by Trina Moyan (nehiyaw iskewew), photos by Alyssa Bistonath
In the spring of 2018, I met Carolynne Crawley (Mi’kmaw/African/Celtic) at a meeting supporting Tkaronto’s urban Indigenous community and I was immediately drawn to the warm strength she exuded when she spoke. She explained to those in attendance that she was the Indigenous food access manager of FoodShare Toronto and was planning a cross cultural food justice youth program that she would be facilitating over the summer and into the fall. The program invited all Indigenous, racialized and settler youth to learn about themselves, the land and one another while celebrating their connections over food. It sounded like a wonderful program to offer within an urban setting and I was impressed by her sincerity when she emphasized the importance of encouraging youth to engage with the land from an Indigenous perspective and worldview.
As an Indigenous person myself, raising two boys far from my home territories of northern Alberta, establishing relationship with the land along with my sons hasn’t been easy while living in the big city. So, I found the program of personal interest and I was thrilled when she asked if I would document it from my own perspective as an Indigenous writer. It was an unexpected gift for me as a nehiyaw iskwew (Plains Cree woman) who was raised to align my life with the nehiyawak medicine wheel teachings to honour the four directions, four sacred medicines, four stages of life and the four parts of what comprise the human experience – the spiritual (East), emotional (South), physical (West), and intellectual (North). As I immersed myself in the experiential learning throughout the program I considered how the overall structure seemed to be built around the medicine wheel itself. Whether this was intended or not, I do not know, but I believe the spirit is a powerful guide and if we share balanced energy, our collective spiritual power is limitless. Therefore, I choose to believe that our cumulative energy helped shape the structure of the program as we engaged in it together through plenty of listening, sharing and healthy doses of laughter and tears. There are numerous variations of the medicine wheel teachings from Indigenous nations across Turtle Island and I have written this piece from the nehiyawak (Plains Cree) medicine wheel perspective that I was taught by my family and Elders.
East – Where all Spirit and Life Begins “We activate the spirit together.”
June 29 – Opening Session with James Carpenter (Anishnaabek Nation)
Anishnaabe traditional healer and knowledge keeper, James Carpenter has brought his sacred bundle to share with the group and opens the program with a traditional smudge and a pipe ceremony. “The sacred bundle is our family and with it we activate the spirit together. The great spirit, Gitche Manitou lives inside all of us – we are spirits having a human experience,” explains James.
The youth have been asked to sit in balance with one another in the traditional way that Indigenous communities have for millennia – within a circle. While facing each other within the circle we acknowledge one another as valued equals, which is one of the foundational strengths of the Indigenous community demonstrating respect for each voice and every spirit. Here the smudge bowl is carried around the circle to each person to cleanse their mind, body, spirit and energy with the smoke – in order to engage in a ‘good way’.
There are 21 youth that have signed up for the program and as I scan their faces I note the rich representation of various cultural backgrounds. James asks that each person introduce themselves one by one and I learn that the group’s mixed cultural diversity represents Somalia, Afghan, Scotland, Chile, Italy, Guyana, China, Jamaica, India, Ukraine, Scotland, Colombia, England and the local Indigenous nations Anishnaabek (Potawatomi, Odawa, Ojibwe) and Kaniekeha:Ke (Mohawk). I am moved by how many have joined the program because they want to learn about Indigenous history and relationship to the land against the backdrop of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC); address climate change from an ecological environmental food sovereignty perspective; and how to bring all of this knowledge into their personal lives, careers and/or academic pursuits. Luxshu Amgigaibagan has just started his career teaching grade 1 and he explains, “The experience of displacement and colonization between India and the Indigenous people of Canada is similar and I would like to introduce more of the Indigenous history into the curriculum.” It is a beautiful group of young people who speak from the heart.
“What is Spirit?”
James then asks the group to call out an answer to his question: “What is spirit?” The group responds with answers such as: “It’s immortal, it’s immaterial, it’s essence.” James agrees stating that it is all of those things and that spirit is as infinite as the stars, planets, and the Earth. “All creating story and all creating memory,” he states. James uses the example of a tree and how it is nourished by Mother Earth in the same way humans are and that the tree can perish from old age, lack of food, maybe accidents like lightening and can get sick just as humans do. “The tree and all of us are the same and it gives us oxygen and we release carbon dioxide that it needs – we are all part of the same cycle – the same spirit,” he explains. James shares how one of his Elders taught him that spirit is so important that every blade of grass matters, “Now you know about spirit,” the Elder told him. James humbly shares his own story of eventually fully understanding this and applying it in his own life when he had been suffering with heart blockages and began to eat only natural plants and foods. He explains how he literally took his medicine from the Earth, which changed his life to one of balance, restoring his health. “The cycle of food intake is a sacred cycle. Taste those medicines in the plants and smell them, taste and smell your own spiritual medicines. Touch a grandfather tree and say: thank you for all the air you have given me all your life,” he encourages.
James then asks the students to name spirits in the sky and on the Earth and individuals call out answers such as: water, fish, minerals, plants, birds, and so forth. He responds to them saying: “You told me the spirit names of all the spirits and if you know them, they know you too. We all, in our hearts share the same teaching no matter where we come from.”
This clearly resonates with the multi-cultural group and I feel the energy of being united by this idea. “We carry all parts of creation in us and the gift of life is
the freedom to choose. We are beautiful and my beauty isn’t based upon my container, my spirit is beautiful,” states James. He then encourages the group to engage in the program by: “Waking up the good spirit that lives in all of us. Wake it up!” he says.
Before we feast together James fills his pipe with tobacco, one of the four sacred medicines used to give thanks or to make a request to the ancestors. He then conducts a pipe ceremony wherein he gives thanks to all of the spirits and asks for a volunteer to smoke the pipe on behalf of the group. Alexandria Bipatnath, a Seneca College student volunteers and says: “I will, but I’ve never done this before.” James gently directs her to draw the smoke but to not pull it into her lungs and to focus on her prayers for our group. And with that, we silently witness her pray and smoke the pipe on our behalf and I feel our collective spirit activated by this action.
