9 Tracking Climate Action Discourse in Indigenous Elder William Commanda’s Work

In the Animation of Responsible and Respectful Relationship with Mother Earth

Romola V. Thumbadoo


Twice honorary and now researched Ph.D. William Commanda, founder of the Circle of All Nations, iterated his knowledge of the laws of nature to national and international audiences for over 35 years, and he brought his passionate concern for the environment to the global stage during the Pre-Rio Earth Summit deliberations in Paris in 1991.  The prioritization of the environmental crisis and relationality continues a decade after his death, in planned Circle of All Nations research and macro and micro-teaching presentations, as well as in the discursive offshoots of his epistemological project and methodology. This chapter explores a few case studies reflective of William Commanda’s cybernetic[1] steering over time, and examines the presence and effectiveness of this navigation in the age of online communications and knowledge generation.

Keywords: Indigenous knowledge, bridge-building, generative, cybernetics, cybercartography, environmental stewardship, medicine wheel conceptual tools, online animation, infographics, relationality, reflexivity

Author’s Note

This chapter discusses the decades of environmental consciousness and climate action work initiated by late North American Indigenous leader, William Commanda, Algonquin of the Ottawa River Watershed (1913 – 2011), through an examination of the animation of the Circle of All Nations, the global eco-peace community he created. In this context, the word “animation” is used to indicate that although Circle of All Nations is an informal and unstructured community, a noun, as it were, it is enlivened by a complex interplay of values, principles, branding, action, text and visual elements that manifest in dynamic, shifting form. This work was the subject of my doctoral thesis Ginawaydaganuc and the Circle of All Nations: The Remarkable Environmental Legacy of Elder William Commanda, and further postdoctoral research (under the supervision of Professor D. R. Fraser Taylor). I served as coordinator and sole writer for the Circle of All Nations work from 1997, hosted regular gatherings after William Commanda’s death till the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, and thereafter hosted live video gatherings, recorded and accessible through Circle of all Nations, that are indicative of ongoing interest and engagement in his work priorities by public at large; I continue to research and document the William Commanda history and legacy. I myself am of East Indian roots, South African birth and Canadian groundedness.

Please note, then, my positionality as key co-creator of William Commanda’s Circle of All Nations since 1997, his biographer and researcher. Consistent with the interconnected reality of William Commanda’s worldview, my positionality, and embeddedness in the knowledge creation is unavoidable. Waite (2010), drawing on Rose (2000), discusses the importance of familiarization with the context of text.  This is of particular importance with respect to the bridge building and co-production of the Circle of All Nations text with William Commanda, first with respect to our distinct and separate backgrounds, and our unique characteristics, our apparent separately disempowered positions, juxtaposed with the engagement of countless others; and next with respect to technologies: the introduction of uniquely Indigenous ones (smudging, ceremony, gatherings, events located at his lakeside home) intermixed with mainstream others (photography, videos, texts, speeches, reports, books and cyber tools like websites and Facebook). Indeed, undiminished and scrupulous reflexivity and rigorous reflection and scholarship are critical to the effective use of Foucauldian analysis to understand the discourse created by William Commanda and Circle of All Nations (Chase, 2005; Waite/Rose, 2010; Flyvbjerg, 2001; Cresswell, 2009).


Introduction and Background

This chapter examines the spatial/temporal discourse[2] of North American Indigenous Elder William Commanda, an Algonquin born in the Ottawa River Watershed in Canada on 11 November 1913, on the eve of the First World War. Several links to his seed-planting themes and related dispersions are provided to densify access to the relationality and deeper understanding of the discursive elements in William Commanda’s laws of nature discourse.

William Commanda participated in the 1991 Pre Rio Earth-Summit Conference in Paris, when Indigenous Peoples and environmental activists were invited to join governments, scientists and corporations in the effort coordinated by the United Nations to jointly address what was increasingly being acknowledged as escalating and potentially devastating global environmental upheaval. In an initiative designated a Conference of Partners (COP) and designed to advance more judicious exploitation of the resources of Planet Earth, William Commanda introduced his Indigenous views on the laws of nature, and relationship with a living and intelligent Mother Earth, accessed via human intelligence and common sense as well as by ceremonial awakening and attentiveness, positioned to demand respect and responsibility to the penultimate provider. In expressing the words Mother Earth repeatedly in his discourse, he presented himself as the offspring or creation of Earth, like all the other life forces on Earth; here, the sentiment is one that presents humans as the human animal that Ian McCallum points to in his book Ecological Intelligence: Rediscovering Ourselves in Nature (McCallum, 2005). This Mother Earth was penultimate, because Commanda’s ancestral knowledge, consistent with the understanding of Ginawaydaganuc, (which roughly translates to multiple dimensions and dynamics of interrelatedness), affirmed and acknowledged Earth’s cosmic connections.

