BECOMING INDIGENOUS TO PLACE: FINDING ECOPOIESIS IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF NANAPOZHO
Jenna Montgomery lives in what is presently known as Canada on Treaty 6 land, the traditional territory of the Cree, Blackfoot, Métis, Nakota Sioux, Iroquois, Dene, Ojibway/ Saulteaux/Anishinaabe and Inuit peoples. Her ancestors were indigenous to Europe but settled on Treaty 7 lands and the traditional territory of the Blackfoot Confederacy, which is where she spent most of her life. With a background in the visual arts, human geography, and civil engineering, she is continuously working at the intersection of art and science to strengthen her connection to and understanding of place.
While the world experiences anthropocentric climate change and works towards truth and reconciliation, how humans relate to Earth and each other must shift in colonial-capitalist societies. Considering the writing of Yi-Fu Tuan and the concept of space and place, the essay explores the similarities between what Robin Wall Kimmerer describes as becoming indigenous to place and what Stephen K. Levine describes as ecopoiesis. Both have the potential to serve as cross-cultural foundational concepts that can alter how contemporary societies shape the earth to meet human needs. The author relates this to her time spent outdoors during the Coronavirus pandemic developing a deeper connection to the place she calls home and poses consideration for further research and thought.
Keywords: place, space and place, ecopoiesis, poetic ecology, climate change, human development, nature, expressive arts
Centuries of colonial and imperial rule and industrialization has led to a world where anthropocentric climate change and the effects of enslavement and genocide are posing some exceptional challenges. Without reconciling our past and making significant change in the way that humans shape relationships and the environment, parts of Earth will likely become uninhabitable and oppression will remain. In both cases, reconciliation must lead to a shift in the dominant paradigm and the associated Cartesian dualism that separates and isolates humans from each other and the earth. This shift can already be observed through the creation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Although these initiatives are only a small step, they do acknowledge change is needed. Another step in shifting the dominant paradigm may involve personal renewals of our relationship to the earth and finding parallels in cultural conceptualizations of our earthly responsibilities.
Robin Wall Kimmerer is a botanist, whose work transverses Indigenous and scientific ways of knowing. In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer explores the teachings of plants and how they can guide us to a way of being in the world built on reciprocity, something necessary for the health of our ecosystems. While teaching, she discovered that an understanding of reciprocity was missing from Western common knowledge: not one student in her post-secondary class could identify a single example of a beneficial relationship between humans and nature. In response, Kimmerer asks, “how can we move towards ecological and cultural sustainability if we cannot even imagine what that path feels like?” [1, p.6]
To imagine that path requires a change of perspective. To Robin Wall Kimmerer, that could come in the form of settler colonial societies becoming indigenous to place. She relates this concept to Indigenous mythology through Skywoman and Nanabozho. Both find themselves somewhere unknown and strange but through reciprocity with those already there, they learn to survive and find belonging.
In the case of Skywoman, she falls from the sky landing on a planet unfit for her survival or that of her unborn child. She relies upon those already there to keep her alive and it is through them that she learns to shape the world to support her and her descendants now that they too are inhabitants. Kimmerer describes Skywoman as an immigrant who became indigenous to place and suggests that as nations built on immigration (either figuratively in the sense of Judeo-Christian myth, or literally in the sense of human migration via choice, enslavement or otherwise), we too could learn to become indigenous: “…living as if [our] children’s future mattered, to take care of the land as if our lives, both material and spiritual, depended”. [1, p.9]
The indigeneity she refers to is not about claiming origin or overwriting the past, but to the development of a basic, fundamental relationship to place essential for life. To be indigenous to place is not to claim belonging to justify entitlement and dominion, but precisely the opposite: to deeply understand and honour our interconnectedness.
The timeless story of Nanabozho provides practical guidance on cultivating interconnectedness. Nanabozho finds himself somewhere unknown and strange but following in the footsteps of Skywoman, trusts that all of the knowledge he needs to survive is held by those already there. To come to know the land, he answers the Creator’s call to learn the names of all the other beings:
He watched them carefully to see how they lived and spoke with them to learn what gifts they carried to discern their true names. Right away he began to feel more at home and was not lonely anymore when he could call the others by name and they called out to him when he passed… [1, p. 202].
Nanabozho not only learns from those around him but learns of them. The more Nanabozho experiences the world, the more he comes to understand each being’s responsibility and the importance of reciprocity for survival. “Every being with a gift, every being with a responsibility”. [1, p. 205] It becomes his responsibility to walk with humility to ensure that human creation serves to maintain reciprocity rather than become overwhelmingly self-serving [ibid, p. 206]. His reliance and responsibility to others allows for the co-creation of a sustainable world for future generations. With this realization, Nanabozho becomes indigenous to place.
The concept of becoming indigenous to place can also be explored through contemporary European-American thought, which may help to plant more seeds towards reconciliation through parallel understanding. The concept of place as defined by Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan is phenomenological in nature and begins with experiencing a space. Tuan describes space as a “a condition for biological survival” and a resource [4, p. 57]. We need space in order to meet our basic needs. Space is tangible and can be measured and demarcated with boundaries and barriers. There is a permanence and reliability inherent to space. Cartesian systems of knowing and being help us to understand space. However, as Tuan describes,
Life is lived, not a pageant from which we stand aside and observe. The real is the familiar daily round, unobtrusive like breathing. The real involves our whole being, all of our senses [4, p. 146].
