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Utilizing Indigenous Thought to Cope in the Age of Trump

Nature is, and always will be, the ultimate teacher.

Indigenous people from the Tohono O'odham ethnic group dance and sing to protest against US President Donald Trump's intention to build a new wall in the border between Mexico and United States, on March 25, 2017, in the Altar desert, in Sonora, in the border with Arizona, northern Mexico. (Photo: Pedro Pardo / AFP / Getty Images)

Indigenous people from the Tohono O'odham ethnic group dance and sing to protest against US President Donald Trump's intention to build a new wall in the border between Mexico and United States, on March 25, 2017, in the Altar desert, in Sonora, in the border with Arizona, northern Mexico. (Photo: Pedro Pardo / AFP / Getty Images)Indigenous people from the Tohono O’odham ethnic group dance and sing to protest against US President Donald Trump’s intention to build a new wall in the border between Mexico and United States, on March 25, 2017, in the Altar desert, in Sonora, in the border with Arizona, northern Mexico. (Photo: Pedro Pardo / AFP / Getty Images)

November 9, 2016, was a typical North Dakota wintry day and the cold wind bit into me. Unlike the group of fellow Veterans for Peace I was with, who had come from northern or eastern locations, I was fresh in from a fishing village in central Mexico. We huddled around a red camper van, listening to a radio station in anticipation of hearing the results of the election. The crowded camp below our hilly perch was strewn with makeshift buildings, campers and tipis, and we were surrounded by rolling hills, grass plains and buttes that bordered the sacred Missouri River we were trying to protect. Hearing the radio transmission clearly was difficult, owing to static and occasional interruptions from TigerSwan, a private military contractor hired by Energy Transfer Partners to disrupt our communications with the outside world. Nonetheless, when we heard that Trump was the new president of the United States, the words resonated all too clearly.

No one spoke at first. Then, showing tearful emotion, one of our younger vets, who had regretfully participated in two tours in Iraq, angrily spoke out: “How stupid are people in this country?” Immediately, one of our female Lakota vets walked up to him and gave him a sincere hug. She was a round-faced woman in her 40s or 50s who wore a derby-type leather brimmed hat, long beaded earrings, a brightly colored vintage Navajo-styled Pendleton blanket coat and a pair of eyeglasses that illuminated eyes that radiated gentle wisdom. “Welcome to our world,” she said.

As an Indigenous professor, researcher and author, I knew immediately what she was saying: Trump was only a more blatant manifestation of the kinds of inequity, hierarchy and violence against all of the natural world that American Indigenous have suffered throughout US history. We all knew this related to a small percentage of individuals controlling everyone and everything else. I also understood that such an affair had faced humanity globally for only the past 1 percent of human history. For 99 percent of our time on this planet, prior to our “point-of-departure” around 9,000 years ago, most humans lived as Indigenous peoples who managed to thrive in relative harmony without destroying the planet’s life-systems. What the Lakota veteran was conveying was not so much that white people were now getting a taste of their own medicine, but rather that implications of the dominant culture’s worldview are currently catching up to everyone.

Sitting Bull, the Hunkpapa Lakota leader who lived and was assassinated on the Standing Rock Reservation, also understood that the settlers’ worldview was not compatible with how life had been lived for most of human history. Not long after he signed the 1868 Treaty that established the Lakota reservation lands that included the Black Hills of South Dakota, he shared his philosophy in a speech to a council of his people. He spoke to the anthropocentrism, hierarchy and greed that continue to lead us into an untimely sixth mass extinction.

The speech, recorded by Charles Eastman (Ohiye S’a), described the Lakota worldview:

Behold, my friends, the spring is come; the Earth has gladly received the embraces of the sun, and we shall soon see the results of their love! Every seed is awakened, and all animal life. It is through this mysterious power that we too have our being, and we therefore yield to our neighbors, even to our animal neighbors, the same right as ourselves to inhabit this vast land.

Sitting Bull contrasted this paradigm with the damaging worldview of the European settlers, which persists in the United States government today:

Yet hear me, friends! We have now to deal with another people, small and feeble when our forefathers first met with them, but now great and overbearing. Strangely enough, they have a mind to till the soil, and the love of possessions is a disease in them. These people have made many rules that the rich may break, but the poor may not! They have a religion in which the poor worship, but the rich will not! They even take tithes of the poor and weak to support the rich and those who rule.

