Those of us who have enjoyed the cultural privilege of being born into respect often find the process of earning trust and respect from people of historically oppressed backgrounds very challenging. Most of us just stay away. “What’s the point? Why should I have to earn anyoneʻs respect? Doesn’t everyone simply deserve respect as a natural birthright? I didn’t do any of those horrible things from the past to the native people or African slaves! Why should I have to make up for what my ancestors did? Can’t we just move on?” We justify our absence from this uncomfortable conversation with various excuses, judgements and rationalizations, but this discomfort is precisely the place where a deeper unity must be cultivated.
Many problems are encountered when we attempt to build unity across differing historical and cultural vantage points. As I explained in my previous blog, we have come a very long way forward in the process of negotiating “provisional unities.” These provisional unities are alliances that we build around protecting the lands and waters of our communities and around common goals of economic and racial justice. These alliances are becoming more and more effective. In many progressive arenas, genuine political respect and solid working relationships are growing across racial and cultural divisions. This is positive. These unities are “provisional”, however, because significant tension remains over the more subtle aspects of intercultural, race, gender and class trauma. We have found provisional ways to interact and build unity in spite of deeply seated hurts and the resulting fears. But, in general, we have not cleared the mistrust or settled into a place of deeper and more authentic mutual understanding. Clearing mistrust in personal relationships is often one of the most challenging things we do. Cultural and historical mistrust can be orders of magnitude more difficult to clear, but just as proportionally important for generating peace and understanding at an intercultural level.
It is possible to move beyond our truces to authentic reconciliation, peace and trust. The value in that effort is inherent. With deeper levels of unity and understanding, we become ever stronger in our ability to act for the protection of the land and the advancement of justice. However, this requires a measure of real healing from the traumatic wounds of history, not just protocols of political correctness that allow us to work together in common acknowledgement of those wounds. The harm that has been perpetrated against vulnerable communities and cultures goes back for generations and generations. Unpacking and healing the layers of hurt embedded in what’s become “normalized” in modern dominant cultures requires an innovative perspective, that can see beyond the assumptions and norms of modernity.
In earlier blogs, I explained how it is near impossible for those raised in literate cultures whose conceptual and ideological framework revolves around modes of thought made possible by the written word to imagine the consciousness and point of view of those from oral cultures. Similarly, it is extremely challenging for a person born into advantage to imagine and understand the point of view of a person born into poverty, disenfranchisement and on the receiving end of bigotry. Likewise, one whose family has prioritized “upward mobility” and individual career achievement would be stretched to imagine the world of a person who has lived within a culture committed primarily to kinship and place where relational caretaking for the well-being of future generations is of first importance. To the person who’s family of origin moved homes based upon career opportunities, it is hard to understand the perspective of a person raised in a context of multi-generational stability in one beloved sacred landscape. The value systems of cultures representing these two extremes, the modern and the indigenous, share many things in common but they completely miss each other on the most fundamental values and points of view. Exploring the polarity represented by the indigenous versus the modern is helpful in unpacking the dynamics of oppression from an ancestral perspective. And this perspective is particularly helpful when it comes to genuine healing and reconciliation. We all carry complex ancestral legacies, both the persecuted and the privileged.
The primary orientation of modern civilized (city oriented) culture is vertical. We have a class structure that awards privileges to a relative few at the top and rests upon the labor and sacrifice of the many at the bottom. The systems run upon the competition of the masses to advance themselves toward the middle or the top of the pyramid of comfort, wealth and power. Individual or family advancement is the primary motivating force of normalized adult members of modern industrial cultures and their agricultural predecessors. The “middle class” is not really in the middle of the pyramid, if one views industrial systems globally, from resource extraction to finished product: it is more accurately located from the midline of the pyramid to near the top. We are consuming well past the earth’s capacity to sustain us already. If we raise everyone to the “middle class” standard of the developed world (in terms of consumption), we will more than quadruple the extraction and pollution pressures upon the earth. This is impossible and thus suicidal. Yet advancing everyone toward the middle class is the economic goal that is most often expressed, even by progressives, in the modern political arena.
