Reflections on Land-Based Education

Noela Crowe-Salazar

Recently, I was enjoying a long weekend Sunday morning at the lake. Surrounded by trees and foliage, I considered what I’ve been learning and revisiting this summer in regard to land-based education. What does this mean and how can we all navigate these teachings? Nehiyaw oma niya, I am Cree, and I will share a bit of what land-based education means to me.

I went for a walk last night and noticed plantains and wild mint – a lot of wild mint. Earlier this week, I spent a day with my daughter and an Elder on a local First Nation. Twenty years ago, the same Elder taught me about local plants and their medicinal qualities. It was heartwarming to have her teach my daughter. We located many plants and she described how to find and use them, often along with an anecdote to another time when she picked or a family story. At a chokecherry tree, she noticed me looking at a long fungus on a few of the branches. She said, “Nanabush pooped on that one.” She smiled and shared that her grandmother was Saulteaux and had told her that story when she was a child.

Many of us work directly with people and are accustomed to the ethics of our helping relationships. But how often, if ever, do we stop to consider the relationship we have with plants? I grew up on a farm and recall all the work involved in planting a garden. Many of my friends garden and describe it as peaceful and meditative; I enjoy the dirt and can relate, but “relating” is not often framed in the same manner with plants.

Land-based education is about us and the relationships we hold with the land and plants.

What does it mean to hold a relationship with a plant? This query was recently raised to me by Willie Ermine, who I was fortunate to take a university class with.

Before exploring this query, the concepts I am framing here are knowledge of plants, our surroundings, and our reciprocal relationship with plants – our own consideration of what plants tell us and how they tell us. In Wade Davis’ TED Talk, “Dreams from Endangered Cultures,” he describes what the Cofan in the Amazon Forest told him when he asked how they came to mix two plants from a flora of over 80 000: “We thought you knew about plants.” They went on to explain that the plants speak to them. This is very old and integral knowledge about plants, and Davis talks about how many Indigenous peoples have this knowledge.

Back to the question, “What does it mean to have a relationship with a plant?” Twenty years ago or so, I was introduced to the land and to Indigenous ceremony. After attending many ceremonies, I have developed a relationship with every living entity and learned how to know I am part of the land and that the land is part of me. This is not taught from a book or in a classroom. It happens on the land and in old teachings that have been carried on for many generations. This is Indigenous knowledge – traditional knowledge – and, as Willie Ermine framed, we also have a relationship with knowledge. I could hear a pin drop in the classroom when Willie framed knowledge as an entity, an individual.

Since knowledge is an entity, we must engage with it respectfully, in the same way we would with our family, relatives, neighbours, and communities. The class was Indigenous Epistemology and Land-Based Education. Of all the classes I have taken (I am currently working on my fourth university degree), this one resonated – it made sense to me at a deeper level. I felt honoured and humbled to be able to create that space with a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous educators.

Since knowledge is an entity, we must engage with it respectfully, in the same way we would with our family, relatives, neighbours, and communities.

My first encounter with land was as a child. I was adopted in the Sixties Scoop and raised on a cattle ranch. I was fortunate to have older parents who had the maturity to allow me to have my own journey, despite it not always being what was the easiest for any of us. In Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom, John O’Donohue writes, “The secret and the sacred are sisters.” I take this to my relationship and time as a child with my non-Indigenous adoptive parents on the land. There are so many complexities to that relationship that are only ours to know, and ours to learn from. Both my adoptive parents have passed away. My mother two years ago now, at the end of the summer moon. Grief moves in waves and often only when we are ready.

This summer my time on the land has helped me to move again through the grief. The relationship with the earth, the trees, and the plants and medicines brought me back to healing the grief. It brought me to accept the relationships I had with both my parents, much like my relationship with the land and plants is now within the realm of the secret and the sacred: sacred meaning that we hold a relationship and all its corners and crevices – a culmination of all the joys, the hurts, the happiness – in our heart and spirit; secret meaning there is no way to explain it to another person, we all hold the depth and complexity of the relationships with the people we love and care for, and there are no words to fully describe the experiences. Living or dead, we still hold relationships in a space of the secret and the sacred.

In passing, my parents returned to the land. I found them again this summer from the teachings and revisiting land-based education concepts. I found them in the chokecherries, in the wild mint, in the plantains. I talked to them, and I cried with them – the greatest gift we all have to offer is our tears. Willie Ermine also shared this teaching in his class. I also remembered a tree from my childhood that I carry in my heart.

I was understandably different in my adoptive family comprised of four biological Norwegian, Scottish children, all much older (aside from one). I often felt very lonely and sad. I went to the pasture or to the trees in those times, and I met a tree. I climbed it to the top, far, far up. I was hidden from sight and the branches held me like a chair in the sky built just for me. Over the years, anytime I felt too much, I went to the tree and told it my woes or my joys. I would put gifts by the trunk and sometimes food, despite never being taught about offerings – I guess I had the wisdom of childhood.

How often, if ever, do we stop to consider the relationship we have with plants?

The year I graduated from high school and left home, I travelled for many months. I returned in summer the following year. Whenever I drove up to the farm, I could see my friend the tree, and I would always send it a greeting. However, as I drove up to the yard after travelling, I could not see my tree. It had died. My tree died the year I went away. I grew up and moved away permanently, but all my years since, I still see that tree in my memory. I often think about painting it as a series, with a child growing up in its branches.

I first learned about land-based education from that tree. I learned how to hold a relationship with a plant – to hold it with respect, with honour, with care. To treat it like family and to be in relationship with it, and to learn from it. To hold the humility as a human to fully know, we are not the only entities on this earth. To learn we are all interconnected. To learn we all have many teachings to learn from the land, the plants, and the animals that would take many lifetimes to learn. To be humble and see we are only one small part. To know our roles in relationship with caring for the land.

Land-based education is about us and the relationships we hold with the land and plants – the interconnectedness of it all. It covers every subject we learn in western schools, and it also grounds us in wellness and walks with us through grief, teaching us how to live a good life.


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Author: Noela Crowe-Salazar (MSW, RSW)
Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

Noela is a co-author of CTRI’s book, Counselling in Relationships –  Insights for Helping Families Develop Healthy Connections. The book is available on our website.

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