The human species has evolved on this planet for about 300,000 years. For the first 290,000 years we were all hunter-gatherers; then, about 10,000 years ago, some people began playing with the idea of agriculture. Their lives have steadily worsened since then. They have more material in their lives, more substance, but their lives increasingly lose their essence.
About 250 years ago these people entered the industrial revolution and again they gained substance and lost essence as they were driven off the farms and into the factories. Their last connection to the land, their hands in the dirt, was severed.
About 60 years ago, with the development of the transistor, they entered the technological revolution. Now they are connected; they are wired in. But their essence, their connection to the life of the planet, is so thin that most can no longer even imagine it.
Not everyone participated in the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago. Indigenous People around the planet continued as hunter-gatherers. Our connection, our relationship with nature, remained. Our lives had essence. As hunter-gatherers evolving on this planet for three hundred millennia, we understood our place, our relationship with all the other species that we coexisted and coevolved with.
With colonization, Indigenous Peoples were forced off the land, onto reserves and into residential schools. The sudden severance of the connection, the relationship with the land, had dramatic negative impacts. Dispossessed and disconnected, we struggled in this new imposed world to find who we were, where we belonged.
Our societies decayed; our Knowledge Keepers died with what they knew. Ceremonies were lost. The people were lost. Elders, people who remembered, kept saying, “We have to go back to the land.” Some of us listened.
We understand our connection to the land. Long ago my ancestors died and were placed upon scaffolds, an offering to the sky. Their bodies rotted, the scaffolds rotted, then fell to the ground. The worms took my ancestors’ atoms into the earth. The grasses and other plants reached down with their roots and took up those atoms and brought them to the surface. The deer and the moose ate those plants and I eat the berries from those plants and I eat the deer and the moose. Atoms that once were in my ancestors are now in me. When I die, I too will return to the ground and the worms will disperse my atoms for the plants to take up once again.
I do not say I own this land. I say instead, this land owns me. I belong here. I belong to this land. I am related to the plants who hold my ancestors’ atoms. I am related to the deer and the moose and the wolf and the bear and the birds. They too carry atoms from my ancestors. In the same way, I am related to the earth and to the worms.
We are learning. It has taken decades and generations, but we are figuring it out. We tried self-medicating with alcohol and other substances. They didn’t work. They brought more suffering and trauma.
Then we tried land-based healing. We knew from memory and from the words of our Elders and the few remaining Knowledge Keepers that the land was healing, that it rejuvenated us.
Western world therapies for substance use disorders typically have success rates around 2 to 5 per cent. Alcoholics Anonymous and twelve-step faith-based therapies have success rates closer to 8 per cent.
Camp Hope, initiated by Jarred Nelson and Joyce Knight at Montreal Lake, Saskatchewan, achieved success rates in the 70 per cent range. We’ve proven it works. Take people back out onto the land, allow them to reconnect, work them through the trauma wrought by colonization and they will respond. Jarred told me that sometimes when he brought people back to the camp at the end of the day, they would be crying. They would tell him, “I am an Indian, but I never set a rabbit snare before. I am an Indian, but I’ve never set a fish net.”
The reason for the success of Camp Hope was that the clients were reconnected with the land. They discovered who they were. They were Indians. They discovered where they belonged. They belonged here. This was their home, their birthright. When people know who they are and where they belong, their essence increases. Land-based healing is a resurrection. It brings our people back to life by reconnecting them to the life force of the planet.
In all of our struggles since first contact with the settler peoples, it has been about the land, about our connection to it and the disruption of that connection. Oka was about the land, a burial site and a golf course. Over a hundred years before Oka, when we were negotiating Treaties with the newcomers, it was about our relationship with the land. We didn’t talk about territory during those negotiations. Instead we talked about how we were related. We talked about hunting and fishing and gathering. The Treaty commissioner assured us that we would not be interfered with in those pursuits and we agreed to share the land with the children of the Queen. Today’s protests over pipelines are about the land and our relationship with it. They are about that other aspect of the land: the water and our relationship with that as well.
I have been told by Elders and Knowledge Keepers that the Treaties were adoption ceremonies whereby we adopted the Queen’s children as our relatives. I was told to call them Kiciwamanawak (our cousins) and to treat them well. Through the adoption ceremony of Treaty, we shared our ancestors with them. Our ancestors became their ancestors. Now they too are related to the land. Their atoms will mingle with ours and we will be a family.
When we work together to protect the land from clearcuts and dams and destruction, we will preserve a space for everyone to heal. We will know who we are; we are moral human beings. We will know where we belong. We belong to the earth. We belong to the worms.