Honoring the Indigenous self as enactment of sustainability

Academics, Events, Presentations

In honor of #NativeAmericanHeritageMonth, Rock your Moccs 2019, and our world’s on-going climate actions, I wanted to take today to share a bit from my talk and experience participating in CSU Stanislaus’ 3rd Annual Indigenous Peoples Days celebrations last month.

The theme of the week of celebrations was “Indigenous Sustainability: Protecting Land, Water, Human, and More than Human Kinships”. I am humbled to have been included among a cast of community practitioners, each of whom is doing work to revitalize and continue Indigenous cultures. I shared a panel with Shannon Rivers and Jace Kaholokula Saplan, where we explored the topic of protecting the sacred.

As the first speaker following the opening blessing for the Friday evening gathering, I decided to start our journey with an examination of the impact of colonization on the self and how simply by being Indigenous and conscientiously enacting Indigenous practices, we participate in sustainability and decolonization. I shared that

Colonization is trauma that involves a variety of acts – invasion and theft of land, displacement, violence, and loss of cultural rights upon the people.

Modern manifestations include continued displacement and isolation of reservations and rancherias, loss of language, and disruption of ceremony due to damaged land ecologies…[b]ut there are impacts beyond this, on the self – the brain and our genes. 

A few years ago, I began extending my exploration of my positionality as a mixed-heritage womaxn researcher and began writing about connections to a branch of genetics that studies a phenomenon called epigenetic inheritance – the inheritance of a previous generation’s experiences in the form of functional gene differences. Maya-Lenca Chief Leonel Chavez, speaks about the connection between our brains and culture. Specifically, he talks about the aspects of belonging, expressing, and connecting within our communities as essential for maintaining personal well-being and how these experiences may transfer across our epigenomes; influencing ourselves and our descendants.

And like previous research that has been carried out with holocaust survivors, research in the last few years has shown a measurable difference in reactions to stress hormones among Indigenous populations with linkages to the methylation of genes regulating these stress responses – DNA methylation being one of the best described mechanisms of epigentic processes. There are some other biological changes of Indigenous bodies that are documented…[t]his is really just a scratch on the surface to illustrate that Western scientific evidence is undergoing a process of catching up to what many Indigenous communities have understood for a long time about influences of intergenerational historical trauma.  

Weaving in a group guided meditation with the rest of my comments, I played Lift and directed those gathered to turn inward as I shared how mindfulness, meditation, contemplative, and ceremonial practices work to counteract the physical effects colonization. The whole practice was about ten minutes, and included how focus and breathe together as a group. I won’t relay the entire transcript here, but some of the key takeaways from the practice included:

There is evidence that mindfulness and meditation practices can interrupt the damaging stress response pathways of the brain. We want to impede the effects colonialism has constructed in the brain to create space in ourselves for the cultural practices and systems that were taken away or abandoned so that we continue the story of Indigenous cultures and land.

These practices are important not just for sustaining culture, but for reducing harm upon Indigenous bodies – whether a mindful meditation, an Indigenous contemplative practice, or even engaging in ceremony – we utilize deep, focused thought, listening, and uninterrupted attention to teachings, meanings, and kinships around us.

It is how we can be nurtured by the most ordinary and simple tool that we have. 

Our breath.

And our aware presence.

As we talk about Indigenous Sustainability and protecting land and culture, we must acknowledge that this includes sustaining our self. Wellness encompasses the whole-person, as well as the land – the stresses and trauma of colonization crosses generations in our bodies. Honoring our Indigenous selves with practices to reduce and heal that trauma is part of that act towards sustainability. 

Decolonization takes place as a process – multiple acts of practice added up throughout our journey. Colonization is traumatic, invasive and generational – honoring ourselves, creating space within ourselves so that we might continue the restoration of cultural practices and generate new ideas and knowledge for the advancement and empowerment of our peoples is also an act of Indigenous Sustainability.

Sitting in the night air of the patio with so much positive energy flowing through the audience during the meditation was just a lovely experience that I wish I could put into words. Engaging in prayer, contemplation, and song (which we shared several times throughout the two evenings I was able to attend) takes a trust and vulnerability that underlines these important gatherings in the continuity of our peoples and cultures.

You can experience some of this beautiful spirit that was cultivated with this short film produced on site by Sam Contreras.

The speakers, elders, students, musicians, and community members who came together, experienced, and explored our collective journeys as Indigenous peoples were truly inspiring. A huge thank you to all the organizers involved in bringing us to such a beautiful shared space.

Native American History is American History. And also, the present and the future.

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