Land: One Indigenous Lens

Land: One Indigenous Lens
Tuwusht Indigenous Garden at University of British Columbia illustrating a post sharing some Indigenous teachings about land and sustainability.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Canada. A good day to share Indigenous teachings. And also to take them to heart. Use them to see differently. That, I hope, is a kind of de-colonizing. So, today, I’ll talk about sustainability. And about the spirituality of land. With a bit of Torah thrown in, too.

Recently, I took a course called “The Land is Sacred.” My colleague, Reverend Dr. Ray Aldred, taught it. Ray, a Cree from Treaty 9 (Alberta) is Director of Indigenous Studies at the Vancouver School of Theology. Ray says, “The land is our mother.” He speaks of “seeking proper relatedness in the land.” Finally, I am beginning to understand.

But, to explain, I have to take a little detour. Into a talk by Professor Norman Wirzba. Norman is also from Alberta, a son of farmers of European descent. Food, Norman says, links us in community. We eat with our friends, families, and religious communities. But the ingredients we cook with often don’t come from our communities. Instead, a global food system delivers them.

More than half the world’s population lives in cities. Thus, we don’t grow, gather, raise, or hunt our own food. Instead, we buy it in the supermarket. So, we don’t know the history of our food. If it’s plant based, then we don’t know how it came out of the land. What kind of soil it likes to grow in. What kind of insects pollinate it. How to protect it through weather changes. If our food is animal-based, then we don’t know how it lives. How it adapts to different seasons. Or behaves at different times in its life cycle. So, we often eat without any conscious connection to the land.

A local food system, however, does link us to the land. To survive, we need to know local soil, plants, and animals. How to harvest in a way that keeps the ecosystem stable. Here, we would not have the luxury of depleting the land. Instead, we would develop a division of labor that helps us reap, produce, and preserve. So, both our knowledge and our society would attune us to the land. The land, we would then say, births us, feeds us, teaches us, and sustains us. Thus it is, literally and metaphorically, our mother.

Thus, we would function together as a family, supporting each other on the land. Some might say animals and plants are part of that circle of support. And, thus, in a sense, part of the family. Here, private property would make no sense. Because the whole family shares its life on the land.

Originally, most Indigenous communities in (what is now) Canada had largely local economies. Thus, they understood sustainability on the land. Early treaties between Mi’kmaq and British groups reflect this. These 19th century “Peace and Friendship Treaties” affirmed that two communities could share the same land to support themselves. They would do so without aggression between them, for always.

Deacon Renee Nahanee, of the Squamish Nation, says that treaties are like Biblical covenants. So, I was inspired to take a fresh look at the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-14). While they contain “dos” and “don’ts,” they are obviously not laws. There are few penalties, no judicial processes, and no sample “what if” cases.  Instead, says Rabbi Elliot Dorff, the Ten Commandments are the charter for a spiritual community. And, I add, this charter is much like a Peace and Friendship Treaty. It sketches a plan to live well, without aggression, on the land that God has given you. If you look through that lens, then you might see the following:

I am God, who took you out of the land of Egypt. An economy out of balance, sustained by your slave labour. So, learn your lesson. Do not become overly attached to any natural resource. If you stay in balance, you can live well for a thousand generations. Take care to live at a sustainable rhythm, for that is the rhythm of creation. Honour elders and traditions, so that “you may long endure on the land” (Ex. 20:12).

These are, of course, only hints towards reading the Torah in a new way. So, here are a few more, to strengthen the new view. You can find them in the books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Land belongs to God. But it is apportioned to the tribes, and divided into family territories. Families support themselves through farming or ranching. No one can sell their land, because the tribe as a whole oversees it. One can only lease it out. They can sell temporary access to work it. But every 7th year, no one can work it. The land re-sets itself, feeding people and animals who live on it. And every 50th Jubilee (yovel) year, it returns to tribal custody. Thus, the Torah affirms Indigenous views of sustainability.

Jewish tradition says Torah has 70 faces. But the number is symbolic. It just means “a lot.” Because each time we learn something new, our historical imagination grows. We see different spiritual possibilities. Today, I am grateful to my Indigenous teachers for this wider lens.

4 Comments
  1. Thank you for the teaching. It is always good to learn things from different perspectives. There is so much we can learn from each other!

    1. Thank you, Marianne! I appreciate the new perspectives you often bring to our community as well!

    1. Eve, thanks for reading and commenting. This was the topic we explored in my workshop at OHALAH as well.

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