As the season of Wahta Osis (Maple Sap) approaches I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a friend of mine who has gotten into the commercial maple syrup business. He’s been in it for about six years and he was telling about how it had been growing and that now about 15% of his sales were going to Europe.
He then told me about the changes he had to make to keep up with the growth. He’s switched from the old fashion tap and bucket system to one that connects all the taps through a series of plastic tubes that run to a centralized gathering point. That seems to make sense to me and one I suppose our ancestors would have figured out if they were faced with a growing market demand for their products.
Then he asked me what I thought about adding vacuum pumps that could speed up the flow and extend the production time. I thought about that for a second and then just said what popped into my mind – “What are you, a vampire?” Then I reminded him of the Teachings we’ve grown up with around “take only what you need”, “this is a gift from our Mother Earth” and “everything in its own time and its own pace”.
I’ve always seen these three Teachings as part of the body of Indigenous laws that govern our economic activities. Real Indigenous laws – not settler laws for Indians as taught in the universities – are enshrined in four realms: The Laws of Creation, The Laws of the Land; The Laws of the Peoples; and the Ceremonies and Protocols that accompany these laws.
Within the Teachings associated with the Laws of Creation is the economic law that all that is needed for us to have a good life is provided by the other Beings. In each case the Being making the offering set down some rules and requirements the humans are to follow to be able to continue to enjoy the benefits of the gift.
In modern terms this set of Laws makes it clear that the humans do not own the “means of production”. Whether or not something will be given to us to enhance our life is the determination of the Being making the gift. This is a solemn and sacred relationship because it often requires that Being to give up its Life so that ours may continue.
With regards to Wahta Osis two Beings are making a gift to us. The Wahta (Maple) agreed to be the vehicle through which the sweetness our Mother Earth will flow. When that gift comes to us it also lets us know our Mother is waking up and we need to prepare for the season of harvesting, planting and growing that are coming.
There is another Teaching that addresses “take only what you need”. It tells us that in the early days the Osis was available for a long time. It flowed so easily that people would put a tap in and lay down and drink it until they couldn’t move. The other Beings saw this and realized that this was not a good thing so they held a meeting with our Mother. They told her she was spoiling us, and look they’re just getting fat and lazy. Even worse, they were making demands on the others to give as freely as she did. So a decision was made that there would be a time limit imposed. The Osis would only be available for a specified time and after that it would stop.
It was also decided that there needed to be a ceremony that would remind the Humans to be grateful and to cherish this gift. So today we take the first sap to the ceremonial place and offer our thanks and express our gratitude that Life continues as it has been intended to be. This is a time when we re-affirm our commitment to abiding by the laws and regulations of Creation and the Land.
From that time each of the Beings who give us their gifts of support set down a time frame for that support. This is the concept of “everything in its own time”. Before and after that time the gift is not available. During that time some of them make two offerings to us, first as a medicine and then as a food or vice versa. This is the origins of our gathering, hunting and fishing seasons.
“Take only what you need” has become a much more trickier rule to follow as we’ve become more and more assimilated. The loss of ready access to the things that support our lives has impoverished us, something we never knew before. Being forced to live in finite territories has driven some of us a bit mad.
We have to remember that the greed and selfishness some of our people exhibit are symptoms of the historic trauma and the deprivations our peoples have endured.
The question of how do we determine how much we need has bothered me for awhile. It’s a question I’ve asked Elders in the various territories I’ve worked in and I’ve received a very consistent answer. It’s an answer that addresses the challenges of growth and the increase of demand associated with it.
I’ve come to understand that there is natural growth. Several Elders explained that the leaders of the village would gather and conduct a census. From that census they would project how many more people there would be to feed, how much more storage was required, how much more needed to be planted and harvested, and how much more hunting or fishing would be needed. And then there is the seemingly universal rule of “plus three years”. This means make sure you have enough for the coming year, plus three years, just in case.
There is archeological evidence along with our own stories that we were also conscious of how big we were becoming. If our size was damaging or impairing the local environment we would divide into two new villages and move to other sites. From the archeological work it appears that we determined the ideal size of our village to be around 2,000 inhabitants. This means that our planning processes were woven into a consciousness about the sustainability requirements of all Life around us. That’s the foundation of Seven Generation Planning.
That’s a lot different than pursuing growth in the context of business profits, increasing shareholder value, etc. The planning to do Western economics doesn’t necessarily take into account the human, environmental, spiritual and social impacts that will result from the growth. If it did, I don’t think we would be facing some of the emerging disasters that we see across the world.
Small plastic tubes are one kind of “pipeline”. But their presence as part of our economic strategies provides us with the opportunity to apply our laws, regulations and policies to their use and deployment.
On February 1, Enbridge initiated a challenge to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to order an Environmental Impact Statement on the Sandpiper pipeline. You gotta love their rationale for this: “When added to the over two years already spent reviewing the proposal, this unprecedented delay not only harms (Enbridge Energy) but continues to have significant adverse economic, human and environmental consequences.” Really?? The environment is experiencing adverse consequences because the pipeline is not being rammed through it?
My friend abandoned the idea of vacuum pumps and his business continues to grow. And now I’m really interested in finding out more about what Enbridge considers tobe adverse environmental consequences. More to come.
Mike Myers is the founder and CEO of Network for Native Futures, a Native non-profit that works with Indigenous nations, communities and organizations internationally. The network's mission is to support sustainable development and nation re-building through providing of technical assistance, training and consulting.