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An Indigenous Perspective on Reconnecting With the Land
Aanii! Chevaun Toulouse nindizhinikaaz. Sagamok First Nation nindonjibaa. Ginoozhe nindoodem. Anishinaabe kwe ndow. My name is Chevaun Toulouse; I am a mother and a full-time biology and Indigenous environmental science student at Trent University. I am from Sagamok Anishnawbek First Nation.
My nokomis (grandmother) was a farmer, residential school survivor, school bus driver, and business owner. My mishomis (grandfather) was a hunter, trapper, business owner, and chief of Sagamok Anishnawbek.
When I think of my mishomis, I think about the land. He was born in 1900 in Sagamok on the Toulouse Bay of Lake Huron and did not attend any school. He worked as a hunter, trapper, fisher, and translator. He was fluent in French, English, and Ojibwe, his father having worked for the Hudson Bay Company. At that time, Indigenous people were looked to and sought after for their knowledge of natural resources. My family knew the land and the water, which was how we survived, even after colonization.
Growing up on Sagamok Anishnawbek gave me an interest in and respect for the natural environment. As a child, I was outside every day, catching snakes and turtles in the swamps. I was exploring my surroundings, becoming familiar with the plant and animal species that lived around me and in my community.
Sagamok Anishnawbek is situated between Lake Huron and the Spanish River. It is located across from Manitoulin Island, the largest freshwater island in the world. There are many lakes and wetlands in my community, home to many wetland species now at risk.
The colonial interference in my family and my environment, and the intergenerational trauma passed down, means I have had to seek out and rebuild cultural connections with people and the land. Although I have grown up in my community, I still do not know my language, and I am just starting to learn more about Anishinaabe culture. This is especially important now that I am a mother.
The legacy of residential schools profoundly shaped my home and family. My grandmother was sent to the Spanish River Indian Residential School for Girls when she was 7 years old. She ended up getting so sick when she was 11 years old that the school contacted her father, my great-grandfather, Thomas Assiniwe, who worked as a logger, forester, and farmer in Wikwemikong and Sagamok First Nation. They asked if he wanted to bury his daughter’s body in Sagamok or let them do it at the school. Of course, he went and got his daughter back. She regained her health and took on the world with only that extremely limited education.
My nokomis was one of the most ambitious Indigenous people and women I have ever met. She made news and a business award herself. She never let anyone tell her she could not do something.
My parents took over the business that my grandmother began: What started as a farmhouse selling vegetables later became a grocery and convenience store with a gas station and a bus line.
My grandmother played a huge part in my life. She took me to pow wows, which she loved to attend. She was also one of the best Ojibwe language speakers and encouraged me to speak it.
Regaining knowledge that was lost, I have grown to understand the inherent responsibility I feel to care for the land. The connection to the land is a foundation in Anishnaabe culture, and it is this connection that allows me to care deeply about biodiversity and the importance of healthy ecosystems.
Being out on the land every day was where it all started to make sense. While I was working on the Blanding’s turtle project for the Toronto Zoo Turtle Island Conservation, I collaborated with other Indigenous women interested in conservation. This was the first time I got the chance to work with other Anishinaabe youth who had similar interests as me.
I found myself looking forward to being out on the land with my Anishinaabe co-workers, observing the changes in the land and witnessing the interconnectedness of beings for myself. Interconnectedness within nature and Anishinaabe culture was something I have heard about my whole life, but for the first time, I felt like I was experiencing it.
This connection is an ancient one, as Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island (North America) have been caretakers of the land since time immemorial. Many Indigenous people understand that caring for the land and environment is a sacred responsibility. There is an understanding of relation to the land, where the land, humans, and non-human life are all interdependent in a cyclical way. The wetlands of my home are full of biodiversity, and the circle of life is on constant display: the water snakes hunting the frogs, the turtles feeding on carrion, red-winged blackbirds hunting insects.
With this viewpoint, it is easy to understand why the greatest abundance of biodiverse life is found in places where Indigenous people continue to steward the land, honoring the responsibility of caretaker.
In contrast, the Western way focuses on the gains and benefits, how to “use” the land through resource extraction and industrial development, and how to support the progression of humankind. We have strayed from “caretaker of land” to “user of land.” We have lost the ability to understand the vital connection we should have to the land. And we can blame this disconnection for the mass loss of biodiversity and ecological functionality underway, and the looming climate crisis at large.
I have been fortunate to have been born with a natural, inherent connection to the land. This connection has led me to a passion for environmental conservation and, in turn, has allowed me to gain experience and understanding in many fields.
My connection to the land has inspired me to pursue higher education in ecology and Indigenous science, to conduct extensive work with reptiles in the Great Lakes watershed, and to help others reconnect to the land. I have worked on environmental conservation projects with First Nations; municipal, provincial, and federal governments; conservation authorities; private businesses; and private landowners. I recently held the position of researcher for an incredible TV series just released called Great Lakes Untamed. Bringing an Indigenous scientific perspective to this project has helped me understand the importance of storytelling through film.
How a person perceives the world directly influences the priorities they have in their life. Filmmaking is a way to reach an audience and give them the choice to change their perception, or at least provide them with the information they need to assess their priorities.
Many people do not understand that the land is more than the wildlife it houses. Filmmakers can bring the viewer to eye level with the land itself and those who depend on it to survive. They can bring to light things that are not often seen. Filmmakers can provide a spotlight for those who need to be acknowledged, such as those suffering from environmental loss and degradation. They can frame a cause to not only provide information, but also to facilitate connection and elicit an emotional response. Filmmakers can make viewers care, which can then turn into action.
In this way, filmmakers and other storytellers have a responsibility to share important stories and their truths. Reframing “land use” to “land relationship” or “land connection” may help facilitate viewers’ appreciation for the land and emphasize the imminent crisis we and the rest of its inhabitants are facing. We need to use storytelling to show the relationship we humans have with the land—the relationship we need to nourish for our survival.
Once we collectively feel this connection, this relationship, we can then begin to understand the responsibility we have—the responsibility that I feel, and that my ancestors felt. My son inspires me to be the best Anishinaabe kwe (mother) I can be. I want him to know his language and culture, which is why I am learning it with him. I want to conserve and protect our beautiful land for my little ginoozhe (pike).
Chevaun Toulouse is a full-time Conservation Biology and Indigenous Environmental Science student at Trent University from Sagamok Anishnawbek First Nation. Growing up on Sagamok Anishnawbek gave me an interest in and respect for the environment, as most of my youth was spent trying to catch turtles and snakes in the swamp. In the Fall of 2016, I began working for Turtle Island Conservation at The Toronto Zoo as a Project Lead- First Nation Conservation Technician. I assisted with the implementation of the Toronto Zoo’s Turtle Island Conservation program (TIC) with Adopt-A-Pond’s Blanding’s turtle Head starting and Reintroduction project in the Rouge Urban National Park.