Thursday, October 15, 2015

Whiteness and the Three Levels of Identity

For years, I wondered why white people, myself included at one time, responded the way they did to racial issues whenever they came up.

It was like there was some secret script being passed around from which we were all reading when confronted by a person of colour or even when the potential of such a thing was in the air. There were two kinds of responses. Always the same.


And then one day, it clicked. 


The seed was planted during a diversity workshop in Vancouver, at a round table with my peers. All of us, 15 years or so younger at the time, faced a task of creating something with lego. It was a fun icebreaker but also acted as an unexpected set up for an exercise about identity. 


The crux of the workshop was that there were three equal but different levels of identity: Personal, Collective and Universal and that they overlapped each other like circles in a Venn diagram.


"There are some things about who you are," she pointed out. "That are only true for you. Ways you are like a snowflake, utterly unique in the universe - this Personal level of who you are. There are other ways in which the Universal level is true and we are all one. And then there are the things we share culturally and in groups - the Collective level. For example, there are things white people experience may be different from the things indigenous people experience. Women will have different experiences than men."


After she spoke, we were asked to create something out of the Lego together and then, when it was done, to name it. Out Lego sculpture was clearly the best one in the room and we took great pride in it when it came our turn to introduce ourselves. Our group took on the sculptures name as the identity of our group.

"That's how fast it happens." the facilitator pointed out. I think she wanted to lift up how fast groupings can become exclusionary and inward looking and how fast this Collective Level of identity can be set and the dangers this can bring.


I sat with what she said for years. 


It became a useful lense to honour the different things I was seeing without making any of them wrong. 


And one day, after sitting in one too many circles of people in which a person of colour was expressing their frustration with white people and white people were getting predictably defensive and offering up the same two responses which caused more upset and resignation from the people of colour, something struck me about these three levels. I saw something I had never seen before and the seeing of it struck me forcefully.


White people do not have a collective sense of themselves. 


Not in any felt or meaningful way. Perhaps it's because whiteness has a history that is so recent and shallow. Perhaps it's because almost everything in this culture is steeped in whiteness and so white culture has simply become culture. White culture is simply 'normal'. Perhaps it's because whiteness has no capacity to carry deep memory


The spark that lit the fuse for this bomb of this awareness came in noticing how often white people would say, "I have no culture." as if there could be nothing truer than this sad, pitiable fact. As if whiteness was not, itself, a culture.


I noticed it, though wouldn't see it clearly until many years later, when one day, my friend Waz, a black man from the United States, said, "Y'all need to deal with your racist shit!" during a heated conversation about race in a circle of mostly white, American, young people in Santa Cruz, California. When he spoke, all of the white people in the circle were devastated and gave those same two responses.


And then I saw it again when my friend Evon Peter was speaking at the Bioneers conference and spent 10 minutes welcoming all of the people in the audience beginning with the other indigenous people there, the people of colour, the LGBTQ community and then said, "You may have noticed that there was a group I left out. So to all the white people here, if you are wanting to help us to protect our land and ways of life, you're welcome here. But if not, go back where you came from."


After he spoke, a middle aged white woman came up to him crying and asking him, "Why are you trying to divide us?" which is code for "We're all one!" and I'm sure other white people in the audience were sitting with guilt as if he had personally indicted them for the genocide of his people.


Evon's response was to lift up that he wasn't creating any divisions but simply holding up a mirror to the divisions that were already there. He was simply being a faithful reporter of how things are for his people. The divisions aren't the problem, the refusal to acknowledge them is. 


And so there are two responses that white people bring again and again.


Response #1 - The Universal: "We're all one."


The first is: "Why are you trying to divide us? We're all one! We're all connected. We're all human. We're all divine. You're making this about race and our differences. Why can't you feel my heart? All Lives Matter. I don't see colour or race when I look at you. I just see a human being." (the Universal). This sounds so noble and loving. And it produces memes like this.




On the surface, who could question this? Why would we want divisions? But, perhaps, we should also be aware of any ideology that refuses to acknowledge differences in the experiences, realities and ancestral stories of others. Perhaps the dogmatic ideology of oneness vanishes important things.


This point of view says, "Do you understand that labeling people based on the colour of their skin is the root of the problem?" is also a way of undercutting conversations about race, ancestry and history. It is a way of refusing to talk about how people from Africa became 'black' and people from Europe became 'white' and what that history has to do with the present state of affairs in the North American corner of the world. 


This point of view looks at racism as being 'treating people differently because of the colour of their skin' but refuses to see the history behind it and how racism has to do not only with prejudice but power. 


I recently posted this meme,



And someone replied, "It's amazing how racist (and illogical) that statement actually is. Not because I'm a white male and 'offended' by my 'privilege' being questioned. It is offensive because it is blatantly generalist and purposefully racistAs far as I have seen, life is inherently difficult for every living thing. Segmenting, grouping and then ultimately judging (good or bad) a group of people based on common traits, can be horrifically stupid and extremely damaging. (As is in this statement you have shared). Life is hard all over. These terms you are using of 'white people' and 'black people' are extremely barbaric.  Yes, some people are more oppressed than others. Most people are severely oppressed all over the world. When addressing a group of people such as:'attention white people' is a simple racist remark. My concern is that these terms do more harm than good because they divide us instead of unifying us. Who are 'they?' Perhaps 'they' should heal from 'blackness'? (Sounds quite stupid doesn't it?) These terms you are using are so muddled, so foggy, and incredibly misdirecting that you have to spend a considerable portion explaining what you're not saying, instead of saying what you want to say."

And, of course, blackness is as much of a scourge a whiteness ever was. Both are an amnesia that we are from anywhere. Both take diverse peoples from large land masses and turn them into one thing. Both come from very particular histories which have very specific legacies. The word 'white' didn't, in the beginning, mean anyone with pale skin. It meant some other things. And 'black' came from that same period of history and it meant more than just skin colour.

The unwillingness to see how I am treated because I am seen as 'white' and Waz is treated because he is seen as 'black' is the inability to see how history is alive right now.

His concern was what happens if we use these terms? My concern is the opposite - what if those terms describe the current state of affairs perfectly and we refuse to use them? Perhaps it is one of the most telling hallmarks of 'whiteness' to resist seeing collective levels of identity.

And then I posted this one,



And a friend, a white man, replied with the question, "Am I a white person?"

After some back and forth which showed me that I clearly need to write up a blog post on how I am defining 'white' and 'racism' I replied to him, "I would say you are white yes. And I would say that your response here is typical of what I laid out in that piece. The move to say 'but not all white people!' and 'I'm not in that boat! I'm not like that.' This piece, I imagine written by a person of colour, likely black and in the United States, is trying to say something. It's trying to lift something up for our consideration, as white people. It's trying to give us an insight into how we are seen and experienced, on the whole, as a group, by people of colour. It's saying something about not only a lifetime of experiences but generations of experiences. It's not speaking to you as an individual. It's speaking to the group you are a part of and trying to point out the troubled reputation this group has. It's trying to show us a pattern. Of course no pattern is absolute. Of course this would be more accurate if it said, "What many white people consider to be racism". Sure. But the defensiveness of 'not me!' is, in my mind, a part of the issue. Another response to this could be, "Wow. Yes. That is true of many white people - more than I wish it was true for." Do I think this author believes this is literally true of every single white person? No. Do I think they're trying to make a point worth considering? Yes. Do I think they're justified in making sweeping generalizations based on their experiences? I do. I don't blame them. And I don't take it personally. I know this isn't an attack on me. It's as if what they're trying to do is to say, "If I had to generalize and make all white people into one person and describe that person, based on my life experiences, they'd be _______. It's not healthy for a white person to take this on or take it on personally as the gospel. But I don't think it's healthy to ignore it either. Our experiences of people of colour are often based on a handful of experiences. But their experiences of us are often in the hundreds. Their experiences of us swamp ours of them. They see us constantly in every TV show, movie, in public office, on the news, in law enforcement etc. And it's not only their experiences they're reporting on. It's their grandparent's and parent's experiences too. It's not coming from nowhere."

In June of 2016, I sat at the University of Calgary at RedTalks where my friend Melina Laboucan-Massimo was sitting on a panel. A white man who looked to be in his sixties posed his question, to the panel. "When can we stop have this all be about race and start just treating each other equally."

I took a sharp breath in and saw her eyes widen as she looked quickly at a friend. The panel sat, a bit at a loss of how to respond and Cowboy Smith X passed the microphone directly to her to handle it. 

"I come from a collectivist culture," Melina said. "So the framing of the question is hard because it's asking me to separate myself from my culture and where I come from and just be 'Canadian'."

On the back of the sincere question asked to help create a new future were the same assumptions that had created the tragedies of the past. The unwillingness to see all of the ways that racism is alive is what keeps racism alive. The need to move past it before acknowledging its past, present and likely future, is what keep us from being able to change it. The unwillingness to sit with the immense grief and discomfort that comes from having no idea what to do about any of this is what stops the solution from appearing. The desire to reset everything and start fresh is what keeps us from seeing how deeply unequal things have become.

So, that's the first kind of response: We're all one. And that leads to a very strong reaction of anything that smells like it might be hinting at any sorts of divisions at all.


*

One of my friends, who is one of the finest men I know, wrote this on Facebook recently, "It's time for us to come together foremost as a united species of humanity and everyone needs to identify with that as their primary identity. Religion is the adversary that divides us into faiths and tribal alliances that feed egotism, hatred and war, not to mention that most organized religions are patriarchal, regressive of authentic liberty and subtly encourage ecocide by viewing the Earth as a fallen realm. For sure there's beauty to religion and it's not about throwing the baby out with the bathwater but we need some bold and radical steps as a species to meet the radical challenges of our times. It's to relegate religions to the past and give birth to unity consciousness. To a spiritual science revolution! We're all one!"

It's not that it's not true (though I have no idea what's true) it's that this kind of statement can be used to ignore and invisibilize the other two levels of identity. It's not true in this man's case but I've seen too many people in my life passionate about the idea of getting everyone under one umbrella... as long as they are the ones holding the umbrella. I've seen this become the most brutal form of control and silencing, more insidious because it comes across as love and unity. In the hands of men less astute than him, it can quickly become a sort of spiritual totalitarianism or privilege protected by the deflecting robes of Universal unity.

Amen to unity but the unity doesn't seem to appear all at once. It seems to appear as diversity. Diversity isn't the opposite of unity. It's the expression and embodiment of it.


*


Another colleague of mine, a speaker and author steeped deeply in the New Age scene, said this in response to the notions raised in this blog: "HOW ABOUT WE JUST START REFERRING TO OURSELVES as human.  Let's start a movement, so there is nothing to polarize about.  If everyone called themselves Human, then the form would be irrelevant. In my mind, over lifetimes, we've been everything anyhow, which makes referring to differences kinda ironic......who we are had nothing to do with the body, nor chemicals, not even beliefs...........so done with fighting of all sorts............that's my rant for the day.  xoxoxo Tad Hargrave appreciating you." 

