His English name is Dan Longboat, but he calls himself He Clears the Sky of the Turtle Clan of the Mohawk Nation of the Haudenosaunee, the People of the Longhouse, from the Six Nations Territory at Ohsweken, on the banks of Grand River in Ontario. He is the Director of the Indigenous Environmental Studies Program at Trent University where he teaches the Haudenosaunee cosmology and sacred ecology centred on the gift of life.
Our Creation Teaching, which is not a story, myth or fable, is a teaching that enables us to see back to the beginning of time… before there was time. I have thought about one version of this teaching which tells us that everything in the world had been created and the human beings were the very last to be made. Creation Teachings tell us that Shonkwiatison (He Who Made Our Bodies), The Creator, breathed life into the human beings and then gave us our Original Instructions. Here are three of the principal ones, all of which speak to us about our relationship to each other and to all the Life that He had made. He told us that we were to have great love for each other and for all Life. He told us that we were to learn how to live within the cycles and balances of the natural world. He told us that everything that we needed to live a “good life” has been placed here for us and that all that we needed to do is to be thankful.
The Original Instructions of the Haudenosaunee Creation Teaching place great importance on appreciation, gratitude, and respect for all things in the world. Human beings have a role in the sacredness of life: it is our purpose to sustain it, not merely our own lives as a species, but “all Life in Creation”.
Longboat recognizes that, “for most in the Western-dominated world,” acknowledging this purpose may seem irrelevant or incomprehensible. Indigenous peoples around the world understand this because they have not strayed from the path of their ancestors.
This “path” has been laid down for us, through thousands of generations of living with the land. For us, Creation is a reality that encompasses both the physical and the metaphysical. This is not to say that indigenous people are perfect. Numerous times in our history, we have forgotten how to live in the way the Creator intended us to. For our forgetfulness, we paid the price in human suffering and environmental devastation. Each time that we forgot, the Creator sent a messenger or a message, to remind us of how we are to live, and each time He put us back on the path of life. As Haudenosaunee we continue to strive toward being the best human beings we can be, reflecting upon our collective and personal history and experience to make appropriate choices of how we are to live in the world.
Decrying the consumerism and hypercapitalism of our age, Longboat shows an appreciation for the writers and thinkers who, despite existing under the Western-dominated capitalist world, are also “engaged in a struggle to reconnect to a different reality, founded upon an ancient way of being in the world—one that has sustained life since the beginning.”
“Ecological sustainability” for the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island and around the world is not merely an interest in conserving nature, but “a struggle for a way of being”. This struggle involves “three links to an important chain of this being and becoming”:
You cannot separate people from the land. People must once again think of themselves and the land at the same time. […]
You cannot separate the people from the sacred, either. When the Crees came to speak to Québec Legislature, they brought their drum to open the meeting, and they would not—could not—do without it. […]
You cannot separate the sacredness of the land, for the people, a sacredness that is renewed in ceremonies, songs and dances.
This interconnectedness of people, land, and sacredness “form that most stable of shapes, the triangle or tripod in a circle of life.” This connection, “both ancient and powerful,” sustains the Haudenosaunee ecology of the sacred, which does not “separate what is “land” from all the rest of the web of the world, the waters, plants, animals, winds, rain, the unseen forces of the world, the beings of the Sky World, and […] the Creator.”
Longboat recounts the history of the Haudenosaunee since the 1600s, when the Treaty between the people and the land was established. Their relationship with the land they have inhabited for centuries is one founded on “Peace, Friendship and Respect”.
These Treaties relationship created a heritage of personal responsibility, of ordinary citizens upholding these principles and not just their respective governments. This created a deeper relationship between individuals, nations, the environment and the land. This remains our sacred relationship, that the principles our ancestors created, continue to remain our responsibility to fulfil this pledge today and into tomorrow, it is our obligation.
This obligation must involve condemning what Longboat calls “trade without limits—destructive, unsustainable trade” brought by the early Europeans who settled in North America and elsewhere. The decimation of species such as beaver and bison—thoroughly documented in postcolonial history—was the first sign of this destructive trade without limits.
In reckoning with the horrors of colonialism, Longboat turns again to the writers and thinkers such as Bringhurst, Abram, O’Connor, Lipsett, Dunlop, and others.
The people who wrote this book… they did not do this together, sitting in a circle, telling stories. They are scattered across a continent. They do not all know one another. They have never been together in one place. […] These people have never been together, but their disparate words and thoughts and stories have come together in a new place, a place that invites the reader. Each of these people, are thinkers, are writers, calling out from the fringes—from a different kind of frontier, one which is trying to push back. They are proposing a new ethic of human survival. They are crying out as the indigenous human cultures of the land are endangered and dying; and the indigenous wildlife, too, is endangered and threatened with extinction. They are crying as the great mass of people who live on Turtle Island, clustered in their cities, disconnected from the natural world, yet technologically more connected to one another than ever.
In this connection between writers and thinkers attuned to the sacredness of the natural world, Longboat sees a powerful alliance:
In the end we are all the survivors. We will not be voted off this Island.
Works by Dan Longboat
Dan Longboat and Joe Sheridan co-published “The Haudenosaunee imagination and the ecology of the sacred” in Space and Culture in 2006. A list of his other publications can be found at his Trent University profile.