The following gives a picture for how the participants engaged during the conference, connecting in ways to enable the hoped-for outcomes of the Great Lakes Commons Gathering...
As a participant who came with high hopes for what might be achieved during this GL Gathering, i was looking forward to seeing how people who are working on Great Lakes issues might intentfully begin to work as a nascent Great Lakes Commons Group in three days time. A Herculean task to be sure. A core group had worked together for the previous year in planning the Gathering organized by OnTheCommons.org, universities, and native organizers and leaders in organizations dealing with ecological and social justice issues relating to water in the Great Lakes Basin.
The whole event was framed by indigenous ceremony overseen by Anishinaabe Elders and Mother Earth Water Walk founders, Grandmother Josephine Mandamin and Elder Dorene Day. They along with others set the management and protection of these sacred waters and their connection to all life in the Great Lakes Basin as central and primary.
The first session collectively set up the guidelines for the process, and among agreements for respectful and open interaction, dissent and questioning of meaning were also welcomed. The group expressed the necessity of patience with the "beginner's mind" which each possessed considering the many issues that were presented. From Native traditions, to regulatory processes, to commons perspectives and even questions of language and power (i.e. commons does not refer to public, there is no word for commons in Native languages, many other names for the Great Lakes exist besides the European names that are now dominant), the complexity of this group process was evident.
During the workshops on day 2, issues of trust emerged, mainly centered on Native People's experiences of many broken treaties, and continuing assaults on the sovereignty of what remains of their ancestral land holdings. Problems of racism and the colonized mind-set were also discussed. All agreed this was something each had to grapple with. All seemed willing to work thru these issues together. It was obvious that trust was something we all sought, but that it would take time and commitment to develop.
Native youth activist of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, Mother Earth Water Walker and law student, Sylvia Plain, invited people to commit to the project and in doing so, hold to the promises to collaborate and reciprocate, especially with youth. The youth leadership at the event was strongly evident. The worshop on treaties and current struggles to defend what they have left was reason enough for hesitation to trust on the part of many First Nations participants. One of the presenters, the young staff attorney for the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Philomena Kebek, radiated a fierce determination when she described the continuing attacks by mining and petroleum interests on her homelands.
Social justice poster artist, Ricardo Levins Morales, highlighted the challenge felt by all, that there is a sense of urgency to build up a commons force to meet the onslaught of Market State enclosures and destruction that is ravaging our communities and the planet. Yet he emphasized that the commons cannot be successful in defending any particular commons until we have the necessary clarity, capacity and unity. He called for commoners to embrace the tensions we feel as we try to balance urgency with patience in building the essential relatonships of trust, sticking to process while always working towards efficiencies that will bring the eventual successes we seek.
In one of the break out groups, the question of how leadership may be developed for continuing the Great Lakes Charter process was discussed. Native elders in the group said that for them commons meant relationship... to each other, to the Earth, to those cultural and social processes that define us. I fully agreed, yet it seemed this meant that the Charter process could not go forward until the group demonstrated their commitment to the relationships that would be needed to fulfill a Charter. I was left with a sense of frustration in that i wanted to set goals for both relating and working moving forward.
Perhaps that is what can happen as all present certainly are focussed on projects and commitments regarding the Great Lakes and/or supporting regional commons efforts. But will the strength of three days together be enough to evolve definitive next steps from afar? This is the test. Will this gathering spark enough relational commitments (see blog on Outcomes) to build on the nascent Charter discussions until we gather again? Potentially, as Michigan Tech's Great Lakes Research Center was offered for round two in the Great Lakes Charter process. Time will tell.
Mary Beth Steisslinger