On one level, it seems like there's not much to argue with here. How can advocating for our oneness and connection be a bad thing? What's being said, explicitly here is that differences don't matter because this body and this world isn't really real. All that's real is Spirit. And, there's only one God, by the way, not a diversity of Gods. In this world, there's nothing particular or local to be celebrated. The fact that you have the nose you do because of those who came before you means nothing.  The fact that your culture is different and unique from mine? That means nothing too. And the fact that you are treated differently because of the colour of your skin? It's easier for me, as a white person, to ignore that it's happening because I'm refusing to see colour. This is an argument against diversity as anything important to be celebrated. 

*

Another Facebook friend posted this comment on a Facebook message I'd directed to #DearWhiteMen. He said, "Sort of humorous, but partly because it shows the foundational issue; categorization into & of humans no matter what the subject or objective is. The natural universe has no color or categories enabling controls or agendas, so what makes it?"

Of course, the universe does have colour. It is overflowing with colour. And, while he's exactly on point that categorizing humans into discrete groups in order to control them is a big part of what has created the mess we're in, what seems missed here is the beautiful diversity of human culture. 

But there is a larger issue missed when we call for 'oneness' which is about time and place. This call for oneness is happeining in a particular 'where' and a particular 'when'. It's happening in these times. It's happening in times when people of colour are targetted and oppressed and white people are privileged. To call for oneness without acknowledging this is an immense dishonour to our times. It is a vanishing of the experiences of anyone who isn't white. A more honest rendering might be, "We are all human and yet it seems that not all are being treated as such and so... what do we do about that?"


Response #2 - The Individual: "I didn't do it!"

The second response is: "But I wasn't there. I didn't own slaves. I didn't take your ancestors from Africa! I wasn't there. Why are you so angry at me? I didn't slaughter the buffalo. I didn't scalp your ancestors. Why are you attacking me? My life is hard too." (the Personal).



One woman, who I do not know, commented on the above meme on Facebook:


"Yes, whites oppressed blacks and it lasted much longer than the day slavery was abolished. But I didn't do it. I feel terrible that it happened, like all other terrible things in history, and I hate racism that continues today. Nowadays, the people holding themselves down due to their race are themselves. There is nothing we as white people can do to change it. We've apologized, we've given money, we've built social programs, none of those things work. They breed entitlement. And that gets you nowhere. Pick yourself up, go to school, work hard, get a job, don't run out on your family, don't spend more than you make, and stop voting for people who say you can't do any of those things."

If you engage in these conversations for any length of time, you will hear those two responses, "We're all one!" and "I didn't do it."

Both of them are, in essence, saying, "Can't we just pretend the past never happened?" or, far worse, unaware that it ever did. What they were saying was that they were unaware of the unique and devastating constellation of privileges and poverties inherent in whiteness

When I say whiteness and white people I mean... well, just go and read this piece on Understanding Whiteness


When Waz said, "Y'all need to deal with your racist shit." I don't think he was talking, in particular, to the people in the room (though I suspect he wasn't not talking to them). I would guess that he was speaking to them in the hopes that they were faithful representatives of this well established, larger Collective group of White People.


But, lacking this Collective understanding of themselves, they could only hear his words as either a personal attack directed to those people sitting in the room (the Personal level) or some misguided hurt he had due to his being lost in the illusion of separation (the Universal level). If the former was true, then the answer was obviously to make sure he was clear about their personal role or lack of role in the racism he had experienced. If the latter was true, then, bless his heart, he needed some healing for his anger before he caused more harm. 


It is worthy to note that neither the Universal or Individual ways of identifying ourselves have any roots in place or time. The Universal say 'we're all one and we've always been one so it doesn't matter when and where you're born' and the Individual level ignores the context around it. 'It doesn't matter when and where I was born.' it says. 'I would have been the same me, the same person regardless. Time and space are not the boss of me. They have no influence on me. Who I am is inherent and indwelling.'


Lacking this Collective lense, they could only hear his words through the Personal or Universal filters.


When he said, "Y'all need to deal with your racist shit." I don't think he was speaking just to the colour of the skin of the white people but to the culture and history that had become, like an unwelcome bur in the your clothing from a walk through the fields of history, stuck into the fabric of their days. Like something spilled on a carefully tanned and softened piece of white leather - perhaps red wine... or blood - that wasn't coming out any time soon. A reminder of something that had happened a long time ago. A crater, evidence of where a bomb had gone off a long time ago. In the one phrase he seemed to be indicting all of that, pointing to it and putting the responsibility for addressing it squarely on the collective shoulders of those whose obligation it was to do something with it. 


When he said, "Y'all" perhaps he was speaking not so much to the people in that circle but through them to everyone they knew, and might one day know, in the hopes that his pleas might reach their ears too. Perhaps he was hoping for well informed ambassadors from this group who could hear his words and nod in sober agreement saying, "Yes. All of what you say is true. We do need to do that." aware of the faults and failings of their own people without falling into a pit of shame because they also know the history of persecution and economic poverty that created the conditions out of which the racist shit grew.


He was hoping for messengers but was informed, instead, that his package was unfit for delivery or worse, that there was no one to deliver it to.


"We don't understand," the group seemed to be saying to him, carefully lowering their spectacles and peering at him over their rim, trying hard not to sound frustrated. "This address... 'White Culture'... I'm afraid there's no such thing. Is there someone particular you were trying to reach? And are you sure this message isn't for everyone? How can I help you?"


Additional Reading:





Sunday, October 11, 2015

Shattering the Too Small Pot of the The Sunflower of Gratitude



I've been thinking about gratitude lately and how so much of the conversation I hear around it rings increasingly hollow. That, as people speak about the importance of the feeling and practice of gratitude I can't help but feel like I am looking at a sunflower plant struggling to grow from a coffee cup sized pot on an altar in the corner of someone's apartment. 

*

Everyone is born on the in breath. Everyone dies on the out breath.

Isn't that something to ponder? 

It could tell us a lot about what it means to be alive. At birth, you are given the breath of life and then, when you die, you must give it all back. It's not yours to keep. Where it comes from, and where it goes after that finale exhale, no one knows. But, to be sure, we are born receiving and we die giving. 

Some of us weren't born inhaling the sweetest air. Most of us were born inhaling the toxic fumes of a culture that is staggering around in its dying swoons as we try to convince ourselves it's dancing. We were born inhaling the air blown off of thousands of acres of genetically modified crops soaked in the pesticides made from the ideas of progress and production. Our first breath was soaked in the same pollution that puffs out of the lonely, isolated and increasingly sparely populated ivory towers of unrecognized privilege around the world. We deserved more than we got. 

But, even so, our job is to do something with that. If you're born into a deep, cultural poverty then that's what you've got to work with. Maybe we're just here to make that breath a little bit sweeter before we release it to the world. And make the air for everyone else a little sweeter for the future generations to come. 

*

While our lives were given to us, they were not given for us. Our lives have been entrusted to each of us to do something with them that could become a gift to the community. It's not about us.

Which has me think about gratitude and how it changes when we turn it into a trinket on the altar of Self.

If you were to take a peek in the increasingly in vogue gratitude journals you can find in new age book shops around the world you would find a list of things people are grateful for. That is not surprising. What might be worthy of lifting up for consideration is that this list could, perhaps, better be described as a list of 'great things that happened to me recently'.

We are grateful someone was kind to us. Grateful for the raise we got. Grateful for the food we ate. 

In other words, we're grateful when things go our way, when things work out for us personally.  

What is missing on these lists is gratitude any of the things in life that don't benefit us, directly, at all. What about being grateful to Life for being the way it is - whether we like it or not. What about being grateful to all those out there doing good work that in no way benefits us personally? What about being grateful to those who we don't get along with for being themselves - even if it doesn't particularly work for us? What about being grateful for Life itself, not just our personal life?

It seems to me that much of the new age and personal growth conversation about gratitude has turned gratitude into something so much smaller than it wants to be. I think gratitude wants to be an ecstatic acknowledgment of wonder that anything exists at all. I think it wants to be the other side of grief - this wild and eloquent praising of life and how good it is to still be here together. I think that gratitude wants to grow into a plant much larger than it is able to grow in our gated communities containing nuclear family homes and the tiny pot of personal, short term gratification and comfort we've placed it in. This pot of 'does it work for me?' is too small for it. It leaves gratitude an emaciated, root bound, malnourished version of what it could be if it were to grow somewhere in the borderlands between our cultivated human lives and the wild.


Stuck in its too small confines, 'being grateful' has become a passive act of receiving something we approve of and that the story ends there. It was given to us. We show gratitude in the form of some, perhaps elaborate, verbal 'thank you'. And then we are done. There's a sense that this is all that is possible. 

But what if the things we receive in our life aren't for us? What if it's all just entrusted to us, for a short while, in order to do something with it? 

Maybe this impoverished understanding of gratitude comes from the thought that this universe and world is infinitely abundant in resources. So, when we receive something, while we might admire its beauty and benefit to us, we do not see its value or the hole that its presence in our lives must have left somewhere else. This culture, and much of the new age movement, teaches us that the Universe is a bottomless well from which we can extract whatever we want, whenever we want it. This understanding of the word breeds carelessness and entitlement and turns real limits into the enemy of our freedom. 

I am coming to understand that the most earnest form of gratitude we can show is not just to say words of thanks (though surely we would do well to practice saying these kinds of words often and eloquently) but to be faithful to whatever gifts we've received in our life. That this way of living is a sort of beautiful, noble, courteous and meaning giving speech. 

Every gift given to us is a human making burden. Everything we receive asks something of us. It isn't given to us but through us to those yet to come. It's entrusted to us to do something with it that's worthy of it. 

The fullest meaning and value of any gift isn't rendered by the giver but by the one who receives it. This is the steep hilled invitation laid at our feet with every gift we find on our doorstep - how can I do this gift justice? How can my actions and way of living imbue it with even more meaning? 

If the gift is a seed of wheat, then being faithful to it is the clearing land, planting, watering, tending, harvesting, replanting and multiplying and harvesting again and then baking and sharing with the community the love soaked loaves of sourdough bread at a feast where the entire story of the relationship with the one who gave us the seeds, and who now sits, dressed beautifully, at a place of honour at the table, is recounted from the meeting up until this feast.

What passes as gratitude today would be the putting of this wheat seed in a little, new age medicine pouch where they would stay to make us feel good, or in some glass jar on some altar in a corner of our home never to be replanted into the earth - never allowed to give back the gift of youth they were born to give.

If the gift were a sunflower seeds, then gratitude would be to simply eat them appreciatively for our personal nourishment but being faithful to those seeds would be to find some patch of Earth, plant them and help them in growing into the inspiring flowers they always seem to become, towering higher every day and shining their beauty into the world, feeding the birds and having some seeds left over for us too to eat, to replant and to pass onto others. 

The cultural plant pot that strangles the growing plant of gratitude is too small, like the too small story in which we grow, which tells us we are the centre of everything and that, if things work well for us and we give thanks then we've done all that we can do. And, more importantly, all that we should do.

But what good does a white person being grateful for their white privilege do for a person of colour living inside the constant fear of a racist culture? What good does our gratitude for being born in a prosperous country do for those who lives in the countries and communities from whom the basis of our economic wealth comes? This is the insanity of it. 

