December – What is Environmental Health as Indigenous People?

As for the research, I held a small gathering one afternoon where we shared a meal and talked about “environmental health as Indigenous people.” It became necessary to unpack that idea just a bit and think about what that meant for each person who was in the room. We came from all over, from different nations and bloodlines and histories, our own concepts of Indigeneity, and also our own ideas toward what it means to be healthy, in relationship with our environment, how to respect and nourish our non-human relatives who continually support our lives.

Many similarities were identified in our groups and I will name three specific things that came up as sort of themes from small group discussions. The sentences emerge as direct quotes from participants.

Baskets, art and artifact: How can we recover our property from museums, physically hold the same materials our ancestors put together? What would it be like if we took all of our baskets back from museums? What would life be like if we filled those baskets with berries again? What if baskets weren’t merely decorations? Who sets permissions for ownership and who is challenging those permissions? What do baskets say about the hands that made them? How are we using our hands and how are we continuing the work of our ancestors? Creating baskets and other tools creates responsibilities that begin in our bodies, with our hands and intentions.

woven basket

Control and access How do we act as stewards in the context of municipal, city, state, federal and other ordinances that prevent access to the land? Who in regional settler leadership is supporting Indigenous voices and concerns in the multicultural, multilayered infrastructure of city government and bureaucracy? How can we disrupt ourselves holding up those damaging ways when we participate in behaviours that also contaminate the land and water?

Sharing When we share and help one another, that is love and health. In many places we still have the berries and plants and we can use those to help ourselves and others. Development seems to be something that has “happened” to us. We can’t control what our neighbours do but we can talk with them. When we remember the trees, partially in the ground and partially above ground, we remember that we are connected to things we can’t see.

As this research occurred some time ago, some of these questions have approached the nascent beginning toward answers. We were a small and very diverse group, including small children and two elders. The voice of everyone who attended is represented above.

Our teachings and beliefs were varied, and we truly only had one afternoon together, yet this conversation has stayed with me for some time, made an impression on me, certainly because of its depth and scale. That afternoon also reminds me that even though I may have felt placeless and isolated and inappropriate among researchers who had full access to their tribal communities and lands, I was surrounded by people who were asking wonderful questions and were willing to put their hands to the work of making one another feel welcome. Despite seeming displacement, we found that the spines of our stories were in alignment.

When I think of that day, I remember that Original People continue to exist all across the land, and as long as that is true, when we gather with intention, we untie and dismantle parts of ourselves that are hooked to obsolete, destructive ways of living. As we continue to exist, everything we do is an aspect of living legacy that speaks of the way we are called to honour our ancestral and blood memories, the way we are called to visualize a path of healing for ourselves: today, along with the ones who came before and all the ones yet to be born.