Rethinking Our Relationship with Our Grandmother

Photo credit: Nichole S. Prescott

By Nichole S. Prescott, Myaamia

[Author’s Note: Please be mindful that there is a great diversity of thought, culture, language, and opinion in Indian Country on all things, but definitely on spirituality. As such, I do not claim to speak for all Native peoples. The thoughts shared herein are my own and do not represent a unified position held by all Myaamiaki.]

I would like to acknowledge that I write this from my home located on the Indigenous lands of Turtle Island, the ancestral name for what now is called North America. I would like to honor the traditional stewards of the land upon which I now live: the Alabama: Coushatta, Caddo, Carrizo/Comecrudo, Coahuiltecan, Comanche, Kickapoo, Lipan Apache, Tonkawa and Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo, and all the Indigenous Peoples who have been or have become a part of these lands.
We must not forget.
We are on Native land.

Aya Ceeki eeweemaakiki. Neehweeta weenswiaani myaamiatawenki, Nichole weenswiaani aakalaahšimaataweenki. Niila myaamia eeyaakwaa misiaani, kati nahi-mihtohseenia.
(Translation: Hello all my relatives. Neehweeta is my traditional name, which means “She Speaks.” Nichole is my English name. I am Myaamia and I strive to live as a proper human.)

The Myaamia first emerged as a distinct people along the banks of the kociihsasiipi (St. Joseph’s River near South Bend, IN). We call our homelands Myaamionki (the place of the Myaamia). Today, we consider Myaamionki as along the Wabash River in Indiana (our heartland), the Marais des Cygnes River in Kansas, and the Neosho River in Oklahoma, reflecting our history. Our history consists of two forced removals—one at gunpoint from our original homelands in the Great Lakes region to Kansas, and one from Kansas into Northeastern Oklahoma where we are currently based. Land is inextricably bound to who we are as Myaamia people. As for so many other native peoples in the U.S., the history of our forced relocations is a painful memory and the cultural scars of that removal are still felt. Our original homeland in the Wabash River Valley in very real ways contributed to the creation of our culture, identity, spirituality, lifeways, and ways of knowing. The earth is our koohkomena, our Grandmother (we call her grandmother instead of mother because she is much older and wiser), and all things are our relatives. Grandmothers are often our most valuable teachers in life. The land, plants, water, and all of the living things that walk, fly, or swim teach us the most important lessons in life: who we are as Myaamia people. My spirituality manifests through my cultural practices that honor Grandmother Earth, bringing me one step closer to living as a proper human.

I began by introducing myself in my language because language is a powerful connector to identity. So is place. Hence, the land acknowledgement I shared at the top of this post and the story of the removals of my people. Many, if not most, Indigenous communities were displaced at some point in their histories. The miles that separated us from our homelands likewise separated many of us from our languages, our cultures, and our traditional spirituality. Yet, we are still here. We continue to maneuver through this world, using the lessons of our ancestors and our understanding of the natural world where possible; trying to manifest a world that honors and harmonizes with our cultural identity and values. Isn’t that the basis of spirituality? It is for me. Spirituality is about wholeness of mind, body, and spirit. My spiritual practice is practicing my culture, connecting to my ancestors and their teachings, and living out my values as a Myaamia every single day. This includes trying to create a world where nature is honored in my home and among my family and friends.

I was invited to write this post for Earth Day as Indigenous peoples are frequently lauded for our healthy-er (sometimes we fall short in this department) relationships with and deep spiritual connection to the Earth. To be honest, “Earth Day” is culturally weird from a Myaamia point of view. In fact, we don’t even have a name for the day.[i] I would venture to surmise that it is culturally weird for most Indigenous peoples. Our ancestors would have thought the entire notion absurd. I do understand why it was established and what it is meant to do.

The first Earth Day was celebrated in the US on April 22, 1970, (pre-dating the EPA, The Clean Air Act, and The Clean Water Act). It was intended to be a day of awareness and action to nourish and heal our natural world, yet in many cases it has become a day to compartmentalize our activism and awareness, distilling it all down to one day. We focus on our Grandmother for that day and feel good about ourselves, but then do little to make meaningful systemic change to ensure her health—and  ours. Some businesses have managed to even capitalize on this day and this movement to make money. The Green God. The antithesis of the real, green god—Earth.