No. Any privileges we might have are not for us. They are to be used in service to something greater than us and, if they come to us carried on the scarred backs of those we left with no choice but to cater to our earth-plundering, community-destroying excuse for a culture, then our primary duty is to live our lives in such a way that it might slow or stop the grinding wheel of economic progress which never seems to look back on what it flattened. 

*

Gratitude is not just a personal feeling. 

That's only the beginning of its growth that is strangled by a culture in a pot the size of one generation's story and shrinking. Does gratitude begin as a feeling? Surely it does. Gratitude is like this bursting forth of new, exuberant green life from the soil. But then it has a job to do - it has something much bigger to become. 

If you give that seed of gratitude a place to grow in patch of land the size of mythology and with soil enriched from the stories of countless generations of ancestry and then expanded even further to include all of those yet to come and then weeded with constant rituals of care, you have something that's starting to approach the size large enough for the seed to become what it wanted to be and bear the grief filled, praise worthy fruits full of the seeds of memory that those to come will so desperately need. 

But we have to shatter this too small, me-sized pot into which we've placed, and trapped, the seed. 

We are born receiving something precious and sustained in a constant and unearned receiving of so many things. And too many die with their breath wasted as it was used only for themselves. But one day, and may your days be long and beautiful until then, will be the final exhale - may it be even sweeter for having enjoyed the warmth of lungs and been shaped regularly into beautiful words praising life for the remainder of your days. 

I leave you with this beautiful song from Edmonton's Scott Cook, Pass It Along.



This guitar came from a timber, from the body of a tree
Thought the workshop of a luthier, now it's on loan to me.
And its good company after dinner and it fits my hands just fine
But someday another singer, with a pair of hands like mine

Will coax out songs much prettier, still hiding in its strings
And sing stronger, braver words, than I could ever sing
And folks are gonna love it, of this I'm almost sure
So I'll take good care of it, because I'm borrowing it from her.

CHORUS
Pass it along. Pass it along.
May it land in careful hands when we're gone. 
You carry it for a moment
But time won't loan it to you for long.
You don't own it. Pass it along.

This here is my country, sometimes it's hard to recognize it
But I count myself lucky to have been born inside it.
And I'm grateful for the rights, others struggled hard to win
And you can be sure I'm gonna fight when they try and take'em back again

Oh and everywhere are teachers, though some fell along the way
The words they said still reach us, just like you're teaching me here today.
And you may not speak it loud, though it's clear in what you do
And I hope to make you proud because I borrowed it from you

CHORUS

Seems these days we're in a hurry to grab up all that's left to use
Putting patents on discoveries, making seeds that don't reproduce
If our vision is so narrow, seeing only bought and sold
We'll end up like the pharaohs, buried with their gold.

We've all pushed this thing along, we've all been guided by our fear
But the river sings a song, we've got to be quieter to hear.
It's in every child's face, as hopeful as a stem
Best be gentle with this place, cause we're borrowing it from them.

Sunflower painting found here

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Tracing the Crater With Fingertips at Nighttime: How Do I Claim My Own Indigenous Humanity as a White Person?


More and more white people are waking up to the ways that, as white people, their lives will be far easier than the lives of people of colour and indigenous people and working to change the system that makes this all happen and give them so many unearned privileges. It's a heartening thing to see.


But even more interesting, perhaps, is how more and more white people are also waking up to the barrenness of modern culture and the incredible poverty of it. They are seeing that this system which has so brutally oppressed darker skinned people (and continues to) also costs them something. 


But this blog posts isn't written to explore the privileges and poverties of whiteness. Suffice it to say that I don't think wealth and poverty are words that can or should be limited only to conversations about money and financial wealth. What I am speaking to here is the cultural poverty of the modern world - a poverty we, North Americans of European descent (and likely many others) do not recognize as poverty because of the spell of forgetting that whiteness has cau


This blog post is written to address the moment of waking up to those realities. 


A few weeks ago, in a Facebook group I am in, I saw a post from a good fellow, a white man with whom I am somehow Facebook friends asking the very sincere and important question which prompted this blog post, 


My friend: "My spiritual journey has taken me to study and learn from the shamans and elders of the First Nations and from these experiences I have found ways to help others connect to their own true nature and life purpose. The Earth and the Creator have taught me to pray and connect to Spirit in ways that resemble most closely the traditions of the First Nations of North America. I have been guided out of darkness of pain and despair into light by archetypes and ancestors, practices and rituals that emerge from the cultures who have lived on this land for millennia longer than any of my own genetic ancestors. So, how do I claim my own indigenous humanity in a way that honours the cultures that stewarded it, and then shared it with me, while generations and generations of my own ancestors forgot?


This is a worthy question about which I find myself often wondering aloud. It's the question that started this whole blog. 


I remember years ago, in my early twenties while living in California for a time and working with radical young activists from around the world, being confronted with the intense realities of race, class, gender and colonization. I heard, for the first time in my life, the word 'white' being used with a distinct anger and vehemence. It was the first time I'd really heard and learned the terms 'white supremacy', 'white privilege' and 'white culture' to describe something that was happening now rather than something that happened hundreds of years ago. 


I learned the history of where the social constructs of race and whiteness had come from for the first time. I felt like Neo being unplugged from the Matrix. It was a lot to take in.


At this same time, people of colour were exhorting myself and other white people to 'own the fact that you're white.'


Which left me in what felt like a hopeless situation. Every time they spoke of whiteness (the social construct and not the skin colour) they spat the words with a derision that had come from a lifetime of hard learning of history and harder experiences. And everything I learned about this culture of whiteness (as distinct from European history) gave me that same sort of feeling.


And so, it felt as though I was being asked to root myself in some very bad soil. Nothing about that felt appealing.


At this same time in my life, many of my friends were engaged in a group called INIYA - the Indigenous and Non Indigenous Youth Alliance - a beautiful project bringing today youth from around the word to share and learn from each other. But, at the time, it held no purchase for me. Despite a deep respect and admiration for those cultures, I was not drawn to those gatherings at all.


But, at the same time, I had two dear friends, one a young Cree activist from Winnipeg and the other young medicine man in training from Peru, who encouraged me to look at my own roots. 'What came before the whiteness? Who were your indigenous people from Europe?' they asked me.


When I discovered that, much of the white guilt melted away and I found a new place to stand.


That's how it was for me. For others they found a real connection to the teachings of indigenous people from other cultures. Or others still in a more political work based on tackling systems of oppression head on.


This piece is not written to suggest any kind of right path forward. Or to suggest any particular path might be wrong. I write this in the hopes that these words can encourage whatever path is pursued to be done so in a way mindful of the ground we are walking on as make whatever choices we do.



So, what follows are some writings inspired by things he said woven in in larger type with the words 'My Friend' before them as above, with other similar conversations I've had with myself and other people, circling around the thorny questions of how we, as people of European descent, relate to the indigenous world around us and inside of us. Perhaps some of what I write will be of some use to people from other places and cultures as well but I can only write about and for the story I am from myself - a white guy growing up in the Alberta prairies of this dominant culture of North America. I suspect for people with my skin tone in Europe living in the presence of all that has been lost it will be a different thing than my living in the absence of it. 


*

I think of Jon Stewart's rants about the word 'nazi', or genocide or holocaust needing to mean something specific. If we use them too loosely, they lose their meaning. If every time a politician is unhappy with something done by someone in the other political party, they call them 'Hitler' it not only starts to have that name lose its punch when it's true but it also denigrates the scale and atrocity of what happened in Nazi Germany. I think Jon Stewart, as he rolled clip after clip of politicians throwing these terms around for all the reasons they do, was right. In these times especially, with so much at stake, we might do well to use our words well and with care. 


I think the use of the word 'Indigenous' or 'native' in relation to white people are such troubled and difficult words as well. 


When we say 'indigenous people' it needs to mean something. 


And when we say 'white' it needs to mean something.


This blog post was written to try to wrestle out the ways those words - white and indigenous - overlap and don't.


This isn't to prescribe a being overly cautious or being politically correct for the sake of scoring points on the chart of 'how radical can I be?'. It's an attempt at clarity.


Words matter and they don't. We often don't use the same language to describe the same things, but, when there is good will, we can work past it without forcing people to speak like us. 


Good intentions matter... and they don't. Sometimes we can hear what people are trying to say and feel so clearly how their heart is in the right place and it isn't too hard to get over the unskillful use of language. When the core intention is to speak respectfully of other people and we are willing to have our words guided by those people much seems to work out in the end. 


This piece of writing is not a prescription or an attempt to fix a problem of language. It is an attempt to wonder about it and to admire the problem for what it is as my colleagues below have done so well.

"We should not let a debate on lexicon get in the way of Settler re-landing. Language is constantly shifting and changing, the fluidity of certain words defy ownership, and there may always be multiple and various meanings ascribed to highly-charged words such as “indigenous.” We could also declare that the word “indigenous” is a colonial overlay used to describe every First Nation by a pan-Indian device of homogeneity, and that it should not be used by anyone. Whatever we call it, reconnecting white folks to the land (Earth, the wild, the other-than-human-world, nature, Gaia, bioregionalism etc.) is the great work of our time, and may literally shift the paradigm. And at the end of all our discussions, and our identity politics, and our actions to fill our souls with the love of the land, our purpose must be Earth rights and the protection of the creatures. For without the health of the Earth, our post-colonial human collectives (in whatever shape they take) are meaningless." Pegi Eyers, author Ancient Spirit Rising
"The term "indigenous" has been used by some scholars to encourage colonized peoples in various territories to express a bridge of solidarity in opposition of colonizing powers and ideologies, but that's only one usage of the term, and there is no single meaning or usage. A problem with the usage [many] endorse here is that it creates a false racial essentialization of distinct societies, ethnic groups and cultures. Race is a conceptual category that only dates back to the 18th century and it is distorting to project that category too far back into human history. Another way in which term "indigenous" has been used -- a usage more technically connected to its definition, and one used by native scholars -- is a particular way that cultures root themselves in their environment and have a specific relationship to their land and landscape. All peoples were once indigenous. It is only particular ideologies and cultural patterns that have developed over the last several thousand years in several parts of the globe that separate all people from that rootedness. That's not that long a period in human history, and it's much shorter for many people, including people now living in Europe. Indigeneity is not specific to skin colour or continent. It is extremely naive to think that the de-indigenizing ideologies and processes of empire are somehow specific to Europeans (the Aztecs were a very powerful empire), or that people of colour cannot be co-opted into the same systems of domination and oppression, or that people now categorized as "white" cannot be indigenous. That's simply buying into the racialized view of the world created and promoted by modern Empires, as well as the noble savage counter-myth." Michael Newton, author of Warriors of the Word 
So, what does this 'indigenous' we are seeking to 'claim' even mean? And can it be used to say, 'Well. I'm a white person who is waking up and realizes I have roots and so I'm just indigenous as everyone else.'?


"Being Native isn't a state of mind: it's a legal status, 
it's a cultural identity, it's a history, and it's an experience." 
- Reed Adair Bobroff, Dine poet, writer and performer


My friend: "Where am I native to?"

