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To Stay in the Fight, We Must Navigate Trauma and Find the Healing We Need

“How do we grieve at the same time as we adapt?” asks author Robyn Maynard.

Part of the Series

“If you’re trying to destroy things that are as massive as the structures and the institutions that we talk about wanting to get rid of, that we talk about wanting to overthrow, you’re going to have to sustain yourself,” says organizer and author William C. Anderson. In this episode of “Movement Memos,” host Kelly Hayes talks with Anderson, Robyn Maynard, Harsha Walia, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Mahdi Sabbagh, and others about the crises of trauma, grief and overwhelm in our communities, and the kind of healing activists need to stay in the fight.

Music by ​Son Monarcas, Leela Gilday & Wiiliideh Drummers

TRANSCRIPT

Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.

Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about organizing, solidarity, and the work of making change. I’m your host, writer and organizer Kelly Hayes. Today, we are going to talk about the crises of trauma, grief, and overwhelm that so many of our communities are wrestling with right now and the kind of healing we need to move forward. This is the first episode in a non-consecutive series we’re putting together about mental health and healing. I think many of you will agree that conversations on these topics are sorely needed. I have been struggling a great deal myself this year as I have navigated depression, physical pain and horrific news cycles. There have been days when I have felt so heartsick and overwhelmed that getting out of bed has been a struggle. Fortunately, I received some much-needed relief last week in the form of a land-based solidarity gathering on Dene land in the Northwest Territories. The week-long event was hosted by Dechinta, a cultural education organization that connects Dene youth with the wisdom of their elders. In an effort to deepen solidarities across borders and movements, Dechinta organizers invited a group of activists, organizers, scholars, and poets to spend a week engaging with the land and each other while also learning from Dene youth and elders. Participants traveled from as far away as Hawaii and Australia to join the convening.

I had high hopes that this trip might be a restorative experience, and I was not disappointed. Given that many of you are also in need of restoration, I decided to do my best to bring my listeners and readers along with me. So, I invite you to join me over the next hour and hear from some of the insightful organizers, authors and Dene youth whom I spent time with last week. I had a lot of important conversations with people like Robyn Maynard, Harsha Walia, Leanne Simpson, Mahdi Sabbagh and William C. Anderson about the emotional crises our communities are facing, what we and our co-strugglers need right now, and how connecting with the land can be a healing experience.

You will also hear music from Dene singer/songwriter Leela Gilday and the Wiiliideh Drummers. Leela gave a stirring performance at our lakeside camp that moved me to tears, and our friend Randy opened and closed the camp with his drumming. I hope their music can offer you a greater connection to the healing we found as we laughed, learned, and wept together in a wilderness so far north that the sun was always with us.

If you appreciate this episode, and you would like to support “Movement Memos,” you can subscribe to Truthout’s newsletter or make a donation at truthout.org. You can also support the show by subscribing to the podcast on Apple or Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts, or by leaving a positive review on those platforms. Sharing episodes on social media is also a huge help. As a union shop with the best family and sick leave policies in the industry, we could not do this work without the support of readers and listeners like you, so thanks for believing in us and for all that you do. And with that, I hope you enjoy the show.

[musical interlude]

KH: The Dechinta camp was a very unique space, cultivated by a remarkable organization. Leanne Simpson, co-author of Rehearsals for Living, explained the group’s background.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson: My name is Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. I’m Mississauga Nishnaabeg and a member of Alderville First Nation. I’m a writer and a musician and an academic, and I’m an educator at the Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning, and I use she/her pronouns.

Dechinta is a post-secondary education program that is land-based, and it’s based in the northern part of Canada in the Northwest Territories. Our home is in the territory of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, and we take students out on the land for weeks at a time and base ourselves in our learning community in Dene land-based practices. So things like fishing and trapping and hunting, medicines, hide tanning, processing fish and meat, learning how to live together following Dene laws, how to resolve conflicts and live together in a good way according to the teachings of the Dene.

So we’ve been operating for over a decade. We have five courses that are accredited through The University of British Columbia. Through our early research, we found that the biggest barrier to post-secondary education in the north for Indigenous women was child care. So our elders really implored us to make our learning community family-centered and provide support for parents and kids so that they could learn together on the land. Students come to our program, we spend the mornings with the elders, we spend the afternoon doing reading and writing, and discussing the issues that have come up for learning critical thinking skills. And then students can use the credits to transfer to universities in the south, or they can just take the certificate back to their home communities and continue their community-based work.

In the past few years, we’ve been expanding into different regions in the north, into Nunavut and Yukon and into different regions in the Northwest Territories. And we’ve also been expanding our program to artists to land-based arts practices and opening it up to community members who might not be interested in post-secondary university credits.

And so one of our foundational programs now is Liwe Camp, which is a fish camp that takes place in February on the frozen lake. Our elders will take groups of folks out to set nets, to fish nets, to process fish, and to send the fish home with people to eat and to feed their families.

And so that kind of intimacy and a kind of local outlook then kind of expanded into thinking about Indigenous forms of internationalism. It expanded into thinking of the earth as sort of this network of deep relationality that was based on reciprocity. And it started to make me think about connecting in meaningful ways to other anti-colonial movements, both locally and internationally.

