The following blog is by Audra Mitchell, Kate Lloyd, Sandie Suchet-Pearson and Sarah Wright. All photos are by Stan Williams.
In August 2018, we were honoured to organize a gathering of Indigenous women/ Two-Spirit (2S) people, knowledge-keepers, scholars, land and water protectors from across Turtle Island/North America and Australia, and four of their non-Indigenous academic collaborators. This gathering was supported by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Connections grant, Wilfrid Laurier University and our research partner, Six Nations Polytechnic. This was the first event in a research partnership between these institutions.
The gathering emerged from the request of Elders to share knowledge and build relationships between Indigenous women and 2S people facing shared challenges and collaborating in land-based research across the planet. Our gathering was inspired by the following questions:
How can, and how do, Indigenous women and 2S people care for land, water, sky, plants, animals and other kin in the face of global disruptive change such as plant and animal extinctions, climate change and disruptive technologies?
How can the strengthening of kinship ties, women/2S-led forms of governance, and the creation of new solidarities across generations, Indigenous nations and species help to address and stop the harms caused by these forms of change?
Over five days, through Elder/knowledge-keeper teachings, land-based work, research presentations, story-telling, circle work and ceremony we shared experiences, stories and knowledge about communities, assessments of global disruptive change, along with hopes, visions and strategies for resisting it. Through this gathering we strengthened and created new relationships and solidarities across communities that we hope will over time enhance efforts to re-build or create kinship across nations and around the earth.
The land we visited (and some of us live on) has a complex, multi-national history, present and futures shaped significantly by interactions between Indigenous nations and by waves of settler colonial expropriation that formed the Canadian and American states.
The name ‘Turtle Island’ is used by some Indigenous communities to refer to the landmass now occupied by the Canadian, American and part of the Mexican states, which was historically defined by complex political and trade relationships across diverse Indigenous nations. We use it here because the name is drawn from the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabeg creation stories of this land, but we acknowledge that different communities use diverse names and forms of mapping to relate to this region.
The particular area we visited and travelled through is the ancestral land of the Chonnonton (‘Keepers of the Deer’), called the Attawandaron by the Huron people, with whom they were allied, and the ‘Neutral confederacy’ by French traders, due to their diplomatic ties amongst the Huron and the Seneca peoples. Their territory stretched along the north shore of Lake Erie from the Niagara peninsula to the Detroit river, perhaps as far north in Toronto. The Chonnonton were a semi-nomadic society who lived in longhouses and shifted their village sites around every 20 years in order to allow ecological regeneration. During the early 1600s, this was the largest Indigenous society in the region, with a population of about 40 000 people. However, after famine and epidemics such as smallpox introduced by Europeans in the 1630s, and a Dutch-sponsored incursion by Seneca warriors 1650s, their population plummeted and many survivors were integrated into Haudenosaunee nations. As a result, there is no distinct modern Chonnonton/Attawandaron/Neutral nation, although their descendents are part of communities such as the Wyandotte and Seneca nations. For this reason, it is very important to honour these First Peoples and their role in shaping and caring for the land in territorial acknowledgments. To learn more about the complexity of this practice, please see this excellent article by Métis thinker Chelsea Vowel.
This region is also part of the ancestral territory of the Missassaugas of the New Credit, an Anishinaabe people whose ancestral territories comprise 3.9 million acres, extending from the Rouge River Valley in the east, to the Thames River in the west, south to Lake Erie and along the coast of Lake Ontario to Niagara. Traditionally, Mississauga communities moved cyclically across the whole of their territory according to changes in the seasons, hunting and social patterns, maintaining ecological balance. Many Mississaugas moved into these lands after successfully resisting military actions by Haudenosaunee tribes northward into Huron and Mississauga lands. Several participants at the gathering had the opportunity to visit and offer tobacco at Niagara Falls which, although now a popular tourist destination, remains an important site in the Anishinaabe creation story.
The land where the gathering took place is now part of the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve, located on the Haldimand Tract, which consists of 6 miles/10 km on either side of the Grand River. This land was signed over to the Six Nations in 1784 in recognition of their alliance with British forces in the American Revolution. After being expelled from their ancestral homelands during that conflict, Mohawk leader Tyendenaga worked to ensure that the land around the Grand River was allocated to his people. After centuries of dispute, including sales of land and impingement by settlers, the Six Nations reserve today comprises only 4.8% of the original land grant.
The gathering was hosted on this land by Six Nations Polytechnic, an award-winning Indigenous higher education institution known for the rejuvenation of Haudenosaunee languages and culture. Reflecting their traditions and ways of honouring the land, our hosts opened the gathering by offering The Words that Come Before All else, or Thanksgiving Address. This ceremonial address involves coming together to thank all elements of creation, from the earth to the stars and all living beings, as a way of coming together in one mind. If you would like to read a version of this address, you can find one here. A brief glossary of some of the important words and concepts can be found here. We were also led in a water ceremony on the banks of the Grand River by Anishinaabeg Grandmothers, Elders and land protectors Judy Da Silva and Chickadee Richard.
