8th Fire: The Power of Land


As part of the multiplatform, multicultural documentary project 8th Fire, CBC Books is presenting a series of blog posts and videos featuring Aboriginal-Canadian storytellers to further explore the Indigenous experience from a literary and artistic perspective. 

By Waubgeshig Rice

waub-headshot.jpgOne of the strongest and most revered bonds celebrated in many Aboriginal cultures is between the people and the land -- Mother Earth. It's a physical, spiritual, and social connection that defines who we are as diverse people in diverse parts of this continent. Land is generally highly respected as a supreme life-giving entity that beholds powerful characteristics that shape many traditional cultural teachings. But as land became commodified as Canada was settled and expanded, many different Aboriginal groups encountered a difficult dilemma: maintaining that ancient and sacred bond in the face of industrial and commercial progress.

CBC's television documentary series 8th Fire explored this in depth in its third episode called "Whose Land Is It Anyway?" The episode profiled communities, their leaders, and members across the country who were working to preserve their traditional lands while carving a path to economic progress. While these modern dilemmas shape the social and political identities of many communities across Canada, it's important to understand where these strong ties to the land originate. In most contemporary Aboriginal literary works there are passages that allude to that bond, while some go even further and use the relationship with the land as the backbone to the stories. These effective books provide non-Aboriginal readers with a glimpse into that venerable perspective of land, while reaffirming those cultural and historical ties for Aboriginal readers.

tracks-100.jpgPrior to contact, it is generally held that the relationship with the land had been honoured since time immemorial. But as Aboriginal people were slowly pushed off their traditional territories post-contact, they began to lose grip, all the while fighting to maintain it. A passionate portrait of this struggle is Louise Erdrich's Tracks. It follows the plight of a group of Chippewa in North Dakota as their traditional reach into the land appears to shrink as the American west is settled in the early 20th century. While white influences like religion and contemporary commodities erode their culture, their traditional land is eaten up by political forces they don't quite understand. Erdrich alternates between two storytellers -- an elder and a young woman -- to portray the strong sacred views of land and culture and how easily they were erased in just a few generations. Her ability to put the reader on the land in this time is monumentally effective in understanding what that connection meant, as it was stripped from the people who lived it.

three-day-100.jpgThe ability to transplant the reader is key in sympathizing with that plight. While Joseph Boyden's Three Day Road is a modern classic on so many levels, a crucial part of his narrative is keeping the story grounded in the traditional Cree territory of Northern Ontario. The story focuses on two young Cree men fighting in Europe during the First World War. Parallel to that, it follows a traditional medicine woman as she journeys from her homeland to retrieve one of them who is returning injured from the war. She is the last of her people living traditionally on the land, and as she travels from the bush into the modern world Boyden effectively evokes the power of that ancient attachment through her eyes. While the young Cree warriors are enduring modern horrors, they dream and talk about their home to keep them grounded in the face of war. And when one of them returns, the connection with his aunt -- the medicine woman -- and his journey home to his natural essence start him on a path to healing.

monkey-beach-100.jpgAs the relationship between Aboriginal people and the rest of Canada changes throughout history, the bond with the land evolves in different ways. After being physically, spiritually and ideologically removed from it, contemporary Aboriginal people are finding ways to rediscover and redefine the relationship with the land. Eden Robinson's Monkey Beach is a beautiful look at how that can be accomplished. A young man from a Haisla community on the British Columbia coast is lost at sea. The novel follows his sister as she embarks on her own journey to find him. As she explores the traditional territory of her people, she discovers the mystic and ancient power in the land around her, from which her people had been removed for generations. This heartfelt component of Robinson's compelling narrative is hugely relevant to many young Aboriginal people in Canada today who are turning back to the land to understand who they are.

all-our-relations-100.jpgWhile these beautiful fictional accounts are key in portraying some of the well-established roots of the Aboriginal experience with land, it's also important to get a first-hand perspective from real people on the ground who are living that changing relationship today. The spiritual and emotional reconnection is happening in communities across North America. But traditional lands are still being threatened by development and pollution. Winona Laduke's All Our Relations is a comprehensive non-fiction look at some of these complicated struggles right across the continent. Laduke couples profiles of elders, activists, leaders and other impassioned members of Aboriginal communities from Florida all the way to British Columbia with historical and academic research to provide an in-depth background of some of these unique and shared struggles. The common thread among these diverse people is a desire to protect what little of their traditional land they have left, while bolstering a sense of community and environmental preservation.

In the face of a developing world around Aboriginal communities, preserving land while moving forward economically is another complex dichotomy that defines the contemporary Aboriginal experience. But as authors help capture these unique struggles that shape our path forward, more and more readers from all backgrounds will understand how sacred that bond is.