Over the course of my work over the last few years, I’ve been traveling and I’ve been meeting people with really, really good hearts. And in my work at Dechinta, I connected with Kelsey Wrightson and Glen Coulthard, and we wrote a grant to bring some of these folks together to spend a week on the land with the elders from the Yellowknives Dene.

Doing a Dechinta program where we didn’t have a lot of expectations in terms of outcomes, it was sort of this alchemy of getting the right people together at the right time in this place that we love so much and seeing what happened. I think some tremendous things happened this week in terms of refuge and renewal and deepening our relationships to each other and expanding our understandings of concepts that we thought we understood. I think it was a really, really special week.

KH: As we arrived in camp, many of us were hurting. Some of us talked about how our communities were grieving and exhausted, and how we, ourselves, were just scraping by. While feelings of overwhelm were common, people described a spectrum of varied stressors and crises that their communities were grappling with.

Kyla Sadaya LeSage: My name is Kyla Sadaya LeSage. I am Vuntut Gwitchin from Old Crow and Anishinaabe from Garden River, Ontario. But I live and I grew up in Yellowknife on Yellowknife’s Dene territory, Chief Drygeese’s territory. I work at Dechinta. I am now the director of program development. So I work with communities to develop hide camps, fish camps, accredited programs, and I just work on the land a lot with elders and young people and support others to reconnect with the land. There’s lots of griefs in our communities because there’s less connection to the land. So we’re finding that our elders are passing away with such rich knowledge that hasn’t been passed on to the younger generations. And so they’re missing that gap of being on the land. And so our young people especially don’t have anything to do during the day in our remote communities, which then means that they’re really trying to find what works for them.

And at times, it’s addictions that come in. There’s lots of drug and alcohol use in the communities. There’s crazy drugs that are coming up from the south that are hitting our most remote communities and then spreading within there. And instead of being on the land, the youth are using these drugs and these substances, and there’s not the knowledge and the mentorship from elders to kind of get them out of those addictions and to really support them. I think being on the land, you’re so far removed from outside world, you’re not affected by drugs and alcohol. You’re learning with elders. You have such an amazing time where you’re growing and healing on the land, and I don’t see many of our young people getting the opportunity to do that.

And I think that has led to a lot of the suicide rates in northern communities and just like a sense of disconnect within Indigenous communities and in Indigenous youth. But our elders have such rich knowledge, like I mentioned, of healing and finding ways to reconnect with ourselves. We are such an expressive people. Indigenous people are always doing something, we’re always learning and we’re always on the land. And without that peace, there’s that emptiness. And so we’re really seeing our communities fall into drugs and alcohol and trying to really break that narrative up in the north. And I think that’s what we’re doing, especially at Dechinta, is reconnecting our elders and our young people and everybody back to the land in a sense of healing and in a sense of finding who people are instead of within the Western society.

William C. Anderson: My name is William C. Anderson. My pronouns are he/him/his, and I am a writer. I’m an independent scholar and, I guess, an organizer where I find places to organize.

I think at this particular time when I think about Black America, what’s called Black America, that there’s a lot of concern about regression and going back to a place that we feel like we’ve progressed from. There’s a lot of concern about the rolling back of progressive legislation and landmark victories from movements prior, like the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power era, even different reforms that happen throughout other eras. We’re seeing attacks on things like critical race theory. We’re seeing attacks on Black history. We’re seeing attacks on what’s called DEI, diversity, equity, inclusion. These sorts of things are making a very pronounced statement coming from the right wing and a fascist upsurge to Black people that the gains and the things that we have long taken, maybe, for granted in some cases, or assumed that they would always be there, it’s making a very pronounced statement that they’re erasable, that they are destroyable, that they are things that can be gotten rid of and rolled back.

So it’s making a lot of people feel concerned how much can be taken away. People are asking, “How much can be taken away? Where might we end up? Where are we going?” And it’s causing a lot of grief. There’s a lot of pain that elders are feeling. There’s a lot of pain that community members are feeling because people fought long and hard. No matter what you think about something like the Voting Rights Act or the Civil Rights Act, the people feel very proud about the work that they’ve done to get Black people whatever gains they could. So these things come with a lot of blood, sweat and tears, and people are concerned that it can all be taken away now and that we can end up in a place where we felt we’d never go back to.

In movement spaces, in particular, there’s a mixture of frustration and anger and sadness, and I think that it manifests as people maybe sometimes looking to the past for a strategy because that was the time that certain things were victorious or certain things may have improved in terms of conditions. But there is also a lot of worry that we’re not equipped, that we are ill-prepared for this moment in such a way that there may not be a hope or a stability that people would long for to be able to overcome the situation and to fight back in the ways that are needed.

So sometimes people feel like we need to go back and try things that may have worked before. Sometimes people might feel hopeless and some people might feel inspired to try to think of new strategies. So I see a variety of different things.

Harsha Walia: My name’s Harsha. I use she/her pronouns. I’m an organizer based in Vancouver, which is unceded Musqueam Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish territories. And I organize in anti-colonial, migrant justice abolitionist and internationalist struggles. I’d say in the present moment, grief is omnipresent and it feels like a time where we’re just metabolizing so much constant grief, not that it’s new, but especially our relations to the world are such that we’re metabolizing the grief of genocide in Gaza in a particular way in this moment.

