Teachings of the Land
On Feb. 12, at Shaughnessy Heights United Church, there was a dialogue featuring Rabbi Dr. Laura Duhan Kaplan, director of Inter-Religious Studies at Vancouver School of Theology, and Rev. Ray Aldred, director of VST’s Indigenous Studies Program. Held under the rubric of Shaughnessy Heights’ Reconciliation Matters initiative, The Teachings of the Land: Our Oldest Relative explored the spiritual relationships between people and land.
Aldred, who is from Treaty 8 territory in northern Alberta, said his understanding of the land has been formed by his Cree upbringing and his life study of indigenous wisdom. Asked about the title of the talk, he said, “For us, the land is part of the family.”
Kaplan spoke of the Jewish people’s connection to the land of their birth, Israel. A self-described “born urbanite,” she also spoke of her personal spiritual connections to the land – hiking in nature or learning from her husband how to grow food – and what she called the “eco-theology” of the Bible.
“The first chapter of Genesis takes us through the creation of an ecology, where everything is interconnected and blessed by the Divine,” she explained. “The first human is called ‘Adam’ in Hebrew, which is not just a random pleasing sound, but comes from adamah, red clay dirt, and means ‘the red clay dirt person,’ the ‘earthling.’ The Hebrew Bible is an indigenous text, which tells us ‘how to walk well on the land,’” she said, using a phrase of Aldred’s. “The Book of Leviticus, for instance, teaches us to consciously let the land rest – the commandment of Shmitah, where the land has rest from farming every seven years. The Hebrew Bible teaches that the ecosystem belongs to God, not to us. It is not ours to come in and displace peoples and animals and to take what we want.”
When Kaplan attended a course of Aldred’s in 2016, she said she realized she was a “rank beginner” in eco-spirituality. “Hunter-gatherers were specialists in sustainability,” she said. “They were not primitive; they are the next level.”
Kaplan also discussed the view of some that First Nations were one of the lost tribes of Israel, a view Aldred had also jokingly referred to earlier. Although lacking historical evidence to support it, commented Kaplan, “it works as a metaphor for a similar history of displacement.”
Aldred made another biblical allusion when speaking about how early Europeans were greeted by some Ojibwe as “Anishinaabe” (which literally means “people”) but they refused the title. “Reminds me of another story about some other people who didn’t want to be what they were created to be, but wanted to be God,” Aldred commented with a grin, referring to the story of Adam and Eve.
Aldred spoke a lot about the need for humility and the renunciation of certainty in order to find a relationship both to land and to other people. “Your perspective is always limited, it is always just ‘your perspective.’ You need other people, other creatures, to learn from. The Creator is giving us an opportunity to learn humility. If we miss that chance,” Aldred warned, alluding again to a biblical text (Leviticus 18:28), “the land will spit you out.”
Asked about practices of connecting to the land, Kaplan suggested learning about the local ecosystem, spending time exploring it and getting to know the unique creatures who inhabit it. She also spoke about connecting to members of one’s own tribe in order to cultivate a sense of home, and about getting to know the indigenous peoples of the area.
Aldred discussed the importance of really listening to the land so we can make better decisions as a community. Noting that Mary was Jesus’ mother, he asked who Adam’s mother was. “The earth was his mother, and the earth cared for him and cares for us.”
Aldred also said that indigenous people reverse Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, which places basic needs like food and lodging on the bottom and spirituality and community at the top, as being less necessary. “Get your spirituality right,” said Aldred, “and everything else will be right. Take care of your relationship to the land, and take care of your neighbours.”
Asked about the ownership and economic use of land, Aldred said, “We belong to the land, it doesn’t belong to us.” He noted that treaties, in the indigenous understanding, were less about the division of land than about how it should be shared. “Of course, we should enjoy and make use of the gifts of the land,” he said, “but, in our decisions, we should think seven generations ahead – that’s 225 years into the future. That might take a little more time, but it’s worth it to our grandchildren.”
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He writes regularly for the Forward and All That Is Interesting, and has been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Tikkun and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.