Renewing a lived relationship with the earth is essential to renewing our responsibility to sustain it as a habitat hospitable to human habitation. This is the implicit message of a book by Jerry Fontaine I just reviewed for the environmental magazine, Watershed Sentinel. It’s called Our Hearts Are As One.
Manitou Aki. Say the two words in your mind or out loud. This is the first name by which what most of us call North America was called. It means Creator’s Land, according to Jerry Fontaine.
“The concept of land as a living being was fundamental to the… Anishinabeg. From the Anishinabe perspective, land was to be shared and held in common by all… Land was a birthright and inalienable.”
In this important consciousness-reviving book, Anishinabe teacher and former (Indian Act) band-council chief Jerry Fontaine holds up a moment in history when the integrity of that birthright first came under threat and, with it, the Anishinabeg’s lived, daily-life connection to their living ancestral lands. Three visionary leaders emerged in response to this turning point, which for Fontaine occurred toward the end of the 18th. Century in what is now Central Canada when the focus of colonization turned from resource extraction (furs) to settlement as well. All three were men: Obwandiac (who some have come to know as Pontiac), Tecumtha (Tecumseh to some) and Shingwauk.
The book recounts Fontaine’s journey to visit the descendents of these three leaders, and listen to the stories it’s been their responsibility to preserve. He shares details of these prophet-leaders’ lives and their heroic actions to mobilize the confederacy of Anishinabe nations in a massive de-colonization effort coinciding with the War of 1812. He also shares what was at the heart of these leaders’ vision. Not just the threat of Anishinabe land being taken by the colonizing newcomers. But the threat to the essence of being Anishinabe (its ontology), in which acting out that connection to the land and all one’s relations on it/in it, and keeping it alive in one’s consciousness, was so central. With ceremonial care, he presents some of the things that come together to inform this: origin stories, sacred and moral stories (and the story tellers responsible for these), wampum belts, petroglyphs and birchbark scrolls, ceremonies and ceremonial objects, medicine bundles, ways of knowing, blood memory, language, clans and clan dodems, or totems.
He defines Miskew ah-zha-way-chi-win (blood memory) as “ the act of flowing…the thread that ties us to our families, the earth and our spirit.”
Ojibwaymowin is both “the land and the heart,” he writes about his language. The clan system and clan totems further help connect these two, land and heart, or so it seems from what Fontaine has written. The clan totems are the various animals and birds who nurtured the first humans into life on earth. Each one gifted something unique and it’s the responsibility of clan members to practice, maintain and share that gift – be it for leadership, protection, or beauty and reconciliation. They did this locally in self-governing communities of multiple extended families, nationally and also at the multi-national level of the Our Hearts are as One Fire (known by some as the Three Fire) Confederacy.
“The clan system was about life itself,” Fontaine writes, including its cultural, social and political organization. “The clans promoted the cooperative and integrative organization of Ojibway, Ota’wa and Ishkodawatomi-Anishinabe society.” Its sovereignty rested on this inter-dependence and mutual support, he writes, which itself was laid out in natural laws and “the original laws of creation.”
The ethos of this lived social order was in turn reflected in Anishinabe treaties and treaty traditions around sharing the land: sharing it generously in keeping with it being a gift but also as a responsibility to honour and sustain. “For us, the land was a living embodiment of the political, economic and social relationship established by the treaty relationship and was also fundamental to how we saw the universe.”
Two protocols embodied this understanding and made it actionable: open access to each other’s lodges and ‘one dish with one spoon.’ In Fontaine’s account, these principles also nurtured the original Middle Ground created through the earliest treaty and trade relations between the Anishinabe and European newcomers. But as furs became scarce, and the colonial agenda shifted to settlement, things changed. These Anishinabe principles and the values behind them were no longer being upheld and practiced by the Europeans. And visionaries like these three men whose memory Fontaine is reviving, saw the enormity of the threat this represented. The new treaties weren’t just about land grabs. For Tecumtha in particular, they represented cultural and psychological colonization, an “exile from the land” both spatially and spiritually, Fontaine writes.
Tecumtha envisaged a sovereign Anishinabe jurisdiction being created in some of the land in what is now the U.S. Midwest but at the time was still protected by the 1763 Royal Proclamation. He then rallied the confederacy to fight alongside the British with the thought that, victorious, they would support it. But Tecumtha died in battle, and the dream fell apart.
In reviving Tecumtha’s political dream, Fontaine seems to stress the centrality of sovereign control over a land base to sustaining the Anishinabe identity, which is so central to the “land back” movement that is gaining activist support these days. Only for him, it seems that the political goal of securing a land base is inseparable from the cultural, social and spiritual practices of relating to land –even during the struggle. So it’s more like a ‘land-relationship back’ movement. And this is what makes this book so relevant to people concerned about the environmental and the crises facing it.
Fontaine wants to revive the Middle Ground, the space of common understanding and common purpose between natives and non-native peoples, but revive it on the Anishinabe terms through which it flourished through much of the 18th. Century. Like Tecumtha and the other two visionary leaders of the time, Fontaine considers that land as property and land as sovereign and alive (Creator’s Land) are irreconcilable concepts. The former cancels out the latter and, with it, the richness of that psychological and spiritual connection.
Fontaine and others who have written about the Middle Ground of the past are under no illusions about how it functioned. It was a messy real politik of daily negotiation and renegotiation, an ongoing struggle over meaning, and what common ground could be found. It worked partly because the particular Europeans involved were at the margins of the then-emerging empires of modern commerce. They weren’t necessarily totally colonized themselves into the culture and mindset involved.
Activists in the social-justice, climate-justice and environmental movements are similarly on the margins of the vested interests controlling the now globalized empire of comment. I hope they can identify, as I do, with Fontaine’s hopeful vision.
(Note: The word Anishinabe means human being. Fontaine uses this word where others might use ‘Indigenous.’)