Editor’s note: This week Turtle Lodge, the spiritual center in Sagkeeng First Nation in what is today Manitoba, hosted a gathering for the First Nations falling under Treaties One through 11.
Turtle Lodge founder and spiritual leader Dave Courchene Jr. spoke of climate change, and of difficult times ahead, and of the futility of trying to dissuade those who are set on environmental destruction. Focus instead, he said, on becoming strong, both for oneself and in order to be strong for others when the time comes.
“Prepare for the hard times that are coming,” Courchene said. “Don’t waste time in trying to fight a system that will not change. Rebuild yourself, your families and your nation, with your way of life the Creator has given you.
“Stop thinking negatively and fill your mind with positive thoughts,” he continued. “Depend on the land again, for all that you will need to survive. Prepare for the times when people will come looking for help. Prepare to receive the land with your leadership as the true stewards of the land.”
Below is his full statement.
Nii Gaani Aki Inini (Dave Courchene) Presentation at Treaties 1-11 Gathering at Brandon, Manitoba—August 30, 2016
Boozhoo, Aniin, Dinaymakinatook!
Nii Gaani Aki Inini Ndishnikaaz, Kinew Nindoodem, Sagkeeng Nindoonjibaa.
(Anishnabemowin language being spoken)
Our allegiance has always been with the land. This must not change.
We must not be drawn into a world that supports man’s self-importance, through his ideologies, and his concepts of owning and controlling the land through his politics. His ideologies work to ensure his dominance and control over continued exploitation of the land for the sake of his economy.
In their world, they will not listen to reason. They will continue to rationalize their position of exploitation, and no one will get in the way of their understanding of progress.
Recently, I sat alone by the river surrounded by the trees, with the sounds of the geese, the seagulls and the crows. I felt the peace of the land, and I reflected…
What have we done to ourselves? What have we done to the land?
And I ask myself with a sense of hopelessness, what can I do? What can I do to help change the current path of destruction??
Then the land tells me: it begins with me.
Then it dawns on me. I remember the teachings I was given from the Knowledge Keepers of our nations, the teachings that came from the lodges, that were filled with sacred songs from the drum. They always reminded me to stay true to my spirit. I was told, “Through your spirit you will find yourself. You will find your true identity that will define your true purpose and meaning to life.”
Through the lodges we are encouraged to stay in alignment with nature’s laws and not to leave the sacred fires of our lodges.
The spirit and the land advise us to stay true to our alignment and allegiance to the earth. They remind us it will be the power of the earth that will stop the invasion of the earth.
The day will come… No one can beat you, when you show kindness and respect.
So when that day comes, and it will come, we can stand without shame that we have stayed true and loyal to the ancestral ways.
We need to reflect on our own history beginning with knowing our own creation, and knowing our beginning.
We need to remember how our ancestors lived so close to the land without destroying her.
We need to acknowledge those that helped us survive the dark times of colonization.
In the beginning we were given instructions on how to be a human being—a human being that would take care of the land, and love the land. We were given teachings to act as a foundation to having a good life. These teachings would be connected to a sacred relationship with the land. These teachings would support the natural laws of Mother Earth. For thousands and thousands of years, our ancestors lived by those teachings and original instructions.
Then the invasion began. What is important for us to realize today is to acknowledge what helped us endure and survive these dark times, and still today we must continue to endure. Colonization is very much a continued imposition in our lives.
During the darkest times of our history, it was our way of life that helped us survive to this day.
It was the ones who remained loyal and true to the original instructions we were given as a people by our Creator…
Those who kept the ceremonies going underground…
Those that kept the sacred fires burning…
Those that continue to speak the languages of our people…
Those that sang the songs of the land, of the ancestors.
And so it is today, that we must rely on those who have kept the sacred fires burning…
Those that keep our lodges going…
Those that speak the languages of our people…
The language is really the language of the land itself.
We need to reflect on what has always helped us to survive, and it has always been our way of life. It has kept us closely connected to the land, and as long as we maintain that alliance, that closeness to the land, we will survive the changes that are coming.
What we should be concerned about is carrying out our duties and responsibilities and being stewards of the land. We cannot live out that stewardship without understanding, that knowing and understanding the stewardship that comes with responsibility.
