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  • Randy Kritkausky

Land Back: More Than Reconnecting with Place

Preface

The following reflections are intended to help individuals and organizations in the mainstream who are working with indigenous communities on land back (rematriation) initiatives. I am seeing those in conservation organizations and land trusts, those who administer public lands such as parks, and even private land owners, all struggling to understand precisely what “land back” really means to indigenous communities. I offer the following not only to address this question, but also to help those who might engage in land back or cultural easement agreements to better judge the motivations and intentions of indigenous communities making claims that they have deep cultural motivations for their demands and requests. The following portrayal sets a rather high bar for what might be viewed as an authentic and deeply rooted intention. I do this as I believe that such high ground should be the shared understanding of all parties involved in land back transactions. I have written in the first person as I feel most comfortable providing a personal insight into the subjective world of reconnecting with Mother Earth. Abstractions and rhetoric can be distracting.

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When indigenous people seek “land back”, we are perceived as attempting to reconnect with place. Those sympathetic to indigenous causes and who are empathic as concerns the taking of indigenous territory through forced removals and broken treaties have learned the words: Native American communities are place based, Native Americans have been dispossessed, decolonization restores stolen land, Native Americans are intimately connected with their land.

However, as I listen to those on the boards of conservation organizations and land trusts,

I sense that they, who are almost entirely descendants of white settlers, have an incomplete understanding of what it feels like to profoundly reconnect with ancestral lands. I suspect that if I were to ask those in the mainstream who are predisposed to engage in land back initiatives (such as outright deeded gifts or cultural easements) what they imagine happening when land is returned to an indigenous community, they would probably point to the ways that tribal members would engage the land in quite material ways. I would hear about: gathering birch and ash bark to make canoes and baskets, foraging for traditional foods and medicines, hunting and fishing, constructing a ceremonial building such as sweat lodge, planting a Three Sisters Garden of corn, beans and squash. These are all quite visible and easily understood activities. And they are indeed important to indigenous people as each involves ceremony, the glue that holds indigenous communities together.


However, such activities are the proverbial tip of the spiritual iceberg. The “invisible” part of a land back transaction is actually the bigger deal and the foundation of what makes activities involving material items so meaningful and so healing.


Occasionally those in the mainstream get glimpses of the invisible side of land back transactions. They read a biography about someone like Black Elk returning time and time again to his mountain outlook where he has visions. They read fictional and occasional factual accounts about vision quests. All are place based experiences.


I know that these stories are challenging for many in the mainstream, especially biologists and scientists who have been trained to be empiricists dedicated to gathering quantitative evidence, and committed to philosophical assumptions about reality needing to be grounded in observable experience. Suzanne Simard[i]and Peter Wohlleben[ii] have pried open their minds to the fact that trees interact and communicate with one another. However, resistance to Native American claims that we interact with trees and our other than human kin, and that we communicate with them remains strong. Eyes roll and empiricists squirm at such statements because they cannot verify these claims.


Consequently, the spiritual aspect of Native American life is relegated to the realm of ethnographic curiosities, to be explained away as manifestations of some underlying material reality, on the one hand. Or on the other hand, such spiritual experiences are mystified and become part of an inaccessible “noble savage” aura. In both cases Native American spirituality remains enveloped in a cloud of mystery which is both fascinating and terrifyingly perplexing. The fact that indigenous people have proscriptions about sharing such experiences, and that we have a long history of white ethnologists and anthropologists appropriating and rewriting accounts of spiritual life shared by trusting indigenous leaders, explains the paucity of such material.[iii]


I have shared my own journey of discovering a Native American spiritual life in my book, Without Reservation: Awakening to Native American Spirituality and the Ways of Our Ancestors. It is the story of an off-rez Native American who has spent all but a few days of his life far from his ancestral territory in the Upper Midwest woodlands. It documents the possibility of reconnecting with place and ancestors, even in places where we have resettled, or places where ancestors, who were barely known to us, find us.


I will summarize a few of the more startling events in my journey so that readers wondering about restoring indigenous connections with the land can begin to appreciate the impact of reconnecting indigenous people with their ancestral lands and the spirits that dwell there.


My journey homeward began in Vermont where my family resettled in 2000. We built a home in second growth forest. And most significantly we made a screened sleeping porch that allows us, with piles of thick blankets, to sleep outdoors six months of the year. Almost immediately we were greeted by Coy-Wolves who visited nightly. Many outdoors and wilderness enthusiasts are enthralled with the howls of wolves and Coy-Wolves. For them, the sounds of howling are an emotional experience, perhaps even a fleetingly spiritual one. For me, midnight encounters with Coy-Wolf became personal, as when Coy-Wolf brought me messages about the strength and resilience of being a “half-breed” or hybrid.


