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Feature - Issue #6

A Time for Change

Introduction by Patrick Steel
Photography by Erica Daniels

An elder and knowledge keeper of the Anishinabe First Nation, Dr Dave Courchene is the founder of the Turtle Lodge International Centre for Indigenous Education and Wellness, and chairs the National Turtle Lodge Council of Elders and Knowledge Keepers.

Turtle Lodge is a sacred lodge of the Anishinabe Peoples, situated in Sagkeeng First Nation on the Southern tip of Lake Winnipeg, and was built in 2002 in fulfilment of a vision received by Courchene. For the First Peoples of America, visions and dreams offer guidance in life, connecting them to the land. Courchene’s vision was of a place that could bring healing to people and peace to the world.

The lodge works with young Indigenous people to instil a sense of pride in their identity and help them connect with the traditional land, ceremonies and languages, giving them the belief to pick up the torch and one day become leaders and elders themselves. Over the past fifteen years Turtle Lodge has been a centre for events, ceremonies, conferences, and gatherings of people from around the world to honour the traditional knowledge of the First Peoples of America.

Courchene has devoted his life to creating a healthy environment for current and future generations, carrying messages of hope and peace around the world.

His belief is that First Nation peoples have suffered because they have not been recognised for their own uniqueness, but that difference doesn’t mean they are not equal within the human family to make a contribution to make a better world.

His leadership and stewardship has had global influence, from lighting the sacred fire at the UN Earth Summit in 1992, to delivering the keynote and conducting the opening ceremonies at the 2010 G8 Summit on World Religions, to sharing the stage with spiritual leaders including the Dalai Lama.

In the following article, he shares the ancient knowledge of the original people of Turtle Island - a name used by some Indigenous people for the Earth or the continent of North America - that he believes can act as the foundation in supporting the new life that Mother Earth is now entering, and that the elders have confirmed has arrived.

Previous image: Ceremonial eagle staff at the Turtle Lodge International Centre for Indigenous Education and Wellness, Manitoba, Canada.This image: Elder Dr Dave Courchene looks up into the sky in his community of Sagkeeng First Nation, on the shores of Lake Winnipeg.

Humanity is suffering from the mindset of domination, that originated from the idea that we could control and dominate nature. The challenge for many to understand is that Mother Earth herself is a living entity with a spirit, which gives her purpose, duties and responsibilities. The structures and systems created by man are not in compliance with these natural laws. As Indigenous peoples, we do not consider nature’s gifts as resources, but rather sources of life, given to all for the benefit of our survival.

The root cause of accelerated climate breakdown is the loss of our moral and ethical imperative - the failure to implement our moral responsibilities that show a respect for the Earth. Essentially, we have become a species out of control, obsessed with extracting life from Mother Earth. We have been looking at the Earth as a non-living entity that could be owned and controlled for our own selfish purposes. What is missing in the discussions regarding climate breakdown is the power and sacredness of the Earth herself.

Earth changes are inevitable. To lay a foundation for the future, we must become better stewards of the land. Working in alliance with nature and her natural laws is the key to ensuring our survival.

Indigenous elders have given us clear direction in meeting current challenges such as climate breakdown. They say: “Go back to the beginning.” The beginning is in reference to the spirit, the beginning of creation, the birth of all life. We need to go back to the beginning of creation to understand where we have come from and where we are going. We need to understand the root of the crisis we face. The issue is not climate breakdown. The issue is human change. What is needed is a change of heart if we are to survive as a species.

We have a collective responsibility to take care of the land with love and kindness. We need to reflect on what we are doing to the land, to nature, and what we are doing to ourselves.

True humanity is built on values that stem from the heart - to be kind, to be humble, to show respect, to love all of creation. Our health and wellbeing as humanity is directly connected to the health and wellbeing of Mother Earth. All living beings, including Mother Earth herself, are governed by natural laws. When we comply with these natural laws, we can restore the balance of our source of life. When our mother feels well, we as her children will become well again.

Aerial view of the Turtle Lodge International Centre for Indigenous Education and Wellness, Sagkeeng First Nation, Manitoba.

Nature operates on the principle of balance. The whole universe is built on this principle, to ensure that balance is maintained. How we conduct ourselves in relationship with the land and other members of creation, as human beings, can have a direct impact on the whole universe. This is why it’s imperative that we stay in balance with nature’s laws.

We are related to all the living beings within creation. Everything is interconnected and interdependent. Everything we need to live and survive comes from the land. Nature is the true teacher and healer, who gives us all we need to live and thrive in life. As human beings, we have stepped out of the natural world, only to create an unnatural world.

To Indigenous people, the symbol of the circle reflects that power of natural law. We see the circle in the sun, the moon, the Earth; in the cycles of the seasons. The law of the circle is a natural law of the Earth. Whatever we put into our circle sets the consequences of our actions, and returns in kind, multiplied. What we do to the land we do to ourselves.

