Taking Care of Shkakmigkwe (Mother Earth)

I can hardly believe that it has already been 11 years since the world premiere of my work Mijidwewinan (Messages) at Wesleyan University in Connecticut in 2009. When I got a call out-of-the-blue from Pamela Tatge, Artistic Director of the Wesleyan Center for the Arts, back in late summer 2008 to compose a new orchestral work about the issue of climate change and from an Indigenous woman’s perspective on that, I was so honoured and it was very timely. I had already been working in the field of outdoor education for several years and working closely in schools with Indigenous at-risk youth on artistic projects in conjunction with time outdoors in the woods with them to share knowledge passed down through Elders in my family  about Anishinaabeg ways and knowledge about plants. Since that time, it warms my heart to know that many of those youth at that time went on to further their education in meaningful ways to not only benefit themselves in their own life journeys, but to continue to give back to their families and communities in need of support.

As the child of a residential school survivor and direct descendant of hereditary chiefs who signed the major treaties in Ontario and who prior to that fought in many battles during the War of 1812 (and even other colonial period wars before that), these recent years since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report in 2015 have been trying for me and my family. It was a multi-layered interfacing of many issues linked to history and intergenerational trauma all back-to-back being brought to the forefront and triggering an outpouring of tears. Before, during and since that time, taking part in ceremonies with Elders (some who have crossed over to the Spirit World over the past decade) has been the main source of strength for me. At our ceremonies the most important focus has always been about taking care of the earth, water and skies above us. We are all part of nature, not in control of it nor here to exploit it for personal wealth, power and ego. A lot of our people have continued to seek healing from the many things caused by colonization through our ceremonies (many of which were outlawed by the Canadian government not that long ago).

And now we are in a time that nearly everyone is voicing: that we are in a ‘climate crisis’. It already has been a crisis that many Elders were already talking about at ceremonies and gatherings decades ago, but those messages were not really being received much beyond our communities. As humans, we are the conduits of these messages and signs being communicated to us by the non-human beings that were here on earth before us. The four-legged ones, the winged ones, the crawlers, the swimmers, the plant beings, the rocks, the trees, the waters … have been crying out to all of us for so long to pay attention to what has been going on. Life is out of balance. The femaleness of creation is especially trampled on. Shkakmigkwe (Mother Earth) nurtures all of us, but that requires us to take care of her. There is much suffering, and it will become worse if while witnessing it we just stand there and do nothing. This is what compelled me most when composing Mijidwewinan. As an Anishnaabekwe performer in this work, I represent a transformative character in a female guise who through humility, kindness and courage serves as a kind of conduit for nature around her – those non-human beings who are crying out for attention — ‘calling out’ … ‘demanding’ — with a message that can no longer be ignored.

There are still so many reserves and Indigenous territories worldwide without clean water to drink, to cook food or to bathe in. Not enough healthyfood to eat and too expensive when it can be accessed. Fish, game and plants are contaminated by misguided practices of mining, fossil fuels extractions, logging, transport systems and industry. We are all responsible for the things we do that do not respect life, especially for future generations of all beings to come. How much more devastation needs to happen before we change our ways of today? What things can the wisdom of our ancestors teach us about respecting life and one another?


All photos by Barbara Croall: (1) deep woods outside of Thompson, Manitoba; (2) and (3) shoreline of Naadowewi-gichigami, Mnidoo Mnissing.

Blog Written By:
Barbara Croall

Hear Barbara Croall perform in her own piece, Mijidwewinan (Messages) next season – details to come.