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Lessons from the Land of the Sleeping Giant: An Interview with Liz EsquegaOctober 20th, 2010
By Billy Granger
Even though Liz Esquega has learned much from Elders she works with in Winnipeg as the Coordinator for SEED Winnipeg’s Aboriginal Community Collaborations, the lessons she received from her grandmother as a child were what originally informed her outlook on life – and her outlook on some pressing environmental issues facing Manitobans today.
Liz grew up in Fort William First Nation near Thunder Bay, Ontario, nestled against the shores and heaving surf of Lake Superior where one can stand and look upon the famous Sleeping Giant rock formation; a near perfect relief of some fantastic and colossal man slumbering atop the cold, black water. From Thunder Bay, you can travel a little south into Fort William and eventually into a blanket of boreal forest and stand at the foot of Mount McKay. This is where the community holds their annual pow-wow; near the old wishing well, and where an old and dilapidated church rests in Squaw Bay abandoned. It was among these places, where a young Liz Esquega learned from her grandmother Josephine.
When telling me about her grandmother, Esquega recounts enigmatic and self-sufficient old women who used to meticulously document weather patterns, and live by the rhythm of the land. She would spend her time sitting on the bed looking distantly out the window, observing and meditating. On occasion, she would pat the bed and ask Liz to sit with her. When she did, she would never look at her granddaughter, but instead would remain transfixed at the scene outside. Her words were often subtle and understated, yet consistently full of insight. I can tell by way Liz speaks about them that she has enjoyed a lifetime of decoding their finer mysteries.
“Shhhh! Did you hear that?” her grandmother once asked. The young and mystified Liz looked on. “Didn’t you hear what that little bird said? She said it’s going to rain today…” And rain it did.
Liz tells me that this kind of knowledge is invaluable.
“It’s beyond science almost, being in tune with Mother Earth and what surrounds you, “says Esquega. “The value of that is being in touch with the Creator and reminding you of the beauty that life has to offer and it’s all for free – it doesn’t cost anything. And what do we do? Destroy it. When we destroy it, we destroy ourselves. This is the ancient knowledge.”
As one of the many things Liz Equega does to combat poverty in her capacity as the Coordinator for SEED Winnipeg’s Aboriginal Community Collaborations, she also has taught money management workshops to Aboriginal Seniors that live in Winnipeg. The strain of financial poverty is significant on the Elders living in Winnipeg, but so is the strain of environmental poverty.
“It came up at the Aboriginal Senior Resource Centre, because this is how they see poverty. Just think about how many of them grew up. Grandma didn’t even have running water, but she had the land and knew how to live on it. Now the elders are living poor in the city and saving up their pennies,” says Liz.
The issue of environmental poverty eventually came up with Liz’s grandmother, too.
“Grandma didn’t see herself as poor. She found her wealth in the waters of Lake Superior, in the mountains, and the beauty of the natural world,” says Liz. But over time, the ever-observant grandmother who could tell how cold the coming winter was going to be by the rhythm of the tides, and how great the harvest of berries was going to be in spring time eventually remarked to Liz that the water of Lake Superior were making her sick. And with that, the penniless grandmother who went without running water was suddenly poor in a very real sense.
This is why Liz believes in helping communities on the east side of Lake Winnipeg protect the vast and pristine boreal forest that surrounds them and provides them environmental resources that they can draw on for survival. It is also why she believes in assisting Fisher River Cree Nation in their bid to protect their traditional territory that includes fresh water reefs, boreal forest, and important habitat for animals like bats, wolves, bears, and moose.
“I think that these kinds of initiatives are good because they protect the environment and the integrity of the area,” says Liz, later adding that it would send an important message to the youth of today. “Children of today need to learn respect. If they can respect Mother Earth, it may help them in their walk of life. They will carry that with them.”