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  • Dave Butler

Buyin' Dirt

By Dave Butler (1)

I’ve been pondering the notion of land ownership since I finished the book “Land,” by Simon Winchester (Published Jan. 2021 by Harper; ISBN13: 9780062938336).

“Land” describes how man’s desire to explore, acquire, put boundaries on, then own land has been the basis for much of the development of modern society. In some cases (such as where logging and mining and tourism and public recreation occur in the same places), we share land. Just as often, however, disputes over land ownership have led to wars and to the deaths of millions of people around the globe.

Winchester’s book is a fascinating and thought-provoking story that is particularly timely here in Canada considering the growing public awareness about how we have treated our Indigenous peoples since the first explorers arrived on this continent’s shores. We recognize that our colonization and settlement of lands that were occupied by first peoples for thousands of years has led to, and is still leading to the destruction of families and cultures and languages.

The story is the same, but different, in the United States.

Ironically, many of the settlers who came to North America from countries such as Scotland, Ireland and England had themselves been uprooted and displaced by wealthy land owners.

Research shows that Papal documents from the 1400s were some of the first to openly authorize Christian explorers (mostly from Europe) to seize non-Christian land when they “discovered” it. Around the world, from Africa to Australia, and from Central and South America to islands in the Caribbean, this ‘doctrine of discovery’ has been used to push Indigenous peoples out of their traditional territories, and away from their traditional ways to use and steward those lands.

During one of my trips to Namibia, I saw crosses on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean erected to memorialize Portuguese explorers who “discovered” the lands. This was, of course, a surprise to the San, Nama, Ovahimba, Ovazemba, Ovatjimba, and Ovatwa peoples already living there.

That story has been repeated hundreds and hundreds of times throughout our history. From one continent to another, Indigenous peoples were considered to be savages to whom colonizers arrogantly assumed they were bringing civilization. The reality, of course, was that those original inhabitants most often had sophisticated and successful societies in place, with time-tested approaches to governance and environmental stewardship developed over many hundreds of generations.

How does this relate to the environment and conservation you ask?

I recently learned that when Canada’s Banff National Park was created in 1887, the then-park superintendent viewed local Indigenous peoples (of the Stoney / Nakoda, Blackfoot and Sarcee Nations) as “stragglers” best confined to nearby reserves, to be excluded from the park. The Ktunaxa and Secwepemc Nations on the west

side of the Rockies also used the area for hunting and trading with their neighbours. The superintendent wrote in a report to his bosses in Ottawa that “their destruction of the game and depredations among the ornamental trees make their too frequent visits to the park a matter of great concern.”

In 1936, Ojibwa peoples were expelled from a traditional fishing station within the newly-created Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba. Apparently, as they left for a reserve outside the park, they saw smoke from their burning houses and barns, lit by park wardens to discourage them from returning.

While the proliferation of land trusts and conservancies in North America, using tools such as conservation easements, are a glimmer of hope that land acquisition can be a pathway to environmental stewardship as opposed to cultural genocide, there is a disturbing irony in the fact that some of our most famous protected areas were homes for Indigenous peoples … before we decided to “protect” them.

In “Land,” Winchester poses a series of fundamental questions: who actually owns the world’s land -- and why does it matter? He asks what we human beings are doing -- and have done -- with the billions of acres of our planet not covered by oceans.

Our Indigenous friends and neighbours have their own answers to those questions.

We should listen to them.

* * *

This post was written in Ktunaxa ɁamakɁis, the traditional territory of the Ktunaxa Nation.

[1] Jordan Davis – “…you can’t buy happiness, but you can buy dirt.”

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