This is how the program begins in a good way and we proceed to share a feast of traditional foods prepared by Nish Dish, a local Indigenous owned and operated restaurant specializing in the revitalization of Indigenous foods. Carolynn ensures that a spirit plate has been set outside, which is an Indigenous tradition, offering gratitude to the ancestors within the spirit world – each time we feast together this protocol is followed.
After our feast, James gently calls us back into the circle with the soft beating of his drum and he explains that it represents the heart beat of Mother Earth, which we are bound to.
“We are the strong ties under the drum, because we are the future helpers. We are the ties that hold that drum together,” James shares.
As a guide to help us on our journey together, James tells the Anishnaabek origin story of the Seven Grandfather teachings: Wisdom, Love, Respect, Honesty, Humility, Courage, and Truth.
“Truth is the final and most important. You are allowed to be you, as we have that truth inside all of us,” explains James. “Our universal teachings are similar whether you pray to God, Creator, Allah, Yahweh – we all are talking about the same things. This is where we practice who we are in truth. The truth to be who you are.
And all of you are a success because all of you got up and started your day and that is success. You are a success!” James says.
To close our first session, Carolynn has us gather outside to engage in an icebreaker exercise, wherein she has us answer a series of land related questions in groups of two.
As we talk to one another there is plenty of laughter and I share a good giggle with 19 year-old York University student, River Godland who tells me: “My favourite land based experience so far was when me and my sister went out and lived off of the land for a few days and survived by eating frogs – we didn’t last long and got hungry and went home.” It becomes clear to me that this group of young people is filled with joy and love for the land.
To wrap up the evening, Carolynne asks us to join hands and close our eyes as she acknowledges the land we are standing upon. Although we are in the middle of Tkaronto’s concrete jungle we stand with hands joined and eyes closed in communal silence and she asks us to think of the ancestors that walked the land – the Huron/Wendat, the Haudenausonee and Anishnaabek nations. She is somehow magically able to pull us into quietude and reflection. For those short moments I feel a blanket of peacefulness and hope insulate our group.
In a hushed tone Carolynne says, “All of us are on this land and we are connected through it, the tree standing next to us is providing us with oxygen – connect to that spirit.”
Then, just as we open our eyes a great big truck honks at our group as it screeches by and Carolynne responds with a spirited vigorous coyote call – and this is how we begin our journey together.
South – Where we Engage Emotionally “You can’t stand up and defend the land if you don’t feel the connection.”
August 8 – Barbara Wall (Anishnaabek Nation) and James Wilkes (Settler Canadian)
The few hours we spend with Barbara Wall and James Wilkes are educational with a focus on connecting with the land. They are instructors for the Indigenous Environmental Studies Program at Trent University in Peterborough Ontario and are committed to decolonizing curriculum. Barbara humbly introduces herself in the Anishnabemowin language and explains that she is of the Potawatomi nation.
When James Wilkes introduces himself he respectfully states: “I consider myself a settler Canadian in transition, a settler in transformation from empire. I’ve been taught that we are Indigenous to the Earth.”
In the current climate of reconciliation, cultural appropriation has become a trend and I appreciate the way he respectfully identifies himself as a non-Indigenous person working within the field of Indigenous education. I believe this is important as our group is largely non-Indigenous to Canada and I feel James is a healthy example of how to appreciate and not appropriate Indigenous knowledge and culture.
“We try to shake things up in our classes by returning to a more natural way of teaching and being,” Barb says. “By working with settler alliances to try to make the world a better place.”
James thoroughly and honestly expresses his thoughts on empires in that they are established upon stolen labour and resources and that imperialism is an ideology that gave birth to colonialism. He then emphasizes that empires collapse and this has been proven time and again throughout history. “It is not the only way to exist, capitalism and colonization are not sustainable and it is unjust,” he says.
“Climate change and global heat waves and forest fires that are occurring are telling us this,” Barb adds. She goes onto mention the supremacy of the Christian crusades and that the goal was to vanquish all who were not Christian. “Then the explorers were given permission to take control of the lands and people and that became the Doctrine of Discovery here in Canada and Manifest Destiny in the states.”
“The nation state of Canada is built on that ideology,” explains James. “It assumes a white supremacy over the land and Canada is dependent upon resource extraction but permission is not granted by Indigenous nations, even though we now have the duty to consult law.”
James goes on to explain how that ideology supports colonialism, which seeks to separate and to disconnect people from the land in every way and that the legal Latin term Terra Nullius was used to enforce colonization, as its meaning is no one’s land or zero or empty. “But that was never the case, it has always been filled with life, animals and people. In fact the borders created by colonization are imagined and are not real, the only real is the forest, mountains, rivers, bodies of water and the sky and animal beings that have always existed with the land,” he says.
He goes on to describe the goal of colonization to primarily remove the children from the land, language, culture and to disconnect Indigenous people from place. “To disconnect them from the animal beings, the food, the medicines, the ceremony and spiritual beings. Indigeneity is about being connected in place,” he explains.
Barb goes on to share that those impacts of colonization have left her as part of the fourth generation of her family removed from the language and I can appreciate this personally as my own mother is a survivor of the Residential School System (IRS). Although she retained the language, she was ashamed of it due to her experience in residential school and chose not to teach it to myself and my siblings, as she had been brainwashed to believe that we would survive in white society if we did not know our language.
“Indigenous languages are process based and action verb based in relationship with the land,” explains James. I’ve learned in my own language journey that our Indigenous languages truly are based upon how we connect to the land by fully engaging the senses of hearing, listening, tasting, touching, and seeing.
“When you think of the Earth, what kind of images do you get? Or when you think of Mother Earth what do you see in your mind? Likely your own mother?” asks Barb. And she is correct, as I immediately think of my own mother. She explains how sweet grass is considered the hair of Mother Earth and is one of the four sacred medicines. “We braid it and care for it and pray with it and the three braids represent love, kindness and peace.”
James explains the importance of the word for Mother in the Haudenosaunee language(s), “It is related to love and to life, it means someone who gives you life.
“If you are speaking therefore, to your mother who gave you life and power -you treat her as such,” he explains.
Barb defines how within the Anishnaabomewin language, everything is either animate or inanimate and that almost all things are animate and considered living but the inanimate are largely man made things. James explains that this is because English, on the other hand is an object based objectifying language. “It is a colonizing language, it isn’t useful in relating to the world. It only helps to objectify the Earth and its resources,” he says.
