Mother Earth and all her children teach us that diversity is necessary to our health and wellbeing. You don't see the trees insisting that they all bear the same fruit. You do not see the fish declaring war against those who do not swim. You don't see corn blocking the growth of squash and beans. What one plant puts into the soil, another takes. What one tree puts into the air another creature breathes. What one being leaves as waste another considers food. Even death and decay serve to nurture new life. Every one of Mother Earth's children co-operates so that the family survives.
I've gotten a lot of mileage out of that paraphrased Tsalagi (Cherokee) teaching in my writings. It's one of many indigenous teachings that speak to a way of understanding one's place in the world through a relationship framework. There are many other teachings, stories and oral histories that advocate for the necessity of co-operation with life on the planet and the realization that we all need each other's differences to survive.
What do these teachings suggest to us about activism? What does activism look like when practiced through the lens of a relationship framework? What are the implications for "Diversity of Tactics"? This article will look at those questions within the assumption that the discussion is relevant to both indigenous and non-indigenous activists.
First, allow me to introduce myself so the reader may understand our relationship. I am a Toronto-based activist who has worked in many movements including indigenous sovereignty. My mother likes to say that I was an activist before I was born as she recounts stories of participating in civil rights marches while pregnant with me. Both my African-American and Tsalagi ancestors were once enslaved on the Reynolds Tobacco Plantation. They settled in Staunton, Virginia, after Emancipation. I am of the first generation in my family to be raised in an urban environment. Recently, I've begun to identify as an indigenous settler, though it does not adequately shed light on the many contradictions of my social location. But whose social location isn't fraught with contradiction?
Regardless, I've had the privilege over the last few years of witnessing unprecedented levels of awareness of the colonialism that characterizes our thinking and relationships on Turtle Island (North America). It is now rare to find activists who do not at least pay lip service to the need to "decolonize" just about everything. But what do we mean by "decolonization?" Do indigenous and non-indigenous peoples mean the same thing when they speak this word? When elders and activists call for sovereignty over lands and resources along with languages, cultures and spirituality do we clearly understand the implications of this for our lives and work? Do first nations and other indigenous peoples have as much "decolonizing" to do as our non-indigenous relations?
Because "decolonize" means different things to different people, I have chosen to use the word "Indigenize" to describe my understanding of the process of changing our thinking and relationships in a way that acknowledges our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual inter-connectedness.
For anyone who has a negative reaction to the notion of relying on a spiritually infused worldview to discuss activism, I would urge you to consider notions of connectivity, co-operation and relationship from the point of view of quantum physics, epigenetics and/or other new and emerging sciences. They contain a corroboration of concepts my indigenous teachers have long emphasized.
Biologist Bruce H. Lipton is among a growing number of scientists who reject Darwinist evolutionary theory (which underlies colonial thinking) not because of a religious belief in creationism but because the new and emerging fields of science contest that theory. In his writings, Lipton demonstrates that there is more co-operation that goes on in nature than competition. So rather than the "survival of the fittest" we have the survival of those who have best learned to co-operate with each other and their environment. Using the findings of epigenetics, Lipton further shows that humans have the ability to alter our biology, even our genes, through nothing more than thoughts, thus exerting witting or unwitting control over our adaptations. Through self consciousness the mind can generate "molecules of emotion" and change the biochemical environment to which our cells react.
When Lipton refers to Gaia (Earth) as a living organism, he echoes indigenous elders worldwide who talk of Mother Earth. In Lipton's scientifically grounded paradigm, the human race is one of many "organs" on the planet. Individual humans can be seen as the cells that make up the "organ" of humanity. But we are not the only organ (or species) on the planet. In fact, one might consider humanity the appendix of the Earth Mother's body, a nonessential and harmful organ when diseased, thus becoming expendable.
Lipton further posits if that we look at the human body as a community of cells we see a great deal of co-operation to ensure our survival. The liver cells don't monopolize nutrition at the expense of the kidneys. The lungs don't starve the rest of the body of oxygen. If they did, we would get sick and die. Auto-immune disease is characterized by cells attacking each other in the body. Humans might be considered Mother Earth's auto-immune disease. In this worldview, good health and well being are enjoyed by those whose cells manage to co-operate.
The work of other scientists also shows that our thoughts, words and deeds impact the behaviour of our body's cells, which not only interact with each other and our environment but also our perceived environment. "An individual's emotional make-up, and the response to continued stress, may indeed be causative in the many diseases that medicine treats but whose origin is not yet known ..." says Dr. Noel B. Hershfield, a professor of medicine at the University of Calgary. Dr. Gabor Maté, author of When the Body Says No is one of many health care professionals that have devoted books and articles to this topic. "Our immune system does not exist in isolation from daily experience," Maté writes. He goes on to discuss how loneliness, abuse and other social environments (as well as our feelings about them) impact the immune system.
