Restoring our relationship to the environment and to each other
On a beautiful stretch of green fields and trees on the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve, two rounded structures stand out from the landscape of rolling hills — an open-air greenhouse and a 17th century replica longhouse.
This is the site of Kayanase (pronounced Guy-yawn-na-say), an Indigenous-owned and operated ecological restoration and ecotourism company. Their name, meaning new trails, new tracks or fresh tracks in Mohawk, describes the company well. As industry leaders in ecological restoration, Kayanase are always seeking out new ways to grow and bring people together to build cultural understanding and ecological connectedness.
The company emerged from the Red Hill Valley restoration project. After a decades-long opposition from the Haudenosaunee and various environmental groups, the Red Hill Valley expressway was approved by the City of Hamilton in 2007. The City and the Six Nations community then negotiated several agreements to protect and preserve Haudenosaunee heritage and history in the Valley. Part of this agreement included a contract to undertake a large scale ecological restoration project in the Red Hill Valley. More than one million native trees were planted over 5 years in what was one of the biggest ecological restoration projects undertaken in a major urban area in North America.
The project was an economic opportunity as well, as the success of the Red Hill Valley restoration project led to more opportunities to work on restoring marginal lands and improve habitat quality in Hamilton and the surrounding area, and Kayanase has since grown into an impressive operation. Kerdo Deer, Kayanase’s ecotourism coordinator, greets us with a smile and takes us on a tour through the nearly 55,000 square foot greenhouse and production building, where Kayanase does all of their own seed collection, seed processing, and plant propagation.
Ecological restoration is a complex process. Kayanase works within the area known as seed zone 37, which stretches from Niagara to Middlesex. The employees are all certified seed collectors, and they gather wild seeds within 75 kilometres of any site they are restoring. Deer shows us the chilly seed storage area, the soil mixer, and the compound where trees go once they have outgrown the greenhouse.
Kayanase uses a combination of science-based approaches and traditional ecological knowledge in their efforts to restore the land to its native Carolinian forest and tall grassy plains ecosystems.
“This means incorporating traditional knowledge about respecting the land in all aspects of our restoration work,” says Deer. The land guides the company’s efforts in all of their projects. They observe what is currently growing there, take into account what native plants would have grown there before development, and consider how the land will be used as they determine how to restore each site.
This philosophy of letting the land guide Kayanase’s work flows into their ecotourism projects as well. Deer walks with us out into the field next to the greenhouse and has us look out over the prairie. He shows us different types of clover, wild carrot (also known as Queen Anne’s lace), wild parsnip, and dame’s rocket, all of which are introduced and invasive. “I use the space I have as a teaching tool. There are no big forests here, and most of the plants you can see are invasive, but there is still a lot people can learn.”
About three quarters of all primary and secondary students in Ontario live within reasonable field trip driving distance of Kayanase, so their cultural and ecotourism program has been a hotspot for school tours. Deer shows us his salamander cookies, round blocks of wood under which insects and decomposers will gather. “[These walks] are a moment in time for experiential learning.”
“I try to include tactile learning to keep the kids engaged and help them get comfortable,” he says. He gets the kids to peek under the salamander cookies to see the beetles, snails and slugs which work to decompose the wood, and lets them taste some edible plants like garlic mustard. In the winter there are bird feeders and screens of pine boughs behind which visitors can hide to watch the birds.
The intention of the eco-walks is to help people become comfortable in nature and connect to ecology.
“The more you know about the ecosystems you live in, the less likely you are to destroy them,” Deer says. He laughs telling us about a group of high school students from Toronto who he had to coax into walking into the tall grasses because they were so uncomfortable. By the end of the walk, they were much more relaxed, and even picked up the salamander cookies to check out the bugs underneath.
“Part of the tourism is also passing on teachings and sharing culture,” says Deer. He tells us about how the Haudenosaunee use familial terms to refer to the world around them. Historically, members of the community could be far from their village and out in the wilderness for long periods of time, so it was important to feel at home wherever they went.
“If you consider all living things to be your relatives and your family, then you will always feel at home,” he says.
But more importantly, having a relationship with the natural world comes with responsibility. The motto of Kayanase is “Restoring Mother Earth.”
“By referring to the Earth as our Mother, there is a responsibility there. A responsibility to give back to the Earth and the ecosystems around us because of all of the gifts they provide us,” explains Deer.
The end of the eco-walk takes us back to the entrance to the longhouse, called Kahyonha:kta, meaning “by the river.”
“We always speak with members of the [Six Nations] community first, and make sure we are listening to them about what they want to see come from the project,” explains Deer. The longhouse serves as a place of memory and learning for members of the Six Nations community and visitors to connect authentically with Haudenosaunee history and culture.
We head inside, into the cozy, dark space and sit by the fire, where a few other employees are relaxing. Deer tells us a little about how life would have been in a Haudenosaunee village in the 17th century. Fifty to 100 people would have lived together in each longhouse, with two families per fire. Everyone in the house would have been related through the women, because the Haudenosaunee are a matrilineal society.
But conversations get heavy. Deer shares a story he often shares with visitors about his grandparents and great aunts having to hide in the woods in the dark at seven years old to escape from people coming to take them away to residential school.
“We tell people what they need to know, not what they want to hear,” says Deer. Meeting someone with a personal connection to these events can transform people’s perceptions, so the Kayanase guides often use their platform to shed light on the tragedies and struggles that the people of the Six Nations have endured.
“When they come visit, people leave their preconceptions behind and leave with a new point of view,” he says.
The longhouse acts as a vector for cultural awareness, where visitors witness first hand the richness and resilience of Haudenosaunee culture, and build greater cultural sensitivity and understanding.
In a time where ecological and social stresses are increasing due to climate change, Kayanase addresses the issue of environmental degradation holistically. Their projects are not only restoring ecosystems, but also building stronger communities and promoting environmental stewardship by restoring people’s connections to each other and to nature.
Kayanase holds events, workshops and open houses on a variety of cultural topics, as well as greenhouse plant and sales. Check out their website to book a tour, and follow them on social media to stay in the loop about upcoming events.