Treaty Buddhists and Beyond

Hello, friends,

Buddhism doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and honouring human dignity doesn’t happen only on a meditation cushion. Below, you’ll find a post by Meditation Instructor Alexis Shotwell on being a Treaty Buddhist as a settler on Indigenous land.

Mi’kma’ki shoreline - The treaties between the Mi’kmaq and the Settlers still stand and need to be respected

A rocky, Mi’kma’ki shoreline, wave-washed and bordered by coniferous forest, against a cloud-strewn sky.

Buddhists in North America could choose to be treaty people, people who uphold and respect formal and informal agreements between Indigenous peoples and settlers.

As Buddhists, we are committed to a vision and practice of interdependence – understanding the ways that our lives are connected to others, past, present, and future, and acting based on that understanding. Practicing interdependence is political. In what is (for the moment) Canada, we as Buddhists can put one part of our practice to work in acting as treaty people. This means that we recognize the land on which we live as alive and worthy of care. This means that we respect the historical and ongoing care and relationship between Indigenous peoples and land. It means that we learn, in an ongoing way, what it means to keep the agreements that our ancestors and the governments under which we live made.

As settlers, and in many cases as immigrants who were allowed to move to places without the active consent or knowledge of the original peoples and current custodians of those places, we can take up being treaty people as an active part of our Buddhist commitments. When we have the privilege to live in a place, we also have responsibilities.

Tibetan Buddhists in particular can understand how we might stand in complex relations as human interlocutors with living place; as an animist tradition, we know what it means to build relation with drala, with the specific place-protectors of everywhere we live or go. We likely have some understanding of what places feel like when the unseen beings who support and sustain those places are demeaned or respected. Whether we think of those unseen beings as microbes, critters, rich leaf mulch in a formerly clear-cut forest or as something ephemeral but connected to all of that, being part of a tradition that makes daily and ritual offerings to dralas and protectors tunes us in to relationality with land.

Take the ongoing struggle around fishing and harvesting food as a part of care for place, flaring in Nova Scotia right now. Indigenous lobster fishers are currently exercising both their treaty rights and their ongoing responsibility to the land and ocean of their territory in creating what is, in treaty language, a licensed “moderate livelihood” fishery. White settler fishers, backed by racist police and governmental inaction, have responded with naked terrorism and violence – burning boats and buildings, desecrating frozen lobster, threatening people with physical violence, and so on. Mi’kma’ki has been an important part of the history of what is currently Canada, including nationally significant legal decisions and affirmations about treaty rights.

Of these, the Marshall decision is notable: it affirmed, under settler, that Indigenous peoples have the right to harvest and sell food. Of course, this was always part of treaty agreements going back to initial colonization – and, of course, the rights and responsibilities attending Mi’kmaq people’s fishing and hunting did not originate with those treaties . All of us who live in the Canadian context can support Mi’kmaw people, who are attempting to live in responsible relations of care with land and meeting brutal, racist, white supremacist terrorism in response.

Mi’kma’ki has also been an important part of the history of North American Buddhism. Anyone who has practiced within or benefitted from the lineages arising out of Chogyam Trungpa’s dharma teaching is connected to the land and relationships in what is currently Nova Scotia. If you learned to meditate at a Shambhala Centre anywhere in the world, you are connected to Mi’kma’ki. If you have ever appreciated a talk by Pema Chodron, read a book published by Shambhala Publications, or watched a dance performance by someone trained at Naropa University, if you are reading Lion’s Roar right now, you have been supported and sustained by Mi’kma’ki.

Any Shambhala Centre anywhere in the world could re-affirm treaty commitments and coherently actively support Mi’kmaq practices, in virtue of Shambhala International’s long term official residence in Mi’kma’ki. Buddhists who live in Mi’kma’ki who have left Shambhala can learn about the treaties, ceremonies, conversations, and practices that are the foundation of settlers living there. I know that when I moved to Nova Scotia as part of the Buddhist migration initiated by Chogyam Trungpa, I had no idea of the treaty responsibilities I was taking on. I also had no idea of the specific Indigenous histories of the place I was born and moved away from, the limning of genocidal practices that had shaped my life. Admittedly, I was a clueless white teenager, politically attentive only to the nuclear production facility down the road from Boulder, CO. I had no idea that I was growing up near the site of one of the US’s notable massacres in its genocidal war against Indigenous peoples, the Sand Creek Massacre. Now, as a somewhat less clueless white middle-ager, I’m still learning what my treaty responsibilities mean today.

Treaty relationships are only a starting place, however. Living in a place, or being formally connected to it, calls on us to actively practice responsibilities specific to that place. There are not treaties everywhere there is care for place, and anyhow mostly treaties have been and are a site for ongoing betrayal and endless wrangling in settler courts. A good place for me to start, and perhaps for you too, if you’re a Buddhist who cares about the world, would be to practice standing in solidarity with Indigenous land defenders. Maybe we can go on from there, learning and practicing better relations. It is appropriate to care, as a Buddhist, about the struggle for Indigenous rights and responsibilities happening right now, and you could express your care. I can’t predict what the best way to express your solidarity will be, because it will be specific to your time and place.

Settler governments are perpetuating harm against Indigenous peoples the world over, and so anywhere we live we have the opportunities to stand against genocide – from resisting the atrocities against the Rohingya to standing with O’odham water and land defenders to the Sipekne’katik fishery, and beyond. Since settlers are the ones perpetuating violence in all these places, we settlers are well-positioned to intervene. And we Buddhists are beautifully invited to act on the aspiration to figure out what we mean when we say, “Creations are numberless, I vow to free them” in the context of being in solidarity with Indigenous ongoingness today.