Translation: Carole Ross, Akwesasne
Narration: Carole Ross, Akwesasne
There are hard to break ties, one-hundred-year-old trees, rooted and strong, impossible to kill. The bond unifying our nations to nature is as such. One might think that they were born from imagination, from wild unconsciousness, naive of the First Peoples. However, these bonds are real, steeped in history and in the former life of nomads.
Our cultures are expressed in our commitment to our traditional ways of life and in our ways of living and thinking. Values such as respect, mutual support and sharing are prominent in our communities and several words of our languages bear witness to that. In the past, people were united by community spirit; there was no life without it. We established our traditional living spaces with family, where we wanted to see our children grow, in a place where we felt connected and in harmony. But even if we no longer live in traditional territory, it is within us, rooted by thousands of years of occupation.
The territory is the cradle of Aboriginal nations; our culture, our history, our language, our spirituality, our lifestyle as well as our identity are one with it. The territory is tradition and customs. Nowadays, we occupy the territory differently but it is where we draw our strength, our courage, our perseverance to continue to defend our rights, our language, our culture and our own independent way of doing.
Ultimately, if there was one permanent feature, it would probably be this simple thing, which more than anything, we try to transmit and sustain: this form of sensitivity to natural elements and the close relationship it maintains with the stability of all things, within this vast circle in which we are all evolving, nature, man or beast.
Originally, it was thus foolish for us to think of owning things, land, elements. We see ourselves as a component of the universe and not a separate entity within it: we have no power over the other components other than to negotiate with them our place and our relationships. No living being is superior to another; each one is essential where it is. The water and the land do not belong to us, just like wampum belts do not belong to their guardian, the latter's mandate is to protect them and pass them on.
For us, wandering into the woods is like entering our house. The territory in its entirety serves us as shelter, drugstore, pantry, we can live in and with this territory, our identity is deeply linked to it. This explains why the protection of the environment and the importance of water are deeply rooted in our traditions. This resource is vital for us not only for food and raw materials but also because our traditional medicine uses certain animal parts. The waterways are our roads and our pantry; therefore we must take great care of them.
It is easy to forget how difficult this way of life was. Exhausting, grueling. A continual race for subsistence. Primary needs sometimes difficult to meet. The dry winter and famines that follow one another. The bitter cold which kills the weak. Babies who die after their first breath because of poor sanitary conditions and mothers who perish during childbirth, leaving behind orphans. Unknown diseases that wipe out entire families.
One would have to be crazy to want to return to the past, to live as our ancestors. And one would have to be ignorant to not grasp the magnitude of their achievement. We are the heirs of their suffering, their survival.
This forest, it was inhabited, for a time period exceeding the 400 years of Western history, for a time period which can be counted by millennia. Through the forest, from one mountain to another, from a stream to a river. Their struggle, their lives, their difficulties have served as our guide. It is because they walked, inhabited the wild forests, that we can go there today to refocus. It is because they have portaged, rowed, killed animals, that we are still living in these territories. And when, during the winter holidays, we happen to take the train, to watch the snowing horizons go by, to live a few days in the distant silence; when we happen to stay in a log cabin during a storm, we should never, under any circumstances, forget the ancestors from whom we come, those who have helped us to love our territory.