Ancestral Relations with the Land

If we are to heal the earth, we must also heal ourselves, individually and as communities. Moreover, the two are inter-connected. It’s all about relations — relations of mutual recognition and respect and mutual support and sustainability. It’s also about the daily practices of mutuality and responsible self-governance that support these relations.

 

Menzies_tweet_AncestorsBy Heather Menzies

As memories of giving the opening keynote at an International Conference on the Commons (IASC2015) start to fade, the lasting learning for me is twofold:

  • First, that we all have ancestral relations to the land; and,
  • second, that positioning ourselves to reclaim this, at first just in our imagination as a possible shift in perspective, is a critical step in reconnecting with the earth and the urgent task of transforming our economic and political relations with it, for mutual survival.

My speech was well received, with many people approaching me later to say thanks, to have me sign their copy of my book and to extend the conversation. What touched people most was my being moved, and even led, by fragments of information I’d uncovered in my research which, in turn, became like fragments of ancestral memory coming to life inside me.

Menzies_tweet_IdleNoMore_Thomas_DyckTheir attentiveness had deepened when I lingered over the phrase “a field in good heart” that dated back to commoning times. The words suggested a connection, heart to heart, between people like my ancestors who lived together on the commons and the land that they worked, and also inhabited deeply, even spiritually.

I wasn’t the only speaker evoking this theme. The conference as a whole was framed to honour the Indigenous peoples of Alberta and their unbroken connections to the land, and featured people with Aboriginal heritage from across Canada and around the world. Francois Paulette, who gave another of the keynote speeches is a Denesuline former chief, a residential school survivor and the co-chair of the Dene Nations Water Strategy. He also lives beside the river, having chosen to move back there when he realized “I was talking about my way of life but I wasn’t living it.

“Our way of life was in the river and on the land,” he said. “And also our spiritual practices that showed us how to live. Our river was our lifeline.”

In my last book, Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good, I drew parallels between the degradation of the natural environment and a parallel degradation of the social environment. This is evident not just in deepening inequalities but also social marginalization and disengagement, loneliness and depression. I argued that if we are to heal the earth, we must also heal ourselves, individually and as communities. Moreover, the two are inter-connected. It’s all about relations, I argued: relations of mutual recognition and respect and mutual support and sustainability. It’s also about the daily practices of mutuality and responsible self-governance that support these relations.

I invited people to see themselves as entering a relationship with plants they might grow in a flower box, entering a relationship with neighbours in a community garden or cleaning up a shoreline, entering a relationship with that body of water as well.

Researching ancestral relations with the land is a way of deepening that connection. I started personally as I traced three out of four branches of my family tree back to the Tay River Valley in the Highlands of Scotland. Once there, though, I found that ancestral relations with the land are more than personal. Or perhaps I should say that the personal extends beyond the individual and the subjective; certainly it did for my ancestors as I dug into the history and uncovered the matrix of commons practices of sharing and governing relations with the land for mutual sustainability in which their lives were immersed.

Ancestral relations with the land clearly include the social. Another speaker at the IASC (International Association for the Study of the Commons) conference, Gitksan Ruby Gordon spoke of her ancestral relations with the huckleberry patches in northern B.C. as “a social infrastructure for berry patch management” that combined both skills and practices and community relationships of shared responsibility and care.

Ancestral relations can extend to the political as well. Every historical account I’ve read about commons and commons-like relations to the land includes an intricate network of rules governing access to the land and use of its resources, as well as an equally intricate network of consequences (sanctions, penalties) for free riders. But here is where the political doubles back to the personal. The current president of the IASC, Tine DeMoor has reviewed the record books of commons that thrived in the Netherlands in early modern times (some lasting for nearly 700 years), and found that the ones that endured did not need sanctions and were able to avoid the expense (time, money and emotional energy) that applying sanctions involved.

“The secret,” she wrote in a paper co-authored with Annelies Tukker, “seems to lie in ensuring that people meet frequently so that they ‘internalize’ rules….[and are] more frequently confronted with their moral duty to behave well…. [H]igh levels of participation consequently may have been more important for the longevity of the institution than sanctioning.”

A host of things are required to produce meaningful commitments at the Climate Change conference in December, including fact-based evidence of the irredeemable damage being done by an out-of-control global market economy. But cultural and spiritual ‘evidence’ has a place in the conversation too. The recoverable stories and memories of implicated connection to the earth can remind us of our shared, our collective heritage and what it’s calling us to do and say – beyond the founds of utilitarian rationality.

Remembering and daring to ground ourselves in our ancestral relations with the land will help bridge the nature-culture divide that continues to make the fate of the earth a political game of winners, losers and free riders that is someone else’s responsibility to resolve.

New, old notions of land title – Ottawa Citizen op-ed

First published in the Ottawa Citizen, July 8, 2014.

