Animals, people and the environment...
are related, connected and interdependent according to the worldview of most First Nations, Métis and Inuit (FNMI) peoples. All Indigenous groups have unique perspectives and cultures, however many believe that the interconnection between all living things and the natural world is fundamental to the social, cultural, economic and spiritual lives of Indigenous peoples. Through these connections, all living things are seen as equal and there is no hierarchical relationship between people and animals.
As such, we as treaty people have a moral responsibility to respect, live in harmony with, and care for one another and the natural world. Indigenous peoples hold generational knowledge about land, plants and animals and their connections, as their survival has been, and still is, dependent on this knowledge. Western science has been slow to acknowledge the significance of this vast knowledge – however, this is changing. There are now university programs, such as the Indigenous Environmental Science Program at the University of Regina, and positions within government that values and utilizes this wisdom.
Here are some of the some of the ways animals play significant roles in the lives of Indigenous peoples:
Spirits and Teachers:
Many FNMI have traditional beliefs that all living beings including animals have spirits, and as such regard animals as sacred with many gifts to bestow. Animals are vital to the survival of the people and often clans and kinship relationships are represented by animals. Warriors and individuals who have gone through trials like a vision quest or other special situations may receive a “spirit animal.” This is for a very specific reason and is usually bestowed upon the individual by an elder and is culturally sacred. Animals may also be reborn as another sentient creature or a human spirit may inhabit an animal to teach themselves or others a lesson.
Hunting and Gathering:
Animals provide companionship and sustenance for survival. They are also a part of the ecosystem and this must be kept in balance, so this relationship is vital. Indigenous peoples traditionally hunted and gathered their food and many still do. As respect for relations is fundamental to many Indigenous peoples’ way of life, demonstrating respect plays an integral role in harvest. There is often a ceremony before a seasonal hunt to ask the animals to give themselves for the survival of the tribe and to thank the animals for sacrificing themselves. During a regular hunt, an individual or a small group of hunters will smudge and perform a ceremony on their own. It is also important to use all or as many parts of the animal to respect the animal and to protect the environment. Everyone in the community is involved in the harvesting once the animal is brought back to camp and even the children learn this process. Indigenous hunting and fishing rights are protected by laws and provincial government policy.
Animals also play important roles within the community. For instance, sled dogs are critical to the culture of Inuit and are an important way of teaching traditions. Also, many Indigenous communities have companion dogs that live in free roaming dog populations. These dogs may have a single owner, or are community “owned,” and are allowed to roam the community. (Learn more about the culture of community dogs and dog welfare from Norm Running Rabbit from Siksika Nation).
Teaching values and morals through stories with animals is a common element in Indigenous teaching. Animals are a part of everyday life and children are able to easily relate to these stories because they are living in nature and come in contact with these animals on a regular basis.
Animals are also used in the Anishinaabe Seven Grandfather Teachings, (also known as the Seven Sacred Teachings) which are commonly used in Canada, focus on the relationships we have with all of creation and offer ways to live with respect and in peace and harmony. The teachings include: love, respect, bravery, truth, honesty, humility, and wisdom and each teaching is represented by an animal.
Our tool features a two-week exploration of the Seven Sacred Teachings. These activities are cross-curricular and include Indigenous ways of knowing.
Tammy Johnston, M.Ed of Birch Tree Educational Consulting Services provided content, expertise and perspective on this article and the Seven Sacred Teachings resource. Tammy is Manitoba Métis who now lives in Alberta. She has over 30 years of experience in the education field, and a love of nature and all animals.
The Alberta SPCA is grateful for her contribution.