His approach triggered for many an awakening to a universal spiritual dimension of being human. He positioned himself and his approach as emergent of an ever-evolving cyclical and spiraling nature-based law, grounded in the intense observational and experiential interface with the inherent science and dynamics of the cosmos and earth. This included recognition of the chance/randomness/unpredictability factor (physical science), as demonstrated in the Indigenous “trickster” motif; evidence was secured via extensive observation, experiment, experience, collection of data, collaboration and corroboration, complemented by other ways of knowing; and this knowledge was acquired, accumulated, repeatedly verified and held individually and collectively.

Drawing on language used to good effect by Gibson-Graham (2006), I suggest that William Commanda, acutely aware of the environmental abuses in his homeland and beyond, reclaimed Mother Earth as contested space for re-presentation, not as mere resource and commodity but as intelligent, live and evolving. In this work, he constructed a language and landscape populated by a myriad of contingent forms and interactions, accessible and comprehensible by some at a quantum level, and in the process of decolonizing imaginations, and conducting his own counter-hegemonic project, he expanded the reach of his discourse of shared values, norms and perceptions. Through this discourse, and via his informal Circle of All Nations global eco-peace community work, he was re-fixing the meaning of environment for widening and diverse communities.

He died in 2011 but remains a vibrant presence in the online world and in social media, this in part evidenced in three Facebook printed book records of the 2020s. Noting that the digital world is the contemporary spatial eco-frontier of the ever-emergent human story, this chapter examines Cybercartography and Cybernetics as zones of convergence, exchange and pedagogy in which his Indigenous oral storytelling heritage and practice informs mediation and bridge building for environmental action despite the challenging incommensurabilities of diverse knowledge systems.

With respect to the spatial backdrop of the Commanda research, note that in 1997, D. R. Fraser Taylor introduced the term Cybercartography at the 1997 International Cartographic Conference in Stockholm, to describe the transformative innovations taking place in the field[3].

By 2003, Taylor had articulated cybercartography as “the organization, presentation, analysis and communication of spatially referenced information on a wide range of topics of interest and use to society in an interactive, dynamic, multimedia, multi-sensory format, with the use of multimedia and multimodal interfaces” (Taylor, 2003, p. 404). He was presenting in the academic world an approach that William Commanda was already manifesting in his own engagement with the use of emergent technology as teaching tools (from the first typewriter, radios and television, cameras and slide projectors, audio/visual recording devices and overhead screen projectors).

With respect to Cybernetics, here we retrieve the etymological roots of that word as “steering” and “navigation” and trace its temporal implications in the ongoing Commanda presence in the fast-paced world of online digital communications. The root of the “cyber” concept allows us to argue that the mapping/journeying/steering motif begins with William Commanda’s birth, and key trails emerged years before he became embedded in the modern cyber world. His birth name, Ojigkwanong, Morning Star, aligns him with the cosmic cycle of movement, differentiating planets from stars, and references the primacy of the sky world in the ancestral knowledge generation process; motion-spatial understanding was determined by and emergent from the name of his people, Mamiwinini: we move every day, and his identity was commensurate with the idea of map in motion. From cosmic, cyclical, spiraling orientation to the identification of self as Mamiwinini, and to the iconic symbol of the birch bark canoe, the inherent theme of movement is the life-breath of his discourse. His temporal and spatial embeddedness incorporated elemental and motional laws of nature knowledge. His performance mapping was integrated in and emergent from motion, orality and geo-narrative.

It is also emphasised that multiple other social issues are now present and visible on the global stage, and other aspects of the William Commanda teachings are evident in these. Cumulatively, they contribute to the growing understanding of the critical importance of Indigenous ways of knowing in multiple domains. Circle of All Nations is a zone of inter-connection, permeability, reciprocity, exchange, transference, transformation and co-creation, wrought in a field of contradictions and friction, repeatedly negotiated and re-birthed via the assertion of relationality: Ginawaydaganuc is the word that he used to describe the concept of a multi-dimensional interrelatedness inclusive of a biotic relationship with a living and constantly evolving Mother Earth; in view of my great attention to that word, and intense observation of his actions, (I having come from the segregated history of the South African reality), he said, Romola, you wrote that on my back! In his singular Indigenous way, William Commanda created new space, beyond the accepted parameters, for the recognition of relationships and integration of multiple issues and perspectives in the climate actions discourse on Mother Earth.

