When We Listen

5,734 total words    

23 minutes of reading

Photo Credit: Madawaska River

Katherine Kassouf Cummings (KC): As part of the ten-year celebration of the Center for Humans and Nature’s Questions for Resilient Future, I am joining editorial fellow Christine Luckasavitch and photographer, Alyssa Bardy, the women who collaborated to create the Questions for Resilient Future series, “What Stories Does the Land Hold?”. Alyssa and Christine, thank you so much for being here today.

Alyssa Bardy (AB): Thank you for having us.

Christine Luckasavitch (CL): Absolutely, thank you for the invitation.

KC: I’m so glad we could gather. I want to start off with the question itself, which was a question that Christine, you, brought forward. How did that question, “what stories does the land hold?” come to you?

CL: So this has been a question that has stayed in my mind for quite a few years, being an Indigenous person whose community and nation has experienced dispossession of land and disconnect from culture and ceremony. I think the thread that has helped me to become more connected and to reconnect is understanding that the land that I am on now where I live is my ancestral territory. In spending a lot of time out on the land itself and getting to learn plants and so on, I wonder how have my ancestors known this place or known which trees–even in the yard where I live, which is the same place that my grandmother was born, did these trees know my grandmother? So just really asking that general type of question is, for Indigenous folks in particular, but also non-Indigenous people, something that can help us find a way we can connect to land through stories and almost an encouragement to listen at a time when we do need to foster that relationship we have with land and what we refer to as a natural world.

KC: Can you tell us about your particular relationship to land and your family’s relationship to the land where you live?

CL: So I’m an Algonquin woman but particularly belonging to the Madaoueskarini Algonquin people and even more specifically, my familiar territory is the headwaters of the Madawaska River. I grew up here, and this has always been an area that I feel a strong connection to. So no matter where I’ve lived in Canada, I’ve always been drawn back here and that connection for me just stems from the understanding that I have a responsibility to know these stories and to pass these stories on so that future generations will know who we are and know where they belong.

AB: For me, my connection to the land and the way I was raised didn’t stem from my Indigenous roots. I didn’t grow up in a way where my Indigenous roots were really cultivated or celebrated. I grew up away from my traditional territory and very disconnected from my people and culture. But what I did have was the chance to grow up in a lifestyle that was embedded in the outdoors. So from a very young age my dad taught me how to hunt and how to fish and my mom taught me how to grow and how to care for the land.

I think love and responsibility and an appreciation towards the land was definitely fostered into all those activities that we grew up doing. It’s super important to be thankful for the land and everything that it provides. As I’m learning a little bit more about who I am as Haudenosaunee person, it’s all tying back to my childhood and the lessons that I learned being outdoors and doing these activities.

KC: How did you, Alyssa, and Christine both first connect?

AB: We went to high school together. I think we were in grade eleven or twelve. We just somehow made a connection. I don’t really remember, but I knew that I liked this girl. She was fun. She made me laugh, we had a lot of good times. And then, college and real life happened, and we just grew apart. We still remained friends on social media, and we reconnected over a photography opportunity last year. It was like picking up where we left off fifteen years ago.

There was so much laughter and joy that was rekindled in our friendship. Although we went to the same high school, we didn’t really live in the same town. Where we grew up it’s very rural. There’s one high school for a very large area. So, if we hadn’t gone to school together I don’t think we probably would’ve ever met, but I’m really grateful for that opportunity all those years ago, and then again now. 

CL: I just remember in that time we had a spare class together. I remember a lot of our days were spent sitting in the cafeteria basically killing time, but I certainly remember a lot of laughs and I always remember Alyssa even before I knew her always having the biggest smile on her face and just being the loveliest human being. You grow apart from people when you don’t see them every day, but certainly Alyssa has been someone who’s always been that same lovely human being in my mind.

Whenever I would see her randomly I felt very, very lucky that she’s one of those people that seems like time doesn’t really pass. You just have this intrinsic trust in another person having grown up together and an understanding as well. Oftentimes even without saying it, understanding that we live fairly similar lives, and it wasn’t until we were in our adult lives that we actually both spoke about being Indigenous people or Indigenous women in particular who are looking to reconnect to who we are. So sharing that common thread through this project has really been a gift.

