THE BLOG
01/22/2018 14:39 EST | Updated 01/24/2018 10:50 EST

I Journeyed Deep Into Indigenous Knowledge To Seek The Human Spirit

It changed how I thought about humanity.

I have been on a long journey, moving deeper into Indigenous knowledge in search for "spirit." I wanted to know it, feel it and perceive it. As a colonized person and laboratory scientist, I was originally skeptical that spirit existed. But after receiving genuine Indigenous knowledge from its many holders and sources, I discovered it in a way that changed how I thought about humanity.

Public Domain
This watercolour by John Elliott Woolford depicts the land and waterscape of the Creator's First Sacred Pipe.

From skeptic to believer

I looked into faces and eyes that looked like mine, people who I knew were intelligent, and they too spoke of "spirit." Directed by a note on the wall, I was brave, asking "Where is this thing called spirit?" "It is everywhere," was their response. Hmm, I thought, yet for me it is not. I could not see it, feel it or perceive it. Regardless, I kept on learning and thinking. After all, the person I asked had more than the average amount of knowledge.

Sharing personal stories and giving back to community members in a meaningful way, and in a language that is accessible to them, is an important part of the Indigenous knowledge tradition. Sometimes this is hard when the knowledge requires conceptual thinking. Regardless, with some extra effort this can be achieved.

On this journey I started seeing the value in beliefs and teachings, such as creation stories — something I was always skeptical of.

I wrote Claiming Anishinaabe: Decolonizing the Human Spirit as an effort to relay my journey of personal learning back to both Indigenous and settler communities, with my goal, in part, to encourage people toward a more sustainable and spiritual way of life.

On this journey I started seeing the value in beliefs and teachings, such as creation stories — something I was always skeptical of. It is said all creation stories are true.

I learned about the importance of reconciliation and the ceremony of the Sacred Pipe. Grandfather William Commanda taught me about the special place known as Akikpautik, now called Chaudière Falls, where the Creator placed the First Pipe within the land and waterscape of Algonquin Anishinaabeg territory, just upstream from Canada's Parliament buildings.

© Lynn Gehl
1764 Treaty at Niagra Wampum Bundle.

Knowledge of the heart and mind

Another teaching I encountered was about the importance of "heart knowledge," or knowing through emotions, that it is an equally valid way of coming to know. Further, I learned that in order for there to be a truth, heart knowledge must be balanced with mind knowledge and, for that matter, mind knowledge must be balance with heart knowledge.

I also learned that within Anishinaabeg tradition, our "knowledge bundles" — such as my 1764 Treaty at Niagara Wampum Belt bundle that we rely on to guide and shape our relationships with one another and our governance structures — morals remain intact, whereas in the western world, morality is extracted out of day-to-day life for economic gain.

Indigenous knowledge is broader and values beliefs, song, ritual, story-telling, community and relationships.

To convey what I learned about the difference between Indigenous knowledge and scientific positivism, I developed a model called "unharnessed knowledge" — the idea that if we remain too focused, we will miss a lot of important knowledge. While scientific positivism is narrow and focused, Indigenous knowledge is broader and values beliefs, song, ritual, story-telling, community and relationships. In the Anishinaabeg tradition, song is the highest form of prayer, and further the practices we learn as children become who we are long before we gain a mindful understanding of the self.

Essentially, what our feet and bodies do, our hearts feel, and our minds know or think. This is a different way of knowing that places knowledge foremost in the mind. Our entire body is our mind.

Spirit and community

Once I accepted heart knowledge as a legitimate way of coming to know, I began to listen, feel and think more carefully. I learned of the Anishinaabeg belief that the spirit in its human form moves through the heart; I also learned that while it may true that the spirit is birthed during conception, it is through family and community teachings and relationships that we become the good human beings the Creator intended us to be.

More blogs from Lynn Gehl:


I struggled to best articulate the significance of heart knowledge as a valid and legitimate way of knowing. Eventually, with the help of other thinkers and knowers, I developed or moved heart knowledge from an important Anishinaabe teaching to an academic methodological theory that people can use to shape how they produce their knowledge.

Through deep reflection I now know that an essence of spirit is inside the person, but it is only animated if the people are socialized to have a relationship with it.

Through my journey I learned that while it may be true that spirit is everywhere, spirit in its human form is in two places at the same time: inside and outside of the self. I call this theory of the human spirit "triboluminescence."

Through deep reflection I now know that an essence of spirit is inside the person, but it is only animated if the people are socialized to have a relationship with it. I learned the importance of valuing spiritual diversity where Indigenous knowledge is allowed the space it needs to thrive and have a relationship with what is inside of the corporeal being.

In this way the human spirit is foremost a relationship that is, unfortunately, mediated by power.

Follow HuffPost Canada Blogs on Facebook

Also on HuffPost: