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Walking Together

Our Collective Mother and Why We Should All Care

The land and all its beings are central to Indigenous beliefs

By Patricia Makokis, ’79 BEd

June 18, 2021 •

Story has the potential to take us on winding, bumpy roads, and my life’s journey has done that for me, especially in how I approach leadership, community and settler-ally work. For more than 30 years I have been on a learning journey to figure out what it means to be a Cree woman in the interconnected relationships of the web of life.

As a child growing up in northern British Columbia near Prince George, the land was my playground. My family had moved away from our extended family on the Kikino Métis Settlement and Whitefish Lake First Nation to live in a rural logging camp, where my parents both worked. My five brothers and I played among huge pine and spruce trees, picking five-gallon pails of blueberries, raspberries and huckleberries. We climbed stumps, lay on the mosses and loved our playground, our Mother, the Earth. She nurtured our spirits and she fed our stomachs. Bears, moose and wolves were plentiful and we were taught to respect our four-legged relatives. I can remember one morning waking up to see a black bear pawing my bedroom window, looking down on me as I lay in bed. The land was always a part of who I was and it has moulded me into who I am today.

Fast forward many years to the late 1990s. I was team-teaching with one of my mentors, the late Elder Mike Steinhauer. We developed and team-taught many leadership classes at Blue Quills First Nations College (now university) in St. Paul, Alta. Through him, I learned about Cree leadership and governance and traditional ceremonies such as fasting. One day, Mike and I were talking about the Creator’s Laws. I was working on my dissertation in educational leadership and I wanted to include them. My mentor had learned the laws (and more) from his mentor, just as they had been passed down orally for many generations in the Cree way. That day, he said, “My girl, I am giving you permission to include the teachings in your dissertation.”

You know the saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher will come”? Well, that was me.

One of the ceremonies I learned about was fasting. As I began my first fast, I sat on the land again, this time as an adult. There were many of us, Indigenous and non‑Indigenous, embarking on this introspective journey. When we fast, we ask questions. Who am I? What is my purpose? What are my responsibilities to the human family, to the land, the water and Creation? In order to elevate our spiritual consciousness and create a deeper connection with the land, we don’t drink or eat anything for four days and four nights. We each sleep in a hogan, a little hut made of willows and covered with tarps to provide protection from the elements. For the first three days, we speak to no one — it is a time to focus on answers to our own questions. Each person has their own reasons for fasting but, essentially, we are all seeking answers toward a better life. We’re searching for the meaning of life.

One of my most profound learnings from fasting over the years is our interconnectedness to Mother Earth. I have come to feel a deep spiritual understanding of the land and of the lessons offered me through the Creator’s Laws — how they can guide me personally and professionally.

The laws, as taught to me by my mentor, represent the interconnectedness of human beings to land, water, animals and all other beings, including those western society would consider inanimate, such as water, soil, rocks.

The Creator’s Law is represented by a circle divided into quadrants. The top left depicts a small braid of grass. Our elders say it is our teacher of kindness, because as the grass grows, we cut it, stomp on it, burn it and, despite what we do, it continues to grow. A tree in the top right quadrant represents our teacher of honesty, standing straight and tall. On the bottom right is a buffalo, who teaches us sharing, for they share their lives so we have life, exemplifying the relationship of man to the animal nation. A rock on the bottom left is our animate (yes, animate) older brother, who teaches us strength and determination through our connection to the land and to prayer. A red dotted arrow running from the centre through the bottom of the circle is symbolic of our daily efforts to live the “red road” or sweetgrass way: in Cree, miyo‑pimatisiwin, the good life.

Among many learnings for me when I first started fasting was that when I sat quietly, alone on the land, without talking to human beings, I focused on my other relatives: the ants and the birds, for example. I watched how, early every morning, the birds congregated and chatted, then flew off and reconnected in the evenings. I kept my distance from the ants, respecting their space and hoping they would do the same for me. As I sat quietly on our Mother Earth, I watched, I observed, I reflected on my relationship to all beings.

At the end of the fast, a ceremony is hosted by our elders and all the families of the fasters. Families of many races come together and know that we are one family, the human family. We are all related and connected and responsible for looking after each other and the Earth. Most importantly, we realize that water is life and that we all need to protect our collective Mother to survive on this planet.

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