How to Be Better Ancestors

This blog originally appeared on humansandnature.org
By Winona LaDuke

I believe in place. Anishinaabe Akiing, the Land to which the people belong, that’s where I live. I live in the same area as my great-great-great-great-grandparents lived. Nimanoominike, I harvest wild rice on the same lakes, canoe to the same berry patches. I am eternally grateful to my ancestors for their consistency and their commitment to land, to ceremony, and to those who had not yet arrived, like myself. My lake, Round Lake, is where the so-called “last Indian uprising in Minnesota” occurred. And I am eternally grateful to the Skip in the Day Family for demanding justice on our Lake and for stopping the timber barons from stealing all of our great and majestic pines. In walking, riding horse, or canoeing these lakes and this place, I remember those ancestors. And I offer them food and prayers. Those are cool ancestors, great role models.

My mother is the artist Betty LaDuke, and my family on her side hails from the Ukraine. They were Jewish farmers who became union workers in New York City. My great-great-grandfather had a windmill to grind wheat, and was displaced by the burning of coal, and the progress of new mills. My grandmother worked in the garment district and my grandfather worked as a house painter. Decent people. Courageous people. Humble people. I feel that I not only remember them, but live their lives in my own way, particularly that transition of power my ancestors experienced, from their way of life working with water, working with wind, to this fossil fuels mess that I’d like to reverse.

And so, as I reflect on the question of how to be a good ancestor, I reflect on intergenerational accountability. How do I account my behaviors and decisions to my ancestors and to my descendants?

This is easier for some of us than others. America does not remain in Anishinaabe Akiing. Privileged by the fossil fuel economy, which has amplified and intensified our disconnections, we are transient, we move. Few people live in the same place as their ancestors, and many more of us have historical amnesia. Perhaps this particular amnesia is learned as a coping mechanism, or perhaps it is a consequence of the segregation into not only an anthropocentric, but an increasingly self-centered worldview, that aggravates this condition. Not knowing history has huge perils. Ecological amnesia is when we forget what was there; transience complicates all of this.

Transience means that we do not come to know and love a place. We move on, and in so doing are not accountable to that place. Always looking for greener pastures, a new frontier, we, I fear, lose depth, and a place loses its humans who would sing to it, gather the precious berries, make clean the paths, and protect the waters. My counsel is stay: make this place your home, and defend this land like a patriot.

I look to mino bimaatisiiwinthe excellent life offered to the Anishinaabeg by the Creator. In this life, the basic teachings are elegant and resonate: care for yourself, the land, and your relatives. Remember that this world is full of spirit and life and must be reckoned with. The land of berries, wild rice, maple syrup, and medicines comes with a covenant, an agreement between the Anishinaabeg, or myself, and the Creator. Keep that covenant, that agreement that we will take care of what is given to us, and your descendants will be grateful.

Understand your responsibility for this moment. I understand mine. As I watch my brothers and sisters to the west at Standing Rock protect the water in the face of rubber bullets, tear gas, and the spraying of poisons, I am awed, inspired, and remember that I am one of them. In this moment, not unlike the Selma moment, be present.

Standing Rock is not only a place, it is a state of mind, it is a thought, and it is an action. In a time when the rights of corporations override the rights of humans, stay human, and remember that the law must be changed. For civil society is made, as democracy is made, by the hands of people, courageous people, and is not a spectator sport. While at one time slavery was legal, it is no longer, and soon we must free our Mother Earth from her slavery to an exploitive economy and insure her rights.

In each day there is a heartbreak of story, a constant heartache for our relatives, whether they have wings, fins, roots, paws, or hands… but there is much beauty and joy in the midst of heartache. Hold your sorrow and grief, remember, but be grateful for this life. The Creator has given us a good one. And your descendants will be grateful for this good life, this Minobimaatisiiwin.

In this time, do not underestimate yourself, nor the power of what is larger. As we saw at Standing Rock, unity, hope, a worldwide outpouring of love and support emboldens water protectors worldwide and that is something we will all need, along with our Mother. How that power is actualized is up to each of us, but acknowledging our responsibility for power is how we are accountable intergenerationally.

Two lessons I take from one of my great teachers, Wes Jackson of the Land Institute. As you contemplate your choices, mill about. This is to say, that if you can live in your one acre, do so, mill about on that one acre, and do not move. Perhaps that lesson is live simply and care for the place you know so that those who follow can live there, too. And, believe. Wes said one time that if you’re working on something that you plan on finishing in your lifetime, you are not thinking big enough. Let us use the gift of our thoughts, and in the words of the Great Hunkpapa leader, Sitting Bull, “Let us put our minds together to see what kind of future we can make for our children....” Then we will be great ancestors.

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