The grief of many overlapping genocides on these lands, what it means to be living through an ongoing pandemic, one that has not ended and one that has really revealed to the world, yet again, the disposability of so many people’s lives under capitalism and colonialism and ableism and more. And I think also an immense grief around climate catastrophe and the climate crisis, that impacts all of us.

But the fact that there’s a younger generation that has been completely alive to what it means to live on a planet that is millions of species are going extinct, that is something that I came to, as an adult, in terms of the climate, the immensity of the climate catastrophe. Although of course, the climate crisis has a long arc, but to think about what it means for the younger generation, that is all people know.

And all of that, and the resurgence of fascism globally, and the ways in which, again, we’re attuned to that globally, I think those are all the ways in which the communities that I’m part of locally and globally are experiencing grief, the immensity of grief, and again, metabolizing grief. I think in a way that in some ways, of course it’s not natural because we’re not meant to live this way, but also we are metabolizing other people’s grief in a particular way, right? In terms of when we see it on our screens and are just doom scrolling day in, day out.

I think that has a psychic effect on us because we’re able to be, we’re not part, in those same ways. And so the ways in which people are dealing with vicarious trauma, survivor’s guilt, and so much more. And I think the last thing that I’d say about the grief too is even though it’s a collectivized experience, I think one of the ways in which we are tending to grief is deeply individual.

And so I think that also has a specific contour when we haven’t yet been able to share in collective grief as a practice and are all dealing with grief in deeply intimate ways. Which of course grief is intimate, but when we’re talking about planetary processes that impact all of us, even though in different ways, grieving the loss of life is a collective grief. And so I think there’s also a layer of grief of not being able to grieve together and not being able to name that grief.

And so I think there’s many layers of grief in that way. And actually very specific to where I live, there’s also a drug war that kills six people a day. And so just compounding, compounding from the local to the global in terms of premature death. I’d say in my adult life, I have never experienced this much collective hopelessness. Everyone is, we’re all frantically looking for some light at the end of the tunnel where it doesn’t exist perhaps, or there’s a feeling that it doesn’t exist.

And I was politicized after 9/11, for example, and that was one of those world-altering times. And escalated militarism, escalated white supremacy, empire, imperialism, on and on. And yet at that time there was a feeling which having talked to elders in previous generations, even when you’re enduring immense violence, part of what keeps us in struggle is some sense of hope. Right?

We’re doing this because we believe that if we don’t do it, things would only get worse. And there is the tangible possibility of things getting better. I’d say the past year or two of my life and my experience is that that has definitely dimmed and that there is much more sense of hopelessness, which I don’t think only correlates to the immense amount of violence.

Violence has been part of centuries of history in terms of capitalism and colonialism and imperialism and oppression and more. But I think the grief is manifesting in deep despair that for me feels at a different level than in the past. And I think part of it is that we are tuned to so many more crises and forms of violence. And again, I think climate catastrophe lingers over all of it in a particular way.

And I think maybe another part of it too is something I was saying earlier, which is that we’re processing and metabolizing grief in very individualistic ways and intimate ways because our social fabric has been so impacted by neoliberalism, by atomization, by hyperindividualism, by the loss of literally our social communal lives in so many ways, that our, yeah, our mental health is impacted in ways when we’re not able to commune with other people, even if it is to commune over despair.

Our grief is more intense.

Robyn Maynard: My name is Robyn Maynard. I use she/her pronouns. I’m based in Toronto. I’m an organizer, writer, scholar. I teach at the University of Toronto. I do a lot of work, both historically, and in the present, around policing, abolition, borders, and just thinking about what freedom might mean, in a lot of different ways, than a lot of different methods, in a lot of different practices.

I mean, if I can think, if I can scale in the closest, for my own self, I know that I arrived here at Dechinta, exhausted. I almost didn’t make it, because I was feeling so overwhelmed. Just physically I had been sick. I think I just pushed myself a bit too far.

And also, I think that we’re just in a moment of so much cascading grief, both, of course, in the context of the genocide that we’re experiencing, and the real, even though we’re experiencing this incredible moment of solidarity that we’ve really never seen, in some ways, at this historic protest movement, particularly, I’ve been really based at the encampment, at the University of Toronto.

I’ve seen some incredible world building, and forms of, new ways of thinking about life, but at the same time, what we’re up against this soul crushing and grinding nature of a genocide that is not, at this time, abating. And I think that the grief of that, the constant work, up against that grind, is something that I’m seeing in myself and in my community, is something that I think that we’re still really trying to push through, and believe that we must push through.

But I think it’s taking its toll on us spiritually. I think it’s taking its toll on us physically. I do still see people holding together as best as they can, which I think is something that’s really important. But it’s really difficult, if we think about the larger organizing context, which, for me is, of course, that incredible moment of power and possibility that came in 2020, in a moment of Black- and queer-led uprising against police killings, against the systematic destruction of Black communities, and Indigenous communities.

We’d seen so much mobilizing in that moment, and I think there’d already been so much grief happening, as we saw some of those incredible gains be rolled back, both in terms of the idea of defunding the police briefly being entertained by city councils, and all of this before being shelved, to be understood as now too radical and far-fetched again, watching police fight their way back to schools, and Canadian school boards, for example, in many instances, of course, being fought off in others.