They claim this mother of ours, the Earth, for their own use, and fence their neighbors away from her, and deface her with their buildings and their refuse. They compel her to produce out of season, and when sterile she is made to take medicine in order to produce again. All this is sacrilege.

Such sentiments are common to many of the great variety of Indigenous cultures around the world, including those eradicated and those surviving. They can be contrasted sharply with the cultures that converge around the dominant worldview. So, how can we draw upon Indigenous worldviews to make sense of the era of Trump, and to move beyond it? Here are some Indigenous worldview precepts one can use to evaluate — and begin to transform — one’s thinking and beliefs:

1) Love of Life and acceptance of its mysteries is essential for wellness.

2) Every life form is interconnected, equal in significance and deserves respect.

3) Ceremony and alternative consciousness are vital for internalizing Nature’s wisdom.

4) Place and its inhabitants are sacred teachers.

5) Complementarity describes Nature and is essential for a balanced life.

6) Generosity and courage are preeminent virtues observable in Nature.

7) The highest authority comes from honest reflection on lived experience.

8) Language (words) and music have vibrational frequencies that prompt diligent attention.

How can we use these precepts to challenge the problems wrought by the dominant worldview? In order to move into authentic ways of being in the world, we can start by considering these five Indigenous ways of thinking and doing, which contrast with dominant worldview-based practices:

Alternative Consciousness. It’s required for deep transformation. There are many ways to achieve it, but believing in new and appropriate images deeply while in light trance states can override previous unintentional beliefs that continue to cause us to live against our own logic. Traditional societies knew that harmful behaviors often stemmed from unconscious beliefs and actions that could be reversed via trance-based learning. When you are out of balance; when anger lasts for more than a few minutes; when you behave or react in a way that seems to bring on stress; when you feel you are avoiding movements on behalf of your highest potential; when a relationship is not working, there are often unconscious belief systems operating. Trance-based learning can help us overcome harmful unconscious beliefs, making us more capable of addressing the inequities and ecological damage in our world today.

Questioning Fear. Ask what possible fear relates to problematic events, actions, attitudes or behaviors. The dominant worldview perspective is to avoid, dismiss or deny it. Move to the Indigenous perspective that sees fear as a catalyst for practicing a virtue, such as courage, generosity, honesty, patience, fortitude or humility. Then, imagine yourself practicing that virtue until, by taking appropriate action, you become fearless by fully trusting the universe.

Questioning Authority. Closely related to fear is the idea of authority. Dominant culture is hierarchy-driven and external authority guides too much of our behavior. Get in touch with the position, beliefs and feelings you have about the issue at hand. Ask yourself: From whose authority did this position originate? Then, use a strategy such as self-hypnosis to erase all forms of external authority from the picture, dismissing previous ones entirely and basing your new thoughts on only an honest reflection on your lived experience and complementary attitude.

Words. Get in touch with all the words you use, especially self-talk, to describe the situation. Analyze them for how accurate and truthful they really are. Our Indigenous ancestors lived at a time when words were considered sacred. Find the best ways to honestly phrase the situation so you can better process it. Carefully listen to the words of others without being “hypnotized” by them. Use life experience, intuition, critical thinking and diverse research to come to truthfulness.

Nature. In our original ways of thinking, other-than-human (or greater-than-human) entities were our teachers. Anthropocentrism did not exist. We were intricately part of the Natural world. We can still learn from other-than-humans. In practice, these can be pets, insects, plants, parks, rivers, mountains. When an issue arises, consider it in relation to these other-than-humans. Allow yourself to continue to watch for other aspects of Nature as keys to a new realization as relates to the issue. Use ceremony with plants like pine, cedar, sage or sweet grass to evoke images of other-than- or greater-than-human life forms. Such ceremonies can truly continue to help you embrace the unknown. Balance these ceremonies with discourse, knowing that discourse tends to remove the mysterious. All answers reside somewhere in what remains of the natural landscape in which you dwell.

As we move forward in the era of Trump, facing vast structural problems, let us remember that Nature is and always will be the ultimate teacher if we heed it accordingly.

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