In the Strong Towns community, we have an appreciation for the wisdom baked into the traditional pattern of development. Many readers of this blog appreciate traditional architecture for the same reasons of functional, purposeful elegance. I started wondering, what about social traditions? I believe built environments and social environments are interdependent and right now, that relationship in the world around me is out of sync. So before the holidays, I wrote about beginning a journey to reconnect (critically) with tradition.

Field Notes: Back to School

To do this, I’ve been seeking out wise people and developing a curiosity for the long-standing. I’m particularly interested in the traditions of the Indigenous peoples of this land who have survived in the northeast for an estimated 10,000 years. That puts them around the dawn of agriculture, even before the dawn of city-building. Imagine measuring our lifestyles and weighing policy against the 10,000 year time horizon. Wow. Naturally, I wanted to learn more… And quickly realized doing so would require more than an internet search. That’s the thing about oral histories - I need a grandma, not a Google.

A gift arrived in the form of a free online course from Cape Breton University called “Learning from Knowledge Keepers of Mi’kma’ki” (Mi’kma’ki meaning the land of the Mi’kmaq people). I live in neighbouring territory (of the Wolastoqiyik, “People of the Beautiful River”), but much of New Brunswick is Mi’kmaq territory, land which plays a storied role in the history of North America.

Stories as identity and instruction

Every Monday night, thousands of us tune in live from around the world to learn about Mi’kmaq culture and history from elders. Can't recommend it enough. The stories began with a tree branch. Chief Stephen Augustine who led the first four weeks’ lectures, explained seasonal migration for us in the way his grandmother had for him years ago. 

"You know our families, we move in the spring time of the year to the mouth of the rivers, and these are branches of the rivers. And in the winter time, in order to survive properly, we all spread ourselves thinly up the tributaries of each of the rivers..."
Screencap around minute 34 in Week 1, if you want to watch

Screencap around minute 34 in Week 1, if you want to watch

He goes on to explain that the families disperse into the woods so that they all have access to winter foods like eel and game. When the fireflies come out and you can hear the chirping of young frogs in spring, it is time to return to the mouth of the river again. That is when the fish are plentiful and the weather and conditions are more favourable by the ocean.

Watershed regional planning, right there. The thing that struck me most about it though, is that I remember what he said. The image of the tree, the intuitive explanation meant that even without knowing the full meaning or how that motion came to be and the doubtless mistakes that concluded in this wisdom, I can replay the story in my head. It makes me marvel at the the necessary clarity and imagery of the oral histories that allows them to be passed down in relative harmony over thousands of years. Chief Augustine shared that different family lines have their own twist on the narratives, but the important stuff is pretty consistent. I've been appreciating the advantages of oral history being fluid, not tied to the letter. It can be adapted through the ages so that the moral of the story holds, undistracted from terminology and triviality of the day. (Imagine if city codes worked the same way - "Do unto thy neighbours [...]. Let the water back into to the soil. Don't poison it on the way. Waste not, want not. Beware of fire." Dave Alden already wrote the fable of Strong Towns.) The history rediscovers itself in every generation, like a good joke. I was interested to learn that the Mi'kmaq are a matrilineal culture, so it is the traditional role of elder women to act as Knowledge Keepers who pass on the history and wisdom. We learned that their voices are deemed extremely valuable in communal decisions, not least because they hold what happened in the past.

Chief Augustine would reiterate that many of the stories and traditions passed down by the Mi'kmaq are about "negotiating survival with Mother Earth." For example, he explained, the Mi’kmaq creation story has this language baked in. At each retelling of the story, “how did we get here,” one is reminded “how do we stay here.” Their relationship to the land is a core part of the Mi’kmaq identity. In fact, Chief Augustine explained that the Mi’kmaq territory was easily misread as unoccupied by settlers because the impact on the land was so light. And yet their ancestors had walked the land enough to wear down the stones in their footpaths.

Finding myself on the fringe

I've been listening to this in awe. I'm not so naive as to believe that there were no dark episodes in 10,000 years. Is there any path to wisdom but through time, mistakes, and humility? It's the responsiveness to mistakes that I'm finding so inspiring - 10,000 years of dodging self-destruction and the trap of human hubris. It feels like what I am learning right now is today's chapter in one people's long story of antifragility. It's beautiful to see this course becoming a part of that long tradition.

To be clear, these are not my stories to tell and I hope I have not misrepresented them - please go straight to the source. I just want to share the source in whatever way I can.

I feel extremely lucky to live in a place overflowing with strong Indigenous culture and a welcomeness to newcomers, whether they be the original settlers, interprovincial imports like me, or refugees. It's important though, that I also understand the ground rules for sticking around. My culture is the newfangled one on the outskirts of something rooted and reliable. We've all entered this new world together, with more people and global challenges to which we must adapt than the previous generations. Still, I share the belief that Knowledge Keepers are just as important to put at the centre of learning as they ever were. Even four lectures have challenged and improved my understanding of a Strong Town.

This class is growing my perception of the possible and giving me all sorts of difficult questions to ask myself.

Are the things I advocate compatible with long, long term survival?
Are big cities in general a long term proposition?
How can this movement *move* in stories that are so clear and powerful that they get passed on?
Where do I feel a deep connection to the land?

In fact, that’s the topic for this week’s class: connection to the land. More thoughts on that next week. 

Due to a winter storm, class was actually delayed to tonight at 5pm EST if you’d like to follow along, although I’d highly recommend beginning at Week 1 in the Archives. Pour yourself a cup of tea and stoke the fire.

All photos by Gracen Johnson unless otherwise stated.