And just watching the re-legitimization of policing has been a source of grief since 2021 onward, each and every year, as even though we continue to see organizing around this, I think we’re very far away from that moment, in which it seemed that imminent transformative change may be on the horizon. So I think there’s a kind of slow grief that had been sinking in since then, even though, of course, I don’t want to use the word “grief” to be equivalent to demobilizing.

Because I think that people are still, if not in a mass way, many people who are awakened in that moment are still activated, right? So it was complex. I think that the war in Sudan is something that’s impacting a lot of people who I care deeply, including a dear friend who’s with us today.

And just watching the world turn away, due to, we know the ways that anti-Black racism plays out, in terms of who’s grievable. So watching the differential kinds of grieving that we see, around what’s happening to our siblings in the Sudan, in Congo, and Haiti. And that’s something that, as somebody who’s from a Black liberation background is really difficult to take in.

It’s very interesting. I think that people around my age also are grieving. The idea that we have been told of a particular kind of future in the context now, of a climate crisis, of a pandemic that is not over, in the context of genocides, ongoing, unabated, the very idea that something, any kind of teleology of progress in a particular way, in a particular upward motion, is something that’s being taken away from us.

So I teach my son, as Octavia Butler taught us, that change is what we need to acclimatize ourselves to now. And I think that the way that I can orient myself towards all of this grief is actually thinking about the many changes that we’ve been forced to take on in our lives, particularly since 2020, but ongoing, and trying to think about how we can be adaptive in this moment of grief, that seems to be uninterrupted, in terms of the kinds of violences and total dehumanization, and environmental degradation that we’re facing.

How do we grieve at the same time as we adapt, as we change, as we orient ourselves to a particular future that was sold to us, that we know, and I think people younger than us are very aware, will not happen. So what does it mean to adapt to the kind of changes that we’ll need to see, to prevent as much senseless death and destruction as we can?

And this is the question that I think we’re all trying to sit with right now, as we know that perhaps some of the harms that we’re seeing are not necessarily being interrupted at this time.

Mahdi Sabbagh: My name is Mahdi Sabbagh. I’m a Palestinian writer and scholar. I write about architecture and cities. I’m also one of the co-curators of PalFest, the Palestine Festival of Literature. It’s been a very difficult year, year and a half since the genocide in Gaza started. I think a lot of us are going through very difficult and unprecedented experiences and emotions, and a lot of us, I think outside of Gaza, are also kind of overwhelmed with guilt and with feeling the need to do as much as we can with very limited resources. And so it’s been very much a mix of all of those things.

In terms of grief, I think a lot of us feel that this is happening to Gaza as if it’s happening to our family, as if it’s happening to us. And part of it is because Palestinian society is very close-knit, and we care about each other and always have. And part of it is because we understand the threat of genocide as something that will not stop at the borders, at the illegal borders of Gaza, but it’s something that is continuing and has been spilling over into the West Bank and could potentially continue going if we don’t stop it. So I think we’re feeling very much overwhelmed by everything that’s happening, and it’s manifesting itself in many different ways.

I think I’m seeing an increase in mental health issues. Obviously, I’m seeing an increase in Palestinians burning out and needing to take breaks, but not knowing how to. And I know personally, I’ve also grappled with burnout in that way, and that I tend to do a lot. And then I feel that nothing is good enough and nothing is enough, really, that we really need a lot more. And that can be a very overwhelming feeling to deal with.

KH: In addition to talking about the emotional struggles our communities are facing, we also talked about what our communities need in this moment.

KSL: I think back to what I needed when I was growing up, I needed aunties and uncles. I needed my grandma, my grandpa around. Being surrounded by family, being able to not leave home and be surrounded by family at all times, there’s such a strength in being together. And the way your aunties take care of you like you’re their child. It’s really amazing. And so I think what people need is that sense of community and the sense of being on the land. I think a lot of people are aiming towards going back to post-secondary or leaving their home to find jobs. And I think what people really need is to be able to feel safe and secure in their communities and find something that will help them in their healing. We all carry intergenerational trauma within us, whether it’s in big ways and small ways, I think of mine as showing love.

My grandma went to residential school, so she never learned how to show love. And my mom and her siblings never learned what love is and how to feel loved and loved by your mom. And so I’m really able to break those down and just show love to family. And I show love to the kids I work with and all the elders, they’re like family, whether we’re blood related. I think we all need to take care of each other and we need to find ways to heal on the land. And that’s a big part of my healing journey is with the land and with our elders. Working with our elders is really special. I always say that our elders are never going to pull everyone together and be like, “Look at this medicine.”

They’re going to walk with you and just share. So it’s when we’re learning about the Dene laws, it’s share what you have. And growing up, I’ve learned that when you’re first learning something, you observe it, you listen, and then later on, you start asking questions. You get to know it. And so when you’re on the medicine walks with Paul, he’s always just telling you different things. And really all you got to do is watch and listen and absorb it. He talks a lot about medicines that heal when people are really ill and sick. He talks about what will help in survival times. He’s got so much knowledge of the medicine and reconnecting it. And I think our elders have so much to share. They’re also grieving, they’re also going through loss, but they come out every day and they are ready to work with us and ready to share their knowledge.