Referring to the grandfather teaching of humility Barb says, “De-colonization means to reconnect with the land, the cosmos, and the medicines and seeing that we are all equal. It is about teaching about relationship and how to restore what was severed.”
What is more powerful than the colonizing empires, are the Indigenous societies that have always been here. The connection to land has been kept sacred and the reconnection to medicine and land is happening, James explains.
“You can’t stand up and defend the land if you don’t feel that connection to it,” Barb says. “When the newcomers came, all they saw was wilderness – but it was all taken care of by our ancestors. And our knowledge was suppressed about how to connect and live in harmony with the land.”
James encourages our youth group to engage in de-colonization by recognizing the sacredness of where we live and how we relate to all the animal beings, spirit beings and humans. He explains how quantum physicists are beginning to recognize this in order to have a more robust understanding of everything around us.
“Even though I am not Indigenous, I and all of us can change our mode of thinking and being,” James says with a gentle smile.
“Food sovereignty is a de-colonizing process.”
“Here in 2018 we have the opportunity to put an end to our colonized thinking. So what does a re-indigenized thinking, living, working life look like? How do we indigenize life now and into the future?” James asks.
A few voices from our group respond with: “Food.”
Barb and James have brought some food items and tools to share with us. Barb tells us about how in many Indigenous creation stories including the Anishnaabek and Haudenosaunee nations, food is considered sacred medicine and in this region of Ontario includes rice, corn, berries, fish and maple sugar.
They have brought a traditional mortar and pestle which are both made out of birch. The mortar has been hollowed out of a birch trunk with fire and raw corn kernels are poured in and crushed with a birch pestle. She tells us that the process of crushing corn is accompanied with traditional songs and that the birch itself has it’s own anti-bacterial properties, so it cleans the corn of bacteria during the crushing process.
“Flint corn is one example of how traditional food is being revitalized in Indigenous communities like on Six Nations and Tyendinega,” says Barb.
She encourages us to try crushing the corn and many of us are surprised at the heavy weight of the pestle and how the constant up and down movement takes a lot of energy.
Chenygye Yang in our group gives the crushing a try and is enjoying it so much that she doesn’t want to stop. “I like this, I’m exercising my arms and making food at the same time,” she says.
While we take turns crushing the corn, James explains that within the Haudenosaunee longhouse the traditional agriculture planting system of the Three Sisters comprised of corn, beans and squash – could have likely fed a community of 1000. “Corn takes a lot of nitrogen and the beans fix or put the nitrogen back into the Earth. This is just one example of our Indigenous knowledge,” Barb explains. “We knew all of this long before the Europeans arrived. And we knew to plant the corn first to provide poles for the beans to climb, and then the squash to provide shade for the beans.”
While alluding to the non-sustainable system of capitalism and consumption James states, “As we anticipate the end of intense energy use and fertilizers, this is the way to grow naturally as it is meant to be here on these lands. Everyone is in transition toward or away from Indigenous relationship with the land. So, why not eat the foods that are endemic and grow them the way they are suppose to be?” I look at the faces in our group and I enjoy how their smiling nodding heads move in agreement with his words.
Barb proudly speaks about how the revitalization of the traditional practice of maple sugaring is extinguishing the belief that settlers invented how to make maple syrup. “Traditional maple sugar from the Great Lakes area was done with a simple axe and a small cut and not with the current modern invasive technology of cutting trees off and using a strange vacuum system to suck out the sap,” she says. “Research has proven the small cut to the outer bark is where the sap is sweeter – again Indigenous knowledge!” The group is fascinated with this information and she goes onto to explain that although both methods produce maple sugar we change the connection to the food in a negative way if it isn’t done properly and respectfully. “Asking the food to be our medicine is the respectful way,” she encourages.
“Imagine how much better it is for us when we ask for permission as required – the ethical medicinal value received when asked in the right way. Asking for permission, and asking that our bodies accept it and then giving thanks and caring for the land and the water, where we get our food from,” James says.
James then asks: “Do you have control over your food? How to grow it? Do you have the means to grow it? Harvest it without restrictions? That is what food sovereignty is about, all of these things we’ve shared with you. The right to grow it traditionally.”
“There is settler amnesia around wild rice as the cottagers complain about it being in the lakes. When in fact the rice cleans the lake and supports the bio-diversity of the fish and insects, which we need,” James says. “The connection or cycle is based upon having access to the food and to the land. Our relationship to land is based upon that access to growing our foods – and food is always included in ceremonies.” Food sovereignty can be defined as ceremony – the ceremony of seeding, planting, growing and harvesting and all have songs and prayers each step of the way, explains Barb.
In closing James says: “I’m encouraged by the hearts and minds in this room. I’m encouraged by this group and I’m happy to share with you about the food and I feel better about the future.”
“I’m thankful for the spirit you shared with us,” Barb says. “The community right now in this room is powerful – youth is where we place our hope, you guys are going to save the world.”
We conclude by going around the circle and as each of us takes the opportunity to thank James and Barb for joining us, I’m also encouraged by how many express their determination to learn more about how to grow food traditionally – to see it as medicine and connect with the land.
August 16 – Blanket Exercise – Elder Bob Phillips (Mi’kmaw) and Amanda Carling (Métis)
The Blanket Exercise can be an emotionally triggering experience and I’ve learned this personally, as an Indigenous person who has facilitated the exercise on numerous occasions. The exercise for our group was facilitated by Elder Bob Phillips (Mi’kmaw) who I’ve worked with on several occasions, and Amanda Carling (Métis). They graciously opened the session with a smudge for our group and gently informed us that the exercise can be triggering for Indigenous people and emotionally jarring for everyone.
We begin the exercise and as participants we engage in a lesson that covers 500 years of painful history that First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples have survived. We walk on the blankets representing the original swaths of land that Indigenous peoples once lived upon before European invasion. Bob and Amanda read a script and as the history unravels, the land we are standing upon becomes smaller as the blankets are folded and there are less of us as we begin to metaphorically lose our lives.
