Caring for Our People and Our Mother, The Earth

The_GardenToday is Mothers’ Day in the U.S., and the weather has turned warm enough for me to go barefooted in the house. The afternoons are even warm outdoors. This morning Jennie began putting in our kitchen garden. Even as we welcome this time of growth and the promise of abundance, I am troubled by events of recent weeks.

A few weeks ago Jennie and I experienced a difficult moment when a liberal European man addressed us with a slightly digging comment about Indians. He had no idea he might offend us; after all, I look European. The comment was not egregious, yet it stung. The mental health term for such comments is “micro-aggressions”. Such statements mount up and crowd the mind and psyche of persons. They are particularly damaging to young people and elders.

The other night we attended an event recognizing Burlington’s large immigrant population. The evening took place at our synagogue, and featured music, dance, food, and poetry from around the world. There was also European American folk music as well as Gospel. Afterwards we had a brief conversation with the rabbi, in which we asked about the absence of any acknowledgement of Native America. The rabbi, who is a good and openhearted man, and who is deeply committed to social justice, gave two reasons: the evening was dedicated to immigrants, and Native America had been acknowledged at the Thanksgiving celebration we missed. The rabbi also acknowledged the “loneliness” created by exclusion. I appreciate his acknowledging my loneliness and pain, and I had to admit that, yes, Europeans are immigrants. I was not convinced there was ever a good reason to fail to acknowledge Native American and First Nations peoples, nor that a single song at Thanksgiving constituted acknowledgement.

As I have written frequently, the all too familiar loneliness and sense of exclusion underlies my experiences at the local Unitarian church, where Jennie sings in the choir. Just about the only times Native America is acknowledged are when Indian texts in translation are used, always without context, or when there is a Native themed service, usually without Indian participation. There is a consistent attitude that we Indians are long dead and gone, with the possible exception of some folks far away on Western reserves. For all their professed commitment to social engagement, the congregants, and a series of pastors, have refused to acknowledge the ongoing challenges facing Native America. I find sitting through services which pointedly ignore Native experience too painful for words.

Yesterday a group of self appointed armed vigilantes drove their ATVs through restricted Utah canyon lands that contain Native American burial grounds, sacred sites, and ruins. All of the above are fragile and susceptible to damage from ATVs. Brian Maffly wrote the following in the Salt Lake Tribune:

Blanding • Fed up with federal control over lands their families have used for generations, Blanding residents along with out-of-town supporters on Saturday drove all-terrain vehicles into Recapture Canyon, an area rich in prehistoric sites the Bureau of Land Management closed to motorized use seven years ago.

San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, acting, he said, as a private citizen, organized the ride. It commenced with a rally in Blanding’s Centennial Park protesting what he and more than 200 supporters call federal “overreach” into local jurisdiction. Prompting the protest was BLM’s failure to process San Juan County’s applications for ATV rights-of-way in Recapture, although resentment toward the federal agency here runs much deeper and wider than the canyon that parallels Blanding a few miles to the east.

Part of a broad backlash against federal land management across the West, the ATV protest has attracted out-of-state activists eager to denounce federal authority over public lands. Some came decked in military camouflage and sidearms slung on their thighs. Militiamen approached by The Tribune declined to be interviewed….. Read More

Armed Europeans driving ATVs on Native sacred ground is symbolic of the worst in settler aggression and racism. It is a version of the Klan’s burning of crosses on the lawns of Native families in the Midwest during my dad’s youth.

The same sense of settler privileged and, perhaps, anxiety, have long been evident here in Progressive Vermont. During the past few weeks I have had several conversations with clinicians and healers about the struggles of our local Abenaki communities. Abenaki folk have long been at the mercy of sate and local governmental whim. The state’s actions have included forced sterilization during the Eugenics movement, abuse of Native children at St. Joseph’s orphanage here in Burlington, and systemic disruptions to traditional subsistence hunting and fishing. As is so often the case in North America, Abenaki families face high levels of substance abuse, child abuse, domestic violence, and suicide. There are many forces contributing to this, including multigenerational trauma and multigenerational patterns of “passing” that leave young people confused about their identity. Confounding the problem is the attitude of some other Native people that Vermont Abenaki are not “real” Indians, having forgotten or given up much tradition. Further amplifying their suffering is the near blanket refusal of mental health and educational providers to acknowledge the existence of Abenaki families and communities, or the problems of multigenerational trauma and ongoing local racism.

