I remember walking through the fields of the Canadian Plains on many occasions with my father. On one occasion, we were going to pick sweet grass blades that had pink roots and a distinctively sweet smell. I observed that, prior to my father picking the first blade of sweet grass, he reached into his tobacco pouch and grabbed a pinch, laid it on the ground beside the sweet grass he was about to pick, and closed his eyes as he made his offering to Mother Earth. The sincerity of the process was completely natural in that moment.
We live in a time where the dominant interaction between the Earth and people is one-sided, with no reciprocity. Throughout the centuries, the notion of Manifest Destiny was used as justification for this one-sided use of the land and its resources; political and religious leaders were able to claim their exploitative practices as their divine right. Growing up in my Cree community where traditional interaction with the Earth is based on respect is in stark contrast to these dominant world views.
Traditional Cree values are difficult to articulate because the ideals are easily associated with contemporary socialist and environmentalist perspectives, and people are inclined to frame Cree values based on these perspectives. While there are similarities, the distinction is that pro-environmentalist perspectives are ideals that people strive to incorporate into their lifestyles, whereas for Cree people, it is part of our traditional lifestyle, with no distinction between the way we live and our ideals.
Reminiscing about the times my father took my brother and me hunting provides me with another example of giving back to the land. Every time we made a kill, our father gave us a part of the animal to give back to the land as an offering for having taken from it. It was interesting for me to realize later in life that providing an offering while hunting is not typical mainstream behaviour. Only through analyzing the experience do I now understand how my father's action was based on our innate connection to the land.
This connection is illustrated not only through our practice of reciprocity but also through our spiritual interaction with the land. In the sweat lodge, a spiritual ceremony where Cree people cleanse their minds, bodies, and spirits, we are taught to put our hands on the Earth if it gets too hot for us. This shows an intrinsic connection to the land and its inherent support of us. We are one with the land, as it is an essential part of who we are. This is why we give back to the land -- to ignore this responsibility would be comparable to abusing one's own body or one's very sustenance.
How can some people believe they can unilaterally take from the land without consequence? This is a question that dominates the Cree people's view of the world's continually exploitative practices. A few hours north of my community is Fort McMurray, which is gaining international attention for how its booming oil industry created an environmental disaster. Our First Nations brothers and sisters in the region are facing its adverse impacts on their land, which are directly affecting their health. In that area, we can see the direct consequences of the mentality of Manifest Destiny.
If we continue to abuse the land by taking without giving back, the situation will become chronic and irreversible. The consequences associated with this neglect and disrespect of the land has culminated in climate change. What Cree people have to offer to the world is shared with many other indigenous people -- that interaction with the land must occur with deep respect and with recognition that what is taken, must be given back.
One revelation that came from writing this article was that, as a Cree youth, I knew a lot more than I expected. Coming from a culture where the teachings were passed down experientially and orally, I felt hesitant in articulating Cree culture because I was unsure of how consistent my experiences were with other Cree people. As I looked into my own life and shared stories with friends, I quickly realized these important aspects of my life were unique because of my Cree background. This insight made me realize two things: the fact that Cree traditions and culture are passed down orally means that there is no right or wrong way to be Cree. I am Cree because of my life experiences in my community and there is no doctrine that I must follow in order to be Cree -- it is simply who I am. The other insight I had was one of opportunity. The Cree language, like most indigenous languages, is at risk of becoming extinct because younger generations are not likely to use it. Attached to language is the culture itself. Understanding that I already notice a lack of knowledge of my culture and do not speak the Cree language, what is the future for Cree youth? What can be done to make the most out of the knowledge that youth have about their culture for far-reaching benefits? The Cree language and the wisdom it contains is part of what Cree people have to offer, and it is an opportunity for this generation to keep that aspect of our tradition alive.
Growing up in my community, my experiences have provided me with an opportunity to understand the connection that Cree people have with the land. Also, growing up in a broader society that is dominated by capitalism, I've been able to see the drastic disconnection between humans and the land. The direction capitalist society is headed is unsustainable. These insights, based on my Cree background, bring me to the knowledge that genuine respect for the land is not only important, it is required for the continuity of human existence.