Recently, I was privileged to address a gathering of the Society of Friends (aka Quakers), to offer perspectives on Land Acknowledgments. I was moved by their desire to ‘get it right,’ to engage with this new ritual protocol in a meaningful and authentic way; moved, but not surprised, given that the person who invited me is a fellow writer, whom I’ve long admired for her clarity and her genuine ways. I expected to find Julie’s friends/Friends to be of the same mind.
I walked, as so many times, across the High Level Bridge, and thought of the gardener I’d met the first autumn of my city life. Then, I’d been walking to university, burdened with culture shock and enormous grief at my father’s sudden passing. The gardener, whose name I don’t recall, if I ever knew it, was an older German man. Whatever his story (how callow is youth, I was too shy and self-absorbed to ask), he recognized something in me, and cultivated an accquaintanceship. Never pushy, he simply greeted me when he saw me passing through his gardens at the Legislature grounds, and shared news of his flowers. By and by, he’d offer me geranium offcuts, and speak more at length of matters horticultural.
One autumn day, he waved at the deciduous trees and said, ‘I’d have so much less trouble with these, if those who designed this place had had the sense to let them be, instead of trying to mold them in the image of European trees, without regard for what this climate requires.’
I’d never really looked at those trees, certainly hadn’t thought of them as victims of colonial unwillingness to honour native wisdom.
Now, I see in them, and in all public gardens, evidence of how well we recognize where we are. I’m not one of those who vainly seek to recreate a ‘pristine’ landscape of ‘only native’ plants. I just can’t, for to follow that road would logically lead to self-hatred. I am myself a new varietal, a fresh blend of rootstocks. I was raised believing that this is part of the Ancestral Dream, thanks to which migrants and refugees have long found a welcome here in Turtle Island. My family comes from Mi’kmaki, where, as long ago as 1625, we signed Treaties of Peace and Friendship with Europeans who had come to fish the Grand Banks. These treaties assigned space for Europeans to set up cod houses, to dry and salt their catch for their long journey home. That long ago, I am told, we had dreamers dreaming of the times to come, when others would follow those intrepid cod fishers, and come to stay.
Not only that, but our own stories of life on Turtle Island record many migrations within this continent. In Mi’gmaq, we have words with Nahuatl roots, I am told, that speak of trade and migration as far south as Mexico. I have heard from Cree knowledge keepers in Treaty 6 territory where I live, about long ago times when their people lived in more southern lands. The Dene of the north and the Dineh (aka Navajo) in today’s southern USA share language roots proving their oral histories of migration. Then there are all the archeological sites (Chaco Canyon, Cahokia, Debert) that more and more, are revealing a history too long hidden, and an important truth.
Life and civilization did not begin here with the coming of Europeans in their ‘Age of Exploration.’
Acknowledging this truth will one day seem like an astonishing thing to ever have been held to be controversial. For now, it is a necessary antidote to generations of policies that encouraged, and at times enforced, a culture of amnesia. I graduated highschool in 1982, and back then, we were in the thick of the craze to proclaim that Canada, a Young Country, had very little history; furthermore, my own family were constantly referred to in the past tense, when our cultures, histories, and identities were acknowledged at all. I’d like to say that dirty little habit of erasure has vanished, but I’ve encountered it in this 21st Century still, despite First Nations having survived the Vanishing Times, when we were boldly proclaimed a Dying Race. These days, our population is on the rise.
We are present, and have been present on this land for thousands of years.
Land Acknowledgments honour that. And that is a big deal, politically. It can be an uncomfortable prospect, for some who have been brainwashed into thinking of us, if we enter their thoughts at all, in the past tense. We were placed there deliberately, as part of policy bent on exploiting the natural resources of this land. We were seen not as fellow travellers, but as obstacles to that policy of resource exploitation. That policy, many now see, has brought us to this time of Climate Anxiety, where there is much fearful talk about crisis, about impending disaster, about drastic changes we need to make.
In the face of this anxiety, loudly amplified by media on all sides, one can become paralyzed with grief, fear and despair. As an antidote to that, a Land Acknowledgment proclaims the true fact that there have been humans living on, and with, this land, this climate, through thousands of years of change. Take heart, says a Land Acknowledgment, for we have found ways to survive here, and to thrive here, and that legacy includes living through such climatic catastrophes as the Buffalo Genocide, the Passenger Pigeon Genocide, the Deforestation of Eastern North America, the Sea Otter Genocide, and yes, the genocide encompassed in Canadian government policies which explicitly aimed to “Kill the Indian to Save the Child.” Life is resilient, says a Land Acknowledgment, and, if we reclaim our human capacity to respect our fellow travellers, and own up to our shared legacies, we can reweave ourselves, as a society, into that resilient web.
What’s more, says a Land Acknowledgment, we are brave enough to dismantle the engines of amnesia, to find those moments where we did connect, and to choose to side with healthy relationships between peoples. We are brave enough to dismantle Othering, and stand with those who seek mutual respect. We acknowledge people like Dr. Peter Bryce, who sacrificed his career and status in colonial Ottawa, to decry Duncan Campbell Scott’s ministerial crimes against Indigenous communities. We acknowledge those who established National Parks, UN Biopreserves, and various other conservation efforts, and who continue to offer their lives in service of restoration. The Passenger Pigeon is gone. The Buffalo, though, live on, and recently, returned to Banff, for the first time in generations. The Sea Otters again thrive on the Salish Sea, and the industrial brownfields that replaced the once-verdant hardwood forests of the eastern USA? Some languish, like Flint Michigan, where nobody has safe drinking water (how resonant of the many First Nations whose communities, bordering heavy resource extraction zones, suffer without clean water and proper infrastructure); some, like Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River, have made progress from its worst days. A Land Acknowledgment is a pledge to continue that work of restoration and rehabilitation.
A Land Acknowledgment does not, however, say we are wishing for some imagined past where all was pure and the People lived in flawless harmony with life. Human history is everywhere witness to our nature – contentious, short-sighted, greedy, as often as we are noble, altruistic, visionary and wise. A good Land Acknowledgment reminds us of this, by saying that humans have lived, worked, traded and prayed here for long generations. Facing the struggles of the current moment, we can use Land Acknowledgment as one more way to declare and affirm our allegiance to Life and Survival, while admitting that we have blundered, we will blunder, and that is real life for all of us; we take responsibility and do our best, nonetheless, to embody the best of humanity.
We face, as always, changes to come. Some we can foresee, some will be unexpected. We are better equipped to make sound choices when we admit that, all through our long history, we have made both good and bad choices.
I think of that gardener, and of his trees. We can try to force all trees into a false form, pretending they are something they are not. Or we can learn how each grows well, and how symbiosis works between them, and between others of our fellow travellers. We are all part of this, the Big Ceremony of Life. We need, as ever, to make choices. The wisest of choices are informed by being brave enough to acknowledge, we are but one moment in a long chain of continuance. We have our part to do, and we can do it better by acknowledging, remembering, holding in our hearts, the truth that, whatever our personal family roots here, the human family has been living in Turtle Island for long generations, and we choose, in every generation, whether we stand with Life in its diversity. By treaties large and small, written and unspoken, all life continues. Let’s just acknowledge that, openly, until it becomes absurd to try to act otherwise. It won’t solve all our troubles, but it might serve to keep us alive and help us find the connections that carry us through these years to come. I am willing to see us choose well. It has happened in this land, it happens in this land, it can continue to happen in this land.
All My Relations