As we transition from knowing about a space to an experiential knowing from, our perceptions and experiences shape our values, sense of reality and our relationship to the world. The result is a phenomenological transformation of space to place.
In the footsteps of Nanabozho, finding a deep sense of place exposes our responsibility to the earth. The way that we shape our environments with a responsibility to earthly connection and belonging has been defined by Stephen K. Levine as a poietic ecology. Levine writes that a poietic ecology recognizes humans “…as finite historical beings, [who] are ‘thrown’ into a world we have not ourselves made; yet it is within our power to choose those possibilities which exist within this world in order to develop it in a ‘suitable’ way…” . It is through a poietic ecology that we can come to realise a phenomenon that parallels becoming indigenous to place.
Both Kimmerer and Levine describe a world which humans do not hold dominion over but must shape in order to survive. In the same way that Nanabozho learns from nature to build technology and improve the world for future humans, Levine describes that “we are not creator gods; rather, we take what is given and respond to it,” shaping the earth in a way that respects our reliance and connection to it and honours our innate ability to create . Either by becoming indigenous to place or by understanding our place in a poietic ecology, humans can learn to develop the earth in a way that is responsible to all inhabitants.
In the context of a poietic ecology, nature can be viewed as a work of art that we are continuously collaborating on. When we accept nature as art, we can respond to what emerges be it lovely, nurturing, ugly, painful, or full of suffering with aesthetic responsibility – an act of creating rooted in the senses and aesthetic sensibilities [2, p. 140].
During the pandemic, the ways that I interacted with my environment shifted as I began to see nature as a work of art. While physically isolated from friends and family during the coronavirus pandemic, I turned to a reliable form of connection for me, nature. I took the opportunity to deepen my knowledge of the local environment, refine my plant identification skills and learn the local river valley. Each day I took note of changes in the growth and development of the various trees, shrubs and grasses in the area. As I became more familiar with the local seasonal cycles and my wild plant and animal neighbours, I started to feel more connected to the place I currently call home.
My experiences in the outdoors have become more like creative explorations, similar to how I experience working in the art studio. When something catches my attention, I allow myself to relax into the moment and become more sensitive to the experience. With my senses fully engaged, my awareness and imagination are more attuned to chance meetings and moments of vulnerability just as they would if I were painting. I embrace opportunities to move, smell, look, taste and feel my neighbourhood in ways I had not previously been open to. Exploring my environment has become a creative and playful approach to connection. I rediscover the joy and curiosity that comes from being with the earth, sometimes taking photos not as art but as a reminder to myself of an experience that brought deeper connection. Examples of these reminders are shown in Figures 1, 2 and 3.
Figure 1: Montgomery, J. (2020). A reminder of a sun rise that made me end my walk, stand still in awe to witness a short-lived, rapidly-changing scattering of light. [Digital photograph]
Figure 2: Montgomery, J. (2020). A reminder of the leaves pressed by the weight of my body and the dull colours that invoked a mild feeling of sadness. [Digital photograph]
Figure 3: Montgomery, J. (2021). A reminder of when the smoke in the sky from wildfires in British Columbia flooded the city and my home with orange light and brought me a feeling of dread. [Digital photograph]
My experience outdoors during the pandemic reinforced my ability to see beyond the dualism I have been trained to believe. Despite living in an urban area shaped for human use, encounters with place awakened my attention and aesthetic responsibility to the non-human aspects of my environment. By allowing my attention to be taken by the birds, trees, rocks, water, sun and so on, the separation between the built and wild environment became thin, freeing me from Cartesian dualism. Even if that freedom only lasted for a moment, it became possible to perceive our interconnectedness and imagine the reciprocity between us. To harness this may permit practical application, but I am not there yet.
Levine describes ecopoiesis as the application of aesthetic responsibility to the shaping of our environments . Practical applications of ecopoiesis require us to “…accept our responsibility for shaping the environment in a way that respects its otherness as well as our own capacity for affecting it”.  To apply ecopoiesis in a world that has already been fiercely shaped by humans, we must acknowledge and accept responsibility for the damages and harms of the past and present caused by the dominant paradigm. With this in mind, ecopoiesis may help settler societies find reconciliation with Earth and Indigenous peoples through acts of reciprocity.
Both Robin Wall Kimmerer and Stephen K. Levine consider the role that connection and belonging to place have on our perception of being and surviving in the world. They both seek change and consider the path humans are on to be one of disconnect and harm. What if we as a settler society took a moment to note our aesthetic responsibility and focus on becoming indigenous to place? Would we rethink our sociopolitical systems and structures in a meaningful and honest way? As climate change puts humanity into desperate situations for survival, is it too late to become indigenous to place or is this exactly what we need to survive?
Reference for citations
Montgomery, J. (2022). Becoming indigenous to place: Finding ecopoiesis in the footsteps of Nanapozho. Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice, 3(2). [open access internet journal]. – URL: http://ecopoiesis.ru (d/m/y)