What is the Relationship between Indigenous Peoples and Animals

From time to time people ask me about the relationship between Indigenous peoples and animals. For some, the knowledge of the natural world - the land, plants, animals, seasons and cycles of nature - has been a central tenet of their lives and worldviews since the dawn of time. Their understanding of the natural world is sophisticated and comprehensive. The natural world, now commonly referred to as the “environment”, is not viewed as a separate entity but one, interconnected aspect of the whole. This interconnectedness equates to a moral responsibility to care for, live in harmony with, and respect the natural world.

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Indigenous Peoples Worldviews vs Western Worldviews

Leroy Little Bear: "Any individual within a culture is going to have his or her own personla interpretation of the collective cultural code; however, the individual's world view has its roots in the culture - that is, in the society's shared philosophy, values and customs. If we are to understand how Aboriginal and Eurocentric worldviews clash, we need to understand how the philosophy, values and customs of Aboriginal culture differ from those of Eurocentric cultures" [1]

The world we live in is multi-cultural with a corresponding plethora of worldviews. In this article we provide a definition of "worldviews" and a comparison of Indigenous and Western worldview perspectives. Understanding the core differences between Indigenous worldviews and Western worldviews is an important component in achieving cultural harmony and respectful relationships. We are speaking in very general terms in the description of these differences and are in no way indicating that individual Indigenous cultures share the same worldviews; ditto for generalizations of Western worldviews.

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First Nation Sacred Sites

For First Nations, their identity, nationhood, and cultural survival are all interconnected to their relationship with the land and cannot be separated out from their specific lands. This inexorable connection is celebrated in oral histories, creation stories, ceremonies and cultural practices.

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First Nation Relationship to the Land

“Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinctive spiritual relationship with their traditionally owned or otherwise occupied and used lands, territories, waters and coastal seas and other resources and to uphold their responsibilities to future generations in this regard.” [1]

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The Wampum with Ken Maracle

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Richard Wagamese Medicine Wheel

There’s a thin, bubbly creek I walk to that spills out of the mountains and through a small meadow a mile or so above our home. The walk is easy enough. The terrain climbs gradually without the sheer slope you might expect and walking there is a meditative thing. Over the years it’s become a private joy and one of the treasures of our experience here.

I have a favorite log I sit on set back in the shade of spruce, fir and pine. The creek streams by a yard away. The sound there is magnificent; all cascading water, soughing breezes through the trees, birds and the deep, rich silence in the gaps that eases me. It’s a resting place. There’s nothing more peaceful than the time spent on that log becoming entranced by the world again.

When you come to the land there’s a sense that you’ve seen it before, even if you’ve never been to that particular place. It’s in the way it feels on your skin, the way its smell transports you, the way it floods you with recollection.

Sitting beside that tiny creek in the mountains I suddenly remembered how it felt to catch minnows in a jar. The goggle-eyed sense of wonder at those silvered, wriggling beams of light darting between stones and the feel of the water on my arms, cool and slick as the surface of dreams. I was 12. I lived on a farm in southwestern Ontario, far away from there.

I lived my life for the sudden flare of sunlight when I broke from the bush back then. The land beckoned through my bedroom window so that sometimes when the house was quiet I stood there just to hear the call of it, spoken in a language that I didn’t know. But I knew that it was calling me to it. Just knew it with that magic understanding of children we sadly allow to fade as we grow.

The creek ran out of that farmland and wound its way through the bush to a reservoir behind an old mill. I fished that creek when it widened. I spent many an hour watching my line and bobber with the voice of it a chuckle, its edges dappled by the shadows of old elms and its light like the dancing bluish green eyes of the girl on the bus I could never find a way to say a word to.

Back in the trees where it was still a slip of current, I’d lie across a long flat stone to dip a mason jar elbows deep into a pool. I hung there, suspended while minnows flitted about and nibbled at my fingertips. I would let that arm dangle until the feeling went away then I’d raise it with minnows frantic in the sudden absence of their world. They entranced me.
The fish of my dreams all wriggling fingerlings captured in my hand.

I couldn’t keep them. I knew that. I couldn’t just carry them home like a carnival prize, give them names or place them in a bowl on my desk. No, something in me understood even at 12 that some things ache to be free and the charm of them resides in their ability to be that freedom.

So I let them go. I let them swim away and I watched happily when they darted to the bottom of that pool and then joined the throng of other minnows again. Beams of light. Free as childhood wishes. There was a touch of sadness in releasing them. But I carried something of that creek, that cold against my arms, the sun-warmed stone against my belly, the breeze, the light and the idea of minnows away with me forever.

So that standing now on the edge of another creek at 55, it’s like the years haven’t happened at all. This mountain creek contains all the properties of the one I loved at 12. It still grants me a connection to myself. I just have to want to let that magic happen. That’s the trick of it, really, allowing wonder to happen. That’s the special enriching property of the land when you go to it openly – it reconnects you to the gift of wonder you carried as a child.

It’s a journey, this life. There are thousands of territories to navigate. There are landscapes rich and varied we trek in our journeys to ourselves. But I suppose I’ve learned that it’s not what you pick up along the way that comes to matter so much. It’s what you continue to pack along. Courage. Hope. Wonder. When you do that the journey becomes a crossing of creeks on stepping stones where so much comes to depend on maintaining balance with every careful placing of the foot.

Here's another article by Richard Wagamese you might enjoy "Grandfather Talking"


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What is an Aboriginal medicine wheel?

Bob Joseph

"The circle, being primary, influences how we as Aboriginal peoples view the world. In the process of how life evolves, how the natural world grows and works together, how all things are connected, and how all things move toward their destiny. Aboriginal peoples see and respond to the world in a circular fashion and are influenced by the examples of the circles of creation in our environment". [1]

There isn’t a simple answer to the question as medicine wheels (sometimes called hoops) come in more than one form, and their significance and use is culture-specific. There is, however, one fundamental similarity besides the shape - medicine wheels represent the alignment and continuous interaction of the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual realities. The circle shape represents the interconnectivity of all aspects of one’s being, including the connection with the natural world. Medicine wheels are frequently believed to be the circle of awareness of the individual self; the circle of knowledge that provides the power we each have over our own lives. 

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Aboriginal Sacred Plants: Sage

This is the last in our series on Aboriginal sacred plants. Sage, along with sweetgrass,red cedar and tobacco, is one of the four plants considered sacred by First Nations and Métis Peoples. Sage is used broadly for many purposes by both First Nations and Native Americans - and is described here in only the most general of terms. Similar to sweetgrass, it is used in many geographical locations in North America, whereas red cedar is primarily used in ceremonies on the northwest coast.

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Richard Wagamese: The Injun in this poem


I stand at the sink washing dishes. It’s one of the things that I do around our home that always feels like a ceremony. I can get meditative staring out the window at the lake and the mountain behind it and feeling the pull of the land all around me. It’s a centering thing really, and something that’s come to be important to me. Right after we eat I get to it, putting things away, squaring things and washing everything up. It’s a pleasure that I like to do alone.


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Richard Wagamese It’s how an Indian prays

Some days, when you get to the middle of your fifties like I am, you look back and wonder how you ever made it this far without certain things happening. There are turns of fate and circumstance all along life’s road and at my age, you get to re-examine all of them. People get sick, people leave, and accidents happen, good fortune sprawls across your path as suddenly as summer rain. It’s a lot to consider.

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