KC: I’m actually really curious, this wasn’t something we were planning to talk about, but if you would be willing to share about what the process of connecting to your Indigenous heritage, your Indigenous ancestors and that part of your identity, the process of reconnecting and what that means in your life now. I am sure there are a lot of readers and listeners who may be undertaking a similar journey.

CL: I think for me, it requires a lot of patience both patience within yourself to not step too far, too quickly as you’re reconnecting and really to learn who you are in the place that you are from and who your relations are. So it’s about treating yourself with kindness, treating those around you with kindness, understanding it’s not the easiest thing to do and that actually it’s a very emotional and often overwhelming journey. You’re working your way through generations of trauma and with that comes great responsibility to the nation that you belong to and your community. I’ll leave it at that for now. Alyssa, do you want to add?

AB: For me growing up, I knew my Indigenous roots existed, but it definitely wasn’t celebrated or talked about a lot I think that goes back to that trauma and the shame that was forced upon our people. 

So, it wasn’t until I met my husband (who is Mohawk which is also part of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy) in my twenties that I began to question everything. He’s the one who kind of pushed me to do the work of reconnection and be proud of who I am. Then when I had kids, it became apparent how important it is to undertake this, not only for myself but to be able to pass it on to my children. Like Christine said, it’s not something you can just wake up the next day and be like, “this is who I am,” and own it. It actually takes a lot of work and in a lot of cases, baby steps. 

I see a knowledge keeper at the long house just because I’m still grasping at these little pieces and trying to figure out what it means to identify as an Indigenous person. Itis a struggle, but definitely going to the land and finding the goodness that’s just there waiting for us is a huge help. Learning little bits of the language and speaking of the land in it and learning the stories of the land is such good medicine. Mother Earth is a fantastic teacher. 

KC: Thank you. That’s beautiful. So, after all these years with this joyful friendship that you have, what was the process of coming together to work on this series? I remember Christine, when we first started talking about your fellowship and you brought this question to the Questions for a Resilient Future, very early on you said, “we need to work with this woman, Alyssa.” So it seemed that from the beginning this question was drawing you two together. What has the experience of collaborating—and at a time of physical distancing and in and out of lockdowns—what has the experience of working on this question been like for each of you?

CL: In any of my work, if I am able to provide space for Indigenous people to tell stories, that’s my goal. In reconnecting with Alyssa just before this project had started, I knew that she was working to reconnect with her culture, as am I, and I wanted to give her a little bit of a push. So Katherine, I think I even said, “I bet you that Alyssa she might be a little bit humble when it comes to accepting this” and Alyssa, I did some behind the scenes things with you too, where I said like, come on, take this do it, you got to do this with me. I wouldn’t necessarily take no for an answer.

The best part of this project was just being able to spend time with each other out on the land. Alyssa grew up in Algonquin territory, but I really appreciate having her come here to my home. I was able to show her some of the places that are very significant in my life, parts of the river system and so on. It’s a very significant thing to be able to take an old friend to the places that I know intimately. I shared with her stories about connection to land and some histories of the land. Because of this project, I’ve been able to share the stories that I know with someone that I trust and have known for so long. This project has resolidified our friendship, if that makes sense.

AB: I agree. It’s been super healing for me and if I can think of some words that describe this whole process, healing and joyful would be at the top of my mind. The rekindling of our friendship has been really special. But rekindling over something that we never really had the opportunity to talk about as we were kids growing up in high school takes things to a much deeper level. It was such an honor, Christine, for you to take me to these places that are special to you. I can’t even put a word to the feeling that comes with it. Just knowing that this land is part of who you are and to be gifted the opportunity to learn about you and these places and that connectedness to these places was so special.

Honestly, I had so much fun going around to these places with you and sometimes we laughed and sometimes we were a little bit more serious. We spent Canada Day together, which this year, was especially heavy for Indigenous people. It was just a really good place to be with you on that day. I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else.