And Paul is always just there to make sure people feel healthy and safe on the land. But I always say that working with elders is hard if you didn’t grow up that way. When I was a student at Dechinta, I was so scared to work with elders because I didn’t grow up around my grandma or my aunties and uncles. I didn’t grow up on the land. I didn’t know what I could or couldn’t do. And the elders just really take you under their wing and explain things. I’ve worked on fish for a long time with Charlie, and now he’s calling me his… I don’t know what he said, my apprentice. So it was really cool because I’ve never heard him say that. So he is really excited to find people to continue passing on knowledge, and you just have to be with so much patience and kindness with our elders and they’re just going to take such good care of everyone. And the medicine walk is like… it is probably one of the special things that we could do with our elders.

WCA: I think people shouldn’t be scared of healing. I think a lot of people view conversations about healing and dialogue about taking care of one another as something that’s liberal or something that is too soft, or weak. And I often hear a lot of ableist language that comes up in these conversations and ableist thinking, and I think that it’s important for us to learn that if we’re going to be able to sustain whatever we’re doing, we have to have a relationship to healing. We have to have a relationship to care. We have to have a relationship to our ability to be self-critical and reflect enough to know what we need to be able to sustain real struggle.

Because you can’t just keep going until you destroy yourself. If you’re trying to destroy an enemy, if you’re trying to destroy things that are as massive as the structures and the institutions that we talk about wanting to get rid of, that we talk about wanting to overthrow, you’re going to have to sustain yourself. There’s not a ton of people that think like we do when it comes to this sort of radicalism that’s pushing for the end of oppression and liberation. You have to be able to sustain yourself. You have to be able to heal and to think about ways to make yourself more effective and more capable in a way that will sustain the long struggle. It’s a long struggle. It’s not an overnight victory. It’s not a movie. It’s nothing that’s so romantic that we can think that if we’re not constantly doing the work to make ourselves be prepared to carry on as long as we can, then… It’s just if we’re not doing that we’re actually self-sabotaging what we’re trying to accomplish.

HW: For me, and I do believe this for most of us, is I do think organizing is a form of healing, whatever that organizing means for people. There’s not a singular way to organize or be in resistance or be in struggle. But I do think that organizing is a form of healing. It is a way to feel some sense of agency in a world where we are meant to not have any agency, where we are meant to think that everything is inevitable.

And so I think organizing in a deeply spiritual way gives us a sense of autonomy and self-determination in a world that is intent on squashing our sense of freedom and autonomy and self-determination. And also because organizing as a practice, again, no matter what it looks like, whether it’s artistic forms, whether it’s on the street, whether it’s caring for other people, in all of its forms, organizing is inherently collectivist.

And so collectivizing our social forms of life is also a form of healing because it is enabling us to build those parts of our lives that capitalism intends to kill quite deliberately. And so I think all forms of organization that bring us into social life and into relations with each other is healing. I also think talking about healing and care, not as secondary to, but as central to how we live, is also needed in our movements.

Healing is a constant process of transformation. And if we’re living in this world, we need to heal because we need to heal our relations to each other, to the land, to ourselves. And so I think thinking about healing as transformation, as thinking about collective life, as thinking about it as a process that’s ongoing. It’s not a singular thing that you achieve like, “I am healed.”

But I think that is needed. And I think there’s something about healing that is deeply humbling. Right? It forces us to contend with our vulnerabilities in a way, not just with ourselves, but with each other. And I think the humility and vulnerability that comes through any kind of care practice is so central to our work. And of course, we know this is gendered in very particular ways. And so so much of healing is also about transforming our gender, our gendered relationships with each other.

And so I think for me, healing is like, it’s foundational. It’s not an add-on. I don’t think we can organize without healing. And I think organizing is healing itself.

RM: I mean, again, to zoom back in something that, for me, actually being here with you, Kelly, being here with Harsha, with William, with others, really taking even just a few moments, I think to recalibrate, to physically heal, to drink Labrador tea, to orient ourselves toward remembering the long-term nature of the struggle that we’re in, I think, is really important, as we gear up for what’s going to be a lifelong struggle, for all of us in ways that we might not have foreseen.

I think we all knew that we were in it for the long haul, but what we’re facing, I think, is becoming clear, really, that the stakes of it all. So I guess, remembering too this moment of pacing ourselves, but also a way of pacing ourselves. I don’t mean, I guess, to say self-care, in a way of totally retreating from the world, right?

But how do we orient ourselves towards the long emergency, and being in the long emergency of it? So I think that we need to learn, in some ways, on a physical level, how to manage our adrenaline, in a moment of constant emergency, and to figure out what that looks like for ourselves, both physically, but also in our communities, and also together.

And I think that it’s a moment where we really need to keep grace, a lot of grace for one another, as particularly, I think the last eight or nine months, the last months of the genocide unfolding, have brought together a lot of communities who have not historically worked together, or not in recent history, not in these decades. And I think that we’re in a moment where there are a lot of possibilities for solidarities, incredible solidarities we might never have seen, but there’s also a lot of possibilities for misunderstanding, and everyone is exhausted and everyone is grieving.