If you happen to have travelled as much as I have and stayed in as many hotels and motels as I have along the way then you will know the guilty pleasure of the TV in your room. No matter how little you watch TV (if ever) when at home, there's some sort of strange permission given to you by the laws of the land of the Super 8 or the Sandman or the Best Western that whispers to you, 'It's okay. You deserve it. You've traveled so far.'


Aside from a few TV shows, I never really watch TV. I haven't owned one in over two decades. So, when I land in a hotel, I often find myself on a binge watching session, catching up on pop culture, late night TV talk shows, reality shows and more.

One of the shows I enjoy are those where people bring in their antiques which they are certain, or at least hopeful, might be worth a great deal of money and an appraiser looks them over to evaluate their worth. There's always a great deal of suspense in the air and I find myself guessing as to what kind of money they might get for such a thing.

The answer is, sometimes, extraordinary but usually disappointing. What they'd hoped might have been something from the French court of King Louis the XIV turns out to just be a replica knock off.

Many have heard that the Greeks have six words for love. Each word covering some different hue or shade of this thing we know as love from sexual passion to deep friendship to playfulness to love of everyone to long lasting love and the love of the self. It's a noble and wise thing, I think, to not try to make one word bear the burden for all of those kinds of love and it speaks to the poverty of the English language that we only have one word which, like a poor mule, must make a long trip, carrying the burden of all of our hopes and expectations around love in six heavy bags until it collapses. It would be unwise to blame the mule of love for not being able to do the job we gave it. We asked it to carry too much.

I imagine bringing the word 'love' to such an appraiser or such a show and asking him how much he thought it was worth. He might take it, put on one of those monocled magnifying glass contraptions and turn the word over slowly, looking at it from every angle.

"It's a thing of beauty to be sure," he would say. "But you can see the cracks from where it's been made to carry to much weight and... the design. It's too simple. Where's the subtlety? Where's the nuance? It's a fine beginning as a piece of art and I wish the artist well, this is a promising start but it's no masterpiece."

Which brings us back to belonging.

There are so many kinds of belonging and yet only one word that we can use for it.

Many religions around the world have done their level best to convince us that we do not belong in this world. That this isn't where we are from. That this isn't really home. And that, if we don't follow the rules just right, we might just fall outside of this Universe entirely.

Much of the New Age movement has seemed hell bent on convincing us that we aren't really our bodies at all and that this world is an illusion.

Radical activists and cynics, hearts shattered from the loss of too many important things have come to see humans as a virus and come to accept in their hearts that the world would be better off without us. Humans, they've come to realize (and the realization cost them dearly) don't belong here. We are a mistake.

The story of this modern world seems to be one of the story of the Caveman turning into Captain Kirk and voyaging out into the stars... where we belong.

But here on Earth? No. We don't seem to belong here. This is what we are told over and over again.

And yet, our human urge for belonging is so incredibly strong. The process of colonization might be understood as the stealing of the belonging people had made for themselves and selling them back a cheap knock off we made at a handsome price. Land is stolen. Language is stolen. Children are stolen. Culture is stolen. Your relationship to your ancestors and all of the stolen things is stolen. And then we are sold 'belonging' into the club of this synthetic, modern, ever forward moving world.

It can be a radical act of defiance to say 'no' to all of this. "No. I belong here." and give the finger to the forces that would have me believe otherwise. Alan Watts put it so beautifully when he said, "You didn't come into this world. You came out of it, like a wave from the ocean. You are not a stranger here."

But, even with this, I imagine us knocking on the door of the appraiser in one of these TV shows, the lights and then cameras turning on, us reaching into the hand spun bag of our revolutionary intent and pulling out this notion, "I belong here". I imagine the appraiser putting on one of those monocled magnifying glass contraptions and turn the word over slowly, looking at it from every angle.


"It's a thing of beauty to be sure," he would say. "But you can see the cracks from where it's been made to carry to much weight and... the design. It's too simple. Where's the subtlety? Where's the nuance? It's a fine beginning as a piece of art and I wish the artist well, this is a promising start but it's no masterpiece."

We ask too much of this word belonging.

There is a kind of belonging that says, "I belong on this planet." There's a belonging to a group of people because of our skin colour or language. There's a kind of belonging when you are a part of a people. There's the feeling of belonging that rushes over you when you're with a special someone, sitting on a bench at the edge of the river valley at night time under lamp light and everything in the universe feels just right. There's the belonging you feel when you come home after a long journey to your home town and then there's the belonging you feel to the people and places you left to come home.

Certainly, we are native to the Earth. We belong here. 

As far as I know, we aren't from Venus or Jupiter. 


This mule of belonging carries more burden from us than is kind to give it and yet there is still one more package, the heaviest of all, that has yet to be laid on its back and that is the kind of belonging an old growth culture has to the land it lives in, the kind of belonging forged over thousands of years of observation and trial and error, told in countless stories and songs. A kind of belonging where there is a story for every place within that place. A kind of belonging that comes from being born into this story itself.


But when, as modern and white people say, "I'm just as indigenous as anyone because I'm from the same planet. I belong here just as much." we are adding more freight to our poor little burro than it should have to carry. We make the combination of being an Earthling, a growing political and spiritual awareness and good intentions to be the same as the collective efforts of a community which lives in an intact culture where the bones of their ancestors have been for thousands of years. We speak of having a sense of place and connection to 'the land' as if this were the only kind of connection to have and as if all the land on Earth were the same. But I think that connection to particular pieces of land is at the heart of what makes us indigenous.


What if this nativeness and indigeneity isn't some inherent, indwelling thing but a skill, a capacity or way of being? What if it's something we do not something we are? What if it's an earned achievement over many generations not simply a reward for being alive or something I get simply because I feel connected to a place? What if some forms of belonging are a given for being alive and others are earned?


I wonder if indigeneity, this kind of deep belonging to a particular people and place over millennia, is actually a linguistic nominalization for the process of indigenizing, the process of relating to a particular piece of land and the people, creatures and spirits of that land without any pretensions of having meaningful connections to or knowledge of all of it early on. I wonder if the notion of an 'essential indigeneity' is a way white people can avoid grappling with the real work and labour of indigenizing and decolonizing. Maybe it's more like a seed that needs to be tended. 


We don't have a word for this kind of belonging in English, but we should.

As Stephen Jenkinson put it so beautifully in his book Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul

"In a culture like ours, so unsure of itself, so without a shared understanding of life for its people, there are subtle, enduring consequences that look like personal inadequacy, failure of will, inability or unwillingness to live deeply. But what I’ve seen over twenty five years of working with people convinces me that these problems or struggles are not bad psychology, worse parenting or lousy personality development. What we suffer from most is culture failure, amnesia of ancestry and deep family story, phantom or sham rites of passage, no instruction on how to live with each other or with the world around us or with our dead or with our history...
... We know that people for millennia have rebuilt homes, reestablished villages, and so reconstituted ways of life following a period of crisis and flight. Is this the same thing as reclaiming the ability to be at home? Not initially and not inevitably, no. Being at home in a given place means learning. It is only coincidentally a 'feeling'. 
Specifically it means learning the ways that place has of being itself... This kind of learning one's home place does not happen by a feat of imagination or fantasy, or by socialization, or by the transcendental yearning for things to be different. It happens by an act of internment. You plant your dead in your home place, and the bodies of your dead sustain that place. The same place that once fed them feeds you now as food and water and air and ground. Time goes on, life is lived, and then you can recognize - meaning know again - your dead in the grass and the animals and the water and the air - in the nature - of your home place. 
Being at home is not a feeling... Being at home is a skill. It is a skill of recognition and belonging, the skill of inextinguishable obligation. Obligation: not 'to owe' but 'to be bound to'... Being at home is knowing your obligations to your home and proceeding accordingly. Being at home is a competence born of deep knowledge of your belonging to and your obligation to all that has been and will be for that belonging. This knowledge includes - it requires - knowing where the bones of your dead are, and know where your dead feed the life that you are learning to obey… When you know yourself to be at home, you know who you are bound to. 
To say this again, this isn't symbolic.  
It isn't a metaphor. 
It is not metaphysical.  
It is physics, the ground of metaphysics. 
It is biochemistry, ethnobotany, spiritual ecology. 
Taken all together, it is ancestry in this world. 
Being at home is having kinship with the place where your kin live and have lived and cooked and loved and suffered their suffering and known their Gods, the place where they died and were gathered in. You are woven into belonging to a people by belonging to a PLACE. 
This is what "indigenous" means, etymologically: to be born inside. "Indigenous" answers the question, "who?" by being able to go and stand on a certain "Where." 
Home is home because it is where your people's bones lay, both those you come from and, as times goes on, those who come from you. 
You have a people to belong to because you all have the bone yard in common. 
The bone yard feeds the Place that feeds you and your people. 
So you and your people, when you ARE a people and know yourselves to be so, are nourished by your ancestors, in the food chain, in every sense that this can be meant. 
Being on that conscious, ritually remembered receiving end of that arrangement plants a knowledge of deep obligation in the middle of your identity at the same time as it plants you in a specific "Somewhere". 
When you know yourself to be at home, You Are Who You Are Bound To."
My friend: "I agree that it is not just an abstract connection to the Earth but a sense of connection and care for ‘this land’ and I am not at all convinced that humans of First Nations ancestry have exclusive access to this connection."

I would agree. 

And I think they have put in tens of thousands of years of work in getting to know a particular area of land (even with all of the moving about they have done). 


Most of us have barely begun to put in one lifetime. 


I think that gives them a more meaningful relationship to those particular pieces of land. 


If there's someone I've just met, I can certainly care for them and feel connected to them but that doesn't mean they feel connected to me and it doesn't mean I really know them. The sense of entitlement to a relationship of any kind seems like where the trouble begins and seems to come from the place that the connection is one directions. If it's all about how I feel about the land and there's not much space for 'how does the land feel about me.' 


I think of how many indigenous cultures have built their language to be mimetic - to mimic nature - the word anishinabe word (I believe) wawashkesh (best spelling I could come up with) meaning 'deer' actually means something like, 'the brushing sound that tall grass makes on the belly of a deer' and the word is meant to sound like that thing. We don't speak that kind of language. Our language didn't come out of the careful observation of and living in of this place. 


So the languages here are from here. Our languages aren't. 


When white people say, "I belong to the land and North America in particular." I am struck by how impoverished our ideas of belonging have become. It's just something you need to feel about something. If I feel like best friends with you, then we are best friends (said 'that guy')! If I feel like we should be together then we should be together (said the stalker). If I feel connected to these traditions then they're my traditions (said the new age white person). If I feel like I'm indigenous then I am etc.


My friend: "The culture of white patriarchy is not who I am even though it is what I look like and where my name comes from. The culture of my skin colour and privilege does not feel like my spiritual home. The cultural heritage of a technologized and spiritually void hegemony that is falling apart all around me does not feeling like home. I am native to this Earth. I want to and need to claim this for myself. How can I claim my own indigenous heritage, my own deep connection with the Mother Earth whose child I am, without offending or appropriating or oppressing any others? How do I claim my own indigenous humanity in a way that honours the cultures that stewarded it, and then shared it with me, while generations and generations of my own ancestors forgot?"