CL: I think one of the most beautiful things about this project and what it means for our friendship is that both of us are able to understand what the other person is experiencing and sometimes I just think – Alyssa, we even talked about this – just how significant it is to have someone who understands what you’re going through because they’re experiencing it as well.

AB: A hundred percent.

KC: Thank you for sharing that. For me, being able to envision that creative process and how you worked together offers a special glimpse into another side of what we’re all seeing gorgeously published into Questions for a Resilient Future. I want to note that all the photographs in the series Alyssa created in response to the question. These weren’t from your portfolio; this was a real conversation that you were having with Christine and with the land. I’m wondering if you would be willing to share about the role of your artwork and photography in relating to the land.

AB: With my photography, it’s always taken me to a place that allows me to slow down and see things that might otherwise be passed by. I love noticing the little things. Those little moments like a pine cone laying on the ground, or my child picking up and admiring that pinecone. I really want to share that beauty with the world, encourage my viewers to see it too. I love to intertwine a little bit of my Indigenous knowledge and culture into that, even if it’s learning the word for pine cone in the language and sharing it as the photos title. 

I really feel that by sharing these beautiful moments with nature maybe someone else will see what I see and then go forward and care a little bit more about the earth (whether or not they’re Indigenous). I really just want people to see the goodness of the land and our connections and to know that it’s not just you and I walking around on this commodity, this thing. That this relationship is so much deeper.

KC: I love what you’re saying about beauty being at the core of developing those good relationships. How did you find photography—or photography find you—as this means for relationship?

AB: I don’t even really know. My mom was a photographer growing up. She would do equine photography—she would go around to horse shows and take pictures of people’s horses as a business. . I think I definitely have the eye for photography from her. Then, a couple of years ago my family and I really got into birding.

I think using a camera to capture the birds and their unique behaviors and beautiful colorations was a starting point and then it just kind of grew from there. I would be out in the woods, and I would be birding with my camera, then on the ground level, I would notice this beautiful leaf and how the light would shine through the leaf, and I would be captivated by the simple beauty of it. Taking my kids on the land now means less quiet time in the woods but more time for the discovery of other forms of beauty like caterpillars and pinecones. Together we learn and discover and appreciate, which allows for some really great moments to be captured. 

KC: I love that. How do your kids feel about the photography? Do they pick it up yet or are they at a point where it means something to them to take photographs?

AB: Not really. Our eldest is three and a half and the youngest is one and a half so at this point it is very much just chasing them around and playing while hoping that you get maybe one good shot of your kids. One of the things we do as a family is we spend a lot of time on the land with our kids and learning about things and seeing their little hands pick up berries or flowers gives me that opportunity to capture that tender moment while they don’t know it. It’s often during these moments we learn the Mohawk word for what they are experiencing and relate it back to who we are. Often these photos that I take are deeply meaningful to me, as an Indigenous mother.

KC: Thank you for sharing that part of your process. So I want to dive a little bit more into the series itself. There have been beautiful stories coming forward. Christine, would you share about one essay or idea that has come through this series that is really meaningful for you or helped you think about your own question in a little bit of a different way?

CL: It’s very hard to choose one out of those that have been published thus far but in being able to curate the collection of Indigenous voices that are included in this series, first being able to work with Indigenous authors and academics, poets and storytellers, has been an incredible highlight for me—possibly of my whole career. So in that sense, it’s very hard to choose just one. There are threads from each of the essays that I connect with in a very deep way. 

I love how the essays by Amy Shawanda, who just completed her PhD, and Christi Belcourt speak to their understandings of how we are connected to land, and Clayton’s piece, knowing the history of his nation and of his family. He and I do similar work in that we are historians and storytellers. I really love Tanya Ruka’s essay, which is yet to be published, and seeing how she pulls in her artistic work in her connection with land. This entire series has been very, very inspiring and has also really rooted me in furthering my own knowledge and my own understanding of who I am as an Anishinaabekwe, as an Indigenous woman.

KC: Alyssa, you’ve been responding with photography to every one of these written pieces, and I’m wondering what floats to mind for you?