While noting that defining geography is fraught with difficulties, Kitchin & Tate (2000) identify human geography as the study of society in relation to space and place, and segregate physical geography. They present a critical rationale to substantiate this approach to research: the study of people and human-made objects requires different research techniques from the study of natural phenomena; further, there are clear philosophical and methodological differences between human and physical geography research (Kitchin & Tate, 2000). However, the items listed under physical geography – biogeography, climatology, geomorphology, hydrology, meteorology, quaternary environments, soils – were precisely the items that preoccupied William Commanda in his understanding of the relational laws of nature, and he strove to explicate the interconnectedness of human and physical geography.

With respect to his Circle of All Nations discourse, this paper presents a range of examples that will be developed as case studies in future research to trace the overt and systemic discursive elements that underline the relevance of his Indigenous approach to knowledge generation for climate action. These examples illustrate the power of narrative and oral storytelling to restructure geographical space. (Sidone, 1993; Rose, 2000; Stivers, 1993).


A Grounded Theory Approach

An emerging grounded theory framework is proposed to situate the discussions that follow, (and to be further developed in future research) in order to orient understanding of the William Commanda/Circle of All Nations process of indigenizing knowledge and creating the knowledge generation parameters that constitute its particular bridge-building discourse. This research approach strives to shed light on the negotiation of the incommensurabilities that support or challenge problem-solving on issues of critical concern in a world of global connection.

A few of the key considerations in this theoretical approach are outlined here:

  • According to Glaser, the early lead researcher in this field, the full continuum of both the processes of generating theory and of doing social research are all guided by the emerging theory, and further, generating theory and doing social research are viewed as two parts of the same process (Glaser, 1978, p.4)
  • The process of data gathering and data analysis happens coterminiously – that is, they coincide or coexist or border on with one another; in the grounded theory approach, then, good theory and good research are interlinked.
  • In such qualitative research inquiry, theoretical data from a range of sources that “fits, works and is relevant” (Glaser, 1998, p. 68) for practice, education, policy and further research, contributes to the creation of the emerging theory.
  • The data can include documents, interviews, focused group discussion, and, as in our exploration, case studies; and more.
  • The researcher looks for patterns and connections to identify conceptual insights from the theoretical codes emergent from the related data.
  • Anglin suggests that at the heart of the grounded theory approach is a belief in the embedded nature of theory; that is, that a substantive theory of practice is implicit in good practice (Anglin, 2002, p. 27)
  • Anglin also explored the notion that our everyday social world or reality is guided by intentional action connected to the meaning of our reality and that our daily context – our relationships, circumstances and encounters – are based on our beliefs, our feelings, our thoughts, our behaviors and responses. He suggests that identifying and connecting the meaning of these elements and dynamics is the task of theory building (Anglin, 2002, p. 25).
  • This research approach recognizes the fact that whether practitioners understand, know, or can articulate their practice or not, if their practice is good and demonstrates positive impact, they may be following implicitly the principles of good theoretical practice. It is this theory which emerges from the intentional good practice that underpins the doctoral research of child and youth care work practitioners (Thumbadoo, Z. 2020).
  • Theoretical memoing is the process of writing and rewriting up the ideas about the theoretical codes and their relationship with each other. Here, according to Thumbadoo, Z., the researcher accesses creative space for documenting, writing, mind-mapping, and diagramming in the process of connecting conceptual and theoretical insights in the process of compiling and analysing the theoretical data (Thumbadoo, Z., 2020)

The new Circle of All Nations website is a compilation of three archival websites, a new site, a cybercartographic atlas under development, and direct access to online social media spaces (five Facebook pages and Instagram) via a landing page. A database is under development to capture and categorize all the textual/audio/visual/graphic data for ongoing research and theorizing. This research will support theory generation in the singular William Commanda/Circle of All Nations discourse.

This chapter presents preliminary findings, emergent from an analysis of practice over a twenty five year period, as focused on select environmental and climate change priorities, as follows:

Section 1: The spatial and temporal dimension, spanning the globe and several decades, and indicative of the vision/planning grounding of the Commanda epistemology.

Section 2: The Circle of All Nations medicine wheel methodological approach, grounded in a conceptual ideogram that has been used repeatedly in twenty-five years of work and outreach.

Section 3: The animation of action that demonstrates the integration of the processes of generating theory and doing social research simultaneously, iteratively and reflectively, and also consistently with the energetic dictates of the laws of nature and the four key elements, fire, earth, water and air.

