Undoing colonial thinking to connect with the land and each other

August 26, 2020

Kelsey Carriere

Compiled by Kelsey Carriere, based on our InTO the Ravines event: Indigenous Storytelling & Ravine Ecology, and knowledge shared in a wonderful conversation with Philip Cote.

Philip is a young Elder, artist, activist, educator, historian & traditional wisdom keeper from Moose Deer Point First Nation with Shawnee, Lakota, Potawatomi, and Ojibway lineage. Learn more about Philip at https://tecumsehcollective.wixsite.com/philipcote.

Cover picture credit: Resurge: First Timeline, Philip Cote, Old Mill Bridge, Humber River. 


We think we’re so clever

The CN Tower remains the tallest structure in the Western Hemisphere—a feat of human ingenuity, engineering and determination. Yet, when we see our record-breaking tower superimposed through history, it is suddenly dwarfed by the glaciers that shaped the land that we now call Toronto.

At this same time, a people referred to as “Oh-kwa-ming-i-nini-ug” or the Ice Runners, were here—ancestors of some of today’s Anishinaabe. Some of their stories and knowledge of how to live on this land have grown and evolved and been carried from generation to generation for over 130,000 years. Since before the pyramids were built. Two ice ages ago. As the glaciers retreated and melted shaping the land, ravines and river valleys we now know. And they are still being shared and guiding people on The Good Path today.

These stories teach how to live in the right relations with all of creation, how to express gratitude to the Earth for nourishing us, and how to live in reciprocity with nature, giving back for everything you take. These stories and knowledge passed down over seasons, years, ice ages and many cycles of life guided sustainable human existence on this part of Turtle Island until the arrival of colonial thinkers in Taronto, “the meeting place” or “Fishing Weir” or “Where sticks stand in the Water,” now known as Toronto, in 1720.


Height of the glaciers in Taronto


The circle and the square


There are many ways for us humans to think about our relationship with the world. Western thinking is often based on categorizing, dividing, compartmentalizing—literally putting things in boxes—and this comes with a clear hierarchy of who does the putting in boxes and who and what ‘gets put.’ So it is no surprise that there was a misunderstanding when the colonizers arrived in Taronto with their “square thinking.”


Anishinaabe Creation Story, James Red SkyElder


The arrival of the colonizers is marked here on this Birch Bark Pictograph, a timeline recreated 80 years ago by James Red SkyElder from Northern Ontario that shows the Anishinaabe Creation Story. It begins with four figures around a fire circle—representing this as the four winds and sons that went off in the four directions creating the four nations—a story that would take seven days to recount in full.

We also see clearly at the bottom, near the end of the timeline, the arrival of the “square thinkers.” These new arrivals with their colonial mindsets proceeded to put the “new world” and its inhabitants in boxes without understanding them and carved the land into squares of private ownership where previously land was shared in ways that ensured access for all, to all of the essential medicines, water and hunting grounds.

Among the many parts of the story this pictograph marks, we can see that it begins and ends in circles. Indigenous understanding flows in circles—the medicine wheel, the circle of life, cycles of days and seasons and moving across the cosmos, the cycling of nutrients through nature, even reincarnation.

The final circle on this timeline represents how we will regain our ability to think in cycles and know how to live respectfully and reciprocally on this land and with each other.


Marker Trees


The natural world tends to trickle and grow in spirals and branches and Fibonacci sequences, so when we see an ancient tree standing with an awkward square-angled limb, as abrupt and seemingly ill-fitting to the landscape as the “square thinkers” depicted in the pictograph, Philip suggests that we should wonder.

It is not a sign of coincidence or accident, but a deliberate act to share a message.


Marker Tree, High Park. Courtesy of Philip Cote


For hundreds of years, the Anishinaabe have made a point of shaping trees to mark an important route or event. Marker Trees still standing today in Toronto acknowledge grand councils where important decisions were made about how to deal with the abrupt changes to their way of life and being on the land once settlers arrived.