AB: Every single one of those pieces I read, and read, and read over and over and over again. It sounds so funny, but with every piece I would write down a line or two that really provided some imagery in my head. Then I would go out and try to shoot something that recalled that line from that piece. Sometimes I would carry that little piece of paper in my pocket, and sometimes, I would pull it out and I would read it, and then I would put it back in my pocket, and then I would go for a walk in the woods.

So, every single one of them has a line or two, or sometimes entire paragraphs, that really, really spoke to me. If I could single out one piece and one line that really got to the heart of me I think it would be from Margaret Noodin’s piece and it was, “we are water, we are stone, we are made of liquid and bone.” I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if it’s the way just that line flows. But every time I went to the water, that line was in my mind. I guess maybe it’s because part of our bodies is largely made up of water and when we stand on the shores of a big river or a big lake, it’s that same water that sustains all of life and tells the story of our connection… But honestly, I mean it when I when I say that I loved each and every piece that was written took the honour of providing the images for their words to my heart.

KC: Christine, for you as a curator—and also you’ve engaged with this question as a writer—and Alyssa, for you as artist and photographer: How is this question influencing your larger body of work? Or how do you imagine it might influence what’s to come and the types of things you’re thinking about now or dreaming up or hoping to work on in the future?

CL: I think for me it’s a reminder to remain grounded in place and to allow place to guide the work that I do. When I say place, I’m also talking about the stories behind place, which then loop right back into that question, “What stories does the land hold?” So it’s a reminder for me to base myself in my community knowledge, in my nation knowledge, and also to continue to find ways to express what it means to be an Algonquin person who is reconnecting to history, to land, to knowledge, and to ceremony.

I begged Katherine to have the opportunity to write a story that had been sitting with me for so long. Working with this question allowed me to find a way to express even just the tiniest little bit of how connected I am to the place that I’ve called home for my entire life, and to honour some of my family stories that have been shared with me for so long. So really, this question of “what stories does the land hold?” is that reminder that we are part of land. There’s no separation, there’s no disconnect, but that rather we are part of the world, and, further, that we have a responsibility to be good relations.

AB: Well, I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to go outside and take pictures again without that question of “what stories does the land hold?” being in my mind. Honestly, that question is so fundamental to who we are as Indigenous people. It’s like everywhere I go, now with everything I take a picture of, I’m asking myself “what story does this hold?” whether it’s the strawberries, where did the strawberries come from? Or a turtle, what lessons of life can she share with me?

There are so many stories that are passed down through generations and sadly, a lot of them have been lost but a lot of them haven’t. We just have to know where and how to look to find them. The Land holds them all for us. 

These stories relate to the natural world and different life lessons that we can learn. For example, the story of the hermit thrush is a story of humility and honesty and pride. I don’t think I can ever look at a hermit thrush again when I’m birding without that gentle reminder of not to be too proud and not to be overly ambitious. This question has really changed my life. Honestly, every time I go outside, I think of this question. So, thank you.

KC: That’s beautiful. It’s making me think—and, Christine, I love how you write about this—that depending on when you start telling the story, things have been really hard for a long time; depending on whose stories you carry in your body or whose stories are in the land where you live. These past two years, there have been stories coming forward that make it apparent to people of different experiences that the stories we’ve been using don’t work for us and for our world: A lot has been manipulated or hidden behind veils that originate in the language we use as it expresses the unexamined, limiting beliefs we hold in our bodies.

So, this brings me to the next generation. This idea of story which, as an editor, I have never taken words lightly: The types of words that are put forward, the types of stories that are told. So this question of story is incredibly important and I’m wondering what your thoughts are on the stories that we’re offering to the next generation. How do we really begin to lift the voices, like you were speaking about, Alyssa, of the hermit thrush? I think some people might hear this question of “what stories does the land hold?” and think about it in a very poetic sense. But I’ve been learning through this series—through working with you, Christine and Alyssa—that listening to the stories of the land is essential and very concrete work we have to do.