For Indigenous peoples, “Earth Day” should happen every day. It should be a way of life that is interwoven into every action and into every thought, just as one who is Christian might try to live out her faith daily. An example of this interweaving is the ancient order of gratitude protocol called Words That Come Before All Else. The Words That Come Before All Else is the Haudenosaunee Confederacy way of honoring the natural world and is deeply rooted in Indigenous ways of knowing and being. It is typically shared in the Onondaga language. (Kimmerer, 107).  The gratitude is focused on Grandmother Earth, all the plants, animals, rocks, and the four elements (fire, water, earth, and sky) that have provided and continue to provide for people since time immemorial. Look it up. Reflect on it. Take this into your Earth Day celebration, and your every day. Use it as your meditation. I promise it will bring you deeper in your spirituality, regardless of your faith.

I write this as my beautiful four acres in the Texas Hill Country, with 100-year-old oak trees and their companions the cedar elm, Texas pomegranate, and redbud trees look like they have been bombed after the warmest January in Texas on record followed by a fierce three-day ice storm that wreaked heartbreaking devastation on our trees. Our world’s climate is changing and not for the better. This is our fault. We have broken from our familial relationship with the world and we are now bearing the brunt of that break, both in terms of climate change and in our spirituality. How can we truly feel spiritual without being in a harmonious relationship with the natural world?

The earth is more than a compilation of resources to be used for human benefit. We are the caretakers, the stewards, of these gifts from Grandmother Earth. As relatives to the world around us, we must be good relatives, providing for our earth when she needs us and sharing in her abundance when she offers up that abundance. We should strive to keep balance between human need and the earth’s gifts. In any relationship, there is a time to give and to receive—it must never be one sided—yet the relationship most people have with the earth is one of perpetual taking. Many never stop to question whether they have been selfish in their relationship with the earth. Those of us who do strive for a healthy, balanced relationship (with other humans and with the natural world around us) enable this other toxic relationship when we do not speak out, advocate for, and act in defense of our Grandmother.

For most Native peoples, our world is entirely interdependent among the two-leggeds (humans), Grandmother Earth, the four-leggeds (animals), the winged relatives, the trees, and the water. In fact, some Native peoples refer to trees and other entities that English speakers would refer to as “what,” as “who.” This is the grammar of animacy. Robin Kimmerer (Potawatomi), in her book Braiding Sweetgrass, says that in her language they ask of a tree: “Who is it?” Not, “What is it?”  The “it” designation robs a tree of its kinship to the world around it, of its kinship to us. We would never refer to our grandmother as an “it.” When we shift our language to appropriately reflect our relationship with the natural world, we open a new way of living in and caring for that world. It becomes a relationship based on reciprocity and interdependence, love, and respect. My spirituality involves exploring and deepening my relationship with these relatives: Grandmother Earth, the four-leggeds (animals), the winged relatives, the trees, and the water. I spend quiet time with these relatives. I listen to their stories and try to learn from them. I actively ask questions to help me better understand my place in this world. They answer. They will always answer, if you dare to listen.

While some Indigenous communities (not mine, at least not officially) do celebrate Earth Day, by engaging in environmental stewardship and sustainability projects that heal our lands, there is a growing concern by many that Earth Day activities don’t stress the RELATIONSHIP of people to the land but instead compartmentalizes the land. When the relationship to the land is not critically integrated, the causal relationship between humans and the environmental challenges we now face is effectively erased. The result of that effacement is that we continually take from the land and not give gifts that heal, nurture, and love the Grandmother who gives us the essential elements of life itself. This cannot be good for our collective soul.

I leave you with more wisdom from Robin Kimmerer: “Transformation is not accomplished by tentative wading at the edge.” (p.89) I invite you to jump right in, into the depths. Into your spiritual connection with the natural world. I believe the natural world is where the formation of spirituality began. You will be the better for diving into the depths. So will be your Grandmother. Aho.

What are gifts YOU can give to our Grandmother on this Earth Day (and every day moving forward)?