There is something in the urgent tone here and in the questions of some people, the impatient desire to claim or have something, that feels untrustworthy to me. I am sure my own tone has carried this tone in the past and will again in the future. The question seems reasonable on the surface, but where it's coming from may do well with some deeper scrutiny. 


I write these words as someone who recognizes them as coming from his own mouth. I recognize these feelings as ones I have most days in some way or another. I suppose these are the wrestlings of being someone who looks like me being in the time and place I have found myself. 


What does it mean to claim? Do others need to see that we've claimed this and treat us differently? Are we secretly resentful and jealous of all the spiritual goodies that indigenous people get that we don't? And why do we so urgently want to have their story rather than our own?


And if I want to claim something or someone, what might it do to the one I wish to claim? We live in a culture of inanimism, proceeding as if nothing but humans is alive. And so, if it's not alive and has particular desires of its own, the there's nothing wrong with taking it. And so indigeneity is not an alive thing. It's just something I can take. Subject, verb, object: I claim indigeneity. But this renders indigeneity as an object, inert, with no agency, no capacity to choose back.


And then there's a looking at what it is we are wanting to claim.


Working with Stephen Jenkinson over the past year has had me notice that white people tend to want to claim the beautiful aspects of indigeneity (often from other cultures or from our very distant past) but not to claim the poverty which drives us. We want to claim the exotic parts of our ancestry (e.g. 'I'm 1/20th Cherokee!') or our spiritual tutelage (e.g. We studied with some nifty shamans) but not the full and complicated story of our European heritage.


And we fear the poverty because it feels like emptiness. It feels like there's nothing there. And this terrifies us more than anything else. What if we die and there's nothing after? What if we are forgotten? What if I have nothing good inside of me? What if there's nothing of worth where I come from?


I asked a mentor of mine once, "What is addiction?"


"As near as I can figure it, it's the fear of emptiness." he replied. 


These wonderings of how to claim our indigeneity would never occur in an intact culture. But, once a culture is broken and put on the run then those wondering, carrying with them all the terrors they do, come creeping in and so we keep on running from them as fast as we can. Until we stop. Until someone finally stops running.


It has me wonder if this selective claiming and insistence on some pure, fully formed interior indigenous identity that is 'who we really are' is not another form of the same kind of running that had us flee Europe; a poverty we ran from and never stopped. We tell ourselves that, now, we are running towards some indigenous home we are seeking but perhaps we are still running from something. And perhaps that running into the fog of cultural poverty and forgetfulness began somewhere after our ancestors tribal connections to the land were taken from them and sometimes before we remembered again that there was anything indigenous to run towards. 


What if the urgent yearning we feel to claim something indigenous comes from this very cultural barrenness? And what if, though, at first glance this thought is far from appealing, as white people in this time and place, this poverty actually is our home? What if this poverty from which we have run is the most trustworthy guide we have back down this god like mountain of unearned privileges built out of the bones of everyone and every thing that was killed along the way onto the solid ground where we belong? 


The impulse towards indigeneity can be trusted but I suspect that, truth be told, 
most of our efforts towards it can't because they are happening inside of the urgent momentum of our already running. And, much like running towards a wild animal, the fierce and demanding urgency of our approach will shape the response we get from that which we are approaching. If you run at it, it will likely run away and hide.

We are attempting to approach something wild and beautiful. To do that, we may find it necessary to stop running first. 


These are my wonderings. 


Martin Prechtel calls this running 'The Syndrome'. I asked fellow student Fabio Fina, who studies with with Martin, to share his understanding of this. 
"The essence of "colonial self-centeredness" is a mind thought, it is fear, it is the "hero" complex, the winning, the saviour, the fleeing one. The one who cannot stay put, who cannot stay in debt with Life, who is trying to get out of entanglement with Everything, with the Wild, with Her, the one who is so fucking traumatized, addicted and numbed out who is running away from any semblance of ancestry, roots, village, slow, non-achieving, non-functional, non-modern-technology, life. The one who is not trying to get to a far-away, singularity fueled, more-evolved-than-thou-because-of-technology, spiritual-bypassing, fleeing to Mars. The self centered one is focused on Me. Focused on spiritual practice for MY advancement, MY shining, MY greatness, MY legacy, MY, my my, me me me. As Stephen and Martin both say, what is called for in this time is to stop suckling at the tit for milk, and instead become the Breast. Learning to feed the ones we will never get to see flourishing into flowers. Learning to feed something that does not feed my present ego/sense of identity." - Fabio Fina
And then, if we can stop running and are able to catch our breath we will likely, if not definitely, need to learn to court this indigenous soul of ourselves and the world properly. We need to learn how to admire things from a distance and approach things with the kind of reverence and respect that reminds it of its worth and aliveness. We need to learn how to appreciate without taking and how to come, belly aching with hunger, to the presence of real food without grabbing at it because we know that the thing our hard learned etiquette feeds is more important than our need to fill our own stomach. 


My friend: "I am aware, also, of indigenous teachers and authors who are encouraging the white world to find their own access to 'indigenous' consciousness. My use of 'indigenous' is meant to describe a deep relatedness to the Earth and all beings." 

Again, I think it may be part of white or modern culture, to say 'the Earth' (as if it's the same all over) and 'all beings' (as if all beings are the same and that beings aren't particular to specific places). This universalizing is, it seems to me, at the heart of being white and not belonging to anywhere in particular. Instead of saying, "I belong to this particular piece of land and these particular people," we say, "I belong to the Earth."

But this lifts up a meaningful wondering that Martin Prechtel speaks of as the indigenous soul when he says, "So we all have, on some level, a commonality of experience. We are all still human beings. Some of us have buried our humanity deep inside, or medicated or anesthetized it, but every person alive today, tribal or modern, primal or domesticated, has a soul that is original, natural, and, above all, indigenous in one way or another."


And I'm sure many others have spoken to this too.


But, I think that generic indigenous humanity is different from a lived indigenous humanity of a particular place.


As I mentioned, I have had similar encouragements myself from a indigenous friends who were both deeply connected to their roots and traditions. and hell - I think there are few things they love seeing more than white people connected to their own indigenous and cultural roots. 


But I think that this waking up to our indigenous soul is meant to be a starting point not the end point. It's the trustworthy compass and a map not the old growth forest. It's the memory of times we have no personal experience of but not the lived experience from which they came. It is the inspiration to labour well on behalf of life, but it's not the labour.

"In human terms, once a native forest is cut, it's gone forever. Many years ago, I said to Dick Manning - who wrote The Last Stand, about how he was fired as a corporate journalist for telling the public what was happening to the forests of Montana, - how wonderful I thought it would be if we were to set aside more and more forests, and in five hundred years these might once again be old growth. He pointed out that first, many of the species have been, at the very least, extirpated, so they might not come back, and more important, because some trees live five hundred or a thousand years a forest will not have been even once through the nutrient cycle, with no trees having grown to old age, died, rotted and become new trees. It takes thousands of years for a forest to become a fully functioning climax forest, with all of the parts working together. To even imply that a tree farm on a fifty year rotation remotely resembles a living forest is either extraordinarily and willfully ignorant, or intentionally deceitful. Either way, those who make such statements aren't fit to make forestry decisions." - Derrick Jensen, Strangely Like War
I think an old growth culture, which is what we're really talking about here, is about the same amount of time. 

There's a difference between a clear cut, a tree farm, a first growth forest and an old growth forest. 


This is important. 


If we use the phrase 'forest' for all of them we do a disservice to all of them. One can't walk through a clear cut and honestly say it bears any resemblance to a true, old growth forest. This is one of those places where our language matters a great deal. If we use the same word for all of them, then how can we meaningfully come together to discuss what it is we want to create? How will we know when we're there? How else could we know how far we currently are from having what we want and how much work it will take?


If you are standing in the devastated land of a clear cut and all you know is tree farms with their perfect rows of mono-cultured trees, then that it what you will work towards. And, once a tree farm is established you will rest. You will stop working. 


But if your vision is to have an old growth forest, you would walk into a tree farm and see the tremendous amount of work yet to do.


I am not knocking tree farms. I am not saying that they're wrong. If all of the elected leaders in the world decided they were going to plant a trillion trees tomorrow and the best that they could do was tree farms? I'd be first in line to celebrate that as a means to an ends. But I'd be the first one to protest that as a worthy ends. 


This all seems true culturally as well. 


There are cultural wastelands of the clearcuts. There is the tree farm of modern culture with everyone in their neat little rows of mono-cultured existence from grade one until we die. There are first growth cultures of all the alternative communities, eco-villages and intentional communities springing up around the world and then there are the old growth cultures of peoples who have lived in the same place for thousands of years. And much in between. I think it does a disservice to the word 'indigenous' to try to make it carry the load of all of those. 


An old growth forest is many things but certainly it is an accomplishment. And an intergenerational accomplishment even more so. I think many of us want to be a tree in an old growth but we grew up in the clear cut and the old growth is not meant for us. It's for those to come. Our role in it all is not to eat the fruit from the tree of the indigenous soul but to plant the seeds of the trees whose shade we could sorely use today in the depleted soil of ourselves and our communities and feed and protect it all so those to come might have a fighting chance of being indigenous to somewhere, belonging to somewhere and might look at those trees and know that, many years ago, there were those who thought of them. 


Stated slightly differently: What if indigeneity isn't something to claim for ourselves? What if our job is work hard to be one who might be worthy of being claimed as an ancestor worthy of descending from by those yet to come? 
What if the commitment to those yet to come is our best chance of becoming a worthy ancestor now, while we live and breathe, while the demanding to be seen and recognized as a worthy ancestor now guarantees we will never become it and dooms those who come to grow up in soil even more depleted than our own?

I have met and heard of a few white people who have become beautiful carriers of this indigenous scent. But not many. And, even with them, I don't know how many would say they were indigenous. Does it matter what I call them? I don't know. Words matter. And they don't. 


Anyway, these are good things to ponder when you find yourself at the edge of a crater full of nighttime.


To take a step back, if the jumping to, "I'm native to the earth" is a solution then what is the problem? 


The problem sounds a lot like, "But I'm not from anywhere," or, "But I'm not from anywhere worth coming from or that I wish I came from so I'll say I come from the Earth vs. where I actually came from."


It's a refusal to be in story we are in. Or it's the unilateral decision that the story begins with us. The willingness to pretend that the past didn't happen



"We all have our legacies that we cannot be excused from or dismissive of no matter what we would like our legacy to be... it is what it is."
Dr. Tawnya Pettiford-Wates of The Conciliation Project

Claiming your personal indigenous heritage is one thing. Claiming indigenous heritage, as an abstract, essential to humanity thing as if it were all the same everywhere, is another matter. Your indigeneity does exist because you are from somewhere. But indigeneity as a concept doesn't exist because it's not from anywhere.


Wondered about another way: if you are not from anywhere, do you exist?