So I think it’s a really important time to keep grace for one another, to practice as much as we can, remembering, as I think your book reminds us so beautifully, that building comradeship and building allyship isn’t necessarily easy, but it’s the most important part of our survival. So I think that that way of really moving into things, understanding that there will be crunchy parts, understanding that almost nobody is, at this moment, coming into this movement fresh, and coming into this movement, that we’re all as exhausted.

So I think that that’s something that’s just really helpful to keep us with a kind of understanding, as we move into this, that there are going to be missteps, particularly now, when everyone is depleted. And the most important thing we can do is to protect ourselves, and our collective, and our larger communities, whether or not we’re friends, and whether or not we get along, in particular interpersonally, to remember that what we’re up against, that those we need to keep the glue that holds us together, regardless of how we’re feeling, and regardless of that, and that, I think, will end up being an important part of the healing.

MS: Of course, I’m not an expert in healing or in, I don’t know much about psychology or mental health and how to remedy those. So I’ll say that first.

But I’m finding… Some of the answers that I’ve found to be helpful is to, I’m finding that a lot of Palestinians are encouraging each other to rest, encouraging each other to take little breathers, to eat better, to remember to take care of themselves and their bodies as they’re struggling and protesting and writing and disrupting and yelling and being thrown out of rooms and being censored. I think as adults, and especially in this hyper-capitalist police state, I don’t know how else to describe it, but we tend to not give ourselves a lot of permission to rest, or we feel that we need to be allowed to rest in order to rest. And in fact, it is something that you can just do. And this is, I try to do this with younger Palestinians around me. Whenever I can, I ask them how they’re doing. I ask them if they are resting, I ask them if they need anything.

And I’m seeing a lot of that among, between different Palestinians, at least in the diaspora, that they’re reaching out to each other. They’re being really warm and tender towards each other. And I think it’s coming from a place of recognizing that the world doesn’t offer us a lot of those moments, and so we have to offer them to each other.

KH: As the week progressed, many of us took part in land-based activities, like harvesting fish from traps on the lake, scraping hides, or collecting medicinal herbs, plants and bark during medicine walks with elders. Some people also participated in artistic projects, like making fish scale art or birch bark canoes. Many of us found these land-based activities, which were led by Dene elders, incredibly healing.

WCA: Well, I think that the thing that has been really healing for me is first and foremost, I’ve been honored to be welcomed on this land by the people who are here, the Yellowknives Dene First Nation. Chief Drygeese territory has been a wonderful experience. I have been able to connect with nature in ways that go beyond what I typically do because it’s a regular practice for me. I’ve been able to spend time with the elders here walking on this land, feeling the earth beneath my feet, touching the soil, the trees, the plants, gathering lots of experiences and being able to hold them close to myself as well as the ability to fellowship with the other people that are visiting.

It’s been really wonderful getting on the canoe with friends and going out on the water, looking around and feeling the softness and the intensity of the sun at the same time, connecting with the animals that are roaming around, all of the different critters and seeing what’s here and feeling even connected to them, not just through witnessing their existence, but also seeing how they serve the people here on these lands. So it’s been a type of intimacy that I’m oftentimes disconnected from in the city, and even in the nature that I have that I benefit from, that I experience back home is not as much of a close relationship as I always would like for it to be.

So it’s been a reminder of the importance of struggles to protect the land and to make sure that the environment has all of the respect and all of the protection that it deserves, because this is ultimately a deep lesson for me about what it means to actually be connected to the earth and care about everything that makes our lives sustainable, everything that makes our existence possible. It’s been really emotional because I’ve felt a lot of memories coming up with regard to my grandmother, remembering the things that she tried to show me and my sister about tending to land, farming, about growing food and thinking about nature, and just considering a lot of the traditions that I come from in my family. One of the elders here said to us when we were out walking, “Your ancestors knew all of these things about earth medicine that I’m telling you on this walk, and your generation forgot them.” And that really made me think a lot about the importance of everything that I’m learning here.

The connections that I’ve been making here have been very healing for me in the sense that they are granting me and giving me a much more dynamic view of the world by reconnecting me with parts of myself that I don’t know if I had been as in touch with as I was before I came here. So I’m really honored and so appreciative of the elders, of the people here, all of the different Indigenous nations represented, all of the different peoples represented and the diversity of their experiences, their lands and their perspectives. Everybody here has been amazing in terms of sharing, teaching and helping me become what I feel is a better person after walking the way.

HW: Being here on Chief Drygeese territory is deeply transformative. It’s so healing to be able to be in relationship with each other, to be in relationship to this community, this nation, these lands, to be welcomed onto these lands.

And it’s such a stark reminder that I live in the city, and so it becomes so easy for me to forget not only about my relationality to land and how central land is to our life, but also that the vast majority of the planet does not live as I do, right? Most people in the world, even as people are being forced into wage labor, under capitalism, are still to varying degrees, maintaining and sustaining practices across time, adapting to all of the forced, the different forms of violences that are unleashed on people.

But yet people are maintaining those practices as cultural practices, as self-governance practices, as spiritual practices. And so for me, it’s such a clear reminder even as all of these crises are looming and even as I’m talking about them holding grief, that there are so many forms of resistance on the land. And that I think there is sometimes a way in which, again, coming from the city where being on the land can get romanticized.