Plan to bring the values of Earth Day into your everyday life every day. Start small if you have to, but set monthly and annual goals for yourself, just like yearly intentions or New Year resolutions. Here are a few examples of my practice that I offer to you:

  • Critically reflect on your own relationship to the land. Spend quiet time with the dirt, the trees, and the birds.
  • Practice thinking how your daily decisions, big and small, impact seven generations from now. If your decision does not prove beneficial for that seventh generation, make a decision that will be good. Your decisions are your legacy. Think long-term benefit over short-term convenience or gain.
  • Plant an organic garden. If you have kids, encourage them to “play” in the dirt with you and watch the miracle that is plant life (dirt + seeds + water + sun = the miracle of life).
  • Lower your intake of meat of all kinds. Doing so may actually make you feel better (as long as you don’t replace your meat with heavily processed meat alternatives) and you’ll be doing your grandmother a solid. (Recent research published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health has found that a vegan diet showed about 44% less total environmental impact when compared to the Mediterranean diet, despite the fact the Mediterranean diet is already low in animal product consumption. Their study supports the position that a reduction of animal products in your diet can have significant ecological benefits.)
  • Reduce your food waste. Buy less, meal plan, and if you end up with food waste, then compost and use that enriched goodness for your organic garden.
  • Avoid overly manicured yards. Stop using pesticides in your yard and don’t rake your leaves—downed leaves play an important part of your yard’s natural ecosystem. Opt for planting native species in your yard. Many counties provide habitat/land management advising services to help you re-wild your land. Doing so helps not only the native plants (many native plants help each other out while others compete for resources with native plants—see books below) and the animals but creates a truly stunning landscape to backdrop your home.

Want to learn more? Here are some great books to start with:

Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer
This book consumed me from the first paragraph. Eloquent. Evocative. And, informative. Dr. Kimmerer, a citizen of the Potawatomi Nation, expertly weaves her personal story and that of her people with the natural world. They are one and the same. Symbiotic. Inextricably bound. This book is scientific yet approachable. You’ll learn a great deal about Native views on our relationship with the world around us, while Kimmerer unlocks the scientific secrets behind why the natural world does what it does. Read this book. Now. You’ll thank me.

The Seed Keeper, by Diane Wilson
This novel hit some really strong chords with me, many of which were hard to process: the impact of removal and boarding schools on Native communities and the role that land plays in the formation of Indigenous cultures, language, and identities. I would argue that land roots most everyone in their identity, if they have any type of authentic, intentional relationship with the land. The narrative chronicles a long line of Dakhóta women, flashes forward and back to recount the importance of seeds in the lives of Dakhóta communities and the importance of women as the keepers of those life-giving relatives—seeds.  This novel brought tears to my eyes as I underlined, starred, and wrote notes in the margin. Great book. The 200+ year story woven by Diane Wilson lives on long after you’ve closed the cover.

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate–Discoveries From a Secret World, by Peter Wohlleben
Not a Native author, Peter Wohlleben sparked in me an utter fascination with the communication networks of trees and shrubs, running like superhighways under the ground. I think of this book and all the learning inside every time I walk under that big legacy oak in my yard. I think about how the “war on cedar” back in the 1950s completely remade our property in order to graze cattle, destroying those communication networks and leaving our precious trees to fend for themselves in an increasingly hostile environment. I recommend this book every chance I get.

The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times, by Jane Goodall and Douglas Abrams with Gail Hudson
I have used this book as a way to keep from sinking into a level of “eco-grief” or “eco-anxiety” from which I find it hard to escape. Through a series of conversations with the co-author (Abrams), Dr. Jane Goodall explores questions regarding the quest for hope in times that can feel fairly hopeless. Goodall provides stories that inspire hope for not only humanity, but those under our stewardship as well: the plants, the animals, and Grandmother Earth herself. By the end of the book, you’ll have discovered that you may just have learned a great deal about what it means to be human and what humanity means for the natural world.

[i] I reached out to the Myaamia language department at the Myaamia Center to determine if there was a term we used to refer to this day, but we did not. And, while our community has not officially settled on a “name” for this day, they shared this phrase with me: ašiihkiwi kiišikahki (literally “earth day”).

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10 Responses

    1. Rebecca, thank you so much for the kind words! I really appreciate them. I hope you enjoy the books!

  1. Love this, so well said, and a beautiful reminder that we can make important choices every day. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I enjoyed reading this and learning. Thank you for sharing ❤️ I love teaching about the origin of Earth Day, our rainforests, deforestation, conservation, and taking care of our planet. My students will remember that I kept a cabinet for empty tissue boxes, water bottles, and other miscellaneous items to take home and recycle…and that I always harped on the cost of production being more than money. They are little, but such a perfect age. You would be proud that eating less meat is a central topic.

    I appreciate the perspective so much!

    1. Thank you for sharing that, Lara! Your students are fortunate to have you as a teacher. And, thank you for taking the time to read and leave a comment. I so appreciate it.

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