Section 4:  The discursive elements and dispersion of the Circle of All Nations discourse, as reflected in the contemporary actions to address environmental and climate change crises by a diversity of individuals and organizations across the world influenced by William Commanda. In essence, raw material constitutes categories of core theoretical data that are subjected to abstraction; the conceptualization of this data develops theory; propositions evolve from the categorization of data to the articulation of the abstracted conceptualization as grounded theory.

  In analysing our data, we examine sequentially and collectively, the following elements:

    1. Phenomena/core data/topics
    2. Causal conditions (including chance/trickster)
    3. Context/particular condition/s/relationality
    4. Intervening conditions
    5. Action/interaction/emergence
    6. Patterns/systemization
    7. Consequences

A consideration of these items and combinations will indicate coherence with the particular William Commanda/Circle of All Nations paradigmatic model, affirm consistency with the Circle of All Nations medicine wheel paradigm and, even with other conventions informing the phenomeon/data, indicate a relative degree of cohesion within the Circle of All Nations parapluie/umbrella.

In our practice and research, we have created a motional, spiraling ideogram, comprehensible both by prior convention articulated over twenty-five years in the Circle of All Nations work, and in part by the pictorial image that constitutes its medicine wheel logo. Consistent with the image and the associated directional and colour symbology, it reflects the combined animation of vision/planning; animation/action; reflection/quality control; and synthesis/articulation in its iterative practice.

In other articulations, the theoretical framework incorporates an epistemology grounded in knowledge of cosmic earth, natural law and evolution; a methodology grounded in cyclical motion and action; reflective research emergent from ceremonial practice; and an ontology grounded in the verb/noun gerund being and becoming. As such the iterative capacity of the model builds on its particular foundations and is distinguishable as the William Commanda/Circle of All Nations discourse.


An Exploration of William Commanda’s Circle of All Nations Approach to Indigenizing Knowledge for Climate Action
Section 1: The spatial and temporal dimension, spanning the globe and several decades, and indicative of the vision/planning grounding of the Commanda epistemology.

A few episodic and pivotal moments in the William Commanda climate action call:

  • Canada’s Capital City, 1978: A July 25, 1978, Ottawa Citizen article about William Commanda entitled “Bark Quality Threatens Old Indian Craft” is one indication of the passionate concern for the environment that lies at the heart of his legacy; he states that lumber operations and disease have ravaged birch stocks to the point where mature stands are rare; he also adds that some say a tree is just an object but trees have the growing spirit of life in them. They are alive.
  • At the national level, 1987: The call to action message is reiterated on the national stage at the First Conference on the Constitutional Rights of the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada, when drawing on his Sacred Wampum heritage publicly for the first time, and focusing primarily on pollution, he positioned environmental degradation at the centre of Indigenous issues and survival, and public and political consciousness. This is documented in Maurice Bulbulian’s National Film Board documentary entitled, Dancing Around the Table. While he calls upon the federal leadership to “remedy” the situation of the pollution of the waters, earth and air, he himself engages in a series of interventions to draw attention to the mounting environmental crisis, and a few are referenced in the paragraph below.
  • At the international level, 1991: He then brought his passionate concern for the environment to a global stage during the Pre-Rio Earth Summit deliberations in Paris in a singularly Indigenous way – through three days of pipe ceremonies; a decade later an Australian woman engaged with the organization Moral Rearmament (now Initiatives for Change) attended a Circle of All Nations gathering and affirmed the importance of his wake-up call in Paris.
  • Again on the global stage, 1993: He expanded on this focus two years later. A relational understanding of human integration with a living cosmic earth is fundamental to the thinking of Indigenous peoples, and even the name of the first United Nations Conference of the Worlds’ Indigenous Peoples of 1993, Cry of the Earth, attests to this profound conviction. After the welcome, the first message to the global audience was delivered by William Commanda in a considered discursive style: himself fully trilingual (Algonquin, French and English), he read the Sacred Wampum Belts orally in Algonquin, and then his helper Frank Decontie read an English translation.

The key elements he focussed on were linked with the laws of nature (for example, water, air, earth, birds, water and four-legged life; and youth). At this point, it is also timely to note that 2019 was declared the Year of Indigenous Languages.

