Ancestors, sky people, all here today
Hear my heart song, hear my respect, hear my love
Hear my grateful tears fall
I am truly blessed
You are truly blessed
We are truly blessed
This piece began as an acknowledgement of Indigenous land for a public Samhain ritual I participated in, but during its writing I was called to honour the spirits of many other ancestral beings whose love and generosity made me who I am.
I am a 60+ year-old cis gendered white woman who has been presented with more than her share of privileges that allowed me to grow and live comfortably without undue trauma. I am physically healthy because I have been provided with good food, safe places to work, exercise and rest and affordable healthcare. I am mentally and emotionally stable because during my growing years, I was supported by parents, teachers and other adults who loved me unconditionally and gave me the confidence to believe that I have a worthwhile contribution to make in this world.
I was born in Fredericton New Brunswick. My ancestors were settlers who arrived on the East Coast of Canada from England and Wales almost 200 years ago. They initially settled in Newfoundland, New Brunswick and Maine, and over time, their descendants moved across Turtle Island and my family is now spread from coast to coast and south into the US.
Today I live in Ottawa Canada in a house that was lovingly built by a friend for her mother. It sits on unceded and unsurrendered original territory of the Algonquin, St Lawrence Iroquoian and Anishinabewaki, (ᐊᓂᔑᓈᐯᒃ) people in a place currently known as Ottawa within the watershed of the Rideau River, the Jock River and the mighty Ottawa River. I also live close to the edge of the South Nation Conservation watershed which feeds the delightful Sawmill Creek that passes near my house and continues to meander north beside suburban homes, under city streets through drain pipes, alongside tall apartment buildings and strip mall parking lots until it empties into the Rideau River at Billings Bridge.
The name of the place where I live, Ottawa, came from the word adaawe or “to buy” in the Anishinaabe language and was also adapted as the name of the Odawa people. The name of the province I live in, Ontario, was derived from the Huron word onitariio meaning “beautiful lake”, or kanadario meaning “sparkling” or “beautiful” water.
Before the arrival of the earliest European settlers over 400 years ago, the land that I live on was stewarded by many different Indigenous peoples. All have their own unique history, but I would like to recognize the Algonquin tribe in particular as the customary keepers and defenders of the Ottawa River Watershed and its tributaries.
The Algonquin people stewarded this land long before French explorer Samuel de Champlain arrived in what is known as Ottawa, in fact it is estimated that the Algonquin people lived in the Ottawa Valley for at least 8,000 years before the Europeans arrived. I can only imagine the stories they could tell about what happened on this land during that time. The shifts and changes they witnessed, their encounters with the weather and the many animals, insects and reptile beings and all they could teach me about the native plants they used to nourish themselves and as medicine.
When the first Europeans arrived, the Algonquin nation stretched from the Trois-Rivières region to the gates of Hudson Bay and westward near the Great Lakes. And then, this vibrant culture and community was decimated by diseases brought by the Europeans and by the wars that placed them in conflict with the Iroquois and the Mohawk tribes over the fur trade. In the space of fifty years between 1640 and the end of the century, thousands died from exposure to new, never-before experienced diseases that their traditional medicines were not able to heal.
The land that I live on has also been stewarded by European settlers who followed the first explorers. Although there were many who came intending to exploit the gifts of the land through harvesting furs, tobacco and other trade goods, countless others were escaping poverty and came with a dream to live off the land and create a new life for their families. One group that particularly speaks to my heart was the over 100,000 British Home Children (between 6 and 15 years old) who were sent to Canada during the 1800s as indentured farm workers and domestics. When they arrived in Canada, these children were sent to work on farms across the country and many of them eventually became farmers themselves.
The land that I live on is also home to many refugees, including Africans who were forced to come to America as slaves and escaped to Canada via the underground railway during the mid 1800s. These people brought with them a deep love the land and herbal healing and cooking traditions that we continue to benefit from today.
Even now, the neighbourhood where I live continues to offer safe haven to thousands of refugees from all over the world such as Iranians, Syrians, Vietnamese, Somalis, Bosnians and Haitians. One of these groups is the Karen, a minority group from Burma who fled their country in 1995 following a major offensive by the Burmese government army against them. Canada welcomed almost 4,000 Karen refugees and many have settled in Ottawa and are also stewarding a plot of land at their gardens near my home at Just Food Farm.
As the years flow by, the children of Indigenous people, the European settlers and international refugees have become friends, have fallen in love and given birth to children who proudly carry the blood and memories of many different cultures and genetics in their veins. I take comfort in knowing that this intermixing of our blood lines holds the secret to how my community might recognize and honour our extended family relationship and collective commitment to thinking seven generations into the future.
Yes, many different human beings have shaped the land that I live on, but I feel I owe my biggest debt of gratitude to the flora and fauna who have also stewarded this land.
Countless mammals, birds, fish, insects reptiles and amphibian beings have lived and died in this place and each species has a unique and indispensable role to play: worms and beetles turn the soil, birds and squirrels spread seeds, beavers control the waterways and coyotes are a keystone species who feed on a wide variety of mammals and insects and plants.
I especially acknowledge how crucial insects, especially the pollinators are to my local eco system and I am only just beginning to discover and understand the incredible work of the mushrooms and mycelium who protect plant life by spreading messages in a gigantic mycelial web below me. And of course I am deeply grateful to the work of my own microbiome. . . the many living bacteria who inhabit my body and protect me from disease.
Finally, and most importantly for me personally is what I have learned to call the planthroposcene. The herbs, trees and plants who care for the land that I live on. Since the earth began, these plants have stewarded this place and contribute in ways that I cannot even begin to imagine. Trees and plants generously offer their berries and fruit to eat and their roots prevent erosion. The trees shelter us from wind and rain and sun and their falling leaves blanket the ground in the fall to protect the soil and offer shelter for insects and other creatures.
Trees such as the sugar maple, the white birch, the Canadian hawthorn and the beautiful eastern black walnut are native and others are immigrants such as the European Linden tree and the lilac who were brought to this region and planted here by settlers. All are valued. I am also cared for by native and non native plants such as nettle, plaintain and mugwort and as each season passes, I rely on them to continue to live and grow around me. Their contribution simply cannot be measured.
How do I even begin to express my gratitude to all of these generous beings who have lived and died on the land where I live? I truly do not know, but intend to make it my life’s work to share my love for them in every way I can.
Ancestors, Sky People, lyrics by Mischa Saez
Image: Wolf Trail, Gatineau Hills. Prisma’d photo by Diane Perazzo