WEWENI BIMIBATOO | RUNNING GENTLY
When Melissa Arnott speaks in Anishinaabemowin, the whole room listens. Although we don’t understand it, there is a power in this language. Its flows and staccatos. Its unfamiliarity is striking, despite being one of the oldest languages from an area we know so well.
Melissa is Anishinaabe from the Ojibway Nation, a mother of two young children, and a survivor of the ‘Sixties Scoop.’ This infamous government program stripped Indigenous children of their cultural identities by forcibly removing them from their families and communities, and adopted them into predominantly white families throughout North America and in some cases, internationally.
Six years ago, she moved to the unceded lands and territory of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw, in Squamish. Here she became involved with Indigenous Women Outdoors (IWO), a volunteer run, not-for-profit organization that holds space for self-identifying Indigenous women and those on the gender continuum to come together and feel safe on the land.
In speaking with Melissa, you can instantly feel her passion for this group. The importance that it brings to her and others in her community. It’s helped her reconnect with herself, her culture and her relationship with the land.
As Melissa states, “we want Indigenous women to be leaders in the outdoor industry, to reclaim matriarchal leadership and to be confident in sharing their knowledge and connection of the land.”
This relationship with land forms one of the core tenants of IWO. There is immeasurable value in connecting to the place in which you live, work and recreate. As lovers of the outdoors, there is a need to shift our perspective of viewing the land as outdoor ‘playgrounds,’ places that exist to serve us; ripe for extraction or conquest. Instead, we need to view these as places that deserve veneration and protection.
And although strong now, this relationship has waxed and waned at times in Melissa’s life.
“When I was a child, I was deeply connected to mother earth (niimaamaa aki). I spent a lot of my childhood with my hands in the dirt and my feet in the water. I developed an immense amount of respect and love for her and all our relations during this period in my life; she nurtured my curiosity and showed me the importance of empathy which helped to shape the person that I am today.
“As I grew into a teenager and then into an adult, I spent less time with her and as a result we drifted apart. There was a long period in my life where I no longer spoke to her and I stopped listening for her - we became strangers.”
Her move to Squamish helped renew this relationship.
“The land in Squamish is incredibly breathtaking, mesmerizing, and healing. As I started spending more time out on the trails amongst the tall red cedars, the carpets of moss, and the flowing waters of the Stawamus river, I started hearing and feeling the calls from niimaamaa aki (mother earth) again.
“Niimiigwechiwendam (I am grateful) to the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Peoples whose land I am a guest on as it was in their territory that my healing began and my reconnection to self, the land, and my Anishinaabe culture took place.”
It was this profound experience that led Melissa to the development of IWO's trail running program. A program that looks at dismantling the perceptions of what running is and what a runner looks like. Its belief is that outdoor sports are for everyone; all ages, shapes, sizes, and abilities. It’s about moving your body to connect with yourself, your surroundings, and with others.
“Trail running has gifted me with so much and in many ways, it has been life changing. The desire to start a trail running program with Indigenous Women Outdoors was born from this. I wanted to contribute to creating a space where Indigenous folx: First Nations (status and non-status), Métis, and Inuit could (re)connect with the land and to have their own experience."
While it's true that IWO is an outdoor organization, its mission runs much deeper than athletics. Sport is just a vessel. Its true focus is on fostering community; creating a safe, accessible and healthy space for its members. On finding joy in these activities, for the right reasons.
Jill Patrick, an IWO trail runner with N'Quatqua, St'át'yemc and Chinese roots, says “I have only been trail running since last summer, when I went to my first Indigenous Women Outdoors social run. I used to run back in my twenties, when everything was easy and I could knock out a 5K on no sleep, no water, and no food. Back then, I ran on self-hatred. I ran to be thin. To punish myself. To escape my trauma and bad relationships. Because I thought that an Indigenous woman's pain is the only thing the world wants from her.
“Running with IWO has given me peace, courage, purpose, and a sense of belonging. It brings me health and joy. You can't hate yourself and run on the land. You must do it with love. You can't hate yourself and run with these women; they are the epitome of love!”