Racism in general, and micro-aggrssion in particular, have a devastating impact on the young and on elders. In Native American tradition the safekeeping of the young and our elders is our most important task after our caring for our Mother the Earth. In order to care for the people we are told to think things forward seven generations, to honor difference, to hold children and elders safely close to us,  and to carefully tend the environment. Our collective refusal to do these things threatens all of the world’s children and disrespects the heart and wisdom of elders. On this Mothers’ Day, let us remember we are all here to honor and protect the children and the wisdom keepers, the elders, no matter their ethnicity or gender, and, thus, to nurture the future. Let us also remember and honor the women of the world, and our Mother, the Earth, who loans us our bodies, cares for us, and welcomes our bodies home when we no longer need them.

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7 thoughts on “Caring for Our People and Our Mother, The Earth

  1. Thank you so much for this very well thought out and written post. I have been reading several novels by Native American writers. It has helped me become more knowledgeable about your belief systems and culture. Thank you for the first-person account of the psychological damage of being invisible at best and, far worst, being disrespected.

    • Hi Pat, While many First Nations people face multi-generational violence and micro-agression, these things do not define us. I, too, read Native literature from throughout the Americas, as well as Australia. The wonderful thing about our remarkably diverse literature is we readers have the opportunity to visit so many Native cultures. How wonderful to glimpse the astounding diversity of thought, spirituality, and day-to-day life that makes up indigenous experience and culture just in North America! It is good to talk about the joys of life, and about the actions that cause harm. I am glad I can bring something to the conversation.

    • Thank you, Rob. I’ve been thinking about how women were traditionally often at the very heart of First Nations life here in North America.They were to life bringers and so very often the healers. The European conquest hammered away at this sacred place held by women.

  2. This is so distressing! I had never heard the term “micro-agression’ but I recognized it immediately. The ATV invasion was definitely a case of blatant macro-agression, and a disgusting display of racism and misplaced entitlement. Thank you for your eloquent response, and for continuing to speak out on these important issues, Michael.

    • Thank you, Naomi. Sadly I am indeed sure you have experienced micro-aggressions. They are subtle barbs that work their way directly to the heart. Sometime I find myself wishing that these issues would simply go away one night while I was asleep. How wondrously strange it would be to awake to a world from which they were absent! This is a conversation that we engage in a good deal in our Jewish-Native household.

  3. Hi Michael,
    I have experienced some small discomfort due to my Jewish heritage, but not nearly as much as I have because of my gender. Women get the micro-and macro-agressions all the time in their daily life from men, from the media, even from other women who have been conditioned by a sexist upbringing to accept the role of second-class citizen. Anyone who is homosexual or transexual is probably aware of the barbs. I’ve always boycotted Wal-Mart, among other reasons, for their discriminatory policies toward women and minorities, which cranks it to another level.
    Ignorance might be a factor, if not an excuse. The second time I heard my sister’s friend use the word “gypped” to describe being cheated, I explained that it comes from the word ‘gypsy,’ which is a derogatory word for the Roma people. He had no idea and has stricken the word from his vocabulary. For the First People, it is obvious and all-pervasive but, for some inexplicable reason, people just don’t seem to get it–maybe because they grew up with it all around and are desensitized. I cannot comprehend, for instance, how the capital city of a nation who elected a black man for a president can still justify having a baseball team that denigrates The First People of that same nation with a rude team name and a hideous cartoon mascot. I do believe that eventually the team owners will have to bow to the rising demand for a new name and I look forward to that day!

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