Should anyone think I am advocating the notion that we are to blame for our health problems, rest assured that is not my point. I do not believe that I or my eldest son, born with multiple disabilities, are to blame for his health issues. Nor do I believe we are being punished by any gods or for the misdeeds of a previous life. What I will say is that shifts in our attitudes (and those of other family members) have led us to live fulfilling lives and enjoy loving relationships. This has given us a measure of control over what might otherwise have left us feeling victimized and helpless. Our changed perceptions of "disability" have impacted our health and the quality of our lives. That is among the gifts my son brought to us.
Increasingly medical scientists are knowingly and unknowingly coming to One Mind with indigenous elders who have long taught that negative thinking, anger, fear, hatred and prolonged stress are among the causes of physical illness. The body's biochemical reaction to stress is among the environmental factors impacting disease processes. Likewise, positive thinking, happiness and love can actually improve our health, as evidenced by research on everything from the placebo effect to the longevity of pet owners. Indigenous teachings have always held that emotions impact the body, for better or worse.
What scientific research consistently tells us about being stuck in the "fight or flight" response is that we lose the capacity to think clearly, function well and stay healthy. At the cellular level we know that growth cannot occur while our cells are responding to some sort of threat, like a toxin. We cannot grow and protect at the same time. While fight or flight is a healthy response to immediate danger, we were never meant to live permanently in that state. The threat, or perception of threat, must be eliminated before we can be healthy.
If we are going to maintain our health we need to acknowledge and process the emotions that get stuck in our bodies. And processing anger, rage and fear does not mean using it to fuel our activism. Nor does it mean repressing our feelings and putting on a false face. We need to feel and work through our very rational and useful emotions so that we can envision, sense and achieve the balance and well-being we seek.
This is exactly what indigenous ceremonies are designed to do. All our ceremonies are healing ceremonies incorporating aspects of gratitude and celebration for the gifts we enjoy in life because focusing on these lifts the spirit and enables us to feel and think positively, thus contributing to wellness.
So the "new" sciences might actually validate a great deal of the ancient spiritual wisdom that comes from many indigenous cultures. Our ancestors did not need Marx, Lenin or even Eurocentric science to tell them that the accumulation of wealth, the plunder of resources, the extermination of plant and animal species as well as income disparities are unhealthy behaviours that will lead to disaster for all; that the hatred, anger and fear they elicit make us sick as individuals and as communities unless we empower ourselves, take control and re-focus our emotional energies to create something better.
So what are the implications of all of this for Indigenizing our activism, thinking and relationships? As activists we readily see how our society is dysfunctional and sick. That is why we do what we do. As activists we often acknowledge how our individual health and well being might improve if we cared for ourselves as much as we did our causes.
Hopefully we will also understand that when we are motivated to change the world solely by anger, rage and fear this will negatively impact ourselves, our communities and our activism. It will influence our use of strategies and tactics, causing us to respond out of negative emotions stuck in our bodies rather than out of love for our families, communities and the planet. Actions motivated by fear and anger will generate more in kind and we will end up replicating what we now resist. And what will happen to the vision of peace, social justice and living in balance with Our Relations (other life on the planet)?
While fear, anger and other emotions are a rational response to our social environment, we need to caution ourselves about getting stuck there and enabling these emotions to motivate our activism. We are all connected. Our thoughts, words and deeds impact others. How can we responsibly role model healthy organizing when we are motivated by fear and anger? How will acting out of fear and anger create the vision to which we aspire? How do activists who attack each other inspire others to sign on to the difficult work of creating that better world we want and need? How do we mentor our youth to carry on after we are gone, caring for each other and the planet on which we live?
A friend of mine who was born in Myanmar once told me a story that I now see as an example of Indigenized activism. After being raised in the Buddhist tradition my friend had taken the drastic decision to pick up arms and join a guerilla movement to defend his family and community. Yet using weapons did not make him feel empowered. That came after he and his comrades found themselves trapped in a village under siege, surrounded by government troops. The guerilla group could have surrendered to torture and probably execution. They could have fought to their deaths, risking innocent civilian lives in the process. Instead they chose another option. Night after night they snuck out of the village and engaged the snipers and guards surrounding them in one-on-one conversation. "Who are you? What village are you from? Why are you here? We could be brothers. This is why I'm fighting. Why do you want to kill me?" After a time the soldiers began deserting, sometimes turning their weapons and equipment over to the guerillas. A few soldiers even switched sides, joining the "enemy". In a few weeks the army realized they didn't have enough soldiers to continue the blockade. They gave up the siege and went away. THAT was when my friend realized his power, a power which lies within us all.
True to my indigenous teachings, I will leave you to consider these stories as well as questions I've asked. If they have meaning for you, please use them in a good way.
Zainab Amadahy is a mother, writer and activist. Her publications include the novel Moons of Palmares (1998, Sister Vision Press) as well as an essay in the anthology Strong Women's Stories: Native Vision & Community Activism, (Lawrence & Anderson, 2004, Sumach Press). Most recently Zainab has contributed to In Breach of the Colonial Contract (Arlo Kemp, Ed. 2008) by co-authoring "Indigenous Peoples and Black People in Canada: Settlers or Allies?"
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