Indigenous wisdom and peacemaking

People are like trees, and groups of people are like forests. While the forests are composed of many different kinds of trees, these trees intertwine their roots so strongly that it is impossible for the strongest winds which blow on our Islands to uproot the forest, for each tree strengthens its neighbour, and their roots are inextricably entwined.

In the same way, the people of our Islands, composed of members of nations and races from all over the world, are beginning to intertwine their roots so strongly that no troubles will affect them.

Just as one tree standing alone would soon be destroyed by the first strong wind which came along, so it is impossible for any person, any family, or any community to stand alone against the troubles of this world.

Haida Chief Skidegate, Lewis Collinson

Everything I’ve read about social innovation and resilience I have found alive and well among Indigenous people in Canada. They are innovating themselves back from attempts at genocide, cultural extinction, residential schools, land grabs, segregation, addiction and racism to cultural, social and economic self -sufficiency. If that’s not the elusive staying power the social innovation community seeks I don’t know what is.

In particular Indigenous people are teaching us that peacemaking is the necessary link between adversity and ingenuity. That the sacred headwaters of social innovation lies in the hearts and minds of people who have no choice but to invent their way out of the pain, suffering, misfortune, devastation and hardship. Further, that peacemaking is the core value, essential mindset and pre-eminent practice to ensure that social innovation will spread and endure.

For 400 years Indigenous people welcomed successive waves of settlers to the upper half of North America. These newcomers would not have survived in our adverse climate and rugged habitat without Indigenous hospitality and expertise particularly their interdependence with each other, the land and indeed all life.

The Indigenous concept of inclusion leaves room for multiple identities and loyalties. It sees no contradiction between diversity and fairness. It imagines belonging as an inclusive circle that continuously expands and adapts to changing circumstances, regardless of where you have come from. It seeks balance between place, group and individual.

Tragically explorers, settlers and their descendants often betrayed their welcome. The opening quote is from a former chief of the Haida Gwaii community of Skidegate. If anyone had a reason for mistrust and hostility toward newcomers, Chief Lewis Collinson did. Europeans decimated his nation. At the time of contact, the Haida population was in the tens of thousands. That number fell to less than five hundred by the early 1900s. The majority of people died of diseases such as smallpox and tuberculosis that were introduced by traders.

Today the Haida population has grown to twenty-five hundred. Haida culture is revived. Its artists, poets and storytellers are known around the world. Children are learning their native language. Young adults eagerly train to become Haida Gwaii Watchmen, responsible for protecting their cultural heritage in the abandoned villages of their ancestors. A large chunk of the Haida archipelago is set aside as Gwaii Haanas, a national park reserve and world heritage site that the Haida Nation co-manages with the federal government. The latter (Gwaii Haanas Agreement) is the only example I’ve encountered of enshrining paradox in a governance agreement.

The Haida Nation’s remarkable recovery is due to many factors. One is the peace making mindset reflected in Chief Lewis Collinson’s remarks. He, like most Indigenous leaders, understands that the future well being of Indigenous people is dependent on the future well being of all Canadians.

Coupled with their discipline, strategic prowess and creative capability is an understanding that we inhabit the same bewildered and besieged planet. And that we must engage with people who have betrayed us or who we have betrayed; who we are suspicious of or don’t like; who aren’t pulling their weight or who we are convinced are responsible for our messy challenges. And the only way that can happen is by making peace among us.

EH! (Canadian for P.S.)
Social innovation is not just new ways to fix old problems. It’s bringing old ways forward into a new context. (Senator Murray Sinclair, Chair Truth and Reconciliation Commission)

Musical accompaniment for this post is Power in the Blood by Buffy Saint Marie

About SIX Series on post-conflict societies

In the run to the Summer School in Colombia 2016, we developed a blog series on social innovation and peace building. How has conflicts shaped social innovation cultures across different places? What is the post-conflict legacy?

Introduction to SIX Series on post-conflict societies #1: To read Eddy Adam’s introduction to the series, click here.

SIX Series on post-conflict societies #2: For the first blog in the series, written by Eddy Adams and Gorka Espiau on the Basque peace process, click here.

SIX Series on post-conflict societies #3: For the second post, click here to read Al Etmanski’s piece on innovation and the indigenous population of Canada. 

SIX Series on post-conflict societies #4: For the third post, by Michelle Breslauer on positive peace approach links between Mexico and Colombia, click here.

SIX Series on post-conflict societies #5: Click here to read Bulelwa Makalima-Ngewana’s blog on little actions that bring people together. 

SIX Series on post-conflict societies #6: To read an extract from Adam Kahane’s book entitled Collaborating with the Enemy: How to Work with People You Don’t Agree with or Like or Trust, click here.

SIX Series on post-conflict societies #7: To read Michelle Herman’s blog on how small communities can address traumatic past events, click here.