We collectively play the part of Indigenous peoples, taking turns reading scrolls from an Indigenous perspective about government laws and policies such as the Indian Act, Doctrine of Discovery and Terra Nullius.
“Terra Nullius (TER-ah NOO-lee-us). The idea of Terra Nullius, which in Latin means “land belonging to no one”, meant European countries could send out explorers and when they found land, they could claim it for their nation. These were often lands we were using,” reads Amanda.
As we continue playing our roles as Indigenous people we figuratively suffer from the broken treaties, loss of our languages, cultures and ceremonies and our very lives. As the historical facts take us through time, we suffer abuse and inter-generational trauma from the residential school legacy, the 60s scoop, loss of status and the missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW). Some of us are given coloured cards and when our colour is called out we either represent the people who died from European diseases; the children who died in residential schools; the children who were taken by the foster system care and the 60s scoop; the communities who were displaced off their lands; or those who were stripped of their identity through enfranchisement due to assimilation policies. Then the script covers current ongoing issues such as suicide, MMIW and how over half of First Nations don’t have clean drinking water – to name a few issues. Yes, the session is emotionally difficult to say the least.
Although, we are figuratively playing the part of Indigenous people some of us in our group are in fact Indigenous, including myself, who suffers along with our families from the historical oppression and continue to toil at overcoming the trauma caused by it.
I’m not the only one who is left feeling triggered and emotionally exhausted. I’m grateful that the exercise concludes with a talking circle to share our feelings and process what we have experienced together. Elder Bob passes the eagle feather around the circle and the comments are moving and meaningful from both the Indigenous and non-Indigenous voices in our group.
Robyn Jacko, who is Anishnaabe expresses her feelings and encourages everyone to take up the workload of teaching and understanding the history: “A lot of things were shared that I’ve known as an Indigenous person. Some days are easier than others and it’s exhausting. This continues to impact us everyday and we live with this sadness about the history everyday. It can’t always be Indigenous people taking on the roles of being in the front lines because it is exhausting.”
Her sister Candice Jacko speaks about her thoughts in regard to the loss of language and culture when the feather is passed to her: “Our native languages are so important, everything is about the language and I’m starting to learn and know a few words now. I’m starting to promote it and really connect with my culture through it.”
Dylan Monague, who is also Anishnaabe strongly feels that the history needs to be taught in all schools everywhere. “It’s something that needs to be taught in every classroom. All the trauma and transition and the need for healing has been caused by all of this and the history shows that was the purpose.”
Another participant in our group shares that the exercise was powerful: “It opens you up to the trauma, and how it affects you. The displacement and being forced into isolated areas of land and the suffering of communities. But there is inspiration and hope from so much survival and intention. The healing has to happen together. I’m super grateful to be here on this land and its richness. The history is so hidden and swept away in the mainstream culture. The sickness inflicted on the land is not just held by Indigenous people but by all settlers and all of us here.”
Although the Blanket Exercise is always a challenge for me, I was happy that I shared the experience with our group as I was encouraged by the strength of the collective comments from my fellow Indigenous people and our allies. We engaged with the history in a meaningful way giving us the opportunity to bond with a fuller under standing of the brutal treatment of Indigenous peoples through a long history of genocidal government law and policies of assimilation. Moreover, we were able to understand how the extensive loss of relationship with land has negatively impacted Indigenous peoples – because it is relationship with land that defines every aspect of be- ing a true human being.
West – Where we Engage Physically “The more plants you are helping the healthier you will be.”
September 7 – Joseph Pitawanakwat (Anishnaabek Nation)
We all collectively agreed that we did not share enough time with Joseph Pitawanakwat. He is an Anishnaabe medicine teacher who operates a family business (although he prefers not to be called a business man), the Creator’s Garden from his First Nation of Wikwemikong on Manitoulin Island.
We meet Joseph at the beginning of the Humber river in a parking lot and his van is filled with over 80 types of traditional plants used for medicines that he picked with his family on the island. He has also brought a huge container of Labrador tea to share with our group, which he pours a cup full for each of us.
“I wanted to teach you guys a lot today,” he says with a laugh. “First of all drink this tea everyday and you won’t get diabetes!” Joseph’s sense of humour is refreshing and we all laugh together. Then he proceeds to tell us about how he used the tea to treat diabetic patients over a few days at the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health in Ottawa.
“I treated 15 people suffering with diabetes and I was first of all stunned that they had sweets for a snack and during lunch and dinner -it was all sugar and most scored over 15 to 25 on the glucometer! Then I gave them Labrador tea and everyone scored between a 6-9, except for the guy who had a cheese cake for dinner the night before. For the whole week I was there, nobody had diabetes because of Labrador tea,” Joe says with a big laugh.
As we drink our tea together, he continues to teach us about the pitcher plant and how it treats sciatica. “It shuts off all the pain receptors in your lumbar. There was a girl at Queens University where I was speaking and she was leaning over in back pain and I asked her what was wrong and she said she suffers from sciatica. I gave her this medicine and she started having laughing fits because it worked right away and the sciatica was gone. That girl hadn’t been able to go on her family canoe trip for two years and she was finally able to go.”
“This plant can give you a really good gift and you don’t have to take it for the rest of your life. When it’s done its work – it’s done,” he explains.
“But you need to give something back. Everyone has their own individual gifts but we share one gift that makes us different. We humans are the only creation that can give back to the plants.”
Joe then asks our group: “What do you think you can give back?” Our group offers answers like: “water,” or “offer tobacco to give thanks,” and he agrees with them. But then Joe says: “Spiders like to lay their eggs in the pitcher plant, so maybe before the spiders do that you can throw the seeds around. That’s how you can give back.”
He explains that when you are engaged with the land and in that relationship everyone is lifted up. “The more plants you are helping, the healthier you will be,” he says.
Then he leads us on a medicine walk and when he immediately spots the dogwood razor plant, he begins talking about snapping turtles and how his friend proved with his research that snapping turtles were here on these lands long before contact. Therefore, they were likely called by their Anishnaabe name, mikinaak. “Can you imagine having your name your whole life and than suddenly somebody starts calling you by another name?” Joe is encourages us to learn the traditional names of plants and explains that the dogwood razor plant’s real name is mskwabiimnagohns.”
