Home Commentary To Recover from the Flood, Look toIndigenous Wisdom

To Recover from the Flood, Look toIndigenous Wisdom

By Damian Costello and Randy Kritkausky

We survived the July 2023 flooding. Now it’s time to look to Indigenous wisdom and cultivate a new communal identity that connects us deeply to the land. 

No doubt the flood was a devastating event that created lasting trauma. Yet from an Indigenous perspective, floods are often seen as pivotal moments of creation and recreation, such as the Native American Anishinaabe story of Turtle Island.

 There are many versions of the Turtle Island story. In every version a human progenitor struggles to cope with a flood or alien watery environment. A large number of other-than-human kin attempt but fail to bring soil from the watery depths. Finally, Muskrat manages to bring a handful of soil to the surface and dies in the process. The soil is placed on Turtle’s back, where it expands to form a life-sustaining island called Turtle Island, which is also known today as North America.

For Native Americans, this is both a parable and a set of foundational teachings: we humans wouldn’t be here without the freely offered gifts of all the beings that precede and surround us. And we cannot stay here — let alone flourish — without responding with gratitude and living in harmony with the beings that give us life.

Turtle Island’s message is what the Vermont floods now call us to embrace: to make reciprocal kinship with all beings the central, defining cultural value of our pluralist society and start with the principle that we don’t possess the land, the land possesses us. 

This will start by establishing a meaningful relationship with waterways of the Winooski River watershed, the most important “person” in central Vermont. The personhood of natural features is not New Age fluff but a growing legal reality that acknowledges the incredible complexity of a river and human interaction with it. 

Most basically, ‘relationship’ means understanding your partner and adapting to its character. Practically, it will mean finding ways to do what has been voiced repeatedly in our community forums: give our rivers more space to be what they are and build back wisely so as to minimize our vulnerability to the next floods.

Interestingly, this isn’t an innovation but a return to what both the original Indigenous inhabitants and the first settlers understood. Our early histories record that the greatest archaeological evidence was found in the less flood-prone area of East Montpelier and that the first Europeans envisioned the town growing in the highlands because of clear evidence of major flooding events. 

On its deepest level, ‘relationship’ requires a transformation in the way we conceptualize the Winooski watershed. It’s not something we see only when we cross a bridge. We receive its gifts and affect it dozens of times a day: every time we turn on the faucet, flush the toilet, make decisions about our roads, and do landscaping. 

This doesn’t mean that every person can fix everything. It means that every person measures their lives in light of that relationship and grows into a different way of walking on this land and living in community. That relationship, like any of our family relationships, requires daily attention and embodied practices.

Needless to say, modern people don’t have the kind of practices that connect Indigenous peoples to the land. In Vermont, that’s not exactly true. Maple sugaring, the most iconic symbol of our Vermont identity, was and continues to be an Indigenous practice and medicine, and is something that we can grow into more deeply to cultivate our connection to the land we call home.

This kind of reciprocal kinship isn’t just a practical way of addressing our problems. Ongoing, embodied connection provides healing and roots us in the most fundamental reality of our being: the land we walk on, the water that sustains us, and the beings that surround us. 

Our community and globe face an uncertain future. Many wonder if we have the ability and will to turn the environmental corner. That can’t be known. Our Indigenous sisters and brothers remind us that our role and best chance of doing so is not to imagine that we have the responsibility — let alone the ability — to control everything, but to live in right relationship with the beings around us. 

The Earth wants to live in harmony with us and be the home for which we yearn. Despite our mistakes, the land has incredible regenerative powers. We can follow its lead and tell the right story about the flood. And in it, begin the process of recovering who we are: children of earth and the youngest siblings of the beings who surround and sustain us. 

Randy Kritkausky, an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, is the author of “Without Reservation: Awakening to Native American Spirituality and the Ways of Our Ancestors” (2020). He is the co-founder of ECOLOGIA, an international environmental nonprofit based in Middlebury, Vt. 

Damian Costello is the Director of Postgraduate Studies at NAIITS: An Indigenous Learning Community, a speaker with the Vermont Humanities Council, and a 2023 Trinity Leadership Fellow.