Putting Native America Back On The Map To Re-Discover Ourselves

Op-Ed by Neenah Payne

Mapping a New Geography of Hope With Native America shows that our Foundational Stories shape our minds and our relationship to the Earth. The Foundational Story of the West is the story of the Garden of Eden. In that story, a woman (Eve) is guilty of a sin so great (eating from the Tree of Knowledge) that God not only banished her, but Adam and all humanity forever from the Garden of Eden. According to that harsh story, we are now therefore all born in “original sin” somehow because of Eve’s unforgiveable transgression of wanting to know more. Most people might agree that this story does not reflect a just or loving God. It also reflects the West’s alienation from Mother Earth, our only home.

Professor Robin Wall Kimmerer explains that Skywoman Falling is the Foundational Story for Native America. Professor Kimmerer lives in Syracuse, New York where she is a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology and the founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. She holds a BS in Botany from SUNY ESF, an MS and PhD in Botany from the University of Wisconsin and is the author of numerous scientific papers on plant ecology, bryophyte ecology, traditional knowledge, and restoration ecology.

As a writer and a scientist, Professor Kimmerer’s interests include not only restoration of ecological communities, but restoration of our relationships to land. She lives on an old farm in upstate New York, tending gardens both cultivated and wild.

Importance of Foundational Stories

Robin Kimmerer is a professor at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. She is a mother, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation ) “People of the Place of the Fire” and speaks some of the Potawatomi language which is a member of the Algonquin family. The Citizen Potawatomi Nation is the federally-recognized government and represents over 37,000 tribal members. It acts under a ratified Constitution and includes executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The Potawatomi are located in the western Great Lakes region, upper Mississippi River, and Great Plains.

Professor Kimmerer is the author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants and Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. Wikipedia says:

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants received the 2014 Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award. By 2021, over 500,000 copies had been sold worldwide…. In 2022 Dr. Kimmerer was awarded the Macarthur “genius” award.

The book has been a word-of-mouth best seller and hit the New York Times Best Seller List.

Eve and Skywoman Falling

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants appropriately begins with the story of Skywoman Falling because it is the orientation for the Native American worldview. It shows humanity welcomed by, embraced by, and rescued by the animals and plants of the Earth. The book contrasts that story with the Garden of Eden story and says:

On one side of the world were people whose relationship with the living world was shaped by Skywoman, who created a garden for the well-being of all. On the other side was another woman with a garden and a tree. But for tasting its fruit, she was banished from the garden and the gates clanged shut behind her. That mother of women was made to wander in the wilderness and earn her bread by the sweat of her brow, not by filling her mouth with the sweet juicy fruits that bend the branches low. In order to eat, she was instructed to subdue the wilderness into which she was cast.

Same species, same earth, different stories. Like Creation stories everywhere, cosmologies are a source of identity and orientation to the world. They tell us who we are. We are inevitably shaped by them no matter how distant they may be from our consciousness. One story leads to the generous embrace of the living world, the other to banishment. One woman is our ancestral gardener, a cocreator of the good green world that would be the home of her descendants. The other was an exile, just passing through an alien world on a rough road to her real home in heaven.

The book adds:

And then they met — the offspring of Skywoman and the children of Eve — and the land around us bears the scars of that meeting, the echoes of our stories. They say that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and I can only imagine the conversation between Eve and Skywoman: ‘Sister, you got the short end of the stick…’

The Skywoman story, shared by the original peoples throughout the Great Lakes, is a constant star in the constellation of teachings we call the Original Instructions. These are not “instructions” like commandments, though, or rules: rather, they are like a compass: they provide an orientation but not a map. The work of living is creating that map for yourself. How to follow the Original Instructions will be different for each of us and different for every era….The landscape has changed, but the story remains. And as I turn it over again and again, Skywoman seems to look me in the eye and ask, in return for this gift of a world on Turtle’s back, what will I give in return?…

For all of us, becoming Indigenous to a place means living as if your children’s future mattered, to take care of the land as if our lives, both material and spiritual, depended on it…Most of my students have never heard the origin story of this land where they were born, but when I tell them, something begins to kindle behind their eyes. Can they, can we all, understand the Skywoman story not as an artifact from the past but as instructions for the future? Can a nation of immigrants once again follow her example to become native, to make a home?