He grabs hold of one of the willows of the plant, demonstrating that it is super flexible and used for baskets and dream catchers and so forth. “It’s good for arthritis and joints and people who are totally fused – and they have been cured because it mediates growth hormones and it rejects extra bone that has built up around the joints.”
A few in our group ask similar questions about whether it’s hard to make these medicines and Joe says,” It should be easy and simple and a part of everyday life. Just like spaghetti – it’s easy to make. Boom! Done! It should taste good and be simple.”
He explains that engaging with the plants and learning about what they are used for is about being on the land and being with the plants. “Watching the plants will often tell you what they are used for. Ask the plant what it might be good for and look at it – it will show you.”
Joe than sees a basswood tree and tells us the bark is so strong that you can tow a truck with it and that it is medicine for the heart and treats blood pressure and vascular issues. “When you look at the leaves one lobe is always bigger than the other just like the heart and when the leaves are small they are delicious to eat.”
As we continue on our walk he finds the Soloman seal plant and explains how it is chipmunk nip and that chipmunks love eating it. “Chipmunks use the leaves to dry nuts and mushrooms underneath and they like to eat it. I saw a chipmunk drying its food under some Soloman leaves and when it ate some it started to walk really slowly like a cat – and it was having a really good time. It’s chipmunk nip,” Joe says with a laugh.
Joe explains that from observing the relationship that chipmunks have with soloman seal he was part of a trial study where the smudge from the root was exposed to treat children with ADD were taking Ritalin and for autistic children. “One of the girls with autism started saying sentences. It calmed the kids who were hyper active right down.”
Then Joe explains that the traditional way to identify what certain plants are used for requires spending time on the land and having a relationship with them. “You need to observe the plants and how they grow and how the animals use them and by how the leaves are shaped or grow.”
At that moment when Joe was speaking about relationship with the land a few of us looked up to see a deer watching us and I felt that was a poetic moment given that we were physically on the land engaging with it and learning from it.
Unfortunately, our visit with Joe was cut short as the darkness of the evening set in but our group lingered as we were all enjoying our visit with him so much. Joe eventually had to tell us, “Go, you are free!” He invited us to visit him anytime and to come out to join the medicine harvest he does every year in the month of August.
“I want you to understand most of all that you have a gift to give back to the plants,” Joe says. “You can be there to help the plants and share the importance of that relationship, so everyone is being lifted up.” It was incredible to learn so much from him in such a short period of time. He shared his knowledge of the plant medicines with the laughter of medicine – another key ingredient to living a healthy life.
September 8 – Chandra Maracle-Hill (Mohawk Nation)
Our visit with Chandra at her home on the Six Nations reserve required a 1.5 hour drive from Tkaronto and it was worth every moment. She warmly welcomes us into her home, feeds us traditional food she prepared herself, and we played with her beautiful children. She shares Haudenosaunee teachings about relationship to land and food, within the Mohawk longhouse that was recently completed just behind her home.
Chandra is the founder of Kakhwa’on:we/Real People Eat Real Food, and she explores links between food, art, people, language and land. When we arrive at her home she offers us fresh strawberry juice in a huge pot and then guides us to the longhouse. “We are going to shell some corn together,” she says.
When she leads us for the leisurely walk to the longhouse her three young daughters excitedly help guide our way.
When we are all seated inside on benches, she stands in the middle of the room while holding an eagle feather that she has just completed her second year in the Onkwawen:na Kentyohkwa adult Mohawk language immersion program and that the longhouse is special because the language is used in it. She has invited a young Mohawk speaker and family friend, Joe Maracle to give the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address in the Mohawk language for us. The Address is lengthy and beautifully presented by Joe and although we do not know what he is saying we can feel his intention and it is powerfully spiritual.
‘There is something particularly special about it as it formalizes thankfulness for everything in the natural world. It is recited at social and political events and at feasts,” she explains. Then she proceeds to translate the Address for us explaining that absolutely everything was given thanks for in detail including: Mother Earth, water, fish, the sky, medicines, animals, trees, birds, the winds, the thunder, Sun, Moon, stars, the four spirit beings, and the Creator. The Address includes numerous other details and protocols that the speaker must also recite.
Then she explains that acknowledging any personal struggles an individual may be having is also an important aspect of coming together in community. “We acknowledge where you all come from and we give thanks that you made it here safely. And perhaps there is a lot going on in your life. We acknowledge that you may be stressed or concerned about things going on in your life, but you are here and present and we acknowledge that,” she says. Then she asks that we pass a small piece of hide to each other and wipe the face of the person next to us before passing it on. “In this way we acknowledge the things that may be causing you tears, grief or sadness. We wipe the tears away with the softness of the hide and away from your eyes,” she tenderly says. The entire process is tender and as we do this for one another, I feel the energy in the room change to a feeling of calm empathy for one another.
Chandra asks that we pass the eagle feather she has been holding to one another and directs us to gently brush the person’s ears next to us, before passing the feather on. “This is so that everyone comes and takes a breath and to be of one mind and to dust out each other’s ears so that we listen,” she says. Then Chandra asks that we introduce ourselves one by one and I find that each of us is more open to sharing, listening and expressing ourselves.
Candice Jacko introduces herself in Anishnaabemowin and explains that this is the first time she felt comfortable enough to do so in her language. Several of us are moved by this and as I look around I see a few of us shed some tears, including me. I identify with Candice because I also am on my language journey.
“We relate all of this to food and if you sit down and have a meeting and eat corn and strawberries that food is going along with the thanksgiving,” she says. “Traditionally the women had the honour, duty and responsibility to feed the nation. The women chose the leaders as they are the ones who raised them. So all the more reason to feed them. If you want them to make good decisions put something good in their belly.”
She goes on to explain that corn and strawberries are sacred foods and part of the Haudenosaunee creation story of Sky Woman. Then she has our group shell corn – as our group whittles away at the cobs Chandra encourages us to continue, “Good food takes time and work!”
As we walk the land returning to her home, our group chats about how nice it was to be in the longhouse and I’m personally grateful to have had the opportunity as my youngest son is half Mohawk and I look forward to sharing what I’ve learned with him. When we arrive, Chandra’s step daughter Brenda Hill greets us outside and invites us to make clay pinch pots with her.
