Reclaiming Indigenous Knowledge is for All People and Different Than Appropriation
Perhaps that title brings up things for you. Questions, sensations, emotions. Some of my foundation is in therapeutic somatics and devised theater as gateways into biological creativity and transformation. Healing, by my experience, isn’t a return to some previous ideal, but rather a forward motion that integrates relationships in the present moment via our embodied behaviors.
Therefore, Healing is Behavioral Transformation and practicing new behaviors can be revelatory.
I invite you to read this article slowly, with some attention toward how your body is responding to the words i’m writing. It might be useful for you to copy and paste this article into a word document so you can journal along with it.
Language can be tricky because it is an abstraction. It evokes a cloud of consequences in the listener, depending on the listener’s personal and cultural context. Language can be weaponized and used to dominate and manipulate.
The language I am fluent in is English, which is a colonizer language that has been partly designed to erase, flatten and otherwise obstruct nuance and complexity. English is both a colonizer language, and a colonized language, in that many of its speakers are deeply traumatized by relational harms. I will attempt to speak as plainly as possible, with as little jargon as possible, and also i feel some specialized terminology is helpful as language is alive and constantly shifting to meet our present day realities. Practicing to verbalize present moment sensations, emotions and other emergent phenomena is a very useful skill that improves overall health and creativity. Remember Poetry. Fall in love with the struggle for authentic reporting of your own ever-changing experience.
In this vein, this article is open for feedback, updates and revisions. At the end I will list a short, *absolutely not* comprehensive bibliography for further reading.
Intention & Invocation
May this article be helpful for all beings, for you and all your relations. May the spirits of our Earth mother and all her children be nourished. May the lands we are on and the indigenous people who steward them be well fed. May we be visited by the spirits of Liberation and Equity, of Creativity, Freedom and Responsibility as we work towards healing, transformation and harmonization. From birth through death and beyond may all beings be well.
Sitting with the trouble
Cultural appropriation is rampant in so-called western society. From yoga to therapy to music, inequity abounds. What we call cultural appropriation can be talked about as a form of disrespect, of taking, using and profiting from cultural blessings that have not been given for those ends. Very often we are talking about white people, descendants of European people/colonizers who are profiting from the cultural history of oppressed and marginalized black, brown and indigenous peoples.
Why would white people do this?
Well, first I would like to say that (non-consensual) dominating behavior is a trauma response. Whether that’s self-domination or domination of others, it stems from deep personal, cultural and ancestral wounds that have not yet been healed. The pre-european cultures that were colonized by the Roman Empire have never truly recovered from the forced theft and co-opting of their animist lifeways. (This is a very incomplete history lesson.)
Yes, even white people were once animist and indigenous, though it may seem heretical or dangerous to think this way in our tense social situation.
However, life tends to find a way, and many white people have flocked to other cultures of color to get their cultural healing. In a term coined by Tada Hozumi, Cultural Adoption can be a way to understand this phenomenon. Given the implicit and explicit threats that people are under to bend to a christian/catholic/capitalist/hetero/patriarchal worldview, many white people feel that they have no where to turn for healing and transformation other than cultures of color.
Growing up in the 80’s pre-internet, I can definitely say that people were and are starved for cultures that are less oppressive. Many of us come from oppressive family dynamics that we are running away from, and that our nervous systems are hyper-vigilant towards. The western world may be relatively progressive in some regards but it still holds a strong undercurrent of intense violence towards those who would seek to be free from being dominated by the status quo.
Many white people today are realizing that, once they have spent enough time in their adopted culture or practice, that there is a need to seek out and reclaim their ancestral culture’s practices. Temporary Cultural Adoption is wonderful in my opinion, when it is understood as a stepping stone to this reclamation and integration process. Cultures are alive and they share. Ideas are living beings. Cultures have sex and create sub-culture mixed-culture babies.
When this is done in respectful, responsible ways, it brings the entire human species along for the ride. In addition, one can be initiated/mentored into a spiritual or vocational lineage that connects them to ancestors of that lineage or craft, which bestows certain responsibilities to that person that are similar to the responsibilities we have to our blood ancestors. Indeed, we are one human family, but that does not let us off the hook of our histories.
Reclaiming Indigenous Knowledge: Templates
There are many levels to this practice. I reiterate that everything I talk about is about practice.
There are no secrets, only practice.
We can begin this quest on any level - personal, familial/ancestral, cultural - but eventually we will have to integrate them all. I recommend starting on the personal level and building a strong base there, with your own body, nervous system and behaviors.