Indigenous cultures that value the health of the land and the well-being of future generations as their primary care and purpose have a horizontal orientation. They hold a broader definition of a “good life” that prioritizes the development of all of the capacities of being human as the purpose of individual life: character, awareness, skill, creativity, humility, wisdom and service. The common purpose of community life is to advance and protect the conditions that foster the individual’s ability to express their creativity, wisdom and qualities of character to the highest degree as the root of vibrant and healthy social culture. This is a mutually reinforcing system that puts care-taking and peacemaking at the center of its priorities and develops sophisticated eldership as the core repository for culture and wisdom. Such societies weave the meaning and value of the individual within the integral web of community and nature. Individual achievement and technological innovation that does not advance the people generally and their understanding and ability to care for their place of habitation has little worth in this horizontal value system. (Side note: Obviously these “horizontal values” exist within modern culture as well, and vertical aspirations exist within indigenous cultures. Still, the fundamental orientations are different and worthy of comparison, as is inherent creative tension that exists between them.)
“Upward mobility” and the operating value system of the middle class prioritizes conventional education and career advancement choices over relational connection to extended family and generational place of birth. With upward mobility comes the assumption of physical mobility. One moves one’s home, sometimes to places completely foreign, in order to advance one’s career. This has become a fact of life that the middle and the owning classes take for granted in modern times. Then, as one becomes more successful, one gains the power to choose a desirable place to live rather than moving in accordance with career advancement necessities. Relationship to place becomes a thing of choice for personal gain, rather than being limited by lack of resources or by the cultural priority of generational connection to ancestral lands and extended kin.
The modern experience within which place of home is considered a matter of choice has, until very recently, been reserved to the very elite members of the social order. For most persons on the planet, even a handful of decades ago, one’s home was one’s place of birth, no questions asked. And, very likely, was also the place of birth, life and death of one’s parents, grandparents and ancestors of many generations. The idea of moving by choice to improve one’s individual life was a foreign concept before the colonization of the Americas, except for the very elite or for the mythically adventurous. “Moving” is a relatively modern concept for the common person. And yet personal career advancement and choice of place have become integral parts of an American Dream that inspires the whole modern world.
The growth of cities, labor specialization, sophisticated trade and technology, empire building warfare and other phenomena of mass civilization have prioritized occupation and position within the social hierarchy over connection to place and kin. But colonization and industrialization have dramatically increased this trend. It is considered by most modern people to be the natural positive evolution of things. Persons living by the old ways of kinship and place are considered to be relics of an irrelevant past…if they are considered at all.
Generally speaking, if a people were forced to move or chose to migrate in the more distant past, they migrated collectively as a people, not as individuals or individual families. Ethnic groups have been displaced and forced to move all throughout civilized history. But usually they moved in culturally self-identified groups, as a people. In circumstances like this, one would give up the deep and sacred connection to a homeland with one’s kin, and would share the memories and the sadness of that loss within a cultural home, at the very least, while making a new home in a new place.
In the colonial and industrial age this changed. Pressures of poverty, famine, slavery and war shattered extended families and severed their cultural connections with kin and clan as well as the connection to their place of origin. What most people don’t realize is that this primal severance, of deeply rooted cultural bonding to a place and a people, lies in the ancestral past of all Western persons. First European tribal peoples were suppressed, displaced, killed and assimilated under a series of invaders and empires. The Romans were followed by feudalism and then the militarized Church. Then during the rise of the industrial and colonial age poverty and famine drove many people from their beloved homelands to join the working classes in the colonies. (Asia, as a rule, has been more adaptive and integrative due to the less aggressive nature of its dominant spiritual traditions. The same forces have been at work in Asia at the same time that many of the old values of connection to nature, place and kin have survived more intact in many Asian cultures, Maoist Communism not included. The communist genocide against the Tibetan people and the suppression of tribal culture in China has more in common with western patterns of cultural domination throughout history.)
The widespread underlying uneasy feeling of homelessness that manifests in the psyches of so many modern people has its roots in the colonial and industrial diasporas, and in the assault on the indigenous and peasant cultures of Europe, the Middle East and Northern Africa over the several millennia that preceded modern colonialism. How can a person or a family grieve the loss of homeland or the destruction of one’s kinship culture alone or with just a handful of one’s people, while suffering the humiliation of slavery, indentured servitude or genocide? It is almost impossible to fully grieve under such circumstances. And yet the insufferable loss of land, kin and culture lies at the ancestral foundation of civilization itself. Indigenous tribal people have been killed, displaced, enslaved and assimilated to satisfy the resource needs of class-based, civil (city oriented) societies since they first appeared on the trajectory of human history—on every continent. This original cultural wound lives ungrieved, unhealed, hidden and festering in the shadows of the heart of civilization itself.