Another way still: can you manifest something out of nothing? No. Can something come into the world with no story of where it's from? No. 


And yet another way: are humans the source of anything? No. Humans are always on the receiving end of everything. 


Including the poverty in which we are currently trying to plant the seeds of a better tomorrow. But we simply don't want to face the emptiness of what our culture has become. We don't want to look down at the depleted soil in which we're standing, the not wanting to know that this soil, not so long ago, was rich and full of life. It's the not wanting to know that the reasons it's so depleted is because of people who came from where we came from. 

Poverty isn't something to be ashamed of. It's an inherited thing. 


Stated another way: we have inherited something from our ancestors, particular privileges and poverties, a particular story and this story is not something to throw away with the wishes that our story were 'more indigenous'.


It's something to be faithful to. It's a thing to respond to. 


Our poverty is asking something of us. 


Our poverty is a thread to follow. 


Most of all, our poverty isn't a problem to be solved. 



"Question: 'Then it is positive to notice negativities within ourselves?' Answer, 'Of course. Nothing is more positive. Never forget - awareness of a negativity is the cure, the only cure of the negativity.'" - Vernon Howard, The Mystical Path to Cosmic Power

So what is the problem then? 


I believe our central issue is our unwillingness to be with our poverty that is; our unwillingness to learn it.


Consider a weed. There's no such plant as a weed. We only call them weeds when we don't want them there. They're just a plant.

Consider a monster. They're just a creature. What makes them a monster? What monsters the monster? Our belief that it has no place in the order of things. Our unwillingness to accord it some purpose. Our drawing a circle around it to separate it from the rest of creation. 

And so, what is it that turns this crater into a wasteland? What wastelands the waste land?

The thought that it shouldn't be there at all. Or that we shouldn't be there now. Or be from there. Without that thought it's just a crater. It's just where we are. But as long as we hold these thoughts we will never be able to see it and learn it for what it is.

“Our art is made in cities like New York by people who are running from other places. They feel themselves as misfits who were trapped in dead-end suburbs. They hated high school. Their parents did not understand. They are seeking a better world. And when they realize that the world is wholly a problem, that the whole problem is in them, they make television for other people who are also running, who take voyage in search of a perfect world, then rage at the price of the ticket.” 
― Ta-Nehisi Coates 

It is night time and our willingness to wake up in this crater, darker still than the night that surrounds us, to trace our fingers along the walls of what used to be, brailing it - the unnatural hole in the ground, carved out by decades of machines and heavy explosives and hundreds of years of colonization in all of its costumes - is to come to know the precise size and shape of what we have lost. The unwillingness to know the story of that hole is, I am coming to suspect, a heavy part of what keeps us from ever being from anywhere or indigenous to anything. 


What if there's nothing wrong or bad about the poverty? What if the sickness is not the the soullessness of this culture but the running from it? What if our best shot at indigeneity is to be indigenous to that poverty - to be from the time and place we're actually from instead of wishing we'd been born in some other time and place? What if our heartbreak of not having a home or not being indigenous is the very thing to which we can be indigenous? What if heartbreak is the most fertile soil into which we can plant ourselves and our hopes for a better day?

Because that hole is where we are from as much as any other part of the story of where we're from. That, among other things, is what we are indigenous too. We are heir to a very long story of broken connections with what sustained us. We are the heirs to the very real persecutions, starvation, slavery and poverties that drove us from the places we belonged. And we are heirs to a memory of what came before that. It's all in there. And none of that is honoured when we say, in essence, "I'm indigenous because I feel like it."


And the urge to say, "I'm indigenous to the Earth" vanishes that whole story. 


But it's hard to step into that cratered darkness when we've got such strong opinions about its unworthiness and suspicions about its intentions for us. It's hard to step into a story when you're convinced that it takes you out of the larger story of life somehow. 


One word being used a lot in the world of decolonizing for those of us who came to North America from other places is 'settler'. It's a fine word, accurate in its rendering of what happened. We came here from far away and settled here. Some recently and some hundreds of years ago. Some of our ancestors hunkered down in one place and some moved around a lot. 


But, for making white people (and perhaps others) waking up to the hidden realities of our times and to this craving for a different and more storied existence, to village making and living closer to the hard work of living closer to the Earth, the term settler can feel, somehow, 'less'. Less worthy perhaps. Less than whole. Less than complete. Missing something essential. We are not as real or substantial. The story begins to emerge, a quiet whisper in the back of our minds and, over time, a more articulate and familiar voice telling us, 'Your people are bad and nothing good has ever come from where they've come from.' Settler is a term of derision spit from the mouth of those whose approval we so desperately want.


'Now own the fact that you're a settler.' 


Upon hearing those words, or words like them, it is as if they've been thrown into a lower spiritual caste and are trapped there by some closed hearted, indigenous elite. That they are now outside of the club of who is welcome. Settler means 'You don't belong.' and 'You don't belong' means 'You're not worth anything.' This can feel terrifying when our sense of belonging or not belonging is being decided on by others. It feels unfair. This is not, we tell ourselves, where we should be. We feel misunderstood. 'I'm a good person you see. I'm different than all those other who look like me or have looked like me. I should be treated differently.' There can be a righteous indignation that it's all been a terrible mistake and that we were simply born in the wrong time and place.

And from this all, most of us fall into one of two ways of moving through this world in which we have come to feel so unwelcome: collapsing or posturing. Self pity or self importance. Perhaps we collapse and slump into a deep sense that those voices are right and that people who look like us are bad and deserve to be punished and spend our guilt wracked days hustling for people's approval with good deeds, being nice and being as politically astute and radical as we can be using our unsought privileges to help others, or we posture and bristle at all of this and puff ourselves up pointing out that we are good people and that our ancestors had it bad too and that we are entitled to recognition as we swagger around demanding a respect we never seem to get enough of. 


And whether we see through the left eye of self hatred or the right eye of self glorification, what we tend not to see is our own eyes and the ways they are shaping our seeing.


What we tend not to notice is how incredibly self absorbed both of these lenses are, like mirrored contact lenses, reflecting our vision back to ourselves, like the lake reflecting Narcissus to himself until his life was lost to it having felt so deeply in love, not with himself, but with his own reflection.


And this worshipping at the altar of the Self, in whatever form it takes, might just be the most trustworthy hallmark by which this modern world is currently known and remembered. 

"One of the greatest pitfalls I think white people face is the inability to get beyond the individual "I." This is one aspect of the euro-centric mind that stands naked in front of Indigenous thought and philosophy. Our egos so commonly reference life as revolving around us - instead of us being just one aspect of a living, natural ecology of Spirit. The way white people often speak about being "Indigenous" as an owned identity rather than a state of being in right relationship with life is one example of this. But this re-positioning is critical in decolonizing and re-indeigenizing ourselves." - Ana Oian Amets
Underneath the posturing and underneath the collapsing is the same ennui, this same crater. We don't address it because we tell ourselves that we shouldn't have to feel so uncomfortable, that we can't bare the level of emptiness that seems to be there or that we should be able to fix this.

And so we contend with it all as we do, wondering what we did wrong to deserve this fate or convinced we did nothing wrong at all... with all of our focus on what we deserve without giving much of a thought as to what the world deserves from us. We obsess about the injustice of it all and give little attention to what might be needed. We ask a lot of the world but we don't pause to wonder what this all might be asking of us


If we are going to wander down this road of 'Who deserves what?' then perhaps we should expand our notions of deserving to ask ourselves, 'What do those who still live in indigenous ways deserve? What do our grandchildren and their grandchildren deserve? What does the land and the water deserve? What does the unseen world deserve?'


I'm not arguing that we don't, all of us, deserve to be born into an intact and loving community with a deep and respectful relationship to the world around it. Heaven knows we all deserve better than we get in this world. 


But I have found that this lense of 'what I deserve' wanting in helping me to see where and when I am. This fear of seeing this all is what makes us ripe for charlatans and shams promising us quick fixes and selling us on the intoxicating spirits of hope that leave our vision blurry to what's truly around us. 


The quick fixes gives us a temporary (and if we're honest blessed) relief. But they don't bring long term resolution. And they usually make the problem worse. 


We feel depressed and so we drink or do drugs. 


We feel lonely and so we reach for sex or pornography. 


We feel angry and so we lash out at others and give them a piece of our mind.


We are stressed and so we read a spiritual book to help us feel more calm. 


We feel an intense hatred towards ourselves and so we cut ourselves.


We feel white guilt and so we reach to claim some nebulous sense of indigeneity. 


And that's on a good day.


On a bad day, we try to take those things from others. We try to claim people's attention and love. We try to take sex without consent. We hit people with out hands. We appropriate ceremonies from other cultures or go to them in demanding ways. And this impulse to take what we think we need (laid on top of the intense focus on us getting our needs met) doesn't give us the beauty we are seeking. Not once. Instead it has the beautiful thing show us its coldest face or run from us.


We are addicted to the relief not the resolution. And what is addiction? The fear of nothingness. There is a deep fear that if we were to stay in the crater of our depression, loneliness, anger, stress, self hatred or white guilt that it would consume us with its nothingness.


But, if we receive some sure and steady guidance in how to sit with this things bringing all of our meagre capacity for wonder and curiousity to bear, we find that we aren't left with nothing. When we set aside our hopes and "I deserve better than this", if even for a moment, we find ourselves face to face with how things are - the good, the bad and the ugly.


We see that we are in a crater in a clearcut far from home at night time.


The effects of this can be traumatizing.


At first, we are often in shock at how deep and vast it is. It's a lot to take in, especially if the discovery of it is rapid and unforgiving. And, of course, we will go through all of the denying it, wanting to close our eyes to it and shaking our heads while muttering, "No. It can't be so. I can't believe it." that we all do when face with unspeakable things. 


But, there comes a moment where the truth sinks in. This is how it is. We are deep in a crater made long before our time. How could we not have seen it before? There will be some guilt or shame. There will be humiliation here. And, inevitably, there will be the 'this shouldn't be's' and the 'this is not supposed to's' the follow the trail of every wrong doing and injustice we meet in this lifetime. Those don't help too much in dealing with the crater though. The righteous indignation about our state of affairs seems to give us the illusion of being productive and responsible while just keep us busy and spending all our energy cursing whatever forces landed us here.


Quickly on the heels of all this and borne out of all of this comes the urgent desire to fix it. 'What can I do about this crater? How can I fill it?' This move to action seems to be the height of responsibility but stems from the very same urge that underwrites the craters existence.


When I posted an earlier version of this piece, someone commented on it on Facebook asking me, 'Should a white guy not even try then?'


'Try what?' I replied.


'I mean just try - make an attempt.'


'An attempt at what? Genuinely curious.'


There was no reply.


He was asking about the solution to a problem that hadn't been articulated. He was trying to fix something that I don't think he understood fully. And this tendency to impose ourselves and our solutions onto things we don't understand is the chief tool, the industrial size machinery, that dug this crater to begin with.


For the past few years I was puzzled about my socks. 