Look at the legacy of poor Eve’s exile from Eden: the land shows the bruises of an abusive relationship. It’s not just the land that is broken, but more importantly, our relationship to land. As Gary Nabhan has written, we can’t meaningfully proceed with healing, with restoration, without  ‘re-story-ation’. In other worlds our relationship with land cannot heal until we hear its stories. But who will tell them?

In the Western tradition, there is a recognized hierarchy of being with, of course, the human being on top — the pinnacle of evolution, the darling of Creation — and the plants at the bottom. But in Native ways of knowing, human people are often referred to as ‘the younger brothers of Creation.’ We say that humans have the least experience with how to live and thus the most to learn — we must look to our teachers among the other species for guidance. Their wisdom is apparent in the way that they live. They teach us by example. They’ve been on the earth far longer than we have been, and have had time to figure things out.

They live both above and below ground, joining Skyworld with the earth. Plants know how to make food and medicine from light and water, and they give it away. I like to imagine that when Skywoman scattered her handful of seeds across Turtle Island, she was sowing sustenance for the body and also for the mind, emotion, and spirit: she was leaving us teachers. The plants can tell us her story; we need to learn to listen.

America’s image of Indians is stuck in the past, as though all the Indian nations died and live only in the cowboy and Indian movies. However, not only are there 500 Native Nations on this continent, but they come bearing live-saving, transformational gifts of unparalleled wisdom, beauty, and grace. A people the West tried to erase from the planet refused to die and comes to us now to teach us how to live, how to avoid the Sixth Great Extinction the West has launched on the world. All we have to do now is listen, learn, and follow.

We are so blessed to have these wise powerful leaders to guide us now. Their willingness and ability to heal the people who have tried to wipe them off the planet for 500 years is beyond remarkable and shows the depth of their spirituality. The only question now is what our response will be this time.

Native America Provides Connection To Our Indigenous Roots

Geography of Hope: Becoming Native to a Place

Brooke Hecht, Lyla June Johnston, Nicky Finney, and Ilarion Merculieff speak at the 2017 Geography of Hope Conference. This year’s theme was “Ancestors & The Land: Our Past, Present, and Future” held in Point Reyes, California. The conference is a partnership of Black Mountain Circle, the Center for Humans and Nature, Point Reyes Books, and the US Forest Service.

In the video below, Lyla June Johnston explains that her father is of European descent. She calls on Europeans and European Americans to discover their own indigenous roots. She explains that in supporting indigenous cultures in the Americas, they are rediscovering themselves.

Lyla June Johnston Interview

This short episode is with Lyla June Johnston. Lyla June is poet, musician, educator, anthropologist, activist and community servant of Diné (Navajo), Tsétsêhéstâhese (Cheyenne) and European lineages. She holds a degree in Environmental Anthropology with honors from Stanford University and a degree in American Indian Education with distinction from the University of New Mexico. Her internationally acclaimed performances and speeches are conveyed through the medium of prayer, hip-hop, poetry, acoustic music and speech. Lyla’s personal goal is to grow closer to Creator by learning how to love deeper. Music in this episode is “Final Transmission Home” by Amaranth Cove.

Lyla June – Mamwlad Official Video

This Beltane, we are forgiving the persecution of an estimated 6-9 million women as “witches” in Europe with the release of our new music video, “Mamwlad.”

3,000-year-old solutions to modern problems | Lyla June | TEDxKC

In this profoundly hopeful talk, Diné musician, scholar, and cultural historian Lyla June outlines a series of timeless human success stories focusing on Native American food and land management techniques and strategies. Lyla June is an Indigenous musician, scholar and community organizer of Diné (Navajo), Tsétsêhéstâhese (Cheyenne) and European lineages. Her dynamic, multi-genre presentation style has engaged audiences across the globe towards personal, collective and ecological healing. She blends studies in Human Ecology at Stanford, graduate work in Indigenous Pedagogy, and the traditional worldview she grew up with to inform her music, perspectives and solutions. Her current doctoral research focuses on Indigenous food systems revitalization.