Grief has always been a collective journey; community gathers to support one another through their pain. Getting to the other side of loss, even traumatic loss and violence, is part of being human, but it is not an individual journey. All relatively intact oral cultures have sophisticated ritual and ceremonial practices and protocols to assist and mark one’s passage, from the overwhelming grief of loss back to full engagement with life and community. Being stuck in grief is an illness. In order to truly pass through it, love, acceptance and attention from oneʻs community is required. When one’s community is shattered by the aggression of a conquesting empire, grieving becomes impossible within the urgency of survival. Entering grief fully requires social support and physical and social protection. And until the advent of professional therapists, it was one’s community and the cultural protocols developed over countless generations that provided this protection, understanding and assistance.
When the grieving process is not completed, which it can not be in isolation, it is passed on to the next generation and becomes entwined with self-destructive and family-destructive habits. Buried intergenerational grief becomes much more complex and difficult to heal than the original trauma, had it been addressed close to the time of the incident. Alcoholism, drug addiction, family violence, depression and suicide are the natural consequences of the destruction of culture and the severing of the deep human connection to kin and home, place of origin. Humans evolved over countless millennia within kinship cultures integrated intimately within nature and place. To have this torn away abruptly and violently and replaced with subjugation is an unimaginable loss. It is not surprising that a host of social ills dramatically confront most modern indigenous communities daily and around the world today.
As generations move further from the original traumas and survivors are assimilated into dominant cultures, new social norms are established that drive the overt symptoms of grief even further underground. For most modern people, the original trauma that broke our connection with our ancestors and our homeland lie out of reach of conscious acknowledgement. The unhealed grief of the loss of connection to nature and kin, the loss of integrative cultural practices and the loss of the functioning elder wisdom of our indigenous roots lives on in us as an unconscious spiritual hunger and uneasy homelessness. This “dis-ease” is the new normal. It makes us prone to low self esteem, external manipulation and denial. It creates an industry of self-help books and personal therapies, fuels consumerism and motivates social and career competition in attempts to fill the unexplainable emptiness we feel. The buried craving for connection to nature and kin sets the stage for so called “functioning” addictions to drugs, alcohol, sex, porn, prepackaged “entertainment” and cycles of unhealthy interpersonal drama—things that take our minds and attention away from the unconscious pain of our long lost connections. The fundamental individualism and competitiveness that drives the hierarchical nature of modern industrial culture is rooted in the ancient loss of land and culture. But because this alienated condition has become the “new normal” of human conduct, much of what would be considered ill or pathological and dangerous by indigenous standards and values is considered to be “human nature” in the modern world. The inherent conflict of values and view toward human purpose that lies between indigenous and modern cultures will be explored in greater detail in future blogs.
We all suffer from ancestral trauma at the hands of civilization, even those of us whose family lines have been at the top of civilization’s pyramid for many generations. In the western world, somewhere in everyone’s ancestral past, there are direct survivors of genocide against an original oral-indigenous culture. There may be no direct story of this survival or conscious memory of it, but it lives on inside us as unconsciously motivated cultural norms, thought patterns, fears, judgements and hatreds. As a white skinned person of European ancestry, it was striking at the 2016 COP 21 in Paris to be in the presence of the indigenous blond, blue-eyed, fair-skinned Sami people. They are a traditional, nomadic, reindeer-herding tribe from homelands claimed today by Finland and Russia. They are some of the few surviving reminders…my European ancestors did follow the old ways, even though there is no conscious memory and very little historical acknowledgement of that in my cultural upbringing. That part of my history is dismissed as irrelevant. “Sure, we were all natives once, so what?”
This attitude toward our ancient indigenous ancestors (and by extension, surviving indigenous tribal peoples) is typical of the arrogance of modern cultures. “We have moved on from all that primitive superstitious stuff. It is colorful and nice to watch and all, but it is a thing of the past with no practical or spiritual relevance in today’s world.” From my point of view, nothing could be farther from the truth. In other blogs, I have explored how the detailed ecological knowledge of indigenous cultures outstrips that of modern scientists by orders of magnitude. The wisdom of traditional elders concerning the development of human capacities of observation, social coherence, the concentric rings of nature, healing practices, spiritual development, storytelling and the practical care-taking of creation are more nuanced, sophisticated and effective than most, if not all, of their modern equivalents.
Yet modern conventional thinking dismisses the indigenous animist, ancestral, shamanic, nature-sacred way of life as an extinct thing of the past that has no relevance to modern life. I believe that this bigotry, in both its conscious and unconscious forms, is the root disease from which racism, sexism, classism and homophobia all derive.
