant imperative to generate the almighty dollar will not leave them alone to do that.
The only time reconciliation will be achieved is when mainstream society recognizes Indigenous wisdom, including respect and caring for nature. There are numerous avenues available – one need only look at the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. I hope it is achieved, one day.