Photo — Mahler Silvan
Written by Emily Manthei and Linsey Rendell
What can Indigenous wisdom teach us about living in balance with natural ecosystems to create resilient futures for both people and the planet? During her residency at SPACE10, Inuk activist and filmmaker Aka Hansen invited four young Indigenous voices into conversation — and we listened.
‘Our relationship to land cannot heal until we learn to listen.’
Robin Wall Kimmerer
Potawatomi author, ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’
Sharing knowledge through conversation is a tradition of many Indigenous Peoples. During a two-month residency, Aka Hansen curated a series of Instagram Live conversations with her contemporaries to amplify Indigenous voices of the Arctic and ‘inspire people to think about other perspectives,’ she says.
Her series Ancestral Futures connects Indigenous communities and experiences across the circumpolar north from Dena’ina land, Alaska and Tkaronto, Turtle Island to Narsaq, Kalaallit Nunaat and Anár, Sápmi.
Everything is connected
‘How I treat the earth is linked to my language, but also my community, my grandparents, and my ancestry.’
Indigenous Peoples comprise less than five percent of the world’s population, yet their traditions, learned through generations, protect 80 percent of global biodiversity, according to the World Bank. Biodiversity underpins the health of our planet — which, as humans, we depend on. How can we work towards better relationships with nature?
There’s no quick fix. Instead, Aka shares the concepts of Sila and Inua as a starting point — beliefs in interconnectedness and that everything physical has a spirit or soul. ‘Sila is one of the concepts I miss in the western worldview, because it’s an understanding that everything is connected,’ she says. And when that concept is absent? ‘It makes it easier to exploit the world’s natural resources because you’re thinking of something as a dead object, not connected with everything.’
Ways of living and being
‘Our first treaty relationships are with the land, the water, and our non-human relatives.’
To begin unfolding ancestral wisdom, present complexities, and visions of a hopeful future, Aka speaks with Anishinaabek birthworker Brianna Olson-Pitawanakwat about carrying ancestral values into contemporary life. Being in relationship with water and monitoring its health is an essential part of living in the Anishinaabek Nation — and in Brianna’s profession as a birthworker. Water makes up 60 percent of the human body and 70 percent of Earth’s surface. It’s essential for life. ‘The health of the water is connected to the health of us,’ Brianna says.
Thinking holistically about nature and our place and role within it involves acknowledging the complex entanglements between people, planet, and time. Kalaaleq Inuk artist Paninnguaq Lind talks about traditional food and land use in Greenland. She shares the Kalaallit people’s perspective of the relationship between humans and the surrounding ecosystem: ‘While hunting, we would sometimes make small gifts to Sila by leaving some meat for whoever needed that food — a fox, a bear, a raven. We only take what is necessary for us. We made sure there was enough food for future generations to come.’
Iñupiaq Alaskan podcaster Alice Qannik Glenn broadcasts lots of joy and laughter in her Coffee & Quaq episodes, along with discussing challenges and complex ideas.
‘I lean on Iñupiat values in times of conflict or uncertainty because they always lead me in the right direction,’ Alice says.
‘My favourite is humour. My other favourites are cooperation and resolution of conflict. Those things are really important when you have such a close-knit community and you’re living with one another and relying on one another to survive.’
The impacts of the climate crisis are experienced and felt unequally. Temperatures in the Arctic are rising three times faster than the global average, shifting seasons and affecting food and water security. Yet Indigenous voices are often excluded from climate leadership roles and decision-making. ‘The homeland faces lots of threats, like mining, logging, and expanding mass tourism,’ Sunná Nousuniemi says.
‘Rest and care are not centred enough. We are mostly in survival mode.’
Aka discusses Indigenous ways of resistance in the Sámi lands with Niillasaš-Jovnna Máreha Juhani Sunná Máret — whose full name we use here, as they do, to carry their family and community with them. Reclaiming Indigenous languages enables Indigenous activists to share their perspectives and affect change through self-governance. ‘Preserving Indigenous language systems is really vital to keeping our knowledge systems alive,’ Sunná says. ‘When learning the language, I learn more about the Sámi worldview. It’s a door to a different world.’
‘It’s really essential, for Inuit, to leave the future in a better place than the present. We all have that collective responsibility.’
