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Carrying on the Tradition

Ancestral ties to Lake Winnipeg underscore a personal quest

to take care of the land

My mother recently taught me how to fillet a fish, pulled from Lake Winnipeg waters. I watched in awe as she guided the knife through the fish; “just follow the backbone,” she said. Fascinated by the beauty of its scales, I listened as my mom shared her knowledge of deep water and shallow water fish.

I was surprised. I didn’t know that my mom knew all of this; filleting is a skill I didn’t know she had. I was amazed by the sureness and strength of those hands that I had known for so long, but not in this way.

I realize now that I shouldn’t have been surprised by my mother’s talent. I come from a long line of fisherman. Fisher peoples, actually. In a roundabout way, my Icelandic ancestors met my Indigenous ancestors through fishing on Lake Winnipeg – that massive, beautiful and moody lake in central Manitoba. My Afi – my paternal grandfather – told countless stories of how his Icelandic immigrant family would never have survived here without the help of the local Indigenous peoples. Later, my ancestors would marry and help form a decidedly unique group of mixed ancestry people, not uncommon in the Interlake region.

Fishing and filleting is a tradition, a practice rooted in the ancestral knowledge that we carry. When there are that many fisherman in the family, everyone takes part. My mother, who married into this culture, learned from working and taking part in family outings and livelihoods. She carries on the tradition out of love and respect for her family.

From my own experiences I have learned that the lake and the land that surrounds it are inextricably linked. Together they are everything. There is no difference between land and people; between water, wind and soil; between plants and wildlife. My identity is, in part, centered on my respect for the land. At Lake Winnipeg, I am presented with my past, my present and my future.

People and place are one in the same, and I am never more aware of that feeling than when standing on the lake’s shores. I know I am standing in the space of my ancestors. Although I have been told countless stories of lives lost, of the moodiness and of the changing face of the lake, I have no fear here. I feel haunted, but in the best possible way.

It is a place where I can take a breath. I enjoy the stillness or the waves. I am always keeping an eye out for a moose, bear or deer. I have an inherent trust in the land, and I trust that in taking care of the land, it will return the favour.

When I pick medicine or berries or fillet a fish, I offer tobacco first to say thank you and to honour the life that is being entrusted to me. These offerings are a way of asking the land and water for the life that we take; they are how I acknowledge my gratefulness for the gifts of nature. In turn, I am presented with the gifts of food, enjoyment and well-being. These offerings help ensure I never take the land and water for granted and honour the reciprocity that I so believe in.
I believe that there is a great responsibility for me to care for the land. It is a responsibility to maintain, work with and support the land so that future generations may experience similar benefits. I choose to represent the land and speak on its behalf as an offering to my ancestors. I understand that this connection was born into me, and that it is part of what I am meant to do. I chose work and research around land-based education and land-based food systems because it is what I believe in.

It is hard work, at times.

Lake Winnipeg is facing perhaps its greatest challenge in the potentially harmful algae blooms that creep across the lake in summer. These blooms threaten the water, the wildlife and my history. More than ever, I see the need to advocate on behalf of the lake. I try to encourage people to connect with the lake and to know this is how we will affect change.

Yes, it is hard work. But it is also good work and it is beautiful and true. Indeed, I am lucky. Watching my mother’s hands, I see now that this is a family trait. We work for what we believe in.

Photo: The moody waters of Lake Winnipeg. © Jesse Vanderhart

Tabitha Martens
Tabitha Martens is a food lover, educator and graduate student at the University of Manitoba and is the Aboriginal Programming Coordinator for the Oak Hammock Marsh Interpretive Centre

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