Our efforts should be put into preserving this knowledge, protecting the Knowledge Keepers of our nations, offering support to our Knowledge Keepers who take care of the knowledge in our lodges.
Trying to convince those that are destroying the earth is a wasted effort, when our efforts should be in restoring and reviving our way of life.
As we do this, we must put full effort in teaching our children, our youth about this way of life, that carries duties and responsibilities.
We are told that it will be the forces of nature herself, that will stop the abuse that is inflicted on her.
With the earth wants are messengers to share her laws, to share and to teach the youth, of all nations.
What Mother Earth wants is to have her children to love her and to respect her, and to be instruments of peace.
So many of our young people are lost, and we continue to encourage them to accept a way of life that is destroying their beautiful little spirits.
And how they deal with this is that they resist; they rebel, some with anger, addiction, and at worst, suicide.
We have failed the youth. But we can still do them proud.
Bring them back to the lodges, to the land for the healing that will help them find themselves… find their dreams again. Heal the hearts that have been broken. Give the spirit and the land the opportunity to guide our people again. She will never betray us, as she has consistently shown us over and over again.
Nature’s laws are self-enforcing. No law of man can prevent or have power over the power of nature. Allow the earth to take its natural course in correcting those that have put themselves above the natural laws.
Let us work with Mother Earth again, beginning with our children. There should be no doubt that the earth with its power will bring balance and harmony to the earth again.
No one has the human power, the political power, to overrule the forces of nature and her laws.
The future should be one that invests in our children by making access to the traditional knowledge and the lodges of the nations – preparing them to be the leaders of their people.
I often ask myself, what would the ancestors think of what is happening to our world being destroyed, and what would they have advised us to do to deal with all of this?
It’s so easy to get caught up in the politics and the confusion and the anger, that we lose sight of the truth. Feeling helpless and hopeless only makes things worse, making us numb and wanting to withdraw from all this madness, this insanity, and you want to escape. And some have chosen drugs in this escape. Some have chosen just to leave this world; suicide has become too common in our communities.
There I hear the voice of the ancestors:
“Come home, come home now, follow and we will take you home. What you look for is right in front of you, it is right inside of you. It is just that you have strayed from the path of your ancestors, the path your ancestors have left you.”
The ancestors say, “We will help you get on the path again, follow us through your dreams, through your heart, through your spirit. Follow those that have not strayed, those that have kept the ceremonies alive, the Knowledge Keepers of our nations.”
Years ago an elder said to me:
“Go home and start your sacred fire, and don’t ever leave it. Through the fire you will be guided, through the fire you will learn about the sun. Through the fire you will be given many teachings. Dreams will be sent to you to guide you towards your own awakening and healing. There will be dreams of ceremonies you must do. Follow these dreams, have faith in the spirit, and have faith in yourself.”
As I reflect on what the elder had said, it all came to be true. And his advice applies today more than ever:
Light the sacred fires. This is part of coming home. This is what will help us to awaken from this nightmare. The warmth of the fire will comfort us. Guide us. The fire will strengthen our spirit. We will see our ancestors in the fire. The fire will lead us into the lodges, into the ceremonies, and onto the land, to the sacred sites that have been left for us.
When we have done this, we will be given guidance and direction. And we will become strong again in our faith. We will know what to do in any given situation, because we will be connected to the spirit.
In any confusion or doubt, all we need to do is return back to the lodges for direction.
The answers we are looking for today have already been given, and they are held within the hearts of the Knowledge Keepers of our nations. Seek them out, find them and they will guide you to find yourselves. Then you will know your destiny and your gifts. Then you will be in a position to help fulfil the prophecy of your ancestors. You will be one of the few who believed, who follow the ancestors – to claim our rightful place in our homeland, to be the true leaders of our homeland.
It will be the forces of the land that will secure our leadership, simply because we have stayed aligned with her and her natural laws. She in the end will bring a halt to all of this insanity. All we have to do is stay close to the sacred fires, go to the lodges, learn more from the spirit, and spend more time on the land.
Prepare for the hard times that are coming. Don’t waste time in trying to fight a system that will not change. Rebuild yourself, your families and your nation, with your way of life the Creator has given you.