Isabelle Ranger, an IWO trail runner reconnecting to her Nunatsiavut family, adds “running is medicine for our bodies, in honour of the land, for those who can no longer run and all those we inspire along the trails. As we run together, we uplift each other and support each of our unique journeys. We are learning so much while running and sharing this with our growing Community of Indigenous Women runners. We get to run for our Ancestors, the Land and Community.”
“Trail running helps me to find that connection. Being on the land with nothing but my own two feet helps me to find who I am meant to be.” - Jill Patrick
This responsibility to the land is a fundamental value of many indigenous groups, in Canada and across the world. Their depth of knowledge in stewardship and sustainable practices should be emulated, not overlooked. As humans, we need to view ourselves as part of the ecosystems in which we live, rather than separate from them. We are innately interconnected with our environment and planet. Thus, our actions need to be respectful of the land. Reciprocal of its needs. Only then will we be able to create healthy and sustainable behaviours.
As Melissa Arnott states, “when we become disconnected and disassociated with the world around us, we take and we do not give. A relationship will not survive when it’s one sided. It thrives with respect and reciprocity.”
As people who love to spend time outdoors, understanding this connection and applying it to how we recreate is crucial.
“Our most fundamental nxékmen (law) is: pala7míntwal̓ i ucwalmícwa múta7 ti tmícwa: "the People and the Land Are One". We are the land. So is our language, our culture, our songs, our kin, our identity. Our place is with the land. That is why we must protect it — because it is us. When we have the land, we have everything we need. We have a duty to protect and steward the land for the seven generations before and after us,” says Jill Patrick.
But with the learnings from groups like IWO in mind, how can we best forge new relationships with the land?
It’s no secret that the outdoor industry can be very intimidating, with all kinds of gatekeeping. The responsibility is on all of us (although particularly on settlers), to remove these barriers. We must shift our mindset, be open to new approaches, and support groups working in this space.
Jill Patrick states, “the outdoor community can be more inclusive by removing barriers that create inaccessible spaces in the first place. Support organizations like Indigenous Women Outdoors and others to create safe, inclusive spaces for equity-deserving folx. Not everything is meant for you; you don't need to own or experience something directly to understand its worthiness.”
Another meaningful step is to learn about the history of the outdoor places that you love, beyond purely colonial perspectives. Their significance. Their meaning. Their First (or pre-colonial) names. Visit sites like whose.land to learn more about the lands you're recreating on. Or text 1 (907) 312 5085, with the city and province you’re in to receive information about the Indigenous lands you’re messaging from.
“The maps, mountain names, plant names have mostly been renamed by men after themselves as settlers “discovering” these. These all have First names spoken, written and now being honoured on trailheads, place names and hopefully maps soon. Recreation is very interconnected to maps, mountains, rivers and place names so learning the Indigenous place names is very important.” says Isabelle Ranger.
“And finally, learn about the history and systems that keep Indigenous people off of their lands and without connection to their language or ways of being. Talk about it, teach it, and change it. Understand the Land Back movement and how you can contribute.” Jill Patrick added.
Whether it’s to fight climate change, or simply to find oneself, we should all strive to achieve this reciprocal relationship with the land. Acknowledging our interconnectedness is critical, as it alters our perspective, reminding us that we must protect nature in order to protect our ecosystems, our communities and ourselves.
Melissa Arnott articulated this concept beautifully:
“When I became a mother, my understanding of why we need to walk gently for future generations grew from something that I knew into something that I could feel. Niimaamaa aki speaks to me when the birds sing, when the flowers bloom, the berries ripen and when the squirrels chatter. She reminds me that we all play a part.”
To learn more about Indigenous Women Outdoors programming, and how you can support the organization, please visit their website and Instagram page.
Learn more about the land on which you live, work and recreate, Indigenous history in Canada, and Truth & Reconciliation with the resources below.
Little Bird: a mini-series about the Sixties Scoop and a woman finding her family.