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Talking Earth – First Nation Teachings and Science

Friday May 2, 2014

As director of MNDM’s Ontario Geological Survey, I am fortunate to work with, and learn from, many people who come from different cultures.

I am fortunate because an important part of my work includes meeting and working with Aboriginal people across Ontario. I have learned that Aboriginal people across Canada have a spiritual relationship with the Earth, that all things on the Earth are “family,” and that the Creator charged them with a sacred duty. They are “keepers of the Earth.”

Aboriginal people and geologists may see the land through different glasses, but we share a common interest in observing the relationships among the rocks, the sands, the water, the plants, and the animals — all aspects of the land. I have a deep respect for the traditional insights of my Aboriginal friends. Often I hear a legend from an Anishinabe friend, describing their understanding of the Earth, which causes me to pause and reflect because it is so parallel to my geological understanding of the Earth. There are different versions of this legend and it is with great reverence that I share one to show that we share common understandings.

Grandfather Rock is a legend based on the understanding that the rocks are grandfathers — animate beings with memories and stories to share with those who are able to hear ancestral voices. The legend speaks to the respect held for rocks. One version I heard in northwestern Canada goes something like this:

In the beginning, everything existed only in spirit form. These spirits moved around hoping to find a place where they could stay and show themselves. When they reached the sun they knew it was too hot. Finally they came upon Earth, but it was covered with water and there were no life forms. Suddenly, a great burning rock broke the surface of the water and it began to dry out the land. This rock is called Grandfather Rock because it is the oldest of all the rocks.
Rocks must be respected because of this.

I am struck by the parallelism of the legend with our geological description of the history of the Earth, which goes something like this:

The conditions that led to the formation of the Earth began with the Big Bang some 13 billion years ago. Dust and gases moved around through space — unattached to anything. About 4.5 billion years ago some of those materials came together to form our sun and others to form the Earth.

A fiery Earth was born and then cooled to form a solid black surface. Most of that early land was not exposed. It was covered by an ocean that formed from an enormous violent rainstorm which lasted for millions of years. That violent rainstorm was fed by a blanket of cloud, created by gases released into the air from volcanoes. The Earth changed from a fiery body to become a water planet. Small black volcanic islands, born of fire, poked out above ocean — the beginning of dry land. That early Earth did not have life as we know it.

After millions of years, something very special happened. Bacteria appeared. These bacteria ate sunlight and created oxygen, and then life on Earth was changed forever. The record of these early bacteria is preserved in rocks as fossils called stromatolites. Younger examples of the bacteria and stromatolites occur in rocks near Thunder Bay. Geologists consider this early life to be the ancestors of every living thing on Earth…our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandmothers and grandfathers.

While I have described the geological story in more detail, I have always been struck by the similarity with the Aboriginal Grandfather Rock teaching. It is not about which is correct, for both are valid. It is respectful recognition that both views are remarkably similar and are founded on different, but parallel views of the Earth’s history.

Robert Maynard Hutchins, educator and philosopher, said: “A world community can exist only with world communication, which means something more than extensive radio stations scattered about the globe. It means common understanding, a common tradition, common ideas, and common ideals.”

Like Hutchins, I see that we need to have respect for each other and our respective cultural and belief systems.

I offer thanks to those Far North friends who supported the choice of this topic.


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