Teaching tradition: Bringing youth and elders together to learn from each other

When Isaac Murdoch was a teenager he met an elder who taught him about migrating with the animals and how to live off the land. After this experience, Murdoch knew someday he would do the same for others.
Isaac Murdoch works on lino cuts for the Onaman Collective's land fund. (Christi Belcourt)

When Isaac Murdoch was a teenager he met an elder who taught him the old ways. He taught him about migrating with the animals and how to live off the land.

"Joe P. Cardinal from Saddlelake — he was an amazing man. He was a World War II veteran. He was a chief and he also lived a traditional life up on the trapline in the Caribou Mountains," said Murdoch.

After this experience, Murdoch knew someday he would follow in Cardinal's footsteps, sharing with youth while reclaiming who he is as an Indigenous person.

Isaac Murdoch helps make a birch bark canoe. (Onaman Collective)
Murdoch, artist Christi Belcourt and Erin Konsmo created the Onaman Collective. Its purpose, their website says, is to "find ways to converge land-based art creation with traditional knowledge, youth, elders and Anishnaabemowin and Cree languages."

Murdoch also runs cultural camps to bring youth and elders together to learn from one another.

"And through that action, I've seen lives change," he said. "I've seen young people just completely turn around.

"I've seen it so many times because they were reconnected and [the youth] were stewarded back onto that sacred path that their ancestors gave them. And it was through the elders that they were able to find that sacred path."

It wasn't an easy path for Murdoch. First, he had to struggle against what he felt was expected of him.

"Society really wanted me to go to university. They wanted me to become successful in a different way."

He felt a constant pressure to get out of the forest and get into town, but his brain just didn't want to work in a classroom setting.

"That wasn't where my heart was. I wanted to learn about Ojibwa pictography and sacred sites, and I wanted to learn about thunderbirds and serpents. I wanted to learn about all these old stories and legends of the land. I couldn't find that in school. I had to find that out there," he said. 

Murdoch credits ceremonies like the vision quest with helping him find his path. He was in the Kootenay Plains, Alta., with elders and a group that had been put out for a fast.

"At that time they said within my lifetime we would see the depletion of the environment and we would see the struggles for water. Back at that time there was no such thing as bottled water."

They were drinking out of the streams and hunting on the land for moose. Murdoch said there was no garbage in the camps and he felt the draw of that lifestyle.

"I felt so nourished in those settings. As soon as I got a little bit older, I thought, I need to try to continue that, not only so I could feel good in those spaces, but we need to offer that to the youth the same way it was offered to me."

Murdoch said when he used to hear leaders talk about rights, he thought it wasn't about rights but rather responsibilities.

"When we have a responsibility-based agenda, it creates a different atmosphere. It allows the doors to be open for people to work together as opposed to a rights-based agenda, where everyone has a right to the piece of the pie and it causes friction."

Murdoch and the Onaman Collective are currently hosting the Great Lakes Gathering at Ojibway Park in Garden River First Nation, Ont. They are discussing how to care for the waters of the Great Lakes.