Stop thinking negatively and fill your mind with positive thoughts. Depend on the land again, for all that you will need to survive. Prepare for the times when people will come looking for help. Prepare to receive the land with your leadership as the true stewards of the land.
The real significance and meaning of the treaties was to allow us to claim our true identity as a people. And we have survived some really hard times, but it has made us stronger, and now we are ready to restore and rebuild our nations. As we do, help them to join us in our efforts and taking care of the land, for we must teach them to love the land as we do.
As we do all of this, it will be in alignment with nature. She will prepare us, take care of us, and love us as she always has. And no one can prevent this alliance – it is only ourselves who may lose faith and continue to rely on a system that does not honour spirit or the land.
We have a choice. Let’s make that choice now…
The longer we engage in their politics, the more time that we have wasted, when we could have put more effort in reclaiming and restoring our identity as a people.
And we go to the land who is the real force of change.
I remember being in the ceremony when the question was asked, how can we stop the pulp and paper mill that is destroying the environment, the land, the water and the air?
Through the elder, the spirit responded, “Don’t worry about the mill—we will take care of it. All you need to do is concern yourselves with living the way of life that the Creator has given. Continue to show gratitude for all that nature has to offer. Talk to the spirit of the water, the trees and the animals. All your survival and direction will come from the land.”
During a recent ceremony of blessing of the land, this message came from the spirit of the Thunderbirds:
“Don’t worry yourselves on what man is doing destroying the earth, because we will help put a stop to this. As the Thunderbirds we will use the fire, the wind and the water. Stay true to your way of life as real stewards of the land. And stay close to us, with your offerings. ”
In the 60s, there was this resurgence across the country and I was fortunate to be within the presence of those leaders at that time – George Manuel from BC, Harold Cardinal from Alberta, Walter Dieter from Saskatchewan, Andrew Delisle from Quebec, and of course my own father.
I witnessed and heard their discussions as they struggle to take us out of the imposition and colonial structures we were living in. What I remember the most was their passion to claim a right to live our sovereignty as a people. They spoke of removing the barriers that prevented us as people to live our true identity as a people.
Through all of their efforts, they opened the door for future generations to claim their right of identity. Unfortunately not many returned to the ancestral way of life of their people.
Assimilation continued to be the norm, education became the continued tool to assimilate. It was easy to be distracted from claiming our own right to define the true education that our children deserve. Today our children suffer from an identity crisis that has created many negative symptoms, for example, children in foster care, suicide, incarcerations, and many other health problems of our people. We did not seize on the opportunities created by those leaders of that time, even though our leaders of that time open the doors for us to reclaim our right of identity.
It was not easy. Our people have been like birds, cage for so long, that even once the doors were opened, it was as though these birds had forgotten how to fly. What has held them back and held our people back has been the fear to be themselves; to follow our beautiful and ancient way of life, because of the fear that was instilled into their minds.
Once again we are forced to reflect on deciding on what direction we should work on to claim our right of identity, our rights of sovereignty, our right of leadership in our homeland.
When our ancestor signed the treaties, they did it in the fullness of their identity, which was reflected in the gift of the pipe, the rattle and the drum. And through their great wisdom they saw that the reserves we live on would be reserved for us to retreat, to rebuild, and to continue to live the ancestral ways of our people, with no interference from the colonizer.
Our struggle to break free from the colonizer and his structures is still our current struggle. Decolonization is very much a challenge.
When we refer to the treaties we must first of all understand clearly who we are, beginning with our own creation stories, complete with our own history, and our duties and responsibilities that our Great Creator gave to us.
One of these responsibilities is to be caretakers of our homeland.
To reflect stewardship.
To live our way of life as a people.
To speak our languages.
To follow the fullness of our culture.
Why are we not embracing that opportunity our leaders of the past have opened?
The laws that prevented us from living our identity have been removed. There is nothing that can stop us from living our culture and our identity as a people now. All we need is the faith and courage to do so. Within the territories, granted as limited as they are, we must regroup and rebuild the spirit of our nations. Putting up our lodges is paramount in claiming our right of sovereignty.
Our sovereignty comes through our relationship with the Great Spirit and Mother Earth. That is something no one can take away from us.