Whenever an event happens in the world, there are physical, sensational responses. From those sensations, our bodies feel an emotional state, which very quickly launches our minds into a narrative interpretation of “what is happening”. Thoughts and emotions/feelings are wonderful, but they often come with pre-determined behaviors and worldviews.
There is leverage in noticing the interaction between life events and physical sensations. When we can dwell in the realm of noticing sensations, we have power. Power to choose how to respond. Power to slow down, power to lean on supports.
These supports are what we often call spirits, goddesses/gods or energetic/natural principles. Indigenous Knowledge views our bodies as sacred vessels, as sacred terrains and landscapes in which many beings live and pass through. Indigenous Knowledge personifies natural/energetic processes-as-principles which are behaved as embodied reverence.
Western thought interprets this personification as deification/supplication. Western thought is largely attachment wounded and filtering all other ways of knowing through these deep cultural and familial attachment wounds.
Indigenous Knowledge essentially teaches humans how to securely attach to these ways of knowing. So when I talk about attachment, i'm saying we can have attachment figures that are actually natural/energetic processes, principles and frameworks. And we can look again at our world through this robust lens of relationship.
So, what are these processes-as-principles?
Here are some examples. Noting that examples help us to model behaviors, we can avoid cultural appropriation via respectful experimentation. These examples are a gateway to larger meta-patterns. As a mixed race person I have found it very helpful to co-create processes-as-principles as an emergent dance between myself, my ancestors, and all those other beings, forces and spirits that I interact with, past, present and future.
These examples are not “The Truth”. Some people will dislike the examples i’ve chosen for various reasons. Some people will use this as a launching pad to seek out other examples or design your own. These examples are a stepping stone towards embodied practice, which is the next section after this. Indigenous Knowledge is a term largely used to describe Indigenous practices in the so-called American continents. I believe that there is Indigenous Knowledge all over the planet. Taoism, Sufism, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia, and on and on and on.
Our Earth is populated by diverse ways of knowing and being, of people communing with the Land and the spirits of the Land, as well as ancestors and various other kinds of unseen forces, and becoming inspired and iterating forward various spiritual, religious and community guidelines. I urge you reading this to never get stuck in “the right/best way” and instead look at the interactivity between larger patterns and personal behaviors. Look at the impacts of our actions and adjust accordingly.
Don Miguel and Don Jose Ruiz (Toltec/Meso-american lineages)
From wikipedia: Quotes from The Four Agreements
Be impeccable with your word. ”Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love."
Don't make assumptions. ”Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life."
Don't take anything personally. ”Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won't be the victim of needless suffering."
Always do your best. ”Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse and regret."
In 2000, Don Miguel Ruiz published a companion book to The Four Agreements titled The Four Agreements Companion Book.
His son, Don Jose Ruiz, subsequently released a sequel with his father titled The Fifth Agreement, which added a further agreement:
5. Be skeptical, but learn to listen.
Traditional Indigenous Code of Ethics (one version)
Give thanks to the Creator each morning upon rising and each evening before sleeping. Seek the courage and strength to be a better person.
Showing respect is a basic law of life.
Respect the wisdom of people in council. Once you give an idea it no longer belongs to you, it belongs to everybody.
Be truthful at all times.
Always treat your guests with honour and consideration. Give your best food and comforts to your guests.
The hurt of one is the hurt of all. The honour of one is the honour of all.
Receive strangers and outsiders kindly.
All races are children of the Creator and must be respected.
To serve others, to be of some use to family, community or nation is one of the main purposes for which people are created. True happiness comes to those who dedicate their lives to the service of others.
Observe moderation and balance in all things.
Know those things that lead to your well-being and those things that lead to your destruction.
Listen to and follow the guidance given to your heart. Expect guidance to come in many forms: in prayer; in dreams; in solitude and in the words and actions of Elders and friends.
Native American Code of Ethics (another version)
1. Rise with the sun to pray. Pray alone. Pray often. The Great Spirit will listen, if you only speak.
2. Be tolerant of those who are lost on their path. Ignorance, conceit, anger, jealousy and greed stem from a lost soul. Pray that they will find guidance.
3. Search for yourself, by yourself. Do not allow others to make your path for you. It is your road, and yours alone. Others may walk it with you, but no one can walk it for you.
4. Treat the guests in your home with much consideration. Serve them the best food, give them the best bed and treat them with respect and honor.
5. Do not take what is not yours whether from a person, a community, the wilderness or from a culture. It was not earned nor given. It is not yours.
6. Respect all things that are placed upon this earth - whether it be people or plant.
7. Honor other people's thoughts, wishes and words. Never interrupt another or mock or rudely mimic them. Allow each person the right to personal expression.