The Supreme Court’s 8-0 decision recognizing Aboriginal title to land First Nations communities have inhabited since before European contact  is huge. It legitimizes understandings of land tenure as habitation and sustainable use. And it legitimizes these inhabitants’ right to define or co-define that sustainable use into the future, instead of merely being consulted on mitigating damage when outside corporate interests move into their territory to develop mines, or oil and gas.

This historic ruling could be even more significant depending on how non-Aboriginal Canadians respond: If they choose to see it not as obstructing development, but as an opportunity to redefine “development” as mutually beneficial for habitat as well as human inhabitants, drawing on their own pre-contact heritage for inspiration.

For many immigrants from Britain, including my ancestors, that pre-contact heritage includes living on the land, inhabiting it as commons. The word common originally meant community and land, inhabitants and habitat, “together as one” or “bound by mutual obligation.” These forebears of Canadian “settlers” didn’t consider themselves as owning the land they occupied. Nor did they consider land as private property. That came later, with the Improvement and the Enclosure movements, the emergence of a modern market economy, changes in law and its jurisdiction and the writings of foundational philosophers like John Locke and Adam Smith. Considered the father of modern economics, Locke penned a treatise (in the 1690s) proposing that people can claim land as their own property by virtue of their labour “improving” it, while Smith, in his 1776 Wealth of Nations, argued that the state and the courts should back such claims.

Land in Britain had been considered allodial, that is, without a supreme authority, until the Norman Conquest and the introduction of feu charters granting formal control to Norman and Anglo-Norman lords. Even when commoners paid rent (in kind at first) to these lords, their commoning rights persisted. These entitled them to use the land by virtue of having inhabited it since before recorded time, and to do so according to traditional self-governing practices, as habitat that sustained them while they sustained it.

While the Tsilhqot’in people moved around a fairly extensive territory west of Williams Lake in B.C., the commoners managed their relations with the habitat through stints, or quotas. For example, each family could only send so many sheep, cows and goats to the common pasture, to prevent over-grazing. Markets and trade had a place in this economy, but didn’t govern it, and this was key. In his 1945 classic The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi chronicled the shift from an economy regulated by the social relations of community and ecological relations with the land to one regulated by the logic of the market. The result of this transformation, he warned, “must disjoint man’s relationships and threaten his natural habitat with annihilation.”

The transformation is not complete here in Canada, as the Supreme Court’s ruling makes clear. It holds open the door to honour the past and draw on its precedents to heal those relationships, to preserve natural habitats and even, perhaps, restore them. There are many inspiring First Nations initiatives and treaties upholding co-determination or self-determination in traditional lands, the Eeuyou Istchee or James Bay Cree administration and Nunavut Land Claims Agreement being two examples. But there are as many roadblocks, including the Yukon Government’s recent sidestepping of a 1993 constitutional agreement to negotiate directly with the Yukon First Nations over development in wilderness areas like the Peel River Watershed, forcing a court challenge.

One way to support the claims of First Nations is to hold political leaders accountable to negotiate in good faith around existing agreements and court judgements. Another is to work through environmental and social-justice groups to think about land differently: not as property but as habitat with which, as co-inhabitants, we all have ongoing relationships and responsibilities.

Heather Menzies’ 10th book, Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good (New Society Publishers) was published in May.

Cheers to Blue Communities

blue communitiesEvery time a community passes a resolution or otherwise chooses collectively to become a “blue community,” I cheer. A blue community is one that recognizes access to water as a human right and promotes publicly owned water and waste services. (See Brent Patterson’s blog for updates on this movement.)

Blue communities are part of reclaiming the commons as the habitats in which our lives are immersed and on which our health and the sustainability of our communities, to say nothing of our planet, depends. A possible next step would be to combine this with more local participatory, or citizen science to monitor local water – levels and quality – and to create local common water authorities. I see these as akin to local community public health authorities, and extending their mandate. It’s what my ancestors living in commons communities and on the commons did: responsible self-governance that was political, economic and ecological.

To order my book, request it at your local bookstore or order your copy from New Society Publishers today!

See my article “Reclaiming the commons in the Salish Sea Islands,” in Island Tides, May 15, 2014.

 

David Bollier reviews Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good

Commons blogger David Bollier has reviewed Heather’s new book, Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good.

“The great virtue of Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good is its willingness to probe into the deep personal and spiritual dimensions of commoning — while not losing sight of the entrenched, all-too-real political and policy structures that also must be confronted.  We need more such approaches to the commons — because if the commons aspires to bring about a more integrated, holistic way of life and self-governance, we must begin to pay as much attention to the inner, invisible mysteries as the outer, visible dramas.”

Read the full review on David’s blog.

My new book, Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good

Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good begins as a memoir, my personal journey into the Highlands of Scotland to find that place on earth where my ancestors once lived in direct relations with the land, in self-governing commons.  It ends with a manifesto that identifies commons-keeping practices that could be reclaimed today. I link these practices to some promising initiatives in current social movements to frame what I see as a possibly emergent movement to reclaim the commons of earth, and perhaps a lost identity as commoners, too.

Order your copy from New Society Publishers today!