Kalaaleq Inuk artist
Indigenous Peoples have survived thousands of years in the harsh climate of the Arctic. Inventing useful objects, like the qayat (kayak) and sunglasses, has helped them do so. ‘Indigenous Peoples are the ultimate scientists. It’s been trial and error for thousands of years to live in such a climate,’ Alice says. ‘We know, as Iñupiat, that the world is always changing, and we are always adapting.’
As Indigenous Peoples continue to pass forward their knowledge and practices that nurture local ecosystems and communities, they are setting an example for how we can engage with our environments today and into the future. We need Indigenous patterns of knowledge and ways of being to imagine and enact resilient futures.
As Aka reminds us, ‘many of our worldviews are not based on productivity, but on community’.
Seeds of change
Through open and generous dialogue, these thoughtful voices share many seeds of Indigenous cultural knowledge that could help reroute humanity towards a better future. Here are four:
Be humble and respectful. Paninnguaq says that one of the tools of Indigenous adaptation is living waste-free. ‘For us, a way to be humble and respectful is to make good use of everything. I don’t want my grandkids to deal with my waste,’ she says. When we think carefully about resources and waste — from the spine of a fish to a rock in the lake — we demonstrate respect for the nature that nourishes us and can learn to nourish animals and land in return.
Build a sense of community. Brianna stresses the importance of commitments to the land and water, and how the pride of Indigenous Peoples is in their relationships with the earth and each other. She emphasises that investing time in caring for people and our non-human relatives strengthens the entire community, not just the individual. ‘When we come back to those original relationships, that’s when things can begin to be set right,’ she says.
Acknowledge truths, share joy. Alice uses podcasting as a modern form of oral storytelling to broadcast inspiring truths about the way Indigenous Peoples live. By sharing stories and talking with each other, we learn that there are similar experiences across borders and time — and can create a safe space to discuss difficult topics. ‘Indigenous Peoples have a way of talking about heartbreaking things, while also laughing and having a good time.’
Rest is a form of resistance. To unlearn a globalised, productive existence and help shape a decolonised future, Sunná centres rest. ‘Decolonising the concept of time is important,’ they say. ‘The capitalist system makes us go hard and keep up a relentless pace in winter. It’s a systemic problem that we are forced to be out of touch with nature. I’d like to focus on the weather conditions.’
A warm thank you to Aka Hansen for this generous, seed-planting journey. Read abridged versions of Aka Hansen’s introduction to the series and conversations with Paninnguaq Lind, Brianna Olson-Pitawanakwat, Alice Qannik Glenn, and Sunná Nousuniemi, where you’ll also find links to each IG Live.
Aka Hansen is an activist, mother, and Inuk filmmaker from Greenland. After gaining recognition in Greenland’s film and television industry, she founded Uilu, a production company on a mission to tell more Indigenous stories with Inuit voices. She has been active in recent debates on the decolonisation of Greenland.
Brianna Olson-Pitawanakwat is an Anishinaabek birthworker, jingle dress dancer, artisan, activist and member of Wiikwemkoong Unceded First Nation. She is co-founder of Native Arts Society, an Indiqueer/Two-spirit-led gallery and studio in Toronto. She also co-leads Toronto Indigenous Harm Reduction, a response to the shutdown of frontline services to Indigenous houseless folks in the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Paninnguaq Lind is a Kalaaleq Inuk artist and creator from Narsaq, South Greenland. Her first steps in the art world were in the western tattoo industry, but in 2016, she began a professional and personal journey of decolonisation by embracing traditional markings in her tattoo art. She co-directed and produced White Paper, a documentary about mining in Greenland and its effect on the health of the ancient land and community.
Alice Qannik Glenn is an Iñupiaq born and raised in Utqiaġvik, Alaska. She hosts and produces the podcast Coffee & Quaq to celebrate and explore contemporary Native life in urban Alaska. She received honours from the Columbia Journalism Review for her series AK Natives on the Front Line, which highlights the adaptability and resilience of Iñupiat in the face of climate change.
Sunná Nousuniemi is a Sámi-Finnish visual artist, DJ, and former festival director of Skábmagovat Indigenous Peoples’ Festival from Anár, Sápmi. With their work, Nousuniemi pursues intergenerational, communal healing by artistically exploring the different dimensions of cinema, discussion, memes, and music.