No one is hated more by modernity than native people (except perhaps homosexuals and transgendered persons.) Indigenous communities are on the front lines of industrial hatred. I’m speaking about “evidence-based” systemic hatred here more than consciously expressed (or even felt) feelings of hatred. If a community has high rates of youth suicide, substance addiction, absent fathers, family violence, poverty, diabetes, malnutrition, infant mortality and a shrinking or nonexistent land base then they are definitely on the receiving end of industrial hatred. These are the directly correlated and universal symptoms of the loss of land, broken culture and oppression of sacred ancestral values and way of life. Unquestionably, indigenous communities qualify for the most extreme and widespread examples of this condition. These communities also happen to be suffering disproportionately from the disastrous impacts of climate change and the ecological impacts of escalating industrial resource extraction upon their ever-diminishing land base.
“Evidence-based hatred” is a deeply systemic socioeconomic phenomenon. This kind of hatred is an unconscious cultural expression of hate. It is largely denied by the individual members and spokespeople of the dominant culture that expresses it. This is because it lives outside of the conscious feeling and thinking domains of individuals in the pattern of modern culture itself. It is hatred that is largely unintended, but is nonetheless effective for its lack of conscious sentiment. It is much more insidious than sentimental hatred, which is directly felt and expressed. Modern dominant culture in the west has succeeded in marginalizing sentimental hatred but has made little progress against its shadowy sibling, the “new normal” that has established itself as the unconscious basis of modern industrial culture. Modern people, and those striving to become modern, live lives whose fundamental habits, thoughts and aspirations revolve around a universal unconscious complicity in a culture whose normality expresses hatred. The economic poverty, political marginalization and social dis-ease of indigenous communities around the world is the natural consequence of modern cultureʻs unconscious denial, anger and sublimated grief over the ancestral severance our original connection to nature and kin.
To most people living comfortably inside industrial normality, the actions of the Water Protectors at Standing Rock make no logical sense. They simply do not compute within their limited world view. Some modern persons react internally, the way the police force of industrial culture reacts outwardly, with fully rationalized violence rooted in conscious or unconscious racism. Many people are just confused or donʻt want to look at what is happening because it is too disturbing. Some are sympathetic but fearful. Some are sympathetic or inspired and want to be helpful. And still some sympathetic people, with the intent of being helpful, have adopted cultural practices of indigenous cultures without going through the established cultural protocols and are participating unconsciously in cultural appropriation. Some have done a tremendous amount of authentic personal work to reprogram their industrial consciousness toward a deeper connection to nature and a renewal of kinship bonds with family, community and ancestors. These allies are showing up to help from a grounded place. And a very few have committed to the languages and cultural paths of indigenous peoples and been formally adopted into the old ways through established cultural protocols. From my point of view, this represents the full spectrum) of responses from non-indigenous people raised in modernity to the stand being taken by the Water Protectors.
On the indigenous side of things there is a spectrum as well. And the variability of responses within these spectrums makes the forging of unities very challenging. People of more recently traceable indigenous ancestry come from backgrounds ranging from full assimilation within industrial modern culture, to being raised by traditional elders with their tribal language as their first, or only, language. Both of these spectra, the modern and the indigenous, also span a range of ages from youth to elder, as well as a range of gender expressions from heterosexual male and female, to homosexual, bisexual, transgendered and those who refuse labels altogether. Then throw in the racial, religious and cultural cards. What a party when we all come together!
Each individual story within these sets of possibilities has its wounds, its unique perspectives and its gifts. Yet none is without grief and ancestral loss. Our pain has the same roots. In the forging of the provisional unities we see expressing themselves powerfully in the Climate Justice, Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock movements, we have found ways to show respect and express acceptance and understanding for both the contemporary and historical wounds that live in the background of our alliances. This level of unity has taken decades of challenging work to achieve. It is still “provisional” unity though; the healing still to be done at the personal, cultural and societal levels still far outweighs the amount of authentic healing that has actually occurred. Yet it is evident that authentic healing has taken place, as we witness leaders and elders stepping toward one another with a sophistication of understanding, conduct and patience that is permitting deeper intercultural reconciliation. It is up to each one of us participating in these new political unities to honestly assess our position on the spectrum of ancestral healing, nature connection and practical compassion. We must act with the appropriate humility and boldness to move these unities toward greater and greater reconciliation.