Some Elder’s say “You are the land your people live on.” The land’s influence touches everything from chores to etiquette to prayers. Even on the physical level, foods that mothers eat, harvested from around their homes, form the bodies of their children.
When people move onto land, they develop a lifestyle as they collect the resources needed to live. After a few generations, this lifestyle and the interaction with the other nations that live around their landscape become the foundation of the people’s culture and history. And as the people live on their land, as they reach up and the stars reach down, this becomes their deeper teachings about life, the Universe, and everything. This relationship to the land they live on is what makes a culture, or in Cree, ininiw pimatisiwin (a way of life). This relationship to the land they live on is what makes a culture “Indigenous.” It also explains why the peoples of the prairies live a different life than the peoples who live on the coasts, or in the forests, or near a volcano. The very lessons within the land are different.
Having grown up on the land as a Misipawistik Cree First Nation member, First Nations educator Norbert Mercredi now works as an expert on land-based teaching and First Nations games and entertainment. His people are connected to a river and were known in traditional times as the Namew Inniwak, or Sturgeon Cree. He remembers a time when all the toys came from the land.
“When I was young, we made all our toys. There was no plastic. We made our toys. When we went out, we would stay out all day. We didn’t go home to eat. We ate the fruit of the forest around us. The boys, we’d have contests to see who could swim the fastest up the river. The river was strong, moved fast, so it meant something to be the best. I don’t remember fights in those days. We competed against the river, and if you could be the best at something, everyone was happy for you for that,” Mercredi says.
Mercredi says the land was used extensively as a teaching tool during traditional times. For example, traditional place names often mention an area’s history or potential resources. To journey out to those places, to walk trails that First Nations ancestors walked, meant to learn the history and stories that went with the landscape. This connection to the land also explains why different First Nations cultures may name the geographical points in a landscape differently, as they may view the history that happened there from a different, and sometimes opposing, perspective. The alternate place names may highlight contrary perspectives on a battle, a meeting of people, or even the relative safety of an area. By walking through their traditional territory with their Elders, local youth learn their culture’s history and perspective on the land and the events that impacted their nation. Mercredi says this linking of the landscape and teaching doesn’t just exist in the realm of history but ventures into deeper beliefs.
“When we sat around the campfire at night, it was the stars that inspired the Creation Stories. Some stories were only told in the winter. Some lessons were only taught in the spring when the land was coming alive. Everything had its time and place. There were places and times for everything to be taught. There are sacred sites throughout what is now known as Manitoba that people would visit to learn certain teachings, where they would do ceremony. Teachings were often delivered through the ceremony itself,” Mercredi says. He adds, when it came to play, because everything was built from the land, the higher teachings of history, culture, and worldview were mixed with the bread-andbutter teachings of how and when to harvest materials for building toys and sports equipment, how to prepare an area and make it safe, and when certain games and teachings were appropriate.
“How do you clear the ice in winter? Well, you learn when you prepare for the kona kinepik or, as it is known in English, the snow snake toss. In this game, a stick is slid across the ice, and whoever can get their stick to travel farthest is the winner. To get through the snow to the ice, they would drag a log, tied to ropes, over the snow, which would clear a path for the sliding sticks.” Mercredi points out that this game improved hand-eye coordination for things like hunting. “Just by preparing and playing snow snake, a child would learn a bunch of different skills and tactics that would be relevant in their adult life,” Mercredi says.
Of course, the lessons learned through toys and play are just a sliver of the teachings available through landbased learning. Elder Florence Paynter believes revitalizing First Nations languages is crucial to carrying First Nations philosophies into the future.
“Language is so important to who we are. Our beliefs and values can be found in the language. When we take our children out on to the land, and we teach them how to survive, we can do it in our languages. In that way, we’ll teach them, not only general conversation, but the more in-depth and subject-specific language, like anatomy,” Elder Paynter says.
Elder Paynter was born and raised on the Sandy Bay First Nation and says everything she learned as a child was connected to the land. “We harvested our foods and medicines from the environment. This is what we are calling land-based learning today because many of our people are not thinking about the critical skills our children and their children will need in order to survive. It was through helping their Elders pick medicine, harvest plants for food and shelter, and hunt for food and resources that they were taught the knowledge and skills that supported their culture and survival.”
Harvesting materials often means harvesting them at a particular time so the properties of the item are suitable for the assigned use. For example, a medicinal plant may be harvested at different times in its life stages, depending on the treatment and the properties needed. A seedling may have different medicinal uses than the fruit of the adult plant.
“Some of these deeper, more specific teachings can’t be found in a book. You need to be out on the land to find the plant you want to teach about, to show the youth where it grows and why, how it is harvested and used, and to tell them why the relationship with that plant is important to their people. It is through those teachings that we will be able to make the youth, not only fluent in their culture and traditional skills, but also in their language, as they learn the more intricate and in-depth lessons,” Elder Paynter says.
Putting together something like a birchbark canoe involves a range of materials that all need to be harvested when the properties are best for the canoe. This required experimentation and knowledge of plants and their properties, rivalling modern biologists.
“Land-based learning is often about learning by doing. And this goes for language too. Learn it by using it. This philosophy of learning can happen in the home too. If you want to learn your language, wash dishes with your auntie and have her speak in your language while you both do it. You’ll be learning something, your auntie will feel valued and appreciated, and you’ll both have fun doing it. Most times, at the end of land-based learning, a lesson has been taught, a lot of fun was had, and a chore was accomplished,” Elder Paynter says.
Land-based learning offers many learning opportunities, and being close to nature has proven to have a calming and positive effect on hearts and minds. Recent studies have found that spending time within nature can improve memory and mental flexibility and increase attention span and control. While theories abound as to why this occurs, it is generally thought that being in nature triggers a physiological response that reduces stress. For teachers, this may result in students who are more interested in what is being taught and better able to retain the lessons.
Educator Mercredi says that being on the land, within a forest, or out on the lake has a calming effect that helps students learn. This is just one of the reasons he feels land-based learning is so important to revitalizing First Nations cultures and languages.
“Nature touches our hearts and minds. Mother Nature can help us calm down. I’ve seen students who went crazy in the classroom become calm and interested when outside. Going out on the land has an effect on our emotions. It’s hard to stay angry when you are out on the land. Even, just working on, you know, the nervous energy of students through physical labor has an impact and makes them more ready to learn. It’s so important that we reconnect all students to nature, but especially First Nations students. The very culture, history, and language of the First Nations students come from these lands.”
Davin Dumas, the Resource Centre’s director of Languages and Cultures, supported the development and completion of the Land-Based Education Support Document for Educators, a recent publication by the Resource Centre. “Within our newest teaching tool are lessons and strategies meant to promote mino-bimaadiziwin, or a good life, for First Nation students. The First Nation philosophies within the Support Document are based on the knowledge shared by the working group participants, who were representative of the Ininowak, Anishinaabe, Anisiniwak, Denesuline, and Dakota nations. The resource begins with foundational lessons, but then each unit delves into the activities and teachings that go with specific times of the year and the most appropriate activities for that season or moon. These lessons are then narrowed down to reflect each of the First Nation cultures so the lessons can speak to students’ local regions. The revitalization of First Nation languages, beliefs, knowledge, and skills is the focal point of the Support Document.”