On Sunday, October 16, 2021, the Nikibii Dawadinna Giigwag Indigenous Youth Access Program convened a large community gathering to honour the planting of a 3-metre Eastern White Pine at the University of Toronto New College courtyard. With the generous support of the City of Toronto Urban Forestry Community Planting and Stewardship Grant and New College, the Nikibii Dawadinna Giigwag youth took part in the realization of their first of several planting design proposals for the courtyard. This special event was an important reminder of traditional and ever-evolving Indigenous botanical knowledge systems, as well as the gifts that plants have to offer us, and the need to spiritually connect to Land and give gratitude to All of Our Relations.

Nikibii Dawadinna GiigwagAnishinaabemowin for Flooded Valley Healing – is an employment, mentorship and pathway to postsecondary education program for Indigenous youth at the University of Toronto Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design. The program weaves together cultural teachings with landscape architecture and environmental conservation. Each summer, up to 10 youth, ages 15-25 are employed fulltime by the Daniels Faculty for seven consecutive weeks to work with partnering organizations on ecological restoration and planting design projects, ranging from medicine gardens, green roofs, public and institutional landscapes and conservation areas. Teachings shared by Elders and Knowledge Keepers strengthen the youth’s cultural identity and connection to land, while academic and professional mentors introduce various education and career paths related to green infrastructure and sustainability – including landscape architecture, Indigenous and environmental studies, traditional and urban food systems, ecological restoration, and urban forestry.

The youth selected the Eastern White Pine for several reasons. They were inspired by the teachings of one of their mentors, Prof. Wendy Makoons Geniusz who shared a story in her edited book, Plants Have So Much to Give Us, All We Have to Do is Ask, of how abundant zhingwaak, white pine was in this region that “a squirrel could have run from Lake Erie to the prairies in Minnesota on the tops of white pines without once having to come to ground” and how “in the old days there were reports of white pines 150 to 200 feet tall and 5 to 7 feet in diameter, some four hundred years old.” The youth recognized the massive loss of the white pine across the Great Lakes region and strongly advocated for re-telling this history and the planting of native coniferous species.

It was also important to the youth to share the story of the white pine as the Great Tree of Peace – the symbol of the creation of the Haudenosaunee confederacy and its constitution, known as the Great Law of Peace. The message of unity is as important today as ever, and the youth’s encouraged us to come together as one for a better world and peaceful community. They spoke of the magnificent form and stature of the tree, its delicate cluster of needles, and incredible medicinal properties to remind us that the coming together as one is not only among human nations, but also with the plant nation, the root nation, and all of creation.

The gathering began with a sunrise ceremony, led by the Program’s co-founder, Elder Whabagoon, to ask permission of the Land to respectfully dig a hole for the tree. The hole was smudged and rubbed with tobacco. All the guests were gathered in a circle to share gratitude, teachings, stories and songs. Elder Whabagoon shared a tobacco teaching with the guests and the youth offered each guest a tobacco tie to be placed in the excavated ground along with a prayer before the tree was planted. Following the tobacco offering ceremony, our team at Cohen & Master proceeded to plant the tree along with aeration tubes, high quality compost, mulch and biochar amendment for ideal establishment and healthy growth.

Once the tree was planted, each of the youth took part in untying the tree and the Elder offered sacred water surrounding the base of the tree. As per protocol, when one opens the circle, one must close the circle. Liat Margolis, co-founder of Nikibii Dawadinna Giigwag thanked all the mentors and supporters, the youth and their families, New College staff, U of T Grounds manager, Stan Szwagiel, as well as the Cohen & Master team for contributing to the realization of the youth’s vision. Bonnie McElhinny, principal of New College shared kind words and gifted the youth with a beautiful bundle which included fresh sage and mint. The circle was closed with drumming and singing of the Humble Song, and the guests were invited to a feast of smoked duck, wild rice, and saskatoon berry pies, catered by Pow Wow Café and Chef Sean Adler.

Thank you to the Nikibii Dawadinna Giigwag program and community for including us in this very meaningful and inspiring event.