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Caring for Creation: First Nations Teachings and Survival

Embracing New Energies

Caring for Creation: First Nations Teachings and Survival

by Louise Mangan

Written from the unceded territories of the Tsleil-Waututh, Musqueam, and Squamish First Nations, also known as Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

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There is a longer and lovelier story about the Earth than most of us have been taught. This older wisdom story is grounded in the beauty and goodness of the natural world – including the beauty and goodness of human nature. In this poignant time, with the human community at a crossroad, many voices are speaking out on behalf of the Earth to help humans re-learn who we are.

This older story is not about market domination or competitive advantage. It’s not about expanding or accumulating or taking or any of the false securities of ego. The sacred wisdom in this story cultivates the energy of hearts and minds in alert attention and inner stillness, in thankfulness for the oneness of everything, in generosity when facing competing needs and differences, and in empathy with the natural world and one another.

Photo:    Pxhere

Photo: Pxhere

First Nations elders and knowledge-keepers are vitally important teachers and healers. They show us the courage in holding to truth, the kindness in forgiving, and the integrity in doing no harm. Generously, they assure us that sacred wisdom belongs to every community for each one to express in its own ways. As our “interspiritual” sisters and brothers, they remind us of the ancient wisdom deep within our own traditions. The everyday miracles of which the elders speak are foundational virtues like gratitude and sharing and caring.

Traditional wisdom cultures view domination-based cultures as inherently unstable. Through the long sweep of millennia, they’ve watched inequity compromise both the exploiters and exploited. They’ve seen systemic violence gut even the mightiest empires, starting from within, ruining the life-sustaining ecosystems of the environment, and collapsing complex civilizations into chaos. At the cost of persecution, displacement, and genocide, First Nations peoples have survived by holding firm to a way of knowing that is rational, receptive, coherent, compassionate – and above all, wise.

For many of us, this is a new vision, a very different way to understand the cultural story of the native North Americans who share the sacred places we love. When other cultures completely disappeared, they have thrived because their operative values limit human violence, and generate energy around mutual reciprocity, ecological balance, and shared resilience. And we who have been raised with more demoralizing stories about human nature are blessed to have this opportunity to receive regenerative wisdom from our Indigenous sisters and brothers, to help us survive this dangerous time.

A New Energy Model

Our practical situation is now precarious. Every human community is facing profound societal change. Because the world delayed in implementing climate solutions, much of the global carbon budget is already spent. We can’t keep burning fossil fuels and also keep global temperatures safe for the climate systems and living systems of the planet. Nor can we sustain the industrial degradation of forests, oceans or other natural carbon sinks, let alone the destruction of clean water, fertile soils, or biodiversity that sustain life.  Every society will have to wean itself from fossil-based energy and industrial consumption at a pace that won’t be easy or painless. And while we are doing this, we will also be bearing the costs and suffering of accelerating climate chaos.

The underlying problem is that globalized economies, as they currently operate, depend on exponential growth to survive. As economies grow, increasing economic activity burns more fossil fuels so carbon emissions and global temperatures increase as well. At the same time, the health and resilience of local habitats (human and non-human) are progressively compromised as ecosystems are destroyed one-by-one for more and more industrial activity. Global carbon markets alone cannot fix these systemic problems. They follow the same rules and patterns as the markets driving planetary breakdown, which means they’re better at making money than at achieving goals for which they aren’t designed.

Photo:    Pixabay

Photo: Pixabay

To preserve a livable planet, diverse new rules and patterns will have to be forged in support of economies fueled by renewable energies – and not only renewable technological energies like solar, hydropower, geothermal, and wind, but also renewable energies of the heart: reciprocity, interdependence, thanksgiving, deep listening.

First Nations plant and nurture the seeds of these energies in their communities. The fruit provides spiritual sustenance and guides their daily living. When our actions proceed through a spirit full of these energies, we renew not only the natural world but our inner world as well. Generosity, kindness, and understanding flow freely, relationships are deepened. The desire to care for the world around us stretches outward and resilience wells up within. Such renewable energies give us the strength we need to address the roots of the devastating realities before us.

We no longer have the luxury of time to slow-dance this transition. The UK and other countries in Europe have plans and are taking steps to decarbonize. But here in North America real change has been impeded by the heavy investment of governments, corporations, and extraction-based workers in extracting and exporting fossil fuels. Our decision-makers continue to approve new fossil fuel initiatives and expansions. We are experiencing what some economists call “a predatory delay,” stoking the carbon economy and destruction of ecosystems instead of the changes needed for the healing and resilience of the natural world.

The Salish Sea and the Wisdom of Nuts-a-maht

Phytoplankton bloom in the Salish Sea – Photo:    Pierre Markuse, C.c. 2.0

Phytoplankton bloom in the Salish Sea – Photo: Pierre Markuse, C.c. 2.0

On the Pacific coast of North America, the federal government of Canada has approved several new fossil fuel projects. The Salish Sea Bioregion here is also home to thousands of animal species, including many found nowhere else. If the approved fossil fuel projects proceed, the Salish Sea will face increasing dangers of catastrophic spills that would devastate the marine environment, coastal communities, and local and regional economies. And it is more than plausible that the combined upstream/downstream emissions will increase global temperatures past what humans and most species can survive.

The Coast Salish peoples, who have cared for the lands, waters, and animals of this region for millennia, are the local inhabitants whose traditional cultures and territories, hunting, fishing, and food security, will be most directly affected. Nearly 57,000 Coast Salish people from many distinctive nations live between Tillamook, Oregon to the south and Campbell River BC to the north. Most remain rooted in traditional wisdom understandings and attuned to the needs of local ecosystems.  In this critical moment, they have emerged as pivotal moral/ethical and spiritual leaders on behalf of regional ecosystems and human culture. In so doing, they invite their non-native sisters and brothers to participate in the evolution of ecological cultural commitments and expectations.  And they invite us to withdraw – without violence — from dominance-based conduct that is destabilizing planetary systems and causing the progressive extinction of living species.

The First People  by Susan Point– Photo:    Galen Charlton, C.c. 2.0 sa

The First People by Susan Point– Photo: Galen Charlton, C.c. 2.0 sa

At the heart of these regenerative shifts, they call us to hear and reflect on an ancient wisdom expressed by the Coast Salish ethic of Nuts-a-maht (Musqueam spelling), meaning “We are all one.” Everything is interconnected. Nuts-a-maht is the “systems understanding” of these communities and the core of their Indigenous spirituality. While the foundational teaching of oneness-in-diversity is at the root of many wisdom spiritualities, Coast Salish and other Indigenous peoples remind us that Nuts-a-maht can be more than an aspirational value. It is a sacred community norm to guide personal and collective conduct and decision-making. They teach their children – and thankfully many other children, by their example – that Nuts-a-maht is to be lived with every breath and each choice, to sustain the gift of life we all share.

Societies that consciously uphold Nuts-a-maht, caring for nature and one another, are truly healing and resilient civilizations. They understand the direct connection between honoring and protecting the natural world around them and the survival of everything worth loving. Cherishing the natural world, including human beings, is their deeply successful use of sustainable energy for the continuing survival of “all our relations.”

May we watch, listen, learn, and give thanks. “Huy ch q’u.” Thank-you. Nuts-a-maht.


This article was adapted from the blogpost “Reflections on Context: Salish Sea Bioregional Gathering” (October 2017) by Louise Mangan for the InterSpiritual Sustainability Council.

Header Photo: Wikimedia