8. Never speak of others in a bad way. The negative energy that you put out into the universe will multiply when it returns to you.
9. All persons make mistakes. And all mistakes can be forgiven.
10. Bad thoughts cause illness of the mind, body and spirit. Practice optimism.
11. Nature is not FOR us, it is a PART of us. They are part of your worldly family.
12. Children are the seeds of our future. Plant love in their hearts and water them with wisdom and life's lessons. When they are grown, give them space to grow.
13. Avoid hurting the hearts of others. The poison of your pain will return to you.
14. Be truthful at all times. Honesty is the test of ones will within this universe.
15. Keep yourself balanced. Your Mental self, Spiritual self, Emotional self, and Physical self - all need to be strong, pure and healthy. Work out the body to strengthen the mind. Grow rich in spirit to cure emotional ails.
16. Make conscious decisions as to who you will be and how you will react. Be responsible for your own actions.
17. Respect the privacy and personal space of others. Do not touch the personal property of others - especially sacred and religious objects. This is forbidden.
18. Be true to yourself first. You cannot nurture and help others if you cannot nurture and help yourself first.
19. Respect others religious beliefs. Do not force your belief on others.
20. Share your good fortune with others. Participate in charity.
This originally appeared in the "Inter-Tribal Times," October, 1994
Again, I have included these not as the end-all-be-all, but as a launching place for “thinking with” these spirits. All cultures throughout history have co-created some form of ethics or ways of living. It’s partly my hope that these will inspire you to both seek out your ancestor’s codes as well as being creative with what is emerging through you in your life now.
Animist Somatic Practice: Walking/Moving-Sensing-Embodying
Okay, now I want to leave you with a gift. Perhaps it’s a pandora’s box as well.
Included in the end of this article is a pdf by Amba J. Sepie that I find really useful in the quest of behavioral transformation, reclamation and relating between colonizer/colonized and animist cultures. From this paper and from discussions with the author and other colleagues, I have created a short list of words that seem to open portals of inquiry and transformation towards animist behaviors and ways of being-knowing.
My recommendations are as follows, but please, engage with these however you feel. Be creative!
Human beings are unique biologically in quite a few ways, one major way is walking upright on two legs. Now, I understand that not everyone can walk, so please translate this into whatever works for you. Walking is interesting however, because it embodies all the necessary components for human nervous systems to go into a light trance state. Trance is one of the human abilities that is often co-opted for oppressive purposes, but in this case we can use walking as a gateway into ancestral ways of knowing. Walking allows for a repetitive rhythm, for pleasurable travel, and for us to “stack” other actions on top of it. This ability for one action or process to become “in the background” is a main component of various kinds of therapeutic activities, such as drumming and dancing.
When walking in this way, attempt to modulate your speed so that it is just slightly slower than your “normal” pace. Bonus points for making this slower pace invisible to anyone around you. Playing this particular “secret” game will help with developing the attention required to relate with your body and nervous system in effective ways.
For a warm-up. Walk around for 5-10 minutes switching between these three states of being while noticing your pace, posture, and bodily sensations.
Note: please titrate these states so that you are not becoming overwhelmed by the content they bring up. Remember you can always ask/demand/consent to feeling something 1% more or 1% less. If you feel like you get caught in a “thought-trap” a good way to eject from that pattern is to shake or pat your body while making sounds, sighing and yawning and to orient to your environment with your senses, letting your eyes go where they want to.
Your normal or neutral self. “An average day in an average way for you.”
Your Best self. “You just won the lottery/got a raise/your pantry is full of food/everyone you love loves you/etc.”
Your worst self. “You just got fired/got bad news/didn’t get enough sleep/etc”
End the warm up in whatever way allows you to feel ready to explore.
The 7 Reclamations
These are listed in no particular order. I recommend letting your body decide which ones to walk with, which ones to embody, and to switch to another one every few days or dedicate one week to walking with each one in a seven week cycle. A simple note outside or above your door where you will see it every day will help you to remember.
Walking bare foot on the Earth will increase the intensity.
By walking-sensing with these spirits, it’s possible to begin to “feel as your ancestors felt” in a fundamental way. Again, focus your attention on sensations and also notice what emotions, images and narratives arise for you when you walk with them in this way. It is like a partner dance, like an internal martial art.
Thank you for reading, I welcome dialogue around this article and practices, and if you do the final exercises, I love to hear what arises for you.
Red Medicine: Traditional Indigenous Rites of Birthing and Healing
Book by Patrisia Gonzales
Indigenous Healing: Exploring Traditional Paths
Book by Rupert Ross
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