Excerpt from A Book of Ecological Virtues

The Anthropocene is a proposed geological epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth's geology and ecosystems

  • Oct 01, 2020
  • 1,313 words
  • 6 minutes
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The Virtues of Human Services to Nature 

This relational attitude toward nature immediately evokes such concepts as responsibility, respect, caring, gratitude, love, and generosity to all other species, just as we would extend these values to our human kin, past, present, and future. Indeed, these are all virtues embedded in diverse Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge systems, and in their world views, arts, narratives, ceremonies, and day-to-day activities, as described below. 


Responsibility is about acknowledging relationships. For many Indigenous Peoples it is the responsibility of humans to acknowledge and to look after all our relatives, to consider their well-being as inextricably bound to our own.
Kwakwaka’wakw Clan Chief Kwaxsistalla Adam Dick shared the Kwak’wala word q’waq’wala7owkw—which means the responsibility of “keeping it living” and reflects accountability in plant cultivation (sowing, tilling, trans- planting, weeding, selective harvesting, controlled burning), as well as for animal populations. Other Indigenous Peoples hold similar concepts in eco- system use and management practices, with humans accountable to the plants and animals they harvest. Responsibility also means dependability, taking these protocols seriously and creating productive gardens or fishing grounds to provide for one’s kin, and following the appropriate codes to ensure the continued productivity of habitats and life forms. 


“Respect is the very core of our traditions, culture and existence.”

For many Indigenous Peoples, the animal or plant chooses to make itself available to humans, and the success or failure of fishers, hunters, or harvesters depends upon respectful practices. Humans, plants, animals, and spirits are an entangled and intractable whole. As such, reciprocal practices and expressions exist broadly in many Indigenous Peoples’ environmental relationships and resource use. For example, the sustainable SXOLE reef-net fishery of the WSA?NEC? Coast Salish included a First Salmon ceremony for the first salmon captured. This ritual “underlies the reverent regard for salmon which is one of the principal food animals.” Addressing the annual conference of the Association of Professional Biology in 2014, Adam Olsen, a member of the Tsartlip Nation and of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia, describes the respectful relationship each fisherman must have with salmon this way: 

The wealth of a Straits Salish reef netter was not counted by the number of sockeye he could catch, preserve, and trade alone….[It] was also calculated by the long-term quality and abundance of the fishing grounds he owned, cared for and passed down to his descendants….This relationship was central to the way of life of a reef netter. Rather than viewing the sockeye as a resource to be exploited in full, reef netters believe the fish, like every other living being, was once a human…[and that] all living things were an integral part of the circle of life. The sockeye that passed by our nets were honoured as sacred lineages, no different than the lineage of reef netters…both were part of the same cycle.

Conservation and sustainability are implicit in this reciprocal practise of gratitude. That ethos also encompasses a strict rejection of disrespectful acts—overhunting, overharvesting, or the unwarranted harming of animals—and extends to respect for that which had already been harvested through injunctions against such things as playing with one’s food or with parts of a dead animal. Transgressions are understood to precipitate bad luck or bad weather events. 


Indigenous Peoples worldwide, despite their differences, are rooted in cultures of gratitude arising from the tenet of respect.  Showing appreciation and respect to everything obtained or used was expressed in the quote with which this chapter was introduced. Mary Thomas’s mother, Christine Allen, whenever receiving even a small gift of berries or other food, would hold them up and say to the Creator, “Kwukstsa?mcw, Kwuksta?mcw, Kwukstsa?mcw!” (Thank you, thank you, thank you!).  For many, this expression of gratitude is threaded throughout daily life, in modest but significant rituals underscoring people’s relational connections with other species. 

These everyday acts complement more formal communal rituals, such as highly prescribed First Foods ceremonies honouring the seasonal arrival of important foods. These were consistent in form, with acknowledgement of the food species as “Friend, Supernatural One,” and thanking it for providing itself to people. Often, it is asked to protect against illness or bad fortune. Harvesting and consuming key plants and animals were ritually enacted, acknowledging and celebrating their value to those entrusted as their stewards, and ensuring that each key food species would return in subsequent years. 


Upholding the well-being of the world and its human, plant, animal, and spirit inhabitants is exemplified by the prohibitions, threaded through various Indigenous world views, against greed, waste, and selfishness in resource use and management. Medicinal plants have special harvest protocols, such as showing gratitude to the plants and ensuring that medicines are never wasted. Since medicinal plants are strongly spiritual, all prepared medicines have to be used up, or bad luck will ensue.


Environmental health and sustainability—cornerstones of human health and well-being—require individuals and communities to care about their environment, to love their home places, to feel belonging with the people, plants, and animals who are their family and community. Mary Thomas, mentioned previously, outlined the concept of place as a locale of love and gratitude— for family, community, and nature—exemplified by a long-ago family trip to Mount Revelstoke, now a Canadian national park: 
I can remember as a little girl running, hopping, skipping, jumping through all these beautiful flowers—that’s one of the happy memories that I have…. The children were taught to respect Mother Nature and to appreciate it, and when you breathe in this cool air and you can imagine yourself sleeping out here in open air—we just had a little lean-to, and you’re breathing in this beautiful mountain air….Even now you can smell that melanllp [subalpine fir], from the beautiful boughs….And every time you smell that beautiful smell of Mother Nature’s creation, you appreciate it, you love it…you become a part of it. 

Personal connections to and relationships with nature motivate people to care about the future, and not just their own future but others’ as well. Mary Thomas explained, “We were connected to Mother Nature, we were not superior. We are a part of Mother Nature. If we destroy Mother Nature, we are destroying ourselves.” Humans have an emotional and ontological need for connection with nature. When children encounter nature, they build the cognitive constructs necessary for emotional and intellectual development and life-long learning. “Nature-deficit disorder” is a label used today to address the physical, intellectual, and emotional cost to children increasingly deprived of direct contact with nature. Time in nature promotes learning about seasonal and biological cycles and ultimately about how to sustain and support communities. For those people with a deep love of place, knowledge and learning are “situated” and contextualized, encompassing aesthetic, ceremonial, economic, personal, familial, historical, political, and practical considerations. 


The ethics of generosity and responsibility are widespread throughout Indigenous society. Leaders having proprietorship over specific productive areas such as fishing grounds not only hold rights of access but also the responsibility for the care and maintenance of these places, and for ensuring their ultimate benefit to the entire community.37 For the Coast Salish, the basis for chiefly prestige—“being of good name”—was not just a matter of birth but also of exemplifying generosity and responsibility.38 This ethos extended to people of all ages and statuses. Young girls were taught to give away the first basket of berries they picked, and young boys to share their first salmon caught or first deer hunted with their Elders or those in need. Through such learning opportunities, young people cultivated generosity and empathy toward others, creating an endless intergenerational support system fuelled simultaneously by the receiver’s appreciation and the giver’s pride and satisfaction. 


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