This is the fourth in a series of articles, by Millie Knapp, that share understandings of Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee teachings about the land.
As a youngster, Isaac Murdoch pondered the Anishinaabe concept Pimadizawin. An English translation of Pimadizawin means a good life or a happy life. Thirty years ago, Murdoch learned that Pimadizawin is much deeper than that.
He asked an Elder woman about Pimadizawin. She told him that Pimadizawin is “when the suckers come up in the springtime to lay their eggs. When they share their time with us, we all feast and get nourishment from those eggs and fish.” The fish and eggs meal from the land meant success to her. Western society’s values today do not match Pimadizawin’s meaning.
“[Pimadizawin] means living in balance with nature and that success. It’s not having the fancy cars; it’s not having the whatever. Pimadizawin is living in balance with nature and finding peace with that. That’s my understanding of it,” says Murdoch.
He lives in balance with nature back home at Nimkii Aazhibikong, a traditional village in the forest. Nimkii Aazhibikong means Thunder Mountain and is located north of Elliot Lake in Ontario. Nimkii Aazhibikong is a language revitalization camp. “It’s actually a language community and that’s our nest where we go to get nourished with our language, our culture, and our practices. It’s really beautiful,” says Murdoch. Various local Elders come to Nimkii Aazhibikong to teach language and other cultural practices to camp residents.
The language camp idea came when Murdoch heard Elders speak of their longings. “For years and years, I heard them talking about going back in the bush and creating a camp so that we can have a language nest where our language would have a chance to be nourished, fed, and feasted. We just went to work one day and started to work on their dream and it’s happening now,” he says about the camp that was put together with family, friends, and community members.
“When I’m at home, I don’t have electricity. I don’t have running water. We do a lot of fishing, hunting, medicine picking, and things like that. We live off the grid and we still do our traditional ceremonies. We still do our songs. It’s a language camp so it’s retaining all of that Earth knowledge that’s in the language. For us, it’s really important to maintain that balance of Pimadizawin,” said Murdoch.
He believes that Anishinaabe culture produces climate leadership and that one day traditional knowledge will be valued by Westerners. “Traditional teachings we have go back thousands and thousands of years. These teachings, the stories, the songs, the ceremonies hold the ecological code of how to live on these lands,” he says. An ecological code is necessary to live here on Turtle Island.
“They haven’t been able to produce any sort of ecological balance so right now, Western society is in ecological debt. In 50 years, it’ll be the traditional people who have songs and teaching that are going to shine for humanity. More and more people are beginning to realize that,” he says.
Murdoch’s focus on how valuable Anishinaabe knowledge is led him to ruminate on the suppression of Indigenous thought by government policies and procedures. “Residential schools have habitually tried to oppress that knowledge because they felt it was not good enough but it turned out that traditional knowledge was good enough. It was a highly disciplined education that is needed now,” says Murdoch. Earth knowledge is crucial today to deal with climate change. “There are natural laws that we were given by the animals, the trees, and the spirits. We were given a blueprint. We were given a map of knowledge of how to co-exist here on Earth. The ecological code is something that has been lost through colonialism, lost through Western education. It’s the traditional people who are holding on to this code. They’re screaming at the world, saying, ‘Look we have to smarten up. We have to follow these natural laws that have always been here,’” he says. Natural laws create an equilibrium or a balance that requires attention from everything that lives.
“If you take something from the Earth, you’ve got to give something back. You have to respect the plants and the animals. You have to give them their space. You have to communicate with them. You also have to respect the weather. You have to respect the waters. There’s certain laws or certain understandings that we have that we don’t challenge,” says Murdoch.
One of the laws or understandings is generosity. “The land insists upon generosity. We’re humble and we have just enough. We only take just enough and we share what we have,” says Murdoch.
Colonization and globalization work to erase teachings and stories that connect Anishinaabeg to the land. “The globalization of Western education is wiping out Indigenous knowledges en masse all over the world. It means that we need to disengage from colonial society and systems. That’s where we’re going to find our strength—on the land. That’s where we find our true power and our true gifts.”
In order to get the connection back, Murdoch suggests that people be educated on the land and use traditional languages and practices. “Our people were highly educated. They were scientists. They were philosophers. They were mathematicians. They were amazing linguists. They had such a high education when it came to the land. They really understood how the land and waters worked. They also understood our connection to it,” he says.
Murdoch further explains that Anishinaabe world beliefs extend to the stars. “Our people were stargazers. They understood the spirituality that connected everything together. That education is a lifelong learning experience. A lot of our old people have that. There’s the old belief that we come from the stars. We were lowered here. When our feet touched this Earth, that’s when our life here started. We really come from the stars. All the old Indians used to say that. We understood the movements of the stars, what they meant, the stories. It’s a map of how to live here on Earth. Our people were stargazers because that’s where they come from and also because there’s important information up there on how to live here. All of the legends, all of the stories are all up there,” he says.
Understandings of the spiritual fabric of the land, water, and sky guide Anishinaabeg. “While we’re here as a guest, we use our good manners. We make sure we give offerings and give thanks for what we’re using here. We develop a good relationship with the land and waters. When we’re done, we head off back to our home, to Ishpiming, to the West. It’s that old belief that this isn’t really our home and that we’re just guests here. We have to leave it the same way we found it,” says Murdoch.
It’s believed that when Anishinaabeg leave Earth, they travel through the Milky Way, a path that leads to the spirit world. Armed with earth and sky knowledge, Murdoch suggests that one way for Indigenous people to live in balance is to exercise jurisdiction over education for their children.
“We have to make a stand for the Earth, and how we do that is we raise our children to become Earth people. We raise our children to be protectors of the sacred because we’re in climate change and things are really wrong right now. To give them hope, we have to give them the tools. There’s nothing better than to give them the teachings that our people have because our people know how to live here. We understand what’s needed here. That’s the best way to prepare our young people,” he says.
Connections to the land, water, and the night sky helped define and sustain Anishinaabeg communities for millennia. The connections help Anishinaabe people like Murdoch make sense of the world around them and live in Pimadizawin.
MILLIE KNAPP IS ANISHNAABE AND WRITES ABOUT INDIGENOUS ART AND CULTURE.