We belong to Mommy Earth
An interview with Algonquin chief Grand-Father
Dominique Rankin and Grand-Mother Marie-Josée Tardif, devoted to reconciliation with nature and people
By Maddalena Maltese
The forest is his sanctuary. It is the nave where songs and prayers resound. It is the family album, where ancestors continue to recount memories and speak to his heart and mind. It is the place of healing.
Grand-Father Dominique Rankin, an Algonquin Native American agreed to be interviewed in the heart of the Laurentian Mountains, in southern Quebec, north of the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers. He was joined by Grand-Mother Marie-Josée Tardif, former journalist and coauthor of the book They Called Us Savages.
They are both dedicated to promoting reconciliation and the sharing of indigenous cultures with all nations.
They have also taken refuge in the mountains to make sense of the hundreds of indigenous children’s bodies that Canada is finding buried alongside Christian schools. Bodies that have disappeared; a lost generation for the First Nations people. “I don’t want to speak in public before my soul is healed,” Dominique explains, “before peace and forgiveness have filled my words.”
Dominique, or Kapiteotak (his real name at birth) had been chosen at the age of seven to succeed his father as chief and traditional healer. He has swum in a circle of beavers and slept with bears, learning from them to attune his spirit with Mother “Mommy” Earth, far from the fear and disengagement he had learned in a Catholic boarding school.
He has devoted himself to teaching ancestral knowledge to members of the First Nations as a way of reconnecting them with their roots.
What is your vision of nature? What is nature for you?
I received this vision from my elders: the forest is inhabited by our ancestors, by the spirits. It is not heaven or hell. However, eternal life is there, because of the presence of the spirits of human beings who had lived there and of animals that live there now. The forest is alive with all those creatures.
We don’t have cemeteries in our tradition; when someone dies, we bring them to the ancestors’ land. We cremate the body and lay down the ashes at the bottom of the trees.
It’s also instinctive to be attracted to nature because we see how nature is giving us so many things. We really look to her, and every morning we almost hear the Earth saying, “Help me.” Earth is trying to call her children, but the children are not there anymore — their spirit has left.
What does it mean to protect the Earth, to listen to its cry?
This is an unusual question for me. Protection is a modern concept, because in the past we lived in harmony with nature. The Algonquin call themselves Anishinabe, a word that means “a human being in harmony with nature.”
When you see an Anishinabe, you see an authentic human being, someone who is true and has value. It’s a concept.
We don’t define a human being without this harmony. I have a place in nature, as animals have theirs. But I’m not higher or superior; we are all part of nature; each one has its own rule. Mother Earth means much more to us, she is a mom.
What could be a particular contribution of the First Nation people in saving the environment?
Dominique: I have a tough time when I hear that we should “save the environment.” First, Mommy Earth is not a business; we must have a lot of love for her.
My community and I would like to bring here, into the forest, rich and influential people for them to understand the [proper] relationship with her. Some nations can go to Mars, or to the moon and their scientists can calculate everything; but if you bring them to the forest, they are completely disoriented. They do not know how to feed themselves; they do not know how to behave.
If I were to teach at a university I would tell the students, “Get out of your house and come with me into the forest. Let us go canoeing and discover that the rivers are infinite … Here you will understand obstacles and learn about life: it’s the only way to “save” the forest. It is our way to save it.
Marie: It’s good to have science in our modern world, and it’s good to have the spirit of conquest. It’s good to have all the things that the new world brought. However, the First Nations bring us back to the connection with nature, with the Earth and with values that have disappeared.
The modern world creates disconnection — a disconnect from relationships, from nature, from animals, from your true self; so, people are lost. They try to fill the emptiness with material things, and they want more and more all the time. But there is no real satisfaction.
How do you help people to slow down and reconnect with nature?
Dominique: It’s a matter of education and relationship. People must know that Mother Earth does not belong to us; we belong to her. We say: “Mommy Earth, Father sky, Grandmother moon, Grandfather sun.” Even the stones we call grandparents. The stars are our ancestors looking at us.
When people ask William Commanda, my spiritual guide, how he managed to get all that wisdom at his age of 95, he replied that nature teaches us every day. Look at the turtle, for example: it teaches you to take your time in living your life, to take it in stride when an obstacle hits you, and that you must never get angry with anyone.
Marie: When people visit a reservation, they are often shocked because they don’t expect so much sadness and problems. One woman once asked an elder, “What happened?” to which he replied, “My people stopped thanking, and this is the problem.”
Every morning our traditional elders know that we should to give thanks for the gift of life. Sunrise ceremony or the prayer at the end of the day are always about thanking everything around you in nature. When you do your gratitude prayer, you feel connected, you feel that invisible presence, and you are never alone.
Have you experienced a particular challenge that impacted you?
About 30 years ago, I left my ancestors’ forest and spent one month in a city. When I returned, 10 square miles of trees were cut, and there were no more animals or birds. Three men, employed by huge paper mills in France, came through the forest, sent by the chief of my community to meet me.
I was truly angry about what had happened, and I gave them a hard time. “Are you coming to kill my animals? There are no more spirits; my birds, my animals are not there anymore. I might have had ancestors that used those paths, but they have now disappeared!” I cried, thinking about the consequences in my own life and in that of future generations.
“We have destroyed so many forests, and we are far from [a sense of] spirituality. For us, the forests are a business,” they answered, “but we understand now, we need your wisdom.”
In that moment I started caring about those people, thinking that they might be here because they needed help. After 25 years, I received a call from them asking to meet again. I accepted and proposed a ceremony to honor the trees they had cut and the animals and my ancestors that had disappeared.
At the end, I offered them caribou antlers as a gift. After our meeting 25 years ago, I found out that they created the Forest Stewardship Council, an association to protect the forests. They understood.
You are in the World Council of Religions for Peace. Do you think that religious people have a specific responsibility in caring for the environment?
Marie: We read the encyclical Laudato Sì. Pope Francis clearly says that you must protect the First Peoples, because they are the best protectors of the Earth. Thus, if you want to protect the Earth, protect them. In 2019, we were invited to the Vatican and attended a meeting about environment with a committee called Ethics in Action.
Dominique: There were scholars, scientists, businesspeople, cardinals and First Nations representatives. They started talking about the agenda straightaway, and I raised my hand to say that I was surprised that in the Vatican we had not started with a prayer.
“We came here to talk about my Mommy Earth, and I think it’s important we start with a prayer,” I said.
I then invited all the women to stand and all the men to be silent, and to look the women in the eyes, because women and Earth are linked in our tradition.
When we were about to conclude the meeting, I asked to make a circle and hold hands, like an invisible umbilical cord of connectedness. In the end, everyone was moved because we woke up the spirit of the people, and this is our responsibility as religious people.