As part of Questions for a Resilient Future, we have this series of eight gorgeous essays and the artworks that are in conversation with them, but obviously this is not an isolated place for engaging with this question of land and story. How do you see this question continue to be carried forward by communities everywhere? What does that look like to you?

CL: Looking to our shared history as Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, Indigenous stories have been purposefully silenced. I would say colonial-settler society knew that there was a danger in us sharing our stories. They understood that if they were to stop our sharing and our transmission of knowledge from generation to generation, they could try to kill a culture and kill a people. Being able to put these questions out into the world encourages responses to that question.

It is my hope that both the question and the responses will encourage readers to think a little bit deeper. Much like Alyssa when she interacts with certain animals or certain plants, when you have a relationship, you think deeper. You are more conscious of your relationship with that animal, with that plant, with water, with air, and so on. So it’s just my hope that this one little project in the grand scheme of this process of Indigenous reconnection and resurgence will encourage some further consciousness and deepen relationships: Relationships between Indigenous peoples as we’re all reconnecting to our ancestral life ways, but also for non-Indigenous folks, too, who are on Turtle Island or in other parts of the world to understand that they also have that responsibility for these relationships.

We’re at a time, I think in our shared history where the way that we treat land is incredibly crucial. It also reflects the way that we treat each other. So if we are able to find ways to connect and genuinely hold reciprocal relationships perhaps the world as a whole will be a better place for future generations as well. I think also it honors our ancestors who have been here and who have started work who have been living in these ways for thousands of years.

KC: Thank you so much. Alyssa, do you have anything you want to add there? Anything you want to comment on as someone who is shepherding some of these next generation folks?

AB: Like Christine said, I almost feel like now is the time for these stories to have a bit of resurgence and for these questions to be asked—and to be listened to, due to the want and need for Truth and Reconciliation between settlers and Indigenous people. I think there’s a real eagerness between the Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people on Turtle Island to listen and to learn and to share and be heard. I honestly think this world really needs a little bit of Indigenous knowledge right now. 

What is really important is for my kids to learn and know these stories so that they can grow up and be proud Cayuga, Mohawk people. I just think it’s time to be unapologetic about who we are and the stories that we are connected to and it’s time for us to advocate for Mother Earth. 

KC: So, listening to the land is one of these major ways that’s going to return us to good relationship, relationship being something, again, that has been core to this question. How do you go back to the land and listen, particularly when the stories in that land—what you were just speaking to Alyssa, what you shared earlier, Christine, about reconnecting to your Indigenous heritage and Ancestors—are painful? What equips you and what are the tools?

CL: For me, it’s something that it is as simple as making an effort to spend time outside every day and being present, and watching, and being quiet to in order to listen. It is that daily practice that allows space for the development of deep relationship with those that we often, I think, take for granted in our life. As we speak, I’m looking out over the water and the trees that are in my yard. Even the concept of yard and ownership of land, it’s so different from Indigenous ways of relating to land. 

How often do we pass by the same plants or these insects and bugs without realizing that they are relations? We interact with them. We are not “other than.” It took me being able to be in the same place for a number of seasons and watching those plants and how they change from the earliest blooms to flower and then to berry and then, from there, where they’re getting ready for the winter to go quiet. I now spend time learning from plants as I watch how they change over time, what their role might be and watching who else they interact with.

Through this project I was able to also look at those relationships that are very much present in our lives that don’t always pay attention to. This includes the types of flowers will bloom at the same time of the year. I only realized this year that my grandmother’s favorite wild flower, Brown-Eyed Susans, bloom at the same time or very close to Fireweed; our favorite flowers bloom together by coincidence. She passed away when I was twelve. But now our favourite flowers get to hang out together. 

So, looking just a little bit deeper and realizing those connections that exist, that’s the type of relationships that I try to have. This project has been a way for me to express that.

KC: Alyssa, for you, the obvious one we’ve been talking about is your photography. Are there any other practices you want to share about how you go back to the land and how you listen to the land?

AB: Yeah, I think a big part of it is learning the language which is very difficult for me because it’s not something you can just pick up and put down. But the more I learn of the language, the more I learn that it’s very descriptive, and it’s a very beautiful language. Starting here is important because our language was taken from us in the past and it feels like reclamation, word by word. We’ve chosen to learn Mohawk strictly because we live in Tyendinaga on Mohawk territory.