And it’s like it’s really not that. This is not about some romantic past, even though of course it includes a trajectory of time. But this is how we are going to live on the land. Right? If we are going to live in a healthy way on a planet, we need to know where our food is coming from, we need to know how to harvest our food, we need to know how to heal ourselves with earth medicines as the elders are teaching us, how to get water, how to feed ourselves.

These are all the core of how we need to live in a self-governing society and community and world. And so there’s something deeply inspiring about the fact that this is both something to continue to build into the future, but also that there is deep ancestral knowledge that we inherit, right? That we build on, that we inherit and we build on, and we continue to adapt into the future.

And so it’s been reorienting for me to think about what our futures – our multiple, dynamic, evolving futures could look like. And again, not as something that’s in the past or not something that’s in the future, but that’s actually being created and prefigured in the present.

RM: It’s been really incredible, if we think about what it means, to survive incredible grief and loss and harm, and recreate worlds of living and of healing. I think that Dechinta, and what’s happening here, is an incredible example of that.

When you have communities who’ve gone through being forced off of their land, to being forced into manual labor in lines, being placed in residential schools, now coming together, to actually create a learning space that is about reconnecting land, that’s about elders working with young people, teaching language, teaching how to make hides, teaching how to practice earth medicine, I think it shows us that even after moments of apocalyptic kinds of violence, nothing is ever gone permanently, that we can recreate, that we can recalibrate, that we can, not build anew, because it’s again, also taking back from longer-standing traditions, but that it’s never over, right?

That work of community making and building is possible, is powerful. You and I are sitting right now here in a place that has been built on the site of enormous harm, that’s now recreating this incredible space, where we’re going on medicine walks, learning about the history of healing on the land, where we’re able to see people, again, really learning how to live in the ways that they always had. So I think that that is actually a really powerful example for me, of the fact that we can remake worlds, the fact that we’re always remaking worlds, which I know is something that Leanne and I write about often, but I think here we’re really seeing that.

We’re in a world that is being remade, at this moment. And I find that incredibly vitally, one of the most powerful reminders that I’ve experienced, and even just on the day to day basis, the way that we see that in a non-arrogant way of teaching us, reconnecting with the land, a way that is not mocking us for the fact that many of us, especially displanted Black people, have lost access to being connected to the lands that we are from, being connected to ancestral practices of healing and medicine, but really teaching it in such a way that’s not sort of shaming, that’s actually just an invitation to reconnect with the lands here, with the communities here.

I find that so incredibly moving, personally, and even just as I’m sitting here, I’m drinking this cup of Labrador tea, from teas that were picked just on the path that we walked down. And spending time with elders who are able to really pass down that knowledge in this place has been transformative for me, as I’m spending time with many people, with the Dene community here, but also, Indigenous Palestinian and Black people from Sudan, from Palestine, from Hawaii, all kinds of ways that we’re all able to share different kinds of ancestral and also forward-looking freedom practices.

So it’s been really, really liberatory in that way. And even just personally, I was so exhausted. I was so tired. I remember telling you before we came out, I didn’t know that I was going to make it down, and I feel physically and spiritually and emotionally, so much healthier, after just a few days.

MS: I’m incredibly humbled to be here, to have been invited here. It’s been healing to see a community that is working on itself and that has the space and the land to do that, and a community that cares about itself. It’s been healing to see that and that that’s something that is able to happen without the constant interjection and attacks that I think as Palestinians we’re used to, that we’re constantly being interrupted, our spaces being punctured or taken or overwhelmed with Israeli violence.

And so for me, being here has been incredibly inspiring to see that this is possible. It’s possible here. And I believe that it will be possible in Palestine as well. I’m learning a lot from other people, just observing how they interact with each other, observing how they care for each other. And the other healing element about this place is that I am not used to being able to be on land that’s this open.

And something about the openness of it and being able to see the lake, but also to go on the lake and to go to the other side of the lake and to come back and to be able to be mobile on your own land in uninterrupted way, I find it to be incredibly, incredibly important to experience. I hope that every Palestinian gets to experience this at some point in their lives because I think it reminds us that this is what we’re fighting for. We’re fighting for the ability to be able to be on our land in an uninterrupted way, regardless of what that looks like, regardless of what resources are left, regardless of our painful histories. There’s things we can’t change, but I think this is something we can aspire to. And I think that this place is showing me that it is possible. Yeah, I’m incredibly, incredibly humbled to be here and thankful to everyone else who joined. Learning so much. So it’s been great.

KH: If you have never experienced land-based activities like harvesting medicines or tanning hides, it might be difficult to imagine how these practices could help heal emotional wounds. So, I thought it might be helpful to hear Thumlee, a young Dene staff member of Dechinta, talk about the healing power of hide tanning.

Thumlee: [Speaking Dene before transitioning into English…] I’m Dene from Cache, currently living in Yellowknife. I work for Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning as a programmer and coordinator for traditional knowledge and culture, which is a glorified way of saying that I do what my elders tell me to do and create space and place for others that I can assist to do the same.