The heels kept getting worn out and torn. Something about the way I was walking or my shoes must have changed I supposed. And then, one day, I saw it. The nail. There is a red, rectangular, woven carpet in my kitchen. It sits to the left of centre because on the left hand side of the counters is a nail in the floor that keeps sticking out. Oh, I keep hammering it back in, but something about the way my house is keeps raising it back up. So I put the carpet there to cover it. And, time and again, at potlucks or when I let people house sit for me, I will come into the kitchen and rip the heel of my sock on the nail because some helpful soul moved the red carpet to the more aesthetically pleasing centre point under the sink. They were trying to be helpful but they didn't understand. 


North America, one could make the case, has yet to be discovered by Europeans. Did they land here? Yes. Did they live here and raise families? Yes. But did they discover this place? Did they learnt the languages borne of the place, the proper place names, the gods and spirits of that place? Did they learn the stories behind all of these things? Some did. But, in most cases, they simply brought Europe with them and placed it overtop of what was already here as you can see in the city, street and school names across North America.


I can look out my living room window right now and see the Edmonton river valley, but I can't tell you the Cree or Blackfoot word for it. I can't tell you the stories of it. But I can see what we've laid over top of it all. 


This tendency to fix things can look like residential schools trying to, ostensibly, improve the lives of the native youth whose cultures they have literally no understanding of. When we meet someone and give them unasked for advice based on next to no information, we are picking up a shovel and digging this crater deeper. When we develop a piece of land without asking the land what it wants, we do the same. This scrambling to get out of the crater we are in, without the requisite learning of what the crater is, can also sound like, "How can I claim my indigeneity as a white person?" and look like someone trying to get out of a pit in frantic motions only to have the shale walls of it collapse further under their feverish grip. The more we try to climb, the bigger the crater becomes.


When we bring some wonder to the endeavour and start learning we might question the notion that our being here is a punishment from an uncaring universe and perhaps that we were born here for a reason. This hard learning teaches us a little something about the way life has of being itself here, about the pace of things. We see where we are in that process. 


When we can get still and let go of this mania of fixing things for a moment we get a glimpse of the truth of how long it might take to get out of or fill this crater or... make something beautiful of it; make it a starting place, make it a place worth being from. 


Looked at another way: you aren't in this crater alone. Almost everyone else you have known, know or will know was born inside of this crater. What good will your leaving do for them? If you make the crater larger with your frantic attempts to escape, how does it help them? How will it help those living in it with you now or those who will, soon enough, be born there if you somehow managed to climb out? What makes you think that the more beautiful communities you seek would want you in after they heard how you abandoned your own people? What if the thing you seek isn't to be found outside of this crater at all but in your decision to finally let yourself be indigenous to it


A crater isn't so bad when you bring love to it. 



"The most important question is not how to get rid of our own wounds, but how how make our wounds a source of healing...it's like the Grand Canyon is a wound in the the Earth, but if you go into that wound, there's a healing force coming out." 
Henri Nouwen

Of course, none of this is what modern, North American white people want to hear. We want to hear, "There's always a way if you're committed! If you want it bad enough you can have it. There are no limits." But learning costs us all of that by forcing us to dig into the questions to have them earn their keep, "There's always a way to do what? If you want it bad enough you can what exactly? There are no limits to what? Or from what?"

Entitlement, supposed to's and fixing kill our capacity for learning and so they are one of the first prices we pay for the expensive endeavour of our education in the way things are. 


If you have grown up in the crater in the clear cut on these desolate and over-farmed plains of modern culture, then the old growth culture isn't for you. Not because you don't deserve it. Not because you're unworthy of it. No. Because of how long it takes to grow one. That's all. The old growth culture isn't for you but your life might be the thing that makes this old growth culture possible for those still to come who deserve it every bit as much as you do. 


Do we deserve to be born into and raised by an old growth culture? Hell yes. 


But it's not what's here for us. And so, to live without something so essential to your being human, something you so deeply deserve is to know the human-making grief of our times. But the unwillingness to be in the crater, to feel that grief and be guided by it is to become less human and ensure that those to come will inherit even less chance of real humanity than we did. All of our quick fix, hope addled, relief giving solutions aim to mend and close up a heart that should, properly, given the times we are in, be broken open; our short term tactics satisfy our wants but numb us to the deeper yearnings we feel and can trust. 


If we are going to hack our way through the thorny thicket of what we are entitled to and what our rights are, and we are going to, at the same time, hold in mind the ones for whom we are trying to build this better world, then perhaps we should consider not adding more rights but taking them away.


As Derrick Jensen put it in his book Endgame

"I often give talks, at universities and elsewhere. I gave one such talk last week. Just before I walked on stage, the person who brought me there whispered, “I forgot to tell you, but I publicized this as a speech about human rights. Can you make sure to talk about that?” 
I nodded agreement, although I had no idea what to say. Everything that came to me was tepid, along the lines of “Human rights are good.” I may as well say I’m for apple pie and the girl next door. Even though I didn’t tell her this, I think she read my face. She smiled nervously. I smiled twice as nervously back. It’s a good thing we weren’t playing poker.  
She went out to introduce me. I thought and thought, and wished there were a lot more upcoming events for her to talk about. I wished she would start announcing the day’s major league baseball scores. I wished she would forecast the weather, and tell the fortunes of the people in the front row. But she didn’t do any of that, and soon enough it was my turn. As I walked on stage, however, I suddenly knew what I had to say, and was reminded, as I often am, how quickly the mind can work under pressure, or at least how quickly it can work those times it doesn’t seize up altogether. “Most people,” I said, “who care about human rights and who talk about them in a meaningful fashion, as opposed to those who use them as a smokescreen to facilitate production and implement policies harmful to humans and nonhumans, usually spend a lot of energy demanding the realization of rights those in power give lip service to. Sometimes they expand their demands to include things­like a livable planet­ people don’t often associate with human rights. People have a right to clean air, we say, and clean water. We have a right to food. We have a right to bodily integrity. Women (and men) have the right to not be raped. Some even go so far as to say that nonhumans, too, have the right to clean air and water. They have the right to habitat. They have the right to continued existence.” 
People nodded. Who but a sociopath or a capitalist ­insofar as there is a difference­ could disagree with any of these? 
“But,” I continued, “I’m not sure that’s the right approach. I think that instead of adding rights we need to subtract them.” 
Silence. Frowns. The narrowing of eyes. 
“No one,” I said, “has the right to toxify a river. No one has the right to pollute the air. No one has the right to drive a creature to extinction, nor destroy a species’ habitat. No one has the right to profit from the labor or misery of another. No one has the right to steal resources from another.” 
They seemed to get it.  
I continued, “The first thing to do is recognize in our own hearts and minds that no one has any of these rights, because clearly on some level we doperceive others as having them, or we wouldn’t allow rivers to be toxified, oceans to be vacuumed, and so on. Having become clear ourselves, we then need to let those in power know we’re taking back our permission, that they have no right to wield this power the way they do, because clearly on some level they, too, perceive themselves as having the right to kill the planet, or they wouldn’t do it. Of course they have entire philosophical, theological, and judicial systems in place to buttress their perceptions. As well as, of course, bombs, guns, and prisons. And then, if our clear statement that they have noright fails to convince them­and I wouldn’t hold my breath here­we’ll be faced with a decision: how do we stop them?”  
A lot of people seemed to agree. Then after the talk someone asked me, “Aren’t these just different ways of saying the same thing?” 
I wasn’t sure what she meant. 
“What’s the difference between saying I have the right to not be raped, and saying to some man, ‘You have no right to rape me’?” 
I was stumped. Maybe, I thought, my mind actually had seized up, only so completely that I hadn’t known it. The reason the words had come so quickly is because they were just a recapitulation of the obvious. I have a few male friends who routinely take something someone else says, change a word or two or invert the sentence structure, and then claim it as their own great idea. I’ve been known to do that myself. But then I realized there’s an experiential difference between these two ways of putting it. A big one. Pretend you’re in an abusive relationship. Picture yourself saying to this other person, “I have the right to be treated with respect.” Now, that may developmentally be important for you to say, but there comes a point when it’s no longer appropriate to keep the focus on you­you’re not the problem. Contrast how that former statement feels with how it feels to say: “You have no right to treat me this way.” The former is almost a supplication, the latter almost a command. And its focus is on the perpetrator. 
For too long we’ve been supplicants. For too long the focus has been on us. It’s time we simply set out to stop those who are doing wrong."
But, on those rare moments that get can get underneath all of the shame and self absorption that colours our days, and can see things a bit clearer, we see that all that is being asked of us is to be faithful to the time and place we've been born into including the poverty, including the beauty, including the guilt and the wanting it to be different. That is all a part of the story. The how much we want to run, how hard it can be to sustain the gaze on all of the things we wish were otherwise, all the things that 'shouldn't be', including our own histories. There's room for all of it. None of it has to be left out. And, if our interest in rebuilding an old growth culture for our descendants is sincere - we can't. Because it is all the very real soil of where we are from. All of that are the humble beginnings of something indigenous - the needed bridge between the tribal cultures that all of our ancestors knew and loved and the possibility of similar cultures thriving as well in the times to come.

The asking of us to stay with the poverty isn't so that we suffer needlessly. It's so that we might learn something and remember it so that we might be useful to others.

“Do you think it’s an accident that you were born at a time when the culture that gave you life is failing? I don’t think it is. I think you were born of necessity with your particular abilities, with our particular fears, with your particular heartaches and concerns… I think if we wait to be really compelled by something… something big, well… we’re going to wait an awful long time and I don’t know if the state of our world can tolerate our holding out until we feel utterly compelled by something. I think it’s more like this, that we have to proceed now as if we’re utterly needed given the circumstances. That takes almost something bordering on bravado, it could be mistaken for megalomania easily, though I don’t think it is. It had a certain amount of nerviness in it or boldness for sure, something that’s not highly thought of in the culture I was born into unless you’re a star or something… regular people aren’t supposed to have those qualities. I say they are of course. That’s what we’ve got to bring to the challenges at hand, not waiting to be convinced that we’re needed but proceeding as if we are. Your insignificance has been horribly overstated... Consider the possibility that being born in a troubled time is not an affliction but a sign that you're needed.” - Stephen Jenkinson
And all of our cursings of how vacuous this culture has become and wishing it weren't so, all of our thoughts that it's in the way of our personal and collective remembering doesn't change the fact that it might just be one of our most faithful and trustworthy ways towards and through it. 

The tragedy of this all...


We yearn for something indigenous and then proceed to vanish the very story that could have brought us to it. We yearn for indigenous roots and then throw them away when we find them because they are too ordinary and lacking in the cultural currency and funkiness that could have brought us some level of 'cool'. 


What a strange thought to think: that our greatest wealth may yet be found in rooting ourselves in poverty. In really being there. And of course, the value of the poverty is that, like anything of real value, it is real and true. It can be trusted.



Poverty isn't the whole story.


I am not suggesting that our current cultural poverty is the whole story by any means, just that I'm not sure we will find the rest of the story without following its thread. I'm not saying our poverty is our wealth but, given that it might be the most honest way we might be able to find out wealth, I'm not saying it isn't either. I'm not sure there's another or truer road home. I think other roads home of trying to get our indigeneity from other communities, may come at a great cost to those we profess to love and admire but that's another story for another time. Surely there's also the wealth in our own ancestry and the beautiful things we've received too. 