I think just learning word by word is a big thing, for me and it is the best I can do for my busy life, being the mother to two toddlers. Learning the word for rock, pine cone, mushroom, songbird builds our connection and takes away the notion that these are just things, and for me, it’s important to share this knowledge. Separately, If you live or are visiting in someone else’s territory I think it’s important to learn a couple words in the language and learn how those words are related to everything else. Ask questions: What was the original name of this town, what does it mean, who was here before we were, how does this river, rock, lake, mountain shape the lives of the Indigenous people of this region? All of these things form relationships with the land and is a really nice way to pay homage to the land you are on. 

When out with Christine on her territory, I asked her to tell me the name of her people, the land, the river, in her language so I could deepen my relationship with the Land. I think it builds a bond with the Land and shows respect to something that isn’t yours. 

KC: So a question about questions themselves, as we are here at the Center for Humans in Nature, celebrating ten years of our publication that is dedicated to a practice of questions that open up the world rather than narrow it; questions that lead us to further questions rather than producing limits on knowledge. This question—what stories does the land hold?—is the most recent to be published in that series. It feels beautiful to be here marking ten years, celebrating questions, and holding this one, Christine, that you birthed into being. Is there a question that you’re holding at this time in particular? Something that you would want to share with others, something that’s guiding your way of being in the world.

CL: I think for me, what’s really guiding my work right now is both how can I, or how can we, continue to always be open to learning more? How can we continue to expand our knowledge and our understanding of the world that we live and all of its complexities? Then to take that further, it’s also, how can we teach others, and what does that require? How do we make sure that we are in a safe space to express ourselves, whether it’s sharing stories or whether it’s asking questions, and how do we inspire and foster relationships where possible? And where are those relationships needed or possible? 

AB: For me, I think I said earlier how I’m carrying this question of what stories does land hold pretty heavily on my heart, everywhere I go. But to take that a little bit further is the story of who. Within this question, I look at nature and ask: Who is this and what stories have they seen? What do they know that we don’t know? What can we learn from them? 

So that question of who, in my mind gives life to the earth. To o the water, to the air, to the stars and it makes me really focus on the relationship. These are our relations and when you think of them as who and not what it really changes your focus. These are the things I carry with me, and hopefully can pass onto my children. 

KC: Thank you so much. I’m grateful to you both for coming here, coming into this virtual space with open-heartedness and humility and curiosity and generosity. Thank you so much for being here. Before we wrap, if there’s anything else on your heart right now, I want to open that space for sharing.

CL: I think for me, it’s just an expression of gratitude, Katherine. I hold so much gratitude to the Center for Humans and Nature for this opportunity because it’s had a profound impact.

AB: I have to agree with that extension of gratitude to Katherine and the Center for Humans and Nature and but also to you, Christine because I wouldn’t have been able to do this without you and our adventures. 

KC: I’m so glad for what your creative connection and collaboration has produced–this incredible abundance. I can’t wait to see what your next collaboration will be; what blossoms from that. Thank you so much.

AB: Thank you, Nia:wen! 

CL: Miigwetch.

  • Christine Luckasavitch

    Christine Luckasavitch is an Omàmìwininì Madaoueskarini Anishinaabekwe (a woman of the Madawaska River Algonquin people) and belongs to the Crane Clan, and is of mixed settler ancestry including Irish, Swedish, and Polish.
  • Alyssa Bardy

    Alyssa Bardy is a mother, wife, photographer, and a lover of the land. She is Upper Cayuga from Six Nations of the Grand River and mixed-European settler. Usually with her camera, binoculars, and children in tow, she is the creator of Chicory Wild Creative.
  • Katherine Kassouf Cummings

    Katherine serves as Managing Editor at the Center for Humans and Nature, where she leads the Questions for a Resilient Future and developed the Editorial Fellows program. She is co-editor of What Kind of Ancestor Do You Want to Be? (University of Chicago Press, 2021).
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