Section 2: The Circle of All Nations medicine wheel methodological approach, grounded in a conceptual ideogram that has been used repeatedly in twenty-five years of work and outreach

Further to the Circle of All Nations‘ articulation of the laws of nature via a conceptual planning medicine wheel and the teaching and sharing opportunities of the digital age, links can take the reader further into the discourse that spans decades. They ensure the knowledge seeds remain perennial and generative and repeatedly accessible from a range of perspectives. Much of technological and digital work has been created by young academics, attesting to the accessibility of his voice to the present generation of young leadership from a range of locations and backgrounds, for example:

  •  In 2011, a few months after his death, a young friend, Jayd Soliar, created this music video to commemorate the launch of COP 17 in South Africa and YouTube presents it with the accompanying message:  Trichy Vila – Save Us!  It addresses climate change, environmental issues and nature as a whole and is very catchy.
  • Since a spiritual relationship with Earth lies at the heart of the Commanda work, a digital geocosmic infographic was created in 2000 by an undergraduate student to illustrate and facilitate this access to his Indigenous orientation in contemporary times, and to demonstrate that his thinking was not superstitious or sentimental but located in the laws and intelligence of nature; the text reads:

    Grandfather William Commanda Legacy 2020: A  Circle of All Nations Geo Cosmic Prayer and Reflection: Iconic symbols of importance to the William Commanda worldview are incorporated in this image: Grandmother Moon and Morning Star, invoking the spirit of fire, enlightenment and the cosmic; Asin and the Sleeping Giant commemorating Earth creation in rock; Air, wind, movement animating water life emergent from the oxygen rocks of the Kichisippi Ottawa River; Birch, wolf, eel and turtle honouring evolution, plant and animal life, Turtle Island and Canoe acknowledging the ultimate nurturer, Mother Earth, and symbolizing the enigmatic Journey of Life.

    Reflection on the visual image allows for a deeper understanding of the messages: grounded in geo-cosmic principles, images of importance to understanding core elements of William Commanda’s legacy and his articulation of  Ginawadaganuc are embedded in the graphic. Everything is interrelated in the prayer and its key priorities, and is intended to be animative at relational and reflective levels: for example, it orients one to geo-cosmic time/space/motion dynamics (solstice, equinox, eclipse, day, night, full and new moon – items Circle of All Nations has prioritized formally and performance mapped publicly since 1998); Mikinak Turtle points to Turtle Island which is what Indigenous Peoples have called North America since time immemorial, and to water/earth interconnection (for more discussion on Turtle Island and Indigenous Mapping, refer to a Circle of All Nations article in a Geospatial World publication).

  • In 2020, Circle of All Nations was invited to make a presentation on the William Commanda approach to environmental stewardship to the Canadian Association of the Club of Rome; we made great efforts to ensure that attendees understood that this was a William Commanda/Circle of All Nations approach.
  • In 2021, Circle of All Nations was invited to participate in a workshop of the inaugural 2021 Climate Coaching Alliance‘s global webinar and here the focus was on its medicine wheel orientation into environmental stewardship. This excerpt discusses the use of the medicine wheel cardinal orientation, the incipient ideas of which I had used to orient my thinking from the late eighties, to develop Circle of All Nations style climate action (and other) strategies.  
Section 3: The animation of action that demonstrates the integration of the processes of generating theory and doing social research simultaneously, iteratively and reflectively, and also consistently with the energetic dictates of the laws of nature and the four key elements, fire, earth, water, and air.

The following are examples of direct actions to raise escalating environmental concerns to the attention of decision-makers and the public at large. Already about 90, around the time of the inauguration of Species at Risk Act in 2002, which he blessed, William Commanda engaged in a dramatic series of activities to advocate for Mother Earth and the four chief elements of fire, earth, water and air. The following four examples represent a symbolic prayer for each of these elements:

  • Fire. He inspired countless people to challenge uranium test drilling outside the capital city and a Citizen’s Inquiry shut it down (you can hear about this here).
  • Earth: He joined grandmothers to protest a megadump at a Quebec lake shore and the Quebec Environmental Commission that we presented at terminated the project (note: both these projects also had significant implications for the safety of the Ottawa River, his heritage river underlining the interrelatedness theme with the lifeforce water, below).
  • Water: He became Honorary Elder in the effort to designate it a heritage river, noting that it could not meet the criterion of being pristine; eventually it was approved in view of historical and cultural significance; in this project, he drew attention to the abject state of pollution of the river, the city was fined, and the $50,000 fine enabled the solidification of the Ottawa Riverkeepers organization; he also sparked the outcry to protect the American Eel, an ancient species now on the endangered species list.
  • Air. He stalled the creation of a truck road that would have destroyed the migratory route of Loons at Moira Lake – in the unprecedented 2019 floods of the Ottawa River Watershed, when it was said eight rivers reclaimed their beds, the Moira River also flooded.

