Rebuilding Relationship with Indigenous Peoples

Penobscot Flag, Photo by Margy Dowzer

Penobscot Flag, Photo by Margy Dowzer

Speaking to non-Indigenous people, if we want to rebuild a positive relationship between ourselves and Indigenous people, we need first of all to learn how to listen to stories of loss and pain. Listening is not about fixing something, or feeling guilty, or giving advice. Listening is about being present and opening our hearts to the experience of someone who has a story to tell.

When I visited Indian Island with the Giving Winds campaign, we listened to Penobscot elder Donna Loring talk about some of the history between white people and Indians in Maine. There are moments when the pain of such listening feels almost too much to bear, but I remind myself how much more painful it must be for the one telling the story. Then I feel such gratitude that someone is willing to share these stories with us.

If we want to rebuild these relationships, it is also helpful to be aware of some of the traps into which we might fall. One trap is denial. Denial is a tendency to minimize the damage, or scapegoat the victim to avoid the pain of what has happened. One example is the belief that Native Americans have benefited by being absorbed into white culture. Another form of denial is the myth that it all happened in the past and it’s over now. Denial interferes with our ability to be present and to listen. For healing to occur, we must acknowledge the brokenness of the bonds between us.

Another trap in our culture today is the temptation to romanticize Indians and Indian culture. I call this trap “wanting to be Indian.” The romantic stereotype is that all Indians are mystical teachers, close to the earth and bearers of a better way to live. One of the most problematic manifestations of this trap is the widespread marketing of so-called “Native American Spirituality.” What is advertised as Native American spirituality is a distortion, fragments of Indian spiritual practices taken out of context. Most Indigenous people are outraged and frustrated by this abuse of their culture and religions.

Janet McCloud, a Tulalip elder and fishing rights activist, says:

First they came to take our land and water, then our fish and game. …Now they want our religions as well. All of a sudden, we have a lot of unscrupulous idiots running around saying they’re medicine people. And they’ll sell you a sweat lodge ceremony for fifty bucks. It’s not only wrong, it’s obscene. Indians don’t sell their spirituality to anybody, for any price. This is just another in a very long series of thefts from Indian people and, in some ways, this is the worst one yet.

I believe this issue of spiritual theft is especially important for those of us who are seeking to reconnect with the earth. We might naturally seek to learn from the people who have honored their connection to the land. And it is important to acknowledge that there is much to be learned from Native peoples. But in our search for help, we can do damage too, because of the context of the broken bonds between us. If we are not sharing the pain and the struggles of Indian peoples, then what right do we have to share in the celebrations?Solstice MJ IMG_0057

These ideas were previously explored in my essay “Wanting to Be Indian: When Spiritual Searching Turns into Cultural Theft” now available online in pdf format.  The quote from Janet McCloud was originally published in Z Magazine, Dec. 1990.

Broken Histories

Mab Segrest, in her book, Born to Belonging, examined the effect that the institution of slavery has had on the self-understanding of people in America, particularly the white people of her own family. She believes that a kind of spiritual anesthesia developed—a cutting off of compassion and connection—in order for a person to own slaves.

She ponders what it did to a man’s soul to sell his own children. Though it was not openly discussed, it was true that many of the children born into slavery had been fathered by the owner of the plantation. White people had to cut off their emotions, deny their relationships, and numb their spirits, to maintain this horrible institution for four centuries.

Segrest believes that the emphasis on individualism in America is an expression of our spiritual distress. We are all born into families, each with their own histories of disconnection or oppression that can cause a numbing of the soul. It feels less painful to imagine ourselves as separate, than to acknowledge the abusive and traumatic relationships that have closed our hearts. But when we close our hearts, we also lose our capacity for deep joy. We are not fully alive without each other.

Shortly after I first came to Maine, I visited Indian Island, home of the Penobscot Nation, in a trip sponsored by the Four Directions Development Corporation. During a beautiful traditional lunch that was prepared for us, we heard about some of the long history of brokenness between white people and indigenous people in Maine, as researched by Donna Loring, who at that time was the Penobscot representative in our State House of Representatives. Near the end she spoke of her belief that America needs to remember its roots. She wasn’t speaking of its ideals of freedom and democracy. Rather she meant that we cannot find the way to peace until we revisit our brokenness.

It is uncomfortable and painful to embrace our brokenness. But if we hope to find wholeness, we must be willing to hear the stories that we tried to forget. To return to wholeness is not to paint over the past with easy brush strokes, but to make awkward and painful attempts to cross over into the experience of the other. It takes a long time, and a lot of courage. In my experience, it is often easier to feel at one with nature than to feel at one with our fellow human beings. But I have also experienced, after the awkwardness, moments of grace and connection. Moments when we talk and share from our hearts, and feel a sense of wholeness restored.

Broken Rock DSC00135

Photo by Margy Dowzer