So when colonizers came and they took land and they claimed it, saying it was a part of Canada, saying it was a part of the government of the Northwest Territories, they poisoned waters, land, disrupted animal migrations, brought sicknesses and put Dene into residential schools. Once school was over, they were put into colonial capitalist wage economy that now largely depends on extractive resource industry. There is a lot to unpack there. Dene, along with other colonized peoples, have intergenerational traumas and dealing with grief and caring for one’s mental health is something we all need to take care of like our lives depend on it.

My favorite way to take care of my mental health is to tan hides. I see hide tanning as healing. Hide tanning is healing. The process has many steps and each step offers teachings, layered teachings. That’s why I find it so effective. They say that when you tan a hide, the hide is working on you. I think it’s the hard work that pulls me into my body, makes me focus on each moment, allows me to get out of my head and into my body. I’ve been told that the hide that you get is the type of healing that you need. So if you get a big tough bull moose and you’re scraping and scraping that big hide, it’s a physical representation of working on patience and perseverance. Or if you get a young moose, then you need to be more gentle and methodical, otherwise, you could create a lot of holes in the hide. Or perhaps if you’re working alone on a hide, then the lesson is to be gentle and commit to yourself because there’s not going to be anyone to encourage you.

Working on hides has layered teachings, the physical ones are immediate and unavoidable. But if you continue on, you learn that there are deeper meanings, and the deeper meanings are always individualized. The first thing I was told about hide tanning was that you can’t say negative things about or around the hide or it won’t turn out. So you can work with anyone and you know that they have to be nice. But really when you work with someone like that, you’re bonded. I think that’s why you hear, “Those who scrape together, stay together.” In the beginning, you’re coming to body awareness and you’re hearing sounds. Hide tanning sounds has great ASMR. Scraping in unison is probably my favorite sound.

Building community and bringing generations together is what it’s really all about because it’s hard physical labor. You have to build structures and tools and maintain tools. It’s one thing that I felt is that it’s such an incredible labor of love between those who work and those who help. Those who bring laughter, food, encouragement. To me, it’s really about honoring relationships, the relationship of where the hide came from, those who taught me how to tan, those who helped me work and who gets what I make from it. It’s also about treaties with other nations. Moose nations, a treaty that our ancestors prayed that we would always keep safe.

The Dene believe that our ancestors walk with us. They cheer us on. They hold us in our grief. They hold us with compassion and unwavering love because they know and see our struggle. This has felt like a nice sentiment to me at times, and other times made me feel more disconnected. But what I realized was that to feel that connection I needed to get out of my head and out of my house. And tanning hides is what made that feel full circle to me. A full connection between mind, body and spirit.

Working on tanning hides offered me a physical connection to my ancestors through traditional knowledge, doing what they did, hearing what they heard, feeling what they felt. I realized that none of this is linear, everything is cyclical, and that’s where I find the connection the strongest. So my offering to you and your listeners then is to find out how to tap into that connection. For me, it’s honoring all my relations and my relations’ treaties. It’s my body on the land. It’s tanning hides.

KH: I know many of you do not have immediate access to the kind of land-based activities that we’ve been discussing in this episode. But I want us to think about what we can connect with, in our day to day lives, that offers us some amount of rejuvenation. What nourishes you? And are you getting enough of it? I am reminded of the story Morning Star Gali told in Let This Radicalize You, when she talked about walking to a creek during her lunch break every day to stick her foot in the water. For Morning Star, submerging her foot in creek water was a small act of connection that offered her a bit of renewal. I learned from Morning Star that we don’t just need rest in order to heal from the wear and tear of our lives, we also need rejuvenation.

I am so grateful for the rejuvenation I experienced at the Dechinta Camp, and for the love and care that was extended to us by the Dene community members who welcomed us. I don’t know how long these feelings of renewal will last, but for now, they are sustaining me as I endeavor to stay in the fight. I know these are trying times for so many of us, and I plan to continue to think alongside you about what we are up against and how we can heal together. In the coming months, we are going to talk more about mental health, healing, and how we can sustain each other in difficult times. For now, I hope these reflections on the challenges we face, and what the work of collective survival might look like, have felt supportive and useful to you. Remember, whatever you are going through, right now, you are not alone. Many of us are hurting. In a world on fire, hurting is a consequence of awareness. Wanting to change the world means absorbing the truth of it, and some of that truth cuts like a knife. But in that space of difficult awareness, we also have the potential to find each other, and to find what’s sacred. The work of collective survival is about so much more than tragedy. Our movements are woven together by the strength of our relationships and our care for one another, and we are sustained by the kindness, understanding and joy that we make together — even in the darkest of times. So, hang in there. We have a world to win.

I am so grateful to Leanne, William, Harsha, Robyn, Mahdi, Kyla and Thumlee for sharing their thoughts for this episode. Camp was a lively and somewhat noisy place, so most of these conversations were recorded in a wooden sauna, during hours when it wasn’t in use. I really appreciate the time people spent hanging out with me in that strange recording space by the lake. Our conversations were serious, but we had a great time. I wish I could have introduced you all to more of the brilliant people I talked with at camp, but I believe you will be hearing from some of them in future episodes.

I want to thank Leela Gilday and Randy, with the Wiiliideh Drummers for sharing their music with us at Dechinta camp, and for allowing me to share it with you all today. I hope you have found as much joy and comfort in their artistry as we did.

I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.

Show Notes

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