Opening my eyes: some reflections on Netukulimk, Reciprocity, and Two-eyed Seeing

I love the way Robin Wall Kimmerer, in her popular book, Braiding Sweetgrass (2013), speaks of weaving Western science, Indigenous wisdom and the reciprocity of plants. This, my heart sang, was a path towards healing our troubled world, that brought understandings from both cultures together in harmony. Two ways of seeing. Two languages groups. Working towards a common goal of a healthy, happy planet.

We need this right now.

I recently listened to Elder Albert Marshall and Kerry Prosper speak about netukulimk (Steigman, 2014; Marshall, 2011; Prosper et al., 2001). Netukulimk is the Mi’kmaq word for sustainability. Marshall eloquently expresses this: “… I cannot take too much of anything. I cannot take it all. I have to make sure it will grow back and that it will continue to grow in the future” (Stiegman, 2014, Timestamp 4:45). Netukulimk is a way of life that the Mi’kmaq (and Indigenous cultures worldwide) have been struggling to maintain in the face of Western concepts of appropriation, commodification and superiority.

This approach is vitally needed in Western culture. We need to enter into a relationship with our planet that is steeped in reciprocity and respect rather than commodification and appropriation. We need to understand netukulimk. My classmate, Charlene Sacher, recently highlighted the distinction between a Western mindset of ‘rights’ and an indigenous mindset of ‘obligation’ (Charlene Sacher personal communication, September 18, 2020). As humans, we have an obligation to this world and all its peoples, not just in this generation but those that come after (Mulligan, 2018, p.28).

Figure 1. Whatcha Doing? (copyright Leigh Symonds)

A key ideological difference between the Indigenous and Western worldview is the definition of people. This needs to shift before we can even start thinking about reciprocity or netukulimk. Western culture is still grappling with how to treat other humans with respect: racism and cultural disparity must be resolved before we can live harmoniously on this planet. Indigenous understandings are way ahead of us here: they maintain that humans are only one type of people. Even strawberries are “sovereign beings, with their own intelligences, their own wisdoms, their own responsibilities” (Kimmerer, 2012, Timestamp 2:30). As Kimmerer puts it: plants “know how to make berries out of light. We might do well to listen” (Kimmerer, 2012, Timestamp 5:25).

When I listen to Kimmerer, I am reminded of Leanne Simpson’s (2013), The Gift is in the Making. This rich ensemble of stories, beautifully incorporating the Nishnaabeg language, is written from this peopled perspective of the world. In these pages, Zhingwaak (the white pine) gets truly annoyed with Wiigwaasaatig (the birch), and the Hoof Nation leaves because they aren’t being respected. While primarily written for Nishnaabeg children, as a non-Indigenous person, I have found them pivotal to my own teachings, though I am still learning (and struggling with) how to bring this wisdom to kids.

Figure 2: Early morning meanders (copyright Leigh Symonds)

These days, I find myself opening my own eyes, learning what is called ‘two-eyed seeing’ or etuaptmumk (Marshall, 2020). This was originally a way for Indigenous peoples to embrace their own cosmologies and learnings while pursuing Western education (Hatcher, 2012). But it can – and needs – to work both ways. In a recent talk, Elder Albert Marshall introduces this concept by speaking about the importance of “invoking” two-eyes, of looking at “everything from another perspective” (Marshall, 2020, Timestamp: 8:10)

Good advice for anyone, really.

I am reminded that it is not just Indgenous voices that are advocating for respect and reciprocity to this earth, but astronauts. Kimmerer tells the story of Skywoman Falling (Kimmerer 2013, pp. 3-5). Astronauts have achieved the perspective that Skywoman had before she fell to be cradled on the wings of Geese and to dance upon Turtle’s back. They look at the world from a different perspective, one where there are no national boundaries and where the hospitality of our blue world is so very clear in the darkness of space. They too, speak of the interconnectedness of life, of the reciprocity between the winds of Amazon and the diatoms in the oceans (Aronofsky, 2018). We would do well to listen to those able to see with more than one eye.


Aronofsky, Darren. (Executive Producer). (2018). One Strange Rock [TV Series]. National Geographic.

KImmerer, Robin Wall. (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. (2012, August 18). Reclaiming the Honorable Harvest: Robin Kimmerer at TEDxSitka. [Video]. TEDxTalks.

Hatcher, Annamarie. (2012). Building cultural bridges with Aboriginal learners and their ‘classmates’ for transformative environmental education. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 2: 346-356.

Marshall, Albert. (2020, February 20). Etuaptapmumk: Two Eyed Seeing With Albert Marshall. [Video]. Humber College.

Marshall, Albert. (2011, June 17). Mi’kmaq Elder Albert Marshall explains “Netukulimk, [Video]. UNIRTV.

Mulligan, Martin. (2018). An Introduction to Sustainability: Environmental, Social and Personal Perspectives (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Prosper, K., McMillian, L. Jane, Davis, Anthony A. and Moffitt, Morgan. (2011). Returning to Netukulimk: Mi’kmaq cultural and spiritual connections with resource stewardship and self-governance. The International Indigenous Policy Journal , 2(4).

Simpson, Leanne. (2013). The Gift Is In The Making: Anishnaabeg Stories. Winnipeg, MB: Highwater Press.

Stiegman, Martha. (2014, March 19). Seeking Netukulimk. [Video]. YouTube.

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