Accompanying us throughout our time at Six Nations was Stan Williams, an outstanding Indigenous artist and photographer based in Six Nations and Garden River First Nations. Stan’s work documents the power of Indigenous resurgence, community-building and decolonial action. He was asked to join us since many of the participants at the gathering felt more comfortable sharing our discussions and activities in pictures, rather than written words, in order to honour their oral knowledge traditions. Stan helped to document aspects of our work together, and, with the permission of the participants and Stan, we are able to share with you this beautiful photo narrative that he co-created with the participants and the land.
Our medicine table was designed (by Audra Mitchell and Andrew Judge) to reflect overlaps between important shapes and colours shared by plural Indigenous communities in Australia and across much of Turtle Island. The tobacco pouches are red, white, yellow and black – the colours and shape of the medicine wheel, which is central to Anishinaabe, Nêhiyaw and other nations – purple to honour the Haudenosaunee nations. The red and black background cloths and the placing of the circle in the middle honours the Aboriginal Australian flag.
Tobacco is one of the four sacred medicines of the Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee and other Indigenous nations in Turtle Island, including sage, cedar and sweetgrass. It is offered in gratitude to the land, water, plants, animals, and ancestors, and to people when we want to ask them for something specific. For instance, if you want to ask an Elder/Grandmother/Grandfather, Healer or Knowledge Keeper for advice, or to do something for you (for instance, to conduct a ceremony), you should offer tobacco. Tobacco can be offered in ties (made of cotton or other natural-fibre cloth, usually in red or yellow) or loose (traditions vary across communities). It can be offered to these beings through burning, releasing it into the water, or placing in the earth. Only a small pinch needs to be offered, although if you are making a bigger request, a larger amount of tobacco should be offered. It is very important that the being you are making a request from – whether an elder, animal or body of water – can refuse the request, and can do so in multiple ways (for instance, saying ‘no’ or refusing to offer itself as food). This is an important part of the laws and principles of consent within Anishinaabeg, Haudenosaunee and several other traditions.
It is important to note that this information is based on teachings shared with Mitchell by Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee knowledge keepers that have generously shared with her. Since Mitchell is early in her learning journey with regards to the laws of these lands, this text may contain errors, and it should not be treated as authoritative or universal. Instead, knowledge keepers from each community should always be consulted in order to find out which practices are necessary.
Song and drumming are an important part of a gathering comprising multiple nations. The Grandmothers (an Anglicized term used by many Indigenous communities to refer to women who hold positions of leadership and knowledge, including but not always the role of ‘Elder’) generously shared teachings and songs from across Turtle Island and Australia. In the picture above, Mi’kmaq grandmother Maura Tynes shares a welcoming song from her people’s musical tradition. She also closed the gathering in a good way by sharing a Mi’kmaq travelling song, which is intended to help carry all the participants safely back to their homes.
Aunty Shaa Smith enchanted everyone as she described the important work of Yandaarra from Gumbaynggirr Country on the mid-North Coast of NSW. Yandaarra means ‘shifting camp together’ in Gumbaynggirr and, together, the group looks to better understand, and practice, caring for Country in a heavily colonised context. Pandanus weaving in the Yolngu tradition (foreground), shared by Djawundil Maymuru and Shandi Munungurr, became central to the gathering as participants from different nations integrated it with their own weaving practices.
Djawundil Maymaru and Shandi Munungurr shared a workshop on Gurrutu with Sandie-Suchet Pearson and Kate Lloyd. The audience regularly erupted into laughter as Djawundil, and Shandi sharp senses of humour drew them into the process of learning about Yolngu language, kinship structures and Law.
We travelled to Minjimendan, a Sustainable Indigenous Food Garden and ongoing Indigenous knowledge project founded and directed by Mkomosé (Bearwalker), Dr. Andrew Judge. The project utilizes Indigenous knowledge frameworks in its design and philosophy to create an engaging environment that ignites all senses. The spiralling terraced garden aims to inspire a revitalization of Indigenous foods systems and land based sustainability practices. It also provides sources of nutritious, traditional foods, a place to reconnect with the land and to conduct ceremony for urban Indigenous folks living in the region.
We had the opportunity to build the frame of a wigwam (a traditional Anishinaabe lodge) inspired by a dream that came to Andrew after the first day of the gathering. Grandmother and Elder Judy Da Silva of Grassy Narrows First Nation shared with us her knowledge of braiding together the maple switches to create a stable structure. In a moment of convergence, the wigwam was completed the following day by a visiting group of Indigenous people from across so-called South America.
We also had the opportunity to listen to and participate in incredible workshops by Indigenous scholar/activists. Above, Yaqui/Yoeme/Bisayan scholar and land protector Krisha Hernández share their ground-breaking research about native desert bees and other pollinators, and Indigenous feminisms. Below, Hupa/Yurok/Karuk scholar Cutcha Risling-Baldy leads an interactive workshop based on her efforts to revitalize traditional coming-of-age ceremonies that celebrate and affirm the value of girls and women.
Above, emerging Ts’kw’aylaxw scholar and social worker Gena Edwards offers the group a song from her community in the northern interior of so-called British Columbia. Along with songs, participants also exchanged gifts – such as sweetgrass (see below) to show gratitude, friendship, respect and the creation of new relationships.
Wonderful connections were made and stories shared. We eagerly await our next gathering…..