Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Ojibway activist brings spirit to discussion of land ethic

Express Staff Writer

The Wood River Land Trust has kicked off a new series of discussions titled the "Connection to the Land Series." The discussions are geared toward deepening the spiritual connection of local people when thinking about land ethics.

Ojibway land activist Joan Jack, a member of the Berens River First Nation of Manitoba, Canada, and her uncle, Tribal Elder Henry McKay, a retired commercial fisherman, met with citizens of the Wood River Valley to share their experiences dealing with Canadian law and industrial development pressure on their land. The pair shared how they maintain spiritual connection to their land and the threats facing their culture.

The gathering held at The Nature Conservancy office Friday evening in Hailey was filled to capacity with people curious to learn about Jack's relationship with her land.

Beginning with a prayer by McKay, the pair imparted stories and dynamics of a close-to-the-earth lifestyle wrought from generations living on the land and waters of the 300-mile long Lake Winnipeg. The landscape, reminiscent of Minnesota, is the spiritual home of Jack's people.

"It's really an amazing part of my life starting to understand what's ahead for us," McKay said, as Jack spoke of raising mixed blood daughters and leaving home for a Canadian education. Jack reflected on history and trouble regaining native status for some Indians, and the joy of her marriage to a Tlinget hunter in British Columbia, who helped her gain a spiritual connection to the land.

McKay expressed fears that the hopes, values and heritage of the Ojibway people is in jeopardy, due in part to land use pressures from timber and hydroelectric industries and disenfranchisement caused by Canadian Indian law.

Jack described young Ojibway in real crisis because of a lack of opportunity and the legacy of racist policies that have fractured the community. But she hopes that development with smart land use planning can turn the tide and return her people to a sustainable lifestyle.

Jack, who was invited by Wood River Land Trust Executive Director Scott Boettger to visit Hailey for an exchange of ideas, in part contrasted indigenous people's land ethic with land use ethics common in the Wood River Valley. Where the economic value of land is what motivates stewardship for some people, Jack said for indigenous people place is globally specific.

"It defines us," she said.

Boettger met Jack at a retreat in Vermont last year and the two realized common interests as conservationists. Boettger said he was seeking guidance to rekindle an emotional expression in connecting to the land, something Jack expresses with great passion.

In the exchange of ideas, Jack explained that Boettger has skills that she believes, as an attorney trained in Canadian law, are what her community requires in an area the size of 10 Yellowstone Parks, about 32,000 square miles. Jack said her spiritual connection to the land really evolved as her husband took her into the forest and up mountains and she began to harvest all parts of the moose he hunted for consumption.

"My spirit, my mind, my heart became connected," Jack said, getting personal about her marriage. "Being married to a hunter is a special thing."

Jack confesses to having a driven personality and an ego to match, but she also said that for her mission to protect her people's land with a proper land use ethic it is appropriate.

"I can cut up a whole moose," she said. "Innately I knew what to do. We consume all of the animal (including the hooves and horns and nose). If we eat (what our land provides) we will never sell our land."

Jack does advocate partnerships with environmentalists and conservationists over those with industry because "industry is just bigger beads and trinkets."

Jack hopes Boettcher and his contacts can help her community develop a land use plan that will promote sustainability.

Jack also shared the history of indigenous disenfranchisement handed down through Canadian laws, which have added to her people's upstream fight to maintain a positive connection to their land and avoid the crushing poverty common today at Berens River.

Jack said as a law student she was offended by what she learned of the negative impacts of Canadian law, but when a professor convinced her to stick it out, she said she received her marching orders to fight for her people's rights.

Jack and McKay said they have experienced encouraging signs that could bring positive changes in their community because 16 tribes are now on board to contribute to a land use plan for the larger Berens River area.

Boettcher is excited to continue his partnership with the Ojibway people. He hopes continuing conversations like the talk with Jack and her uncle will help the people of the Wood River Valley deepen their own spiritual connection to the land.

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