Groundings: Accountability and Stewardship in Indigenous Contexts

By Tony Snow

Growing up, the environment was always Mother Earth, Yethka Makoche (a.k.a. Stoney Country). We existed within the rhythms of this land, its seasons and times of the moon: intimate times, related to the world around us where everything had a name and purpose. The names told us how we related, and how we belonged. The landscape was alive with our stories, experiences, histories and legends. During our most sacred times, at the height of nature’s bounty, we performed our sacred sundances: a time of annual collective prayer for Yethka Makoche. Our traditional societies centered themselves around these prayer times, understanding the needs of creation and what it was calling us to do.

As a descendent of the Stoney Nakoda people, sometimes called Assinipwat (‘Stone People’ in Anishinaabe), sometimes called ‘Mountain Poets,’ or ‘People of the Shining Mountains,’ our belonging is spoken in our Creation Stories and dwells within the creation stories of our siblings: the Buffalo, the Bear, the Elk, the Moose, and Eagle. These stories spoke to the living spirits of earth, wind, water, and fire. In this land, we lived according to nature’s plan, with respect for all creation (both animate and inanimate) because everything was imbued with spirit. To our people, everything was alive, and everything existed in balance.

For the Yethka people, the public trust we held was a collective responsibility that, despite our differences, meant we agreed to uphold the collective good for the sake of our survival. This involved stewardship, recognizing our impact and our legacy for the next generation as a consideration for the well-being of the next seven generations. This meant that no one voice or collective group held sway, but the interest of future generations and those who could not speak for themselves (i.e. the trees, waters, air, mountains, etc.,) would all be considered. Our ancestors left their instructions in ceremonies, songs, and spiritual protocols that connected us to their memory through oral traditions. They spoke through time, through millennia, in these messages dutifully remembered more accurately than most written accounts today.

Our accountability was not only to one another as relatives and collective family, but as a sacred trust that gave guidance to future leaders who would be dealing with different issues, different complications, at different times. Our stories were technologies through which our parables, legends, and sacred songs gave us tools to interpret our Elder’s wisdom into actionable practices.

Today we live on the precipice of our assured self-destruction through climate change. Many faith communities turn to answers in the ideas of original sin and judgment in the reading of prophetic works like the Book of Revelation. It is from this perspective that misinterpretation and misrepresentation infer our complicity and cause us to give up our own agency saying: “it’s in God’s hands…”

But that is not what our Indigenous wisdom traditions say. If anything, the world we live in, with worldwide pandemics and nuclear brinkmanship, teaches us that our actions (and inactions) lead us to predictable self-fulfilling consequences.

I am reminded that as talks broke down at COP25, we could see where political machinations had once again suspended action with the appeals of lobbyists and industry actors. These same groups would again step into the debate at COP26 to rewrite the final drafts of agreements before they were voted on by delegates.

While COP26 marked a tipping point, it highlighted that the interests of the minority still stood against those of everyone else experiencing the catastrophic impacts of global ecological change. It showed that the tried-and-true practices of stall and delay were no longer enough and that the real work happens at home, in our communities and governments.

This has been the focus of Indigenous wisdom keepers on the ground who seek to balance our interests (and needs) with what we are asking of creation.

For Indigenous people, balancing our way of life and the life of the planet is our primary concern. Our stories, ceremonies, and wisdom traditions tell us the seriousness of our relationship with the earth. And only by being involved and actively participating in the discussions can we begin to reconfigure our collective thinking and global priorities. Until then, without full implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, we will continue to struggle.

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