Of course, there were numerous other environmental issues raised and challenged, and this focus in his annual gatherings (hosted during the last 16 years of his life) raised the environmental concerns of and for thousands of guests from across the globe, as will be discussed in the following consideration of a few examples of the dispersion of the Circle of All Nations discourse after his death.

Section 4: The discursive elements and dispersion of the Circle of All Nations discourse, as reflected in the contemporary actions to address environmental and climate change crises by a diversity of individuals and organizations across the world influenced by William Commanda.

We now turn the lens briefly to work being undertaken in the contemporary venue globally by a diversity of people inspired by William Commanda, Circle of All Nations, and other Indigenous voices:

  • We note that Grandfather William Commanda, as he was commonly known, had respect for a global grassroots group, the Rainbow Warriors, having noted their environmental consciousness. Members introduced many recycling activities at his annual Circle of All Nations Gatherings.  Jean Letellier created a bibliography of the online references to William Commanda at the time of his death, and this was included with the formal doctoral reference list; he is finalizing a book entitled Contemporary Shamanic Journeys, Volume Three: Spiritualist Activism and Wisdom Keepers (Letellier, 2023) and notes that Grandfather Commanda is referenced 76 times in his book.  I include a few of Letellier’s quotations from the upcoming book here to show how the spiritual dimension of his discourse continues to influence:

In a filmed interview that I used for a documentary I edited, Grandfather talks about the false promises of the governments and their schemes to trick, deceive and subdue the Indigenous, but he concludes: ”We don’t hate nobody. Tell the truth. That’s the way we fight.” This wisdom summarizes the entire vision and concept of spiritual activism, as I have promoted and practiced it since decades.

In the wise advice he provided, he also added that the true lasting changes will never come from the political spheres, but from a profound spiritual awakening and a transformation of our ways of life. This essential understanding has become a meaningful beacon and guideline on my path ever since.


Hence, Grandfather Commanda was well aware of the ongoing global issues and public debates at stake and he never failed to address current events, but always from a wise spiritualist perspective. He had himself spoken at the United Nations and met several heads of States like Queen Elizabeth II, the Queen of Denmark for whom he built a birch bark canoe, and several Prime Ministers of Canada. His approach had always been peaceful, inspired by spiritual healing, reconciliation and forgiveness.

  • The November 11, 2021, online Facebook event honouring Elder Commanda’s 108 years, launched the new Circle of All Nations website and profiled an important forest protection initiative in Quebec, led by grassroots environmentalists who had attended many of the annual Circle of All Nations gatherings, by First People, environmental organizations and local politicians under its under its parapluie: One undergraduate student had participated in Circle of All Nation gatherings, consulted with this author in completing an academic paper on Elder William Commanda, and also was a lead coordinator of La Grand Marche; and another undergraduate student created the report on La Grande Marche pour la Protections des Forets in Quebec.
  • Julia Blagny, a French documentary producer accompanied Marc Velo to the last 2011 Circle of All Nations gathering and was part of an unplanned musical event, replete with drums, Spanish guitar, violin and a baby grand piano, in honour of William Commanda, who had died a few days earlier on 3 August 2011. Julia Blagny created a documentary entitled Identity, which includes focus on the diversity and bridge building goals of the Circle of All Nations; in 2021, she produced an important climate action documentary, La Sangre de Bolivia, which  gives voice to Indigenous and raises urgent environmental and resource extraction and contamination issues. Here is an excerpt describing cartographic and Indigenous stewardship dimensions:

Water is the essence of all life. It draws the Earth and the history of mankind. But it can turn into danger, when men want to control its flow. And it can even become poison when they put mercury, arsenic … The rivers of Bolivia – the veins of the heart of South America – are turning black, red and even disappearing. Community members and specialists warn of these realities. In the Beni River, mega dam projects and the massive use of mercury endanger the Amazon ecosystem. In Huanuni, community members who live near the mines express their concern when seeing their territory destroyed by corrupted waters. In Cochabamba, an emblematic city for its Water War, the vital liquid continues to be a daily concern for the population. The water from the dams destined for La Paz and Alto is contaminated and follow its deadly cycle to Lake Titicaca. The issue of water is becoming more worrying every year and by not treating this vital element with respect, we embark on a critical situation, in Bolivia or worldwide. We have to listen to these testimonies and join our efforts to find solutions now. It is urgent! This documentary wants to be a pedagogical base to reflect and build alternatives.