Coy-Wolves are considered one of the most adaptable mammals in North America. They appeared after the interbreeding of coyotes and wolves in Ontario’s Algonquin Park at the beginning of the 20th century. Since then, they have spread out across the northeast, including Vermont where they have taken up residence. That story is my story and it helped me to understand who I am as a human cultural and racial hybrid.[iv] It also marked the beginning of re-establishing a deep sense of place for me.


How my elders and ancestors followed me to our place in the Vermont forest is a theme woven into nearly every chapter of my book. The fact that I have been able to become indigenous to a new place offers hope for the great majority of Native Americans who, like me, spend their lives far from their ancestral homelands and seek to reconnect with place as something more than a residence. It also suggests that those who own or administer large tracts of wilderness, and who are contemplating land back initiatives, should consider including indigenous peoples who may not have recent historical connections to the precise locations where they have trust lands. Those of us who might be considered the indigenous diaspora can find our way home in new places, given the chance. I know.


The great surprise in my journey homeward was finding spiritual connections in Montréal. A long series of “coincidences” repeatedly drew me to the immediate vicinity of my French- Canadian ancestor who married into the Potawatomi. What began as an interest in safe bicycling on Québec Province’s sprawling Route Verte bicycle trail network turned out to be a spiraling journey into my past.[v] Shortly after purchasing an apartment near the bike route we frequented, we discovered the Lachine Fur Museum a few blocks away. You could have knocked me over with a feather when I discovered that today’s museum is the former warehouse of the Canadian fur trading company that my French-Canadian ancestor worked for. He almost certainly canoed along the St Lawrence River and visited that warehouse a few hundred meters from where we bike and live. I began to wonder if “place” was calling me home. And just as I concluded that place can indeed do that, my western educated skepticism kicked in, and I began to wonder again. How is it that a seemingly unfamiliarplace can call us home and embrace us?


The answer to that question came repeatedly, and positively. It involves ancestors, as I discovered when attending a Canadian musical production of “Children of God” in Montréal. This play explores the experience of First Nations children in Canadian residential schools. It deftly but bluntly deals with the torments that plagued those who attended such institutions. As I sat listening and watching I felt the presence of my grandfather, Asa, who spent much of his childhood and entire adolescence in three such institutions including the (in)famous Carlisle Indian Industrial School. As the emotional tension climaxed I doubted my ability to continue watching. Then I heard something like a whispered voice from within, “so, this is the story of my youth, the story and pain that I did not want to share with any of you when I was alive.” Rather than sensing anguish, I felt a sense of relief. My grandfather’s spirit was now unburdened of secrets he had taken with him to his grave.


And then, I had the strangest sense of the presence of another ancestor, Asa’s great grandfather, the French-Canadian voyageur Jacques Vieux. I felt his presence comforting his great grandson at our family gathering in the theater. At the time I was perplexed as to why this would happen. Then, some months later I discovered that the location of the theater where “Children of God” was performed was on the former site of the Montréaltown where Jacques Vieux had been born and spent his youth.[vi] My ancestors were reconnecting with me and thereby reconnecting me with place.


The Montréal Botanical Garden continued to expand my reconnections, this time with other than human kin. Beautiful bonsai trees held captive and suspended far above the earth in ceramic containers called out to me with messages about the need to literally be rooted in place.[vii]


My discovery of the importance of place for Native Americans is still sinking in. When I wrote my book, Montréal - Mooniyang in my tribal language - was portrayed as calling me home. My ancestral past place of Mooniyang is now pretty much built over or paved. Nevertheless, the voices of ancestors and other than human kin continue to break through the concrete and asphalt with the determination that dandelions exhibit when they break through cracks in the sidewalk. It now happens on every trip back to Montréal, always in new and wonderfully surprising ways.


If this personal narrative can be received as a parable, I think its instruction is clear and simple. Reconnecting indigenous people with place can liberate and restore our spirits. And if you watch and listen to what your rematriation has set in motion, you might also find your own way homeward.


Randy Kritkausky is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and the author of Without Reservation: Awakening to Native American Spirituality and the Ways of Our Ancestors (Bear and Company, 2020).


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Creative Commons License Others may remix, adapt, and build upon this work non-commercially, as long as they credit “Randy Kritkausky” and license their new creations under the identical terms (ie non-commercial; share with attribution.)

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[i] Suzanne Simard: Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest. [ii] Peter Wohlleben: The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate. [iii] The many books claiming to portray the spirituality of Black Elk, the famous Lakota Sioux medicine man, are examples of such appropriation. [iv] “What Coy-Wolf Taught Me”, Without Reservation, Chapter 5 [v] “Roots Connect in Vieux Montréal”, Without Reservation, Chapter 7 [vi] “Asa’s Indian School Story”, Without Reservation, Chapter 9 [vii] “Rootless in the Botanical Garden”, Without Reservation, Chapter 15


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