Life in the Soil started with an evening keynote event following a welcome introduction by Theresa Sims (Upper Mohawk, Turtle Clan, elder for South West Detention Centre, elder for Two-Spirit community in Windsor region) who acknowledged our presence on stolen land and gave thanks for our ability to enjoy it and grow it. Sims has been a long time social activist, but she has also been maintaining the centuries old tradition of saving and preserving native seeds. She claims to have saved and continue to grow seeds that are 800 years old corn and squash, stable foods for the indigenous communities of Southern Ontario. This work is admirable in the face of continuous seed standardization, and is a gesture that rejects and rebuffs Canada’s colonial tradition. It also raises many questions: if preserving diversity is one main goal, then it is not always, or does not always have to be in contradiction to creating new hybrids or devising new, stronger seeds. Yet, the horrendous politics and the very colonial approach that have shaped North America in the past centuries has prevented any possibility of dialogue from the start. It is a question that will need to be addressed sooner than later, considering the threats of climate change and water contamination.
While not overtly stated, this issue was somehow addressed by Ruth Lapp, a scholar and farmer, and Robert Lovelace, a retired chief of the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation. Lapp spent a considerable amount of time learning the farming and harvesting techniques in Nova Scotia. In certain parts of this province, the local populations of Mi’kmaq, an indigenous population native to the Maritimes and the Acadians, a French Canadian diasporic people spread across Canada and in the South of the US, share a variety of farming activities. Despite the different origins, the two populations seem to have preserved similar techniques of caring for the soil (like the art of working the soil with horses). Interestingly, in all cases, it is the soil, not what is planted in it that is most important. In fact, as an increasing number of contemporary farmers will agree, the soil is alive and needs to be properly oxygenated by moving it in specific ways and it needs to be fed (as opposed to overcultivate it): to achieve this, herbicides and better built machineries will not be helpful.
According to Lovelace, the soil, the territory that we inhabit has shaped our culture and habit. even language has links to soil. In fact if one looks at how, historically, the major language groups have developed in North America, one will find that they were located around the major ecosystems. In his talk, he proposed a particular definition of indigeneity: for him being indigenous means having adapted and having become knowledgeable of the specific land they inhabit to the point that they have developed a symbiotic relations with it. Lovelace is interested in re-indigenization, that is, re-acquiring the knowledge of the territory one lives in and learning how to cohabit wit its complexities. This redefinition turns the word “indigenous” into an issue that does not merely pertain to politics (and therefore is subject to countless instrumentalizations) but to governance in its ecological definition. What are the steps needed to re-acquire a symbiotic interaction with the environment?