Brenda has been making pottery for more than 24 years and as she hands us each a piece of clay she explains that pottery was a way of survival, for cooking, cleaning and heating water for disinfecting. “It is so important to me as it is a connection to the land – the Earth,” she shares as she directs us how to pinch the clay and wet it to avoid cracks as we massage it into shape. As we all dive into our designs she explains that we can make impressions using our fingernails. “I was studying a pot and found a fingernail in it,” she giggles. She passes us shells and small wooden tools and encourages us to use them to help design the edges of our pots.
“I use both the kiln and the wood fire to cook my pots and I’ve singed my eyebrows and eyelashes a few times and have exploded a lot of pots over the years,” she says with a smile. Brenda clearly loves the work she does and enjoys teaching the art.
“All of us have a creative part,” she encourages. She explains how she was inspired by her mother who was a potter, a beader, a soap stone carver and a basket weaver. “When my mother passed away I took up pottery to pay homage to her – by becoming a potter,” she says.
“The style of pottery I make is a cultural identifier of this area and I’m committed to that tradition.” When Chandra calls us inside to eat the lunch she has prepared for us, we all have a difficult time putting down our clay creations that Brenda has inspired us to make.
After we devour the traditional meal of wild rice, corn bread, beans and salad we settle in for Chandra to share the history of the Six Nations that are comprised of the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Onieda and Mohawk nations. She explains that the Tuscarora nation that had once left but returned, which is why the Haudenosaunee are referred to as the Six Nations today.
It is a beautiful story and Chandra offers enormous detail and explains that the Haudenosaunee history is directly tied to U.S and Canadian history as the Six Nations were a key part of the American Revolution and every battle or war before and afterward. “You can’t know American or Canadian history without knowing the Haudenosaunee history,” she says.
“It takes a year to shell corn.”
Chandra’s research and work around revitalizing traditional foods is inspiring. “It takes a year to shell corn because there is all the seeding, planting, singing and then harvesting before shelling,” she says with a smile. She explains that the emphasis on ceremony every step of the way is a key ingredient to food that tastes great and is healthy for us.
“You have to wait until around the end of September to make sure the corn is dry enough to harvest, then you braid the cobs together and hang them to dry.”
She explains that the lying process with hardwood ash is essential in that the chemical alkali in the ashes is released when the corn is boiled. “It will turn orange when boiled and this is much healthier because the lying process provides extra calcium and niacin. “When the Europeans exported the corn they didn’t bother learning this. So they ended up with niacin deficiency.”
“Then you wash it with a woven basket to remove the hulls,” Chandra says. “It took me two decades to understand all of this and how it relates to Haudenosaunee corn.
It’s a lengthy process but you can feel it and taste it and corn is so versatile – it’s both sweet and savoury. The relationship for Haudenosaunee people and corn is so deep. In our Sky Woman creation story the corn existed way up there,” she says as she looks into the sky and we all follow her gaze upward. “Corn existed before the beginning of time and maybe that is why it tastes so good.” Chandra shares the creation story of Sky Woman emphasizing how when she came down to the Earth her body sprouted all kinds of food including sacred corn.
She then teaches us the history of the Dish with One Spoon wampum belt that represents the 1616 peace treaty between the Anishinaabek and Haudenosaunee to share the land within the region and to protect it.
But for Chandra, and her work in revitalizing traditional food systems it personally represents the Haudenosaunee national food policy – in that we all need to share healthy beautiful traditional food for the benefit of all.
“Slowing down and connecting with the land.”
September 28 – Carolynne Crawley (Mi’kmaw/African/Celtic)
We’ve spent plenty of time with Carolynne as she has led and facilitated each session of the program along the way, ensuring that we are fed before each session with healthy traditional Indigenous foods. She has made certain that we have collectively followed Indigenous protocols of reciprocity and respect during every session by acknowledging the land each time that we meet. Moreover, she checks in with each of us to sincerely ask us how we are and offers a few words of encouragement when needed.
Today, she is leading us on a forestry therapy walk in High Park, which is in the middle of Tkaronto. I’ve learned that she has dedicated her life’s work to food sovereignty and security and has built school food gardens, facilitated food literacy workshops and is committed to addressing mental health needs in community. She is a registered holistic nutritionist and a forest therapy trainer, mentor, and guide. She regularly guides walks in city parks to help build relationship with the land.
When we arrive in the park she tells us that High Park is home to coyotes, fox, snakes, owls and Grenadine Pond, which people still fish in. She also mentions that the land is sick in that some invasive plants are taking over endemic species and the human impact of trails has had a negative effect on the land, so she asks us to walk with respect.
“Walk slowly and gently – watch where you step. We will go slow to slow the brain down with the physical body,” she says. She leisurely guides us to an open area and invites us to sit down with her on some blankets she has brought and she asks us to close our eyes. She calmly and gently encourages us to consider how we are breathing. “Focus on slowing your breathing… smell the air …. touch and feel the grass between your fingers …. and listen to the orchestra of sounds around us,” she says with a hushed voice. “Now open your eyes and look as if you are seeing all of this for the first time,” she says. As I open my eyes, I’m overwhelmed with the beauty around me and once again I’m brought to tears and as I look at the young faces in our group I can see they are feeling the same and I think to myself – how beautiful the Earth is.
Carolynne then leads us into the forest and asks us to quietly consider who is in motion. I think of the little animals, the squirrels and insects and the mosquitoes and I naturally want to be motionless to focus my attention. Then I note the leaves softly moving in the breeze and hear the crackling of branches.
She then asks us to freely and quietly walk off into the woods either together or alone and as the dusk settles around us, leaving us in warm light – I witness a part of our group mutually synchronize their motion. They follow one another into the forest and engage in quiet observance together – shadows communing with nature – and it is lovely to see.
With her coyote call, Carolynne brings us back together and in the darkness she asks us to find a tree and to stand near it to consider it and to connect with it.
A few of us giggle and one of us in the group says: “I can be a tree hugger.” Then we separate and each of us finds a tree and Carolynne leaves us alone in silence for a few minutes before calling us back and asking us to discuss what we felt and experienced.