When we are living our way of life we are not bound by colonial laws or structures. Our way of life is not defined by political influences. We simply be who we are – a kind, caring, loving and humble people.
Our way of life defines our original instructions that we were given by our great Creator, how to be Anishnabe. We were given duties and responsibilities in taking care of our children, our families and our elders. We were given instructions and responsibilities in taking care of the land.
This is what we should be concentrating on, and giving more support to—our way of life.
There has to be an investment in securing our culture, which includes our languages, our teachings, our songs, and our ceremonies.
Our treaties have secured that for us, and the colonizer will never and should never be in a position of teaching us our way of life. Their concern is to assimilate us, and it is working quite well for them. But it will never work completely, as long as we have those amongst our nations who continue to be faithful and loyal to our way of life. These are whom we must turn to, for their help to return to our way of life our ancestors have left us. Support those lodges that have kept our way of life alive.
Within the sacred lodges of our nations, wait for our ancestors, to help guide us, to help us remember, to help heal us, and to decolonize our minds.
With the colonizer, we encourage them to help support our autonomy that defines our solutions, our resolve to finding ourselves again. They have a shared responsibility to help bring back what they took away. That would be real reconciliation.
As an autonomous, self-determining people, it will be our elders and our Knowledge Keepers that we will depend upon to bring back that knowledge, that understanding of our identity.
What is treaty? To me, it is how we treat ourselves, our children, our mothers, and fathers, our elders, our friends and neighbours, and how we treat the land. A treaty is a covenant – it is a commitment. This is what our ancestors, I believe, meant, that defined our identity and relationship.
That relationship has also included the newcomers. We would share not only the land, we would share the values, the teachings, the protocols in taking care of the land. It is never too late for them to change – to join us in taking care of the land.
We must teach the youth, as much as we must teach our own. Our survival depends on everyone. And we must express our leadership and making welcome to those who want to learn.
And finally, I am going to humbly propose that we set up a group or Knowledge Keepers Council, because they are the ones that we need the help from the most. Because they are the ones that hold the knowledge, they hold the protocols, they hold the closeness to the ancestors through ceremony.
When the treaties were signed, when our people could not understand the language that was being spoken, what did they do? They went to the elders, to go into ceremony to seek guidance on what they must do. Should they sign those documents that they call treaties? And for days they gathered, waiting for the answer that would come through ceremony.
And it was the spirit itself that gave the approval for the leaders at that time to sign the documents. They saw something that maybe we don’t see today, but they saw the future. And it was only through the spirit that the future is revealed.
We need to call our Knowledge Keepers back. I propose that from every treaty area, that we select those Knowledge Keepers, and that we call a gathering as soon as possible. I am prepared to host this gathering at the Turtle Lodge, and we must do it from our own efforts. It cannot be done through applying for a grant, or assistance from the government, from the colonizer. It has to come from ourselves. That each treaty area take the responsibility to support their elders, and that the elders go for the guidance and the direction that we need today more than ever.
Our young people deserve the right to be guided by the Knowledge Keepers. So many of our young people have become angry, and as a result they have become very politicized. Through the lodges of our people we are told that we are a peaceful people; that our strength comes from being a kind, caring, humble and giving people.
It is through the connection to our ancestors and the spirit that we will move beyond this current world, a world that does not understand who we are, that we still continue to live marginalized in our homeland and not understood.
So many of our young people today do not know who they are. That is our responsibility, no one else’s. No one can come to heal us. No one can give us that life that we all want and expect. Only the Creator can give us that. That is what you will hear in the lodges of our people.
If we are serious about loving our children, then please consider what I am proposing, to call upon the elders and the Knowledge Keepers of our nations – the opportunity to come together so they can seek guidance and direction for all of us through ceremony itself.
Thank you so much for showing patience as I shared my own thoughts and feelings. In keeping with the spirit of the lodges, we are told:
“May your life be filled with the fullness that your life deserves, that your life be filled with all the love and all the respect and all the kindness, and all the love that the land continues to give to us.”
May we feel that love.
Nii Gaani Aki Inini – Leading Earth Man (Dave Courchene), Anishnabe Nation, Eagle Clan is the Founder of Turtle Lodge.