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The Land Restores Identity

This article is a follow up to Deanna Zantingh’s piece in January’s issue, “Uncovering the Truth: Land is Central.

For generations, Ellen's family has taken their children and grandchildren to their family camp on Lake Winnipeg, where they found these arrowheads that were once used by their ancestors. Photo: Ellen Cook

For generations, Ellen’s family has taken their children and grandchildren to their family camp on Lake Winnipeg, where they found these arrowheads that were once used by their ancestors. Photo: Ellen Cook

I have a beautiful house by the Assiniboine River near Winnipeg, but when I say I am going “home,” I mean the place where I was born: Misipawistik Cree Nation in Grand Rapids. Among my people, there is a question we ask someone who cannot seem to stay still in one place, but moves about constantly; “What are you looking for? Your bellybutton?” I interpret this query as, “Are you missing the land on which you were born; do you feel lost when you are away from there?”

Indigenous peoples lived on, from, and with the land. The traditional Indigenous peoples birthed their own children with the help of midwives. Upon the birth of a child, the mother’s placenta would be placed in the ground next to a tree near the birthplace, creating a strong connection to the land that the child would have. When the stub of the umbilical cord dried and came off the child, it, too would be placed in the ground near the tree. This area would become “home” for life for this person, sustaining the strong bond between person and land.

Our people could predict weather by observing the sky and watching the behaviour of animals. Our people knew what medicines to use for various illnesses. Our languages and cultures evolved form our mutual relationship with the land. Our sense of belonging, our customs and beliefs, and our methods for policing, child bearing, and child rearing are all connected to the land. Many of our ways, traditions, and languages have been lost because we have been disconnected from the land by colonization and attempts at forced assimilation.

Ellen Cook is a retired teacher and a member of Misipawistik First Nation.

Ellen Cook is a retired teacher and a member of Misipawistik First Nation.

In the past few years, there has been a move towards restoring our relationship with the land. “Land-based education” and “cultural literacy” are catchphrases which have circulated fervently throughout the world of Indigenous education in the past decade or so. It has been evident that the conventional colonial education systems were not producing large numbers of successful academics among our youth. We must reconnect Indigenous youth with the land so that they can find a sense of pride and identity. Learning the Indigenous way of life, the mino pimatisiwin (the good life) or askiwi-pimatisiwin (life on/with/from the land), is rooted in the person’s relationships with the natural world, the people around them (all their relations), and the languages, traditions, and ceremonies of their nation.

3 Comments

  1. Thank you, Ellen, I appreciate your writing, we have much so much to learn, both from you and the land. Last week I discovered the Maori people from New Zealand introduce themselves by naming first the mountain, then the river from which they come. What a beautiful reminder at each introduction. We have truly divorced ourselves from our roots.

  2. What a beautiful article Ellen. Thank you for writing it and reminding us of our connection to the land. It is a concern that such a large percentage of people only know urban life and seldom even hold the land in their hands. I am trying to think how I can use your words in my sermon this Sunday. I miss sharing words and space with you. 🙂

  3. I have a whole new appreciation for the words “going home” after reading this. Thank you, Ellen, for sharing the importance of reconnecting to the land. The images of the placenta and umbilical cord were particularly moving. We have so much to learn.