“I chose a tree that had a branch chopped off and I noticed green sprouts coming from where it had been cut and I appreciated its instinct to survive and I noticed its crevices and imagined conversations going on within those cracks,” shares Maia Schultz.
“I had to tell myself that it’s not strange to be with this tree and once I got over that I found I was apologizing to it for the city lights,” says Michelle Fraser.
Carolynne responds and mentions how the trees don’t get to have a full rest because of the artificial lights.
To finish our session Carolynne asks us to join her in a little hamlet where there are enough logs and stumps for us to sit around in a circle and she shares sumac tea that she made for us. “It is used for dye and as a spice and is full of vitamin C,” she explains. “It is a cold infusion that I like to put on the window sill to let grandmother moon infuse it with her energy.” And with that she pours us each a cup and asks if someone would like to give thanks.
Danielle Hyde volunteers and gives thanks for how we have named and touched many beings over the course of the walk. “We acknowledge them and thank them and we are grateful to spend this time with both the seen and unseen.”
North – Where we Engage Intellectually “We are made of water, love yourself – you are medicine.”
October 13th and 14th – Indigenous Food Sovereignty Gathering
To conclude the formal sessions of the program Carolynne and her team have arranged a two day food sovereignty gathering at the Artscape Gibraltar on Tkaronto Islands and she has made arrangements for our entire group to attend.
She has invited Indigenous community leaders, Elders and experts to share their stories, work and the knowledge they have gained with our group. Over the two days Carolynne has arranged catered lunches and diners by Indigenous caterers: Nishdish, Hiawatha Catering, and Pow Wow Cafe. Fortunately I am able to attend one full day. and participate in a Sunrise Ceremony and a Water Ceremony.
Some of the guest speakers I was able to listen to included Johl Whiteduck Ringuette, Perry Mcleod, James Whetung, Elder Pauline Shirt, and Chandra Maracle-Hill and Joseph Pitawankwat – whom I have both written about previously in this story.
When I arrive, my friend Johl Whiteduck Ringuette sees me come in late and offers me a plate of food before he speaks, and I’m overwhelmed by his kind gesture. Johl is truly a food medicine person. He owns and operates Nish Dish restaurant and has recently co-founded Ojiibiikaan; a non-profit food sovereignty organization dedicated to growing traditional Indigenous foods in Tkaronto; and has founded the Toronto Indigenous Business Association with plans to create an Indigenous community district within the city.
He speaks with conviction about his work and his story is one of tremendous personal self growth and healing that was inspired by his re-connection with the land and traditional food systems. “It is your job and all of our job to bring back the traditional Anishnaabe diet. We need to have access to our own foods – food is ceremony and we all need to learn how to have plant based diets.” Johl is a strong advocate for spiritual health and nutritious food. Five years ago he was hit while riding his bike and suffered a brain injury and was restored to health through a plant based diet and ceremony. “Our ceremonies and prayers and songs go with all the planting and must be done within the right phase of the moon. Never forget to create the spirit plate for our ancestors, we must remember our responsibilities.” Johl encourages us to share with our Indigenous community first and foremost because we need to heal first. “Indigenous people have to heal the circle first – we need to heal and we can do that with our food.”
James Whetung is an Anishnaabe traditional wild rice grower from Curve Lake First Nation and he is often in the news because of his on going battle with Pigeon Lake cottagers who don’t want rice beds in the water. “The cottage industry has bulldozed and flattened the land and ruined the traditional habitat,” he says. “The lakes are a desert without minomin (rice), the rice beds feed everything. All the bugs and all the muskrats and even the praying mantis – I saw one in the rice beds that was changing colours. The rice plants help prevent erosion and support the habitat.”
James shares how healthy the wild rice is and that many Indigenous people suffer with diabetes and don’t have cars or boats and he wanted to make it accessible for them. “I started planting rice along the river and then around Pigeon Lake. It’s fun and rewarding with so many benefits. People who eat minomin don’t eat meat because it’s filled with protein,” he says. James has been threatened with violence by the local cottage community on numerous occasions and the angry group started a campaign – Save Pigeon Lake from Wild Rice. “They don’t know what they are saying – the rice will save them,” he says. He isn’t deterred as he kindly offers the knowledge and benefits of wild rice to those willing to listen. “I’m not gonna give up,” he says defiantly.
Elder Pauline Shirt is nehiyaw eskwew (Plains Cree woman) from Saddle Lake First Nation in northern Alberta and she is a nokom (grandmother) to me. She and her sisters attended the same residential school system my mother was forced into and she conducted the Water Ceremony for the gathering. Pauline is a highly respected leader in Tkaronto for her commitment to the Toronto Indigenous community and is a founder of the First Nations School. Out of respect for the sacredness of ceremony I won’t go into detail about the water ceremony Pauline conducted. Before she began the ceremony she gently reminded us to speak with our spirit. “Remember that you are a spirit made of water and to give thanks for everything on the land,” she says. Pauline then offers a thanksgiving prayer in her Cree language, nehiyawewin and proceeds to have her helper smudge everyone in the room. Then she smudges the copper cups that she asks to be passed around by three women helpers. She directs the helpers to pour water into everyone’s cup from the three large copper jugs provided. “Pray into the water you are holding and give thanks for everything that the water provides us before drinking it. We are made of water, love yourself – you are medicine,” she says in closing. After the ceremony, I take a moment and go out to the beach and offer tobacco to give thanks to Lake Ontario and acknowledge its beauty and how it provides so much to all of us who live upon its shores.
Perry Mcleod who is Anishinabe from N’biising First Nation kindly explains the he does not like clapping when he does his presentations because “It is colonial.” Perry is a hunter and especially enjoys working on the land with Indigenous youth. “Our youth want to know who they are, which clan they belong to and they want their spirit names,” he says. Perry offers Earth based camps focussed on medicine picking and hunting for youth groups, and communities and conducts ceremonies. “It empowers our youth and makes them feel strong,” he says. He explains that everything begins with ceremony and respect by offering tobacco first. “We have to acknowledge and respect creation and we can’t go in aggressively. Even the plants will pull their medicine away if we approach them with a knife and start hacking at them. They feel it and they respond to it – just like humans.” Perry explains that it is the same when he is harvesting a moose and before call- ing for one he places tobacco down and says a prayer.
