Chevaun Toulouse of Sagamok Anishnawbek has spent her life in swamps.
Whether snatching snakes or catching turtles, it was on the land, chasing reptiles and amphibians, that she found her happiness.
And she also found her career.
She hopes to one day bring everything she has learned back to her community, but also to bring her community to every other part of Ontario, especially the Great Lakes region.
Now a mother to a two-year-old, Toulouse is a full-time biology and Indigenous environmental science student at Trent University. Three years ago, she began working as a researcher for a new series Great Lakes Untamed. It was a chance to enlighten others on Indigenous ways of being and land stewardship, but also to be six months pregnant, lugging gear to Pelee Island, turning up rocks in search of a snake called the blue racer.
A large non-venomous snake, the blue racer (in Ojibwe, Giizhgwaanzo Ggwejkazhwe-Gnebigoons) is endangered and found only in one part of Canada, Pelee Island, the southernmost tip of the country.
When she speaks of her time with the project, there is abject glee in her voice.
“I'm obsessed with snakes, and the blue racer is like the fastest snake in Canada and it's like the most endangered,” she said.
Not only that, but her love of them is an extension of her culture, she said. While for many westerners, the snake only offers a sense of fear, for many First Nations, snakes are spiritual guides, protectors, and are commonly depicted in petroglyphs and birch-bark scrolls.
Not only do they appear as helpers and healers, particularly for women, but snakes are said to have created the rivers with their twisting movements.
And these are the understandings and traditions that Toulouse hopes to bring to western science, to ensure that biological classifications and concepts are imbued with the wisdom of those who have known this land the longest.
For instance, the benefits of fire to land management.
“Our cultural practices form a prescribed burn program, which was prohibited for so many years. And now we have all this dried brush, and all these wildfires and climate change. And that's kind of like a result of prohibiting of native cultural practice,” said Toulouse.
Now, that style of management is making a comeback, and Toulouse is hoping to bring that to her community of Sagamok, southwest of Sudbury.
“I'm hoping to partner with my community fire department; we can offer that as a landscaping technique for the community and they can learn more about their culture at the same time,” she said.
Her goal, no matter what, is to bring everything she learns to her home community, and to the children of her young son’s generation.
Not only is she hoping to bring more Indigenous ways and understandings of the natural world to schools, but to add teachings to other classes as well.
“We could have more medicine gardens and pollinator gardens at schools, but also, we could add moss-bag teachings to parenting classes, or have carpentry classes make duck nesting boxes.”
Moss bags are the ‘swaddling’ carriers of the Anishnaabe and many other nations, made of hide and traditionally packed with freshly-gathered sphagnum moss, known to have medicinal properties. She’s also been adding additional labels to her son’s books that include the original Ojibwe names. It’s quite a project for her, as neither she nor her father speak the language, but his parents did, and she would like to restart that tradition with her own son.
She also hopes that her work, especially with species at risk in the Great Lakes, will show others how vital the land is to culture and community.
“The species that are at risk in the Great Lakes are incredibly important, and they are taking the brunt of agriculture, pollution and urbanization,” said Toulouse. “We need to step up our conservation programs for the Great Lakes, and all the ecosystems they sustain, and we need to see the Indigenous ways of doing that.”