Natural laws and forces of nature are self-enforcing, more powerful than any human laws we could possibly create. Every act of kindness sets off a chain reaction with the powers of nature that are in support of life. Showing gratitude and giving back to nature will ensure our survival.

Nature has a voice that doesn’t speak in words. Only the heart can hear that voice. It is most clearly heard when we are connected to her, through the land. There is no definitive model of quick solution to the change needed. However, as long as we continue to try to find solutions within the existing system and structures that are grounded in exploitation of the land, we will fail.

What is needed immediately is an educational awareness of natural laws, followed by an implementation framework, through sustainability initiatives envisioned through traditional Indigenous processes, which create an alliance with nature. This is where Indigenous knowledge keepers can play an important role.

‘The law of the circle is a natural law of the Earth. Whatever we put into our circle sets the consequences of our actions, and returns in kind, multiplied. What we do to the land we do to ourselves.’

A young woman participates in a community gathering at the Turtle Lodge.

Elder Dr Dave Courchene and other men sing ancestral songs using traditional drums at a ceremonial gathering inside the Turtle Lodge.

A young woman sings an ancestral song using a traditional drum.

Grandmothers enjoying a traditional community gathering at the Turtle Lodge.

Building of tipis in preparation for an ancient rites of passage ceremony.

The knowledge keepers are those in our nations who speak their original languages, hold an understanding of natural laws, are connected to their ceremonies, and have maintained a connection to the spiritual world, which holds the ultimate governance and intelligence. Their dreams and visions continue to guide us to live in balance with all of creation.

The knowledge keepers are definitive in their guidance. They tell us to begin by teaching our children, telling them the truth, giving them maximum opportunity to get to know and feel the land. Being on the land will kindle their spirit of love, kindness and humility. Then there will be change.

For our ancestors, integral to having a spiritual connection were rites of passage for the youth - for a girl becoming a woman, and for a boy becoming a man. When the girl bled for the first time, she was taken to the grandmothers to receive the sacred teachings in becoming a woman. The women are the life-givers of our nations, and the carriers of the water.

The young boys were taken on a vision quest, where they would fast for a dream or vision that would give them meaning and purpose to guide them in their life as men. The men are the protectors of life and the keepers of the sacred fires of our nations.

We must support our children to engage in rites of passage, preparing our youth for the future by learning their true identity. No human being can ever tell another what their identity should be. Each person needs to make their journey to the land, to feel their own spirit, and find their own identity. Only once that journey has been made will one love themselves as they are.

Anishinabe man in traditional ceremonial regalia participates in a community gathering at the Turtle Lodge.

An elder makes a ceremonial offering of tobacco to the sacred fire.

Anishinabe singers singing ceremonial songs at Turtle Lodge.

Grandmother fanned down with an eagle feather as part of an elder honouring ceremony at the Turtle Lodge.

‘Each person needs to make their journey to the land, to feel their own spirit, and find their own identity. Only once that journey has been made will one love themselves as they are.’

Nature’s laws are self-enforcing, operating on the principles of balance and harmony. The real power is in the hands of Mother Earth.

We are spiritual beings living a human life. It is our spiritual nature that defines our identity. As we entered into this world from spirit we came with a defined identity. Humanity’s challenge is to recognise and acknowledge our own spiritual essence. This is a journey each individual must take themselves. As the human species we have yet to reach a level of understanding that spirit is the original element of our nature. As Indigenous people we always rely on dreams and visions and our ceremonies to ensure connection to the spiritual realm.

The answers we are searching for are within us. They will not come from the outside. We need to search within our being. This is a spiritual process not so easy to do, given how much we’ve allowed ourselves to be governed by the mind. Our best chance is to feel the love of the land. The land has a way to draw you closer. Some would call it gravity; from a spiritual perspective, Mother Earth wants to keep us close to her. Nature has a natural rhythm that we acknowledge as the heartbeat of the Earth.

Prophecy foretold about this time we have entered into. It is truly a time of change.

As Indigenous peoples we carry a vision of the new Earth, a new life that is coming. This vision is grounded in sacred laws, universal to all humankind. With this vision we can create real community, living values that are sustainable that show kindness for the land.

We must work together to lay down these sacred laws as a foundation for a new life, and become true stewards of the Earth.

The real hope for humanity lies with the people of the heart, those who live a true spirit of kindness. From the inspiration of their hearts, they know how to give; how to have courage to do the right things. The people of the heart have a love for all humanity, for all of nature, for the land. Are you a person of the heart?

Aerial view of one of the ancient petroglyphs at the sacred site of Manitou Api, located at the geographical centre of Turtle Island, in Manitoba, Canada.

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