Lessons from First Nations Communities in Seeking Justice

By Melina Laboucan-Massimo, Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm

The following is an excerpt from a keynote conversation at CPJ’s Seeking Justice Together Conference in May 2021.

Melina Laboucan-Massimo: Our Indigenous worldviews are holistic, circular, and reciprocal. We don’t see a pyramid where man sits on top with dominion over the world.

One of the most beautiful stories I remember learning from my aunties, uncles and dad was about my mosôm (grandfather). If they were walking through the trees and kids were pulling at branches, my mosôm would say: “Kaya – stop. What did that relative ever do to you to pull and to damage something else?”

This is a foundational teaching taught to young children. I think it still resonates for the ways humanity needs to see our relationship with Mother Earth and one another. When we are in relationship, we have responsibility. That’s reciprocity. When people protect their homelands, they’re protecting their sacred relationship and relations with the forests, and all beings in those forests. When we’re in ceremony, we say ”All my relations” to honour those relations. That gives us the responsibility to protect our relations who don’t have a voice to speak, but still stand and give us breath every day.

Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm: I live in a small remote village, Old Crow, 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle in the Yukon Territory, 60 miles east of the Alaska border. It’s the most north-west community in Canada.

I took my four-year-old niece outside and brought her to the tree-line, and said, “Okay baby, show uncle where to go.” I want to raise her as a leader, not just to follow me. She brought me through meandering willows, and came to a break in the canopy where the sun shone onto a thorn bush. She stopped and said, “Wow Uncle, look at that flower.” As I got to my feet, I saw a thorn bush with one pink flower soaking in the sunlight.

I looked at her and she was taking in the moment. I picked her up, and brought her to that flower: “Look baby, I want to introduce you to your grandmother.”

“No, Uncle, it’s not.”

I brought her very close to this flower: “can you see the veins in the petal?” You could see darker pink veins across the leaves like a road map.

“Yeah, I can see them.”

“Now look at your hand, can you see the veins?”

“Yeah, I can see them.”

“Baby, your grandmother has been working a very long time and very hard to meet you. Look around. All this forest are your grandfathers and your grandmothers.”

A big gust of wind came, and all the trees started dancing in a symphony of rustling leaves. You could see the moment of reverence on her face.
I think this is one of the greatest teachings we can take from Indigenous ways of knowing and being. All things are understood to be interconnected.

Melina: When settlers came to Turtle Island, it was no coincidence that it was in a pristine condition. A balanced ecological system was intact because we had a reciprocal relationship with Mother Earth.

Another vital part of our teachings is that you don’t take more than you need. This is a very important teaching lacking in the economic system. Indigenous peoples have 25,000+ years of deep scientific knowledge on living intimately and intricately with this land. We belong to the Earth, the Earth doesn’t belong to us.

There’s a huge discrepancy in Turtle Island. In the community I come from, at least 14 billion dollars have been taken from our traditional territory in oil, gas, fracking and logging since I was born. When I came to the city for the first time, it was very politicizing: I remember thinking, “We’re a 5 hour drive away, and yet my community still has no running water.” These startling inequalities have no justification. This is a part of why many Indigenous peoples continue to advocate for Indigenous rights and the responsibilities of all people to our natural environment.

The way you see your church is the way that we see the land and our ceremony and being in communion with all our generations. When they stole children out of our communities and took them to residential schools it was a knife in the heart. There’s a lot of grieving happening from the toxic legacy of residential schools. And there’s also immense grieving that’s happening when Indigenous peoples can no longer access their homelands to reconnect and be in communion and ceremony with the Creator, with God.

Chief Dana: When we talk about climate change it actually has nothing to do with the climate. It has everything to do with our unbalanced worldview. If we don’t connect our minds with our hearts, we will always have intellectual excuses to continue to debase ourselves or each other for temporary gains. That elicits the need for faith. Right now, more than ever, the world needs what’s in our hearts more than it does what’s in our minds.

Photo credit (Melina Laboucan-Massimo): Black Rhino Collective.

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