Ray Cook:I was reading an article about Standing Rock and pipelines, and the term stewards of the land came up in reference to Native nations and people. It was a positive reference—but what does it mean? And what does it mean for us? Is there a teaching moment here?
Ruth Hopkins: Land stewardship suggests that we as humans have dominion over nature. It harkens back to the era of Manifest Destiny, where settlers saw themselves as responsible for taming the savage beast as well as the landscape, by fencing off sections and declaring ownership over their own little piece of the American pie. So while they seemed to believe they were being stewards of the New World, really it was about how the land could best serve them. For example, they might have a nice lawn or a healthy wheat crop, but to hell with all the chestnut trees (which suffered a massive die-off after colonization began). An Indigenous perspective is more spiritual and humble. “We aren't above anything.” “We aren't stewards of the land, we are the land.” One might even say Ina Maka (Mother Earth) is the first Indigenous woman.
Sarah Sunshine Manning: There are important distinctions between stewardship, a Christian concept, and the Indigenous concept of being in relationship with Tipiatiipe, or, our Mother Earth. Mother Earth is a being that we are in constant relationship with, literally from the cradle to the grave. Our stories, ceremonies, language, songs, and entire life ways were and are contingent upon the Earth.
Each medicine we gather from the land, we acknowledge as a gift from our Mother the Earth and we were deliberate not to over-harvest. Each food source, whether plant, root, game, or water, has kept entire Nations nourished, both physically and spiritually. And so, traditionally, to pay our respects and participate in that reciprocal relationship, we sang songs to the Earth. We gave offerings to the Earth.
Hopkins: We also had a subsistence economy, so we didn't take more than we needed. It allowed for balance. We understood that everything was connected. We live within many interconnected systems.
Clayton Brascoupe: Here’s a contemporary definition of steward from the commercial arena: “As a steward, you try to leave the company in better shape for your successor than it was handed over to you by your predecessor.”
The connection and understanding of ‘land’ isn’t something separate from us, something distant, but includes our home, community, agricultural lands and lands beyond. The ‘land’ must include all aspects of relationships with flora, fauna, bird, fish, fungi, micro-life and stone. This relationship isn’t one of dominion but of a reciprocal nature, nature’s model: Life-supporting, life-creating abundance through relationships.
Traditional farming practices are a form of stewardship. Each season indigenous farmers strive to make the soils better, not deplete them, or they have a system that will ‘grow’ soils. Sometimes this is achieved by rotation or adding natural nutrients via natural methods, such as composting, terracing and mulching. All these systems reflect an understanding of natural processes and working within these laws.
We know of agricultural systems that continue to function even after decades of so-called neglect, or not being actively maintained. These gardens are built of stone and pebbles, sometimes terraced, sometimes placed to take advantage of water run-off. Contemporary Pueblo people still can harvest herbs from these locations built generations ago.
Manning: This philosophy is not romantic. It is purely pragmatic. The Earth is the source of our existence, so we call her our mother.
Like our birth mothers she provides for us, nurtures us, and delivers us teachings with each season, sometimes even harshly. She heals our wounds, and imbues our bodies with regenerative abilities. We know that healing comes when we apply medicines and the breath of the Earth to our wounds and ailments.
Cook: While the outside looking in may ponder stewardship, for us the question is how to combine friendly technologies, and policies and procedures, in the pursuit of regaining our dietary healthfulness and relationships over all our lands and kitchens and communities.
Brascoupe: An Indigenous agricultural system life uses natural succession as the law. First, lands are cleared; the debris is composted or burnt in place providing nutrients for the new planting. This will continue for several seasons but soils will begin to deplete and aggressive weeding needs to happen. The next step will be to cover this field with perennial edible or useful shrubs. This will continue to produce food and restore the soils. The following step will be to plant useful and edible trees, completing a natural cycle that would happen without human design. This type of edible beneficial forest will produce more biodiversity. This model has been practiced all over the Americas and still can be found in other continents where Indigenous Peoples are allowed to use lands as their ancestors did.
Biologists studying the Amazon rain forest ‘discovered’ that forests with more diversity, plants, animas, etc., were all lands managed by Indigenous Peoples. The Indigenous stewardship model uses a template based in natural law and can regenerate for generations.
Cook: Indigenous Peoples will need to find their talented agriculturalists and support workers. You know who the skilled ones are because they are only home at night. The rest of the time they are in an out-building, fixing something, or in the field planning a planting strategy or planning the harvesting and storage details.
The others in that community, who have talent, will be hard at work making sure D.C. or State Ag Boards don’t get too close to our work and begin messing up everything. Land and its use should never be defined or interfered with by U.S.-backed Tribal governments (especially IRA and BIA tribes).
Ideally, land stewardship chores should be left to the Tiyospaye or clan system and what have you. Roles and uses would be up to the people who give life to our old ways of thinking. If we define a plan for survival, well, remember land stewardship means something different than what Living With the Mother means.
Hopkins: Everything affects everything else. Modern science is finally starting to realize this, but lawmakers...not so much. If they did they wouldn't allow lead in bullets again, which are going to kill many bald eagles, and they wouldn't be pressing for pipelines that are all risk and no benefit and will poison the water sources of millions of people. Still, some good things, like national parks, did spring forth from the western idea of stewardship. Can Indigenous lifeways co-exist with capitalism? What's needed is a paradigm shift, one that may have begun at Standing Rock on the shores of the Mni Sose.
Manning: I would agree that a better term might be land relationship, acknowledgement, and reverence. It is so much more than stewardship. The Earth, to Indigenous nations, is perhaps what Jesus must be to Christians. Mother Earth is the source, and she is that imperative to our existence, which is precisely why we fight to defend her.
Hopkins: It seems like we are put in one emergency situation after the other, and they often overlap. Sacred places are continually under attack. Sacred sites are crucial to the identity, culture, and well-being of Native Nations. They connect us directly to the ancestors and help us preserve universal harmony. They are key to our spiritual instructions. We cannot afford to lose them. It would be better to fight to the death to protect them. It is where we pray. What are we without that? We owe it to the next seven generations to save the sacred, so they can live. It is our right; it is our duty. We hold the mantle now.