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Thousand Islands National Park of Canada

Akwesasne’s Voice

“Take only what you need”

Thousand Islands National Park is working in close cooperation with the Mohawk of Akwesasne, a community of approximately 21,000 that straddles the boundary between Canada and the United States at Cornwall.  The park recognizes the strong ties that the community of Akwesasne has to the natural world.  Richard David, Assistant Director of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne Department of the Environment and an “elder in denial,” as he likes to call himself, writes about an age-old tradition of sustainability kept alive by the people living at Akwesasne today.

Shekon (greetings)

I was born into a wonderful family and spent my most of youth in Akwesasne.  I had the privilege of spending time with my Grandmother; I lived with her for three years while I was going to school.  I learned from her how to pick berries and tap trees for syrup.  Not only did we tap maple trees but also tapped butternut trees and made syrup from that.  I learned from my dad every time we went hunting, fishing, or gathering.

The common things that I learned from both of these people were some of the obvious teachings that we First Nation People learned from our elders.  You are never to tap the first maple tree you see, you’re not to pick the first berry you see, you’re not to keep the first fish you catch, you’re not to shoot the first rabbit or deer you see.  My dad told me that it would be a bad thing if I was the person to shoot the last deer, to catch the last fish, or eat the last berry and so on.  Every time we went fishing, my dad would release the first fish, telling it to go tell his brothers and sisters that we are a kind and gentle people.  He would explain that we will only catch what we need and use all that we catch.  That each fish we caught would be treated with respect and that we would give thanks to our Creator for allowing us to gain our nourishment from his bounty.  He went on to explain that as we gain energy from the flesh of those animals, birds, and fish that became a part of our diet, that the process now called on us to do those things that are required to contribute to the healthy habitat of those creatures to ensure that they live healthy lives.

First Nation People have always lived like this and I never knew of any other way.  Modern science has now given a name to a practice we’ve always done.  They now call it “Sustainable Development”.  The Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse) have a well-established history of this practice.  They lived in places in cycles.  They would live in area for 40-50 years and then moved to a site 7-day walk from where they were.  While at any site they planted fruit trees, shagbark hickory, butternut, and black walnuts just to name a few.  They made a gigantic circle of where they lived but would eventually return to a former site.  There they would be blessed with the fruit of their labor that their great grandparents planted for them.  They would never let a site get over populated to a point that when the population reached, for arguments sake, reached 5,000 they would split and walk for seven days in opposite directions creating two villages with the capacity to sustain itself.  The women were given the responsibility from the Creator to give and sustain life in the same manner that Mother Earth was given the responsibility for all life.  It was their responsibility to maintain sustainable levels with the capacity to feed and clothe everyone.

Today, across Canada, it is the responsibility of every citizen to live sustainably.  “Take only what you need and use all that you take” is a lesson for all of us as we use energy, food, paper, space, and other valuable resources in our daily life.  Keep in mind these words attributed to Chief Seattle in 1854:

“This we know; the earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth.  This we know.  All things are connected like the blood which unites one family.  All things are connected.”

“Man did not weave the web of life – he is merely a strand in it.  Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”
- Chief Seattle, 1854