With the settlers now part of their world, the Indigenous people at the time were not sure how it was going to go but they were determined to hang on to their knowledge as best they could.

“This tree,” says Phil, “is really symbolic of that…The trunk of the tree was split right in two, so the trunks travel along the ground then reach up to the sky.”

He points out two marker trees in High Park and another at the foot of Kipling Avenue that would have been shaped during the tumultuous times of the War of 1812 representing a fork in the road—of the two paths down which the new arrival of settlers could lead—one of mutual understanding and reciprocity, and one of destruction.

These trees were there, rooted and present while great conversations about the future of the Original People were being discussed hundreds of years ago. And they continue to stand, their roots deep in history and their branches outstretched as we continue toward a new chapter in our story together.


The 8th Fire


As the marker trees have weathered storms and centuries, so have the Anishinaabe. Their story and teachings span generations articulating how to live in reciprocity with the land. They also recount many eras, depicted by Anishnaabe storytellers as Fires. The 7th fire was a time of revival and reclaiming of culture amid generational and institutional displacement and injustice.

The 8th Fire is the time prophesied generations ago where our two cultures would come together over a common understanding to heal the land and carry our new way of doing things into the future creating the new people for the new age called the golden age. But it is also seen as another fork in the road a choice of two roads one of light and the other of dark it sounds like trouble but in essence, it’s telling us about the two worlds one is physical and other is spiritual this concept is at the heart of our cosmology and in this deep understanding we see the universe as light and dark physical and spirit its this understanding that will be shared with the western people and have a great effect on our future. The choice is ours and a livable future cannot be had without our cultures coming together, not only the Western and Original People but all nations and all of Creation on a path of friendship, respect, unity and peace.


Ask the land


So how do we get to the 8th Fire amid all of the hollow languages and stalled political promises of reconciliation? Phil reminds us about reciprocity—that we can’t get something without giving first. We must also act in a way that our descendants seven generations from now will be grateful for our decisions. Our relationship to the land is integral to getting on the right path.

“We can’t just think about things and write about things—we need to physically put ourselves in connection with the land so that we can have a relationship with the land and know that we are being cared for—not the other way around”

“You have to re-situate yourself at the centre of life,” he tells us, and remember The Seven Grandfather Teachings: Respect, Honesty, Truth, Humility, Courage, Wisdom and Love.

One great way to connect with the land, he tells us, is through an offering. “You can get some tobacco and hold it in your left hand. Go to a park or a place that you feel resonates with you. Tap on the ground four times with your hand that has the tobacco in it, then turn in a circle four times and set the tobacco down in that spot. Ask the land for whatever answer you seek and the land sends a message to the universe and will provide you with an answer.” So long as you listen for it.

Thank you Philip for your teachings and may we all take a moment to honour the land that provides for us and ask of it what we can each do to repair the damage that colonial and industrial thinking has imposed on the land and its people.


About Philip Cote

Philip Cote is the artist behind many important public art pieces including Indigenous History of the Land at Spadina & Dupont, The Niagara Treaty of 1764 at University of Toronto, and Resurge: First Timeline under Old Mill Station in King’s Mill Park that are helping to tell the whole story of the history of this land and the Indigenous understandings that reinforce our reciprocal relationship with the land.



“My experience of being an Indigenous person in Toronto wasn’t good. I faced so much racism…I was really an alien here on my land…I knew the world was a harsh place be
I didn’t know why. I didn’t know that it was directly linked to me being Indigenous.

Then I learned that there is a racial bias that was created by history’s writing of who Indigenous people were and as I got older, I realized that my culture was really important and something that I wanted to share through my paintings and through my drawings. I was driven and drawn to find ways of communicating this culture and over time it evolved until public art became a commonplace for me to get work. This important work is creating a space for people to see us in a different light, from an Indigenous perspective—not from a western perspective, or a historic racial perspective, but showing that Indigenous people have something to share and that our culture and our understanding of being human and being alive is something that the world needs to see now.”



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