“If a moose comes and offers itself and stands still than I know it is giving me permission to take it. It is a dance in ceremony and you engage in that dance.” Perry is working hard to bring back traditional food systems around harvesting wild meat within his community and started a Wild Meat Food Bank, which is supporting the community while re- invigorating traditional food systems. “Food sovereignty is a right that has been given to us by Creator. Human beings are ceremonial, we sit together and eat and share love with our family – it is all ceremony. Focus on what unites us, not what divides – and food unites us,” Perry says with a grin.
Although I was only able to attend one day of the gathering I was tremendously honoured to participate in the Sunrise Ceremony that Perry and his wife Laurie conducted for us. The feeling of community while engaging in ceremony, feasting, laughing and sharing the joint work to revitalize Indigenous food knowledge systems was spiritually strengthening. I know our group of youth in the program felt the same and they shared their thoughts at our final meeting together.
Our Final Meeting “There is no such thing as goodbye.”
For our final official session, knowledge keeper James Carpenter joins us once again to close the program and begins with a smudge as we settle in to share within the talking circle. First, our official photographer, Alyssa Bistonath shares a power point of photos she captured of our journey together and it is wonderful to see our joint experiences. After sharing laughter and a few memories Carolynne asks each of us to speak if we would like to express any thoughts or comments.
In closing, James thanks all of us for expressing ourselves and says: “The people who were brought to this program … were brought by their own spirit. We are the people that the ancestors prayed for to all get along – to make the world a better place. And we brought all our medicines together and there is no goodbye in Anishnaabemowin – we say baamaapii and that means we will meet again. Just be beautiful and be yourself.”
I feel a wave of melancholy wash over my spirit as this inspiring program has come to an end. As an Indigenous person, every session and every talking circle was a healing ceremony for me. Learning about the incredible land and medicine knowledge that the Indigenous ancestors held for us and passed down through the generations, filled me with enormous gratitude. Moreover, sharing and learning alongside young allies from various cultural backgrounds imbues me with hope, as we collectively address environmental issues. If we choose to live bound within a respectful relationship with the land and on a daily basis acknowledge and give thanks for everything it provides us, we will contribute to the healing. We can practice traditional food systems right here in the urban environment and promote food sovereignty as a de-colonizing process, which Barbara Wall and James Wilkes encouraged. Moreover, we will all be working with and helping Mother Earth, ourselves and all of our relations along the way because we are from the Earth and we are medicine, which Elder Pauline Shirt reminded us. I give thanks to all the young people who signed up for the program who have inspired me with their sincere intentions to defend the land as they work to establish deep connection with it spiritually, emotionally, physically and intellectually. I will continue to try my best – to do the same. I enjoyed laughing with you, crying with you, learning with you and from you, and I thank you for allowing me to witness the journey. And finally, I thank Carolynne and her team for all their hard work and for asking me to document the beautiful program they put together – it was an honour to do so.
kinanaskomitin (I am grateful). hai hai (thank you). kihtwam kawapamitin (see you again soon) – pakwaci wapakwagni
about Trina Moyan (Nehiyaw | Plains Cree)
Trina is from the Frog Lake First Nation in Northern Alberta (Treaty Six) and made Tkaronto her second home in 2003 and is honoured to work and raise her family upon the lands of the ‘Dish with One Spoon’ treaty. Upon graduating from Grant MacEwan University’s (Edmonton) Native Communications Journalism program in 1999, she quickly established her career as a print journalist and television producer. In 2000, she began writing for Windspeaker Newspaper, one of Canada’s longest running Indigenous news sources and went on to write for several government projects promoting Indigenous peoples and culture. In 2001, she was hired by APTN as a news and entertainment reporter for the hit show Saturday Nite @ the Rising Sun Café and then in 2003 was hired by the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation (NAAF) to assistant produce the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards (NAAA), now known as the Indspire Institute and Indspire Awards. In her role at NAAF, she co-produced and wrote 24 NAAA recipient biographical videos and several other videos featured on the 2003/04 television specials. Between 2005 and 2011 she executive produced, wrote and directed her own independent productions including: Lost Treasures of the Northwest Coast (30 -minute special), Planet Indigenous: John Kim Bell (1hour television special), and Ahead of Their time (90-Minute documentary), all featured on APTN. Trina is a 2017 graduate of the University of Toronto holding a BA in Environmental and Indigenous studies and since 2015 has been writing for First Nations House (FNH) Magazine and recently completed a research and writing contract celebrating FNH’s 25th anniversary. In 2016, she produced and wrote a U of T informational video featuring the support for a mandatory course teaching Indigenous history and knowledge. Then in 2017, she co-produced the U of T’s first pow wow in 20 years and managed media, communications, fundraising and assistant produced a mini documentary on the making of the pow wow. Additionally, over the last decade Trina has been the co- owner of Bell & Bernard Limited, a First Nations consulting firm dedicated to building positive relationships between Indigenous communities and mainstream Canada negotiating renewable energy and producing cultural projects, while ensuring the Duty to Consult law is fully achieved. Within the broader urban Indigenous community, she serves as a member of First Story Toronto – an organization offering guided tours featuring the Indigenous history of the city; is a member of the Indigenous Working Group that will present Healing our Mother Earth and the Spiritual Evolution of Humanity in November 2018; and is a member of the Toronto Indigenous Business Association and Ojibiikaan, organizations dedicated to Indigenous community, food justice and culture. Trina’s life and work is inspired by her mother Jeanne who is a residential school survivor and her two sons, Shak (Nehiyaw/Scottish) and Phoenix (Nehiyaw/Mohawk). Trina is honoured to participate as a writer covering the 2018 Teachings from the Land: A Cross Cultural Food Justice Program and thanks the organizers for their valuable work in support of food justice.
about Alyssa Bistonath
Alyssa is a Toronto-based photographer and filmmaker whose work investigates memory, time, and intimacy. The daughter of Guyanese immigrants, Bistonath offers a new nostalgia – images that are simultaneously fresh and evocative of family mementos.