There's all of that. 

But, in my experience, our cultural impoverishment is often the only one for whom no seat has been left empty and the sprawling table of the feast of our days. 


It's tempting to want to skip chapters but, when we do, we find that the story of our people is incomplete and we are left with the impression that, "Well, my people were indigenous to a place at one point and so I still am." But this skips everything that broke those communities apart and ripped them from their obligations to feed all that fed them. That approach does them no honour.


Or, we might decide that the story began with how things have come to be in these times. We could be forgiven for thinking that it has basically always been like this and that people have always lived, basically, like we do and think that the gap between ourselves and indigenous cultures isn't really that big... we could be forgiven for that mistake but I don't think those yet to come will look back on us so favourably if we settle for this impoverished understanding of our own poverty.

Cultural poverty is not the road most of us want to walk. 


No, we want to go to a Sun Dance (and be the only white person there) and have everyone else there admire us loudly and welcome us unconditionally. We want to go and do Peyote and Ayuhuasca and receive incredible visions for our lives. We want to become teachers right away. We want to find out we are the reincarnation of King Arthur or Guinevere destined for great things. We want to have some indigenous elder find us and secretly mentor us in the old ways of their people. We want to go to India and meditate and find total peace of mind. But we don't want to hear that our greatest teacher might just be our own faithful witnessing of the way things are and our capacity to wonder and learn about how they came to be this way. We want a romance movie that we're the starring character of. 


And there it is. 


We seem to want to be anyone but ourselves with any history but our own. 


Where are we? In the crater.


When are we? Right now.


Who are we? The People of the Crater. 




It's a perfect fall day and I am feeling restless and lonely at home after a long day of work on my laptop. I text a few friends to see if they are free and would like to go on a walk in the valley. There's no better time of the year to do it. My friend Jane, a young woman in her early twenties with whom I've worked on a few projects, responds. 


In our catching up with each other, the conversation winds to my explorations with The Work of Byron Katie - a kind of self inquiry work where we are invited to look at our stressful thoughts and question them so that we might create some space to actually see ourselves, others and the world as it is and love it like that.


I share stories of catching the stray dogs of my own craziness a few times and feeding them with my attention so they wouldn't cause so much trouble and, as my stories weave towards my noticings around my capacity for jealousy, Jane listens with interest.


"Totally!" she says. And relates the story of spending time with her boyfriend one night while his sister was over. The sibling connection they had was so strong and beautiful and she found herself feeling outside of that and not included. She found the jealousy rising. "It's crazy. They're siblings. Of course they have this connection. Why do I feel so jealous of it?"


As we walk, we continue to explore and, towards the end, she expresses her desire to be free of the jealousy, to want to heal it once and for all. She just wants it gone. 


And it strikes me that you could draw a straight line from the urge to run from parts of ourselves to the urge to run from the stories we've come out of. 


"Maybe." I say. "And, what I would invite is for you to consider how it might serve you, your boyfriend, his sister and everyone else if you were to never, ever get over this jealousy."


Her eyes widen. She is, maybe, hoping for an invitation to some better and more enlightened day in the future. She is not expecting an invitation to stay put where she was. She is hoping for an invitation to graciousness to come to the party not a firmer request that jealousy's invitation to the party be honoured even though he is rough on the furniture. 


"As long as there isn't a seat for your jealousy at the table, you aren't free. It won't vanish. It will just cause trouble from the shadows."


"But jealousy is so bad! It's so dark." she shakes her head. This is making no sense. Why would you be hospitable to something like this? 


"I get it." I said. "And... maybe that's how it is with you. It's almost like the God's were getting together to plan for the unfoldment of your soul and saying, 'What's going to get Jane's attention?' Ah! Jealousy! Perfect. Let's make that her spiritual path then to learn about jealousy from the inside. There are worse teachers to have."


Somehow she smiled at this, seeing, perhaps, how it could be true. 

We arrive at Ezzio Farraone park. It's the night of the blood moon and the moon has turned a beautiful burned red, almost entirely covered by the shadow of the Earth.


"And there is it." I said, "This beautiful moon, like all of your kindness and generosity, covered by the dark shadow of the Earth... and it's so fucking beautiful."


My friend: "Many of their teachers and elders are exhorting the dominant culture to rediscover this connection for themselves."


Yes. 

But they're not necessarily saying, 'Come and discover our culture!' They are usually saying, 'Look to your own roots! Discover this connection yourself. Discover what's in the way of that connection. Explore the sickness in you that you have inherited from this culture and heal it and then bring this healing to your own people.'



And, as I said above, I don't think most white people are aware of how long it will take for them to foster this kind of real connection to the land and to a people (if they have a people which almost no white people do anymore). This modern culture isn't big on humility and it isn't big on patience. 


“Everyone of us is the descendant of a tribe… We are made up of spirits —the reason for being was to keep the balance. Whatever happened to Indians here [in the U.S.] happened to the tribes of Europe… Go and study your tribal ancestry and see how they got civilized.”  
John Trudell

We want to go to a weekend workshop, become initiated and then be able to say, 'I'm just as indigenous as that brown person over there.'


"A good half of every treatment that probes at all deeply consists in the doctor's examining himself...it is his own hurt that gives a measure of his power to heal. The doctor is effective only when he himself is affected. Only the wounded physician heals. But when the doctor wears his personality like a coat of armour, he has no effect." 
Carl Jung

But, again, what if the healing we do isn't even really for us but for those yet to come. 

I am reminded of the Greek myth of Chiron (a centaur, was known as a wise teacher, healer and prophet) who in the process of overcoming the pain of his own wounds came to be known to us in modern times as the compassionate master teacher of the arts of healing and medicine, privy to the secrets of life and death. 


During a skirmish with a rowdy bunch of centaurs Hercules carelessly, accidentally wounded his friend and mentor, Chiron, in the knee with one of his arrows.

The arrows Hercules had chosen to use on this particular day were arrows coated with the blood of the monster Hydra. Arrows coated with the blood of the Hydra were known to cause painful wounds that would never heal.

And being an immortal, Chiron having a wound that would never heal was a way serious problem. Chiron would never be able to heal from the wound caused by Hercules, and being immortal he could never die.

He then retreated to his cave to heal himself, and in so doing created the healing arts. Ironically and despite this great achievement, his wound never healed. He had spent his entire life becoming very accomplished in the use of healing with herbs and other methods, but he could not alleviate his pain. But in his own search for personal healing, his ability to heal and teach others grew.


The tree in winter is like
The lines upon my father’s face
Or like the paths I tried to take
When I was you searching
For one clear way to understanding.
In every branch I found
A smaller branch leading me
Toward many ends and many sorrows.
Too fragile to bear my weight,
All my branches broke
And I fell to the earth confused.
I saw the tree in winter
Reaching toward the sky
With bare branches tangled
Like so many paths and yet
Each path had a purpose,
Leading back to the roots of the tree.

-Nancy Wood

As much as I have laboured on about how the old growth cultures are not for us, The People of the Crater, it wouldn't be right to proceed without also lifting up the other hand of all of this - the incredible speed with which healing can happen, how much beauty can be made and how much can be restored when our hearts open to the task and we stop trying to be somewhere else. 


As Rumi put it, 'ours is not a caravan of despair.'





Consider the bird's nest. 

Many years ago, I had the good fortune to visit Fairfield, Iowa. I was leading some marketing and fundraising workshops during an ecofestival. One of the activities was to visit a sustainably built house, timbre framed, rammed floor home. To say the house was beautiful is certainly an understatement. It was the kind of well let, natural feeling home that made you feel uplifted when you walked in and that didn't seem to want you to leave it. The timbre framer asked us all how we might know what kinds of words would be good for using in timbre framing, "What book would you use to find out?"


The group made many guesses and many of us were stumped. 


He finally held up a copy of a book of local birds. We were puzzled until he pointed out that you could do worse than to look at what woods local birds were using to make their nests. 


When I grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, one of my favourite birds was the red breasted robin. It was a sign of Spring and, I suppose, they still are. And they build their little nests in which to lay their eggs. But what do they build the nest out of? Is it built with the finest bamboo from China? Or twigs from the Red Woods of California? Do they go on Amazon.com and order Eucalyptus bark from Australia? No. They build their nests with whatever is around them. 


And so as we, The People of the Crater, begin to sort out our role, we might do well to consider the birds around us. 


If you look in any ecosystem, you will see how many roles, or niches, there are. Particular jobs creatures have and don't have, particular spaces they occupy or don't. No creature is so foolish as to try to do everything. Foxes do their fox things and trees keep on being trees. Everything has this way of being itself, guided by the world around it. 


The word niche comes from the French verb 'nicher' which means 'to make a nest'. So, finding our role is a lot like building a nest. 


And what do birds build their nests out of? Whatever material they find around them. We weave the tapestry of your days with the threads we've been given by those who came before us.


And so, what is the material we find around us in the story of our lives and the lives of our ancestors? What is already with us here in the Crater of our days and how can it be put to employment in the elegant and beautiful nesting of this place?


What if the crater wasn't something to run from but the very place to bring all of our eloquence, skillfulness and love to bear? What if, instead of spending our lives searching for some indigenous cultural existence, we became the source of it for others? What if instead of proceeding like teenagers demanding that life be different, we do the hard work to become the adults and elders whose support we needed when we were younger?


Imagine it: A crater tended well. Painted ornately. Food growing there. Ceremonies made the include the story of the crater prominently. Waste dug back into the soil that had been an embarrassing rotting pile in the corner of what we had thought to be the prison into which Life had discarded us. Songs and poems written. Stories told. Elders revered and asked about what life was like before the crater or in its early days and young people initiated into their responsibility to the hard work of redeeming a wasteland. Imagine the colours on the walls. Imagine the songs. Imagine the bodies of those lost no longer being tossed from the crater but allowed to feed it so that the animals we ate had grazed on the grass grown from their bodies? Wouldn't that all be something?


A crater isn't so bad when you bring some love to it.






So you want something practical? 


Here's the best I can offer.


Over the coming months, begin to make a list of all of the poverties you see in this culture. Some might be things you experience yourself and some by others. Make a list of all of the ways you see that this modern culture lets us down in the endeavour of becoming real human beings - people worthy of descending from. See if you can grapple with that for a while. What do you notice is missing? What's there that makes us all a little bit less human? What is this poverty we've been talking about exactly? See what you can find. Let that be your guide first of all. 


Secondly, make a list of the ways you see some people, yourself included are privileged above others in ways they never earned. All of the ways that some people get to skip ahead of the line. All of the ways that others are targeted simply by being who they are. Spend some time with this. Get to know these hard to look at injustices and sustain the gaze as long as you can.


Once you've spent a few months on both, giving it the proper time to brew inside of you take a long and hard look at those two things together and see if you can think this thought: 'What is this all asking of me?'


"I do not think I will ever be able to shake the poverty of feeling alien to my own dominant cultural expression."

And may you never.