McFadden suggests that the global movement toward agroecology is among the many fields of knowledge and practice influenced by Grandfather William Commanda, and that one pathway of influence was through his writings about Deep Agroecology. He affirmed to Thumbadoo (personal conversation) that he was profoundly impacted through the several interviews he conducted with the elder in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Decades later, the seeds planted through those discourses between elder and writer blossomed as an Indigenous influence in his book, mentioned above. He shared these notes from his conversations with Commanda and as shared with Thumbadoo:

“We native people know something,” Commanda (had) told McFadden. “After having lived here on this land for many, many thousands of years, we have learned some things. We don’t know it all, but we do know something. Right now we have a choice, but that choice is very hard. Yet we must make that choice now so that our children will have the possibility of the life that we have had. We love you. We love you all, and we are depending on you to help us make life possible for our children and for your children.”

McFadden affirms that to make future life possible for the children of the world, as Commanda emphasized, it was obvious that we must actively attend to the food we eat and the way it is produced; this influenced his work in Deep Agroecology.

As McFadden has acknowledged, thanks in part to his discourses with Grandfather Commanda, he was inspired to explain agroecology in a book for a general readership. Further, thanks to Commanda’s teachings about Indigenous Algonquin concepts such as Ginawaydaganuc (all things are related), he was inspired to take the concept of agroecology a step further toward Deep Agroecology.  Deep Agroecology is a response to the climate, chemical, and cultural crises unfolding in the world. It ratifies and embraces the core ideas and approaches of agroecology and strives to call wide public attention to the healing agrarian pathways it represents. Further, deep agroecology explores realms of subtle energy and their consequential influence on farms, food, and people, showing also how Indigenous wisdom ways can help guide both cultural and agricultural practices along necessary evolutionary pathways. McFadden suggests that we must establish a new agrarian foundation that can support in a healthy, spiritually intelligent way to balance the high-tech, digital waves of technology and culture sweeping so powerfully around the world. The insights Elder Commanda shared are an example of cybernetic steering, helping through agroecology to build bridges among Indigenous wisdom ways and modern agricultural practices in our era. The inclusion of discussion from his current work as a footnote in this chapter is a reflection of the integration of the motional, spatial/temporal and cyber technological threads of the discourse under scrutiny[4]

  • In January 2022 Circle of All Nations joined Beulah Thumbadoo and Associates, and other environmentalists, in South Africa to protest the planned Shell Oil test drilling for oil and gas on the Wild Coast of the Indian Ocean. A November 17 2022 webinar, hosted by the newspaper, The Daily Maverick, reported on the ongoing challenges as presented in COP 27 in Egypt:

On 1 September 2022, the Eastern Cape High Court ruled that the authorisation granted by the South African government to Shell PLC to explore for oil and gas off the ecologically sensitive Wild Coast was unlawful. Despite the fact that the ruling set international precedent, with the spiritual and cultural rights of the affected coastal communities upheld, both Shell and the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy decided to take it on appeal. With the date for the next round in this all-important legal battle looming, Daily Maverick’s Kevin Bloom speaks to environmental lawyer Cormac Cullinan and frontline activist Pooven Moodley, who were both instrumental in securing the initial victory.

Drawing on the messages about the intelligence of nature presented in the documentary The Octopus Teacher, the infographic to Circle of All Nations conceptual images was created to encourage deep reflection of the Circle of All Nations’ “Nature Can Teach” motif and inspire an era of change.


Concluding Remarks

Shifting from narrative to ethnography to cybertechnology, and spanning the past century, these and other such examples of praxis and agency locate the impact and reach of William Commanda and the Circle of All Nations discourse in contemporary times.

From 1991 and William Commanda’s prayer to ignite a relationship with a living Mother Earth on the global stage to 2023, it is clear that environmental crises and climate change on Mother Earth are accelerating. As his daughter Evelyn Dewache often reminds us, we are now walking on his body.


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Note: All hypertext related to the William Commanda discourse are accessible on the Circle of All Nations website and linked throughout.

