‘The pond’ is how Ryan and his wife Adrienne referred to the Helen Schuler Nature Reserve sitting between Lethbridge and the edge of the Blood Reserve. A deep valley cut through by the Oldman River (Napi) with ponds and wetland vegetation is surrounded by trees now turning yellow with the approach of the cold weather. The area is home to a variety of birds and other animals such as turtles, rabbits, bats and beavers, whose large family lodges have a central location in the pond amongst the nesting birds as if they were the guardians of the valley. Ryan and Adrienne have been coming to this place for many years, coming to know its many plants and animals intimately even as individuals. Their immersion in this place is of such quality that the place and its animals have also come to know them, at moments showing them where to collect foods and medicines. Ryan and Adrienne showed us around this place and explained to us how they came to learn from it and how this relates to Blackfoot ways of learning and to the stories concerning the relationships of humans to place and other beings.
Central to our encounters and conversations with the people associated with Red Crow College have been questions related to epistemology, that is, the philosophical enquiry into the nature of knowledge and knowing, of what is considered ‘knowledge’, how we acquire it, and in cases of meeting of different traditions of enquiry, such as that between the Blackfoot and ‘globalised’ science how and why does one prevail over the other.
At the heart of Blackfoot ‘ecological-spiritual’ knowledge and practice are the various medicine bundles which are the material objects that embody these and serve as focal points in the ceremonies and exchanges related to each bundle. In Blackfoot the term used is amopístaani which Ryan translates as ‘bound-together-by-wrapping-around’ (see Heavy Head 2005). The significance of this binding together, as we will see, describes not only the physical bundling of various material components but also the binding of beings through contractual relationships. One of the most important bundle for the Blackfoot is the Beaver Bundle. It took us sometime to understand and fully appreciate the meaning and significance of the Beaver Bundle. Although we have only begun to do so, even this brief exposure to this way of learning, knowing, relating and communicating has left a deep impression on us.
In conversations with Ryan and Adrienne, as well as with Narcisse, the cultural translation of the Beaver Bundle would amount to something like the material and ceremonial embodiment of the contractual relationships that humans have with other plants, animals and beings. These contractual relationships, which relate back to the stories of how humans first received the Bundle from the Beaver people, involve both a knowledge of the behaviour and environment of a variety of beings and the reciprocal conduct humans ought to have with these so as to ensure a balanced co-habiting in this place. Furthermore, animals also have their own bundles between themselves and other animals, so ensuring a reciprocal dwelling and existence in which no species dominates or exterminates another.
Here I was reminded of the anthropological theory of ‘perspectivism’ developed in relation to Amazonian peoples which states that in ‘western’ ways of thinking (epistemology) it is considered that we share a common ‘nature’ (biological and genetic) with other animals but that what makes us distinct as humans is our capacity for culture. Amongst a number of indigenous communities however, this is inverted: we share with other animals the capacity for culture but inhabit different kinds of bodies or have different natures which allow us to do different things. So animals, such as the jaguar in South America, or here the beaver, have their own societies, language, kinship relations. Adrienne reinforced this point as we walked around the pond, showing me a colony of ants who were carefully farming aphids perched on the stalk of an absinthe (wormwood) plant. The ants milked the sweet nectar the aphids produced, perhaps a mildly psychoactive, whilst protecting them from the hungry ladybugs that crawled close by. An Ant Bundle, were such a thing to exist, would then have within it this set of knowledges and relationships that are part of the ant’s perspective on the world. This is what the Beaver People, who had been inhabiting this place for millions of years, passed to the Blackfoot in the story of the Bundle.
Physically the Beaver Bundle consists of the coats of the various animals who are part of these contractual relationships and other objects all of which have associated songs and dances that pertain to some aspect of the natural environment or of the behaviour of animals. The Bundle acts as a library of ecological knowledge which is interpreted and recited or sung and danced by the holders of the Beaver Bundle. This duty befell Ryan and Adrienne, though as they stated this was unusual concerning their young age as this role has historically been taken by elders. Ryan compared the traditional role of elders in Blackfoot society to that of amateur naturalist groups, often frequented by the elderly, who, at this stage in life, have more time and patience to observe the natural world. The bundle also acts as a ‘peer reviewed journal’ legitimating and communicating newly acquired observations about the natural world, such as changing weather patterns or the introduction of new species. These then come to be codified in new objects and songs and dances and added to the Bundle’s ceremonies. Altogether the Bundle has hundreds of songs, with no single individual knowing all of them.
The story Ryan and Adrienne told us of how they were inducted into the Beaver Bundle suggests the qualities underpinning this way of knowing and hints at what might be called a Blackfoot pedagogy, of which Narcisse and Cynthia have also written and taught elsewhere (see Blackfoot Pedagogy course). As part of their initiation into the Bundle Ryan and Adrienne were required to put on a feast that required them to serve traditional foods such as, amongst other things, fowl eggs. These had to be acquired rather than purchased and it took several seasons of trial and error for Ryan and Adrienne to learn how and where to source these as no one around had this knowledge. The elder’s instructions, himself a holder of the Bundle, led them to immerse themselves into this experiential learning which came to form the basis of how Ryan taught the Kainai Studies course at Red Crow College.
Before ceremonies, such as that of the Beaver Bundle, were banned and prior to the knowledge inculcated through residential schools, a working knowledge of place, the seasons, the plants and medicines, the animals would have been widespread amongst the Blackfoot. This would have been a day to day practical knowledge learned from elders, grandparents, from peers. With these government policies, enshrined in the Indian Act of 1885, residential schools, the confinement of the Blackfoot to the reserves, the destruction of their traditional environment through settler agriculture and the decimation of the buffalo few today have the thorough knowledge of place and beings embodied in the Beaver Bundle. Indeed the knowledge of the Bundle almost disappeared altogether in the 1990s according to Ryan as one of the few remaining Bundle holders returned his Bundle to the River assuming no one else was interested in learning it. Today the learning of the Bundle, its knowledge and values of inter-being and reciprocity have been rejuvenated and institutionalised through the courses Ryan teaches at Red Crow ensuring that the next generations can once again benefit from a learning of place and its beings that has kept a people alive in this part of the world for thousands of years.
For me, the inspiring learning from this practice of the Beaver Bundle has been how knowing is intrinsically bound to entering into relationships with; with place, people, non-human beings. Also, the authoritative sources of learning are much broader than in traditional academic epistemology (primarily other scholars and through books) to include dreams, landscape, plants, animals and other beings. This epistemological expansion shifts the human intellect from the centre of the universe placing it instead as one one amongst many other intelligences from whom we can learn. Ethically this means that the world is not only there to gratify human needs and desires, as is the tendency in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but rather it is a network or bundle of relationships we learn to enter into.