Roots that Meet in the Earth: Permaculture & Aboriginal Teachings

Bonita with big beet harvestby Bonita Ford.  Creative Commons - Attribution, Share Alike, 2015.

A few years ago, I was invited to give a presentation about permaculture for an indigenous studies class in Ottawa. After the class, I had lunch with the professor, an indigenous man from Bolivia. He told me that much of what I had shared was inherent in his culture. I realised that permaculture is most powerful for people like me: people who grew up in a society and culture where we were NOT taught how to meet our basic needs in harmony with all of life around us.

I began to think of permaculture as a language – something we can learn and practice – which allows us to interact with the natural world in a more holistic way. There are many cultures that already do this (and some languages inherently reflect this way of life). Permaculture as a language has its own grammar (we structure ideas using principles and patterns), as well as its own vocabulary and common phrases (there are tools and techniques that we commonly use).

Permaculture can help us re-design our lives to be more harmonious with nature; we aim to design systems that mimic nature, restore health and create vitality. In permaculture and Aboriginal culture, nature is the teacher and we understand that our well-being depends on the well-being of the world around us. Whether it is conveyed as an ethical principle or inherent to a way of life, this basic understanding is essential to our long-term survival.

In the last year and a half, by chance or grace, I've been invited to work with several Aboriginal communities in our region. We were invited to Nishnawbe Aski Nation's Food Symposium in Thunder Bay, where we led a permaculture workshop and planted an edible forest garden with a group of participants. I was invited shovelling soil, planting an edible forest garden in Thunder Bayby Gizhewaadiziwin Health Access Centre in Fort Frances to give a workshop for beginner and advanced gardeners, integrating ideas from permaculture and Native culture.

Last autumn, we spent three days with the Debajehmujig Storytellers on Manitoulin Island. Debaj is a non-profit arts organisation dedicated to the vitalisation of Anishnaabe culture and creating bridges between Native and non-Native people. During the “Land, Art & Food” Festival, Sébastien and I participated in a panel discussion with Sunny, a “traditionalist” and storyteller, in which we explored the connections between permaculture and the traditional “Foundation Teachings”.

Sunny talked about the importance of the preservation and betterment of humanity and the preservation of Creation (which also preserves humanity). When I think about the current state of the world, it seems evident to me that our industrial civilisation is not preserving itself or the planet. In permaculture, our approach is rooted in three ethics: care of the Earth, care of the people, and sharing or returning the surplus. People care and Earth care translate directly into the preservation of humanity and Creation.

Another area of overlap is in observing nature. The Foundation Teachings teach us to look to the first teachers, to observe and learn from the plants, animals and elements. On a piece of land, a permaculture designer observes as much as possible (the plants, animals, sun, wind, etc.) to better understand the whole system, including microclimates, forces impacting the system, seasonal changes, wasted resources and more.

In one of the Foundation Teachings, the story of the oak tree reminds us that, as we mature, our role is to give back to life. Similarly, in permaculture, we talk about working with natural succession; we aim to mimic healthy ecosystems like mature forests, which can sustain themselves and the life within and around them. We can create systems that will give back to life for generations into the future. Forest gardens and agroforestry systems can provide food, medicine, edible forest garden planted during the Nishnawbe Aski Nation Food Symposium in Thunder Baytimber, fuel and biodiversity. Using fossil fuels wisely to build earthworks for the harvesting and storage of water can protect landscapes from drought and flood.

Yet another aspect of healthy and sustainable living is the idea of “working with nature” instead of against it. In one of Sunny's stories, a brother and sister bunny are reminded to be themselves; they are bunnies (with their own bunny tendencies and abilities) and not bears or birds. How often do we try to force ourselves to be something we are not? Similarly, in permaculture design, we aim to work with nature and with what is present. If a piece of land is particularly wet, instead of draining it and planting trees that prefer dry conditions, it would be more effective to choose plants that enjoy moist conditions or to dig deeper and make a pond. Equally, in a business, it is very useful to learn what goods or services the neighbourhood wants and is willing to pay for. Can we learn to use existing conditions as an opportunity? Bill Mollison, one of the founders of permaculture, is often quoted as saying “You don't have a snail problem. You have a duck deficiency.”

In the last year, we've continued our conversations with our new friends at Debaj. I'm incredibly inspired by what we are creating together and hope you will join us in this exciting time of exploration and learning. Please check out our:

  • FREE Live Call: Connecting Aboriginal Teachings and Permaculture on September 17.  Sign-up now!
  • Amazing presentations, workshops and art: Let's Start Planting - Aambe Ktigedaa! October 25 on Manitoulin Island.  Sliding scale $15 to $30, with lunch included.  A very affordable day full of learning - it's worth the trip (carpooling available).
  • Permaculture Design Course with a focus on Aboriginal knowledge in 2016 on Manitoulin Island. Stay tuned!


dinner with presenters from Nishnawbe Aski Nation's Food Symposiumgardening workshop at Gizhewaadiziwin Health Access Centre in Fort FrancesSix Foot: Land, Art & Food Festival by Debajehmujig Storytellers on Manitoulin Island











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