  1. With respect to the use of the word "cybernetics," note that we are drawing on the etymological roots of the word. While cyber is a word associated with a new phenomenon, the internet, it is actually derived of the ancient Greek roots of I steer, drive, guide, act as a pilot, implying being good at steering, being a good pilot, rearticulated in the 1830s with the French cybernétique as the art of governing; later, in 1948, Norbert Wiener associated cybernetics with systems comprising structure, constraints and possibilities; these incorporate a closed signaling loop, originally referred to as a circular causal relationship, where action within the system generates change in its environment and that change is reflected in the system in some manner (feedback) that triggers a system change.
  2. In this vein, discourse is Foucauldian: more than just words, it is an analysis of human/social situations that explore the interplay of knowledge and knowledge creation, power and presentation of truth; this is manifest in ideas, interpretations, relationships and technologies; they funnel a momentum towards an emergent reality; this co-creates a reality of its own, within which the created knowledge becomes dominant and common sense.
  3. He stated that “Cybercartography will see cartography applied to a much wider range of topics than has traditionally been the case […] It will also utilize an increasing range of emerging media forms and telecommunications networks such as the Internet and the World Wide Web. It will be multidimensional cartography using multimedia formats and is more likely to be an integral part of an information package than a stand-alone product. Cybercartography will also be highly interactive and engage the user in new ways. In organizational terms, it will see new partnerships being created between national mapping organizations, the private sector and educational institutions and the products of cybercartography are likely to be compiled by individuals from very different disciplines and professional perspectives working together (Taylor, 1997).
  4. While farms are not the foundation of the natural world, they are indisputably the foundation of all the world's civilizations. Further, they have a profound and often negative impact on the natural world. In our 21st century, our foundations are undergoing massive upheaval. In this context, agroecology has emerged around the world in a broad array of encouraging agricultural and ecological initiatives.  As a journalist with a special interest in both agricultural and indigenous knowings, it was natural for McFadden to combine them in a book written to inform the general public about the critically impoirtant and emerging worldwide practices of agroecology, as explored by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Rather than a mechanistic formula for domination of nature to produce profits for a small group of investors, the core ideas of agroecology arise naturally from living, rhythmic, biological appreciation of the world. Consequently, the global movement toward agroecology has the capacity to recognize and to employ systems that bring the farms and food that support human needs into right relation with the needs of the natural world. The global movement toward agroecology is directly and actively influenced by indigenous knowings. It's about clean, just, sustainable, and egalitarian farm and food systems. Because of these characteristics, agroecology is steadily emerging around the globe in response to an array of profoundly challenging environmental and climatological factors.

About the author

Romola V. Thumbadoo, PhD, Geography, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, is the volunteer coordinator of the Circle of All Nations, founded by late Indigenous Elder William Commanda (Algonquin Canoe Builder, Wampum Heritage Keeper, Chief, Officer of the Order of Canada, Hon PhD). The Circle of All Nations is neither an organization nor a network, but rather a global bridge-building eco-community linked by late Indigenous Elder William Commanda’s unshakeable conviction that in a very fundamental way, as children of Mother Earth, we all belong together, irrespective of colour, creed or culture, and that together, we must regain our respect for this penultimate mother.

Romola is of East Indian ancestry, was born in South Africa, and has resided in Canada since 1970, earning degrees in English Literature at McMaster University (BA Hons and MA.) She worked extensively across the country for the federal government, chiefly within the criminal justice system (working in federal corrections, Indigenous justice and policing, and restorative justice) for over twenty-five years. She is also a writer, photographer and artist.

Over the past two decades, she has supported the efforts of Elder Commanda to advance Indigenous awareness, racial harmony and peace building and environmental stewardship (pro bono). She also serves as voluntary director of the Wolf Project, which is dedicated to honouring efforts to promote racial harmony. Romola is the author of two books on the work of the William Commanda (Learning from a Kindergarten Dropout Books 1 and 2), and has published a photo journal on her kayaking explorations of Bitobi Lake, Quebec, as viewed through the lens of Indigenous wisdom. Romola also honours the Donald Marshall Junior Indigenous justice legacy. Romola met Donald Marshall Junior in 1996, and remained his close friend and activist colleague till his passing in 2009; they worked together on Indigenous Justice and Rights issues, Reconciliation and Peace Building, Strategies for Indigenous Youth Empowerment, and Elder William Commanda’s Vision for an International Indigenous Centre. Circle of All Nations commemorates his legacy each September.

In January 2018, Romola completed her doctoral studies in Geography and Cybercartography, under the supervision of Dr. D. R. Fraser Taylor, Director of the Geomatics and Cartographic Research Centre (GCRC), in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Carleton University; her research examined the Circle of All Nations discourse of late Algonquin Elder William Commanda (Thesis: Thumbadoo, R.V. (2018). Thereafter, she completed a two-year SSHRC postdoctoral research fellowship on his extensive legacy, including on his presence in the online world. She is Executive Assistant to the Director of GCRC at Carleton University. She is currently engaged in further research on the life, work and legacy of Elder Commanda, photoatlassing, cartography and international children’s mapping, and she animates the Circle of All Nations work online and elsewhere.

You can read more about Thumbadoo’s work here.

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