Indigenous Europeans and Our Christmas Traditions

Why We Celebrate Christmas The Indigenous Way explains that many of our Christmas traditions are based on the traditions of the Sami, an indigenous people in Scandinavia. However, while our Christmas traditions focus on shopping beginning with “Black Friday”, the Saami traditions focus on Enlightenment.

The Saami are a remnant of the continent’s nomadic prehistory. Now numbering, by most accounts, less than 200,000, they are spread across the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia in an area known as Sáami. The northernmost indigenous people of Europe, they are part of the “Fourth World” that spans the North Pole from Siberia to Alaska.

Traditional Saami are reindeer herders whose homes are yurts and log cabins. The thrilling 1987 ski film Pathfinder shows the similarity of the Saami’s lifestyle with that of Native American cultures. Saami survival is dependent on the life of the reindeer — just as the Plains Indians depended on the buffalo. In addition to being a source of food, clothing, and housing, the reindeer serve as means of transportation. Saami use reindeer-drawn sleighs — just as Santa is said to do.

Shamans play a central part in Saami life. When Christianity arrived in the High North late in the 17th century, shamans bore the brunt of the combined church-state assault on Saami independence. Their drums were singled out as instruments of the Devil and most of them were destroyed.​

John Trudell, the Santee Sioux leader of the American Indian Movement, said “We are all Indians now”. He believed the West lost its humanity during the 600 years (1198-1808) of the brutal Inquisition. In Take Back The Earth, Trudell explained why people feel powerless and how to regain our power. Learning from wise Native American teachers can help us recover our humanity now. Perhaps there is still time to avoid the Sixth Extinction Event if enough Westerners listen to Native American leaders and learn to follow the Original Instructions now.

Seeing Modern Native America

For many Americans, the 500 Native Nations are like a big pink elephant in the living room they don’t see in spite of the fact that many of our states, cities, and rivers carry Native American names. In fact, the British colonists used the name “American” to describe the indigenous peoples of this hemisphere until they declared their independence from Britain and established the United States of America.

In the Ted Talk U.S. Perceptions of Indigenous Peoples: The Epic Mistory, Jodi Gillette invites us to discover Native America today.

Jodi A. Gillette (Hunkpapa and Oglala Lakota) currently serves as a Policy Advisor for the Firm, after serving at the pleasure of President Barack Obama from 2009-2015. During her tenure under the Administration, Jodi played an integral role in multiple capacities.

Most recently, she served as the Special Assistant to the President for Native American Affairs in the White House Domestic Policy Council. Subsequent to this, she served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary to the Assistant-Secretary Indian Affairs in the U.S. Department of the Interior. Additionally, as the Associate Director of Intergovernmental Affairs at the White House, she implemented and institutionalized the President’s interactions with the tribes and his Administration.

Aaron Carapella and the Tribal Nations Map

Learning From Native America Now

Mapping a New Geography of Hope With Native America explains that Professor Mattias Desmet is the author of The Psychology of Totalitarianism which shows that many people accepted the COVID narrative because it helped address their loneliness. However, it is not a loneliness from being isolated or alone. Rather, as Professor Kimmerer explains, the West suffers from an existential loneliness.

The article shows that the loneliness comes from The Myth of White Supremacy which gives Whites a false sense of superiority that alienates them from other peoples and other species (plants and animals) as well as Mother Earth herself. So, Whites feel very alienated from the planet. They are aliens on the Earth — in opposition to all living things as they strive to get ever “more” to fill the emptiness inside. Capitalism is a search for endless growth each quarter on a finite planet — a logical impossibility.

This value system has pushed the world to the edge of the Sixth Great Extinction. The only hope of survival now is if more Westerners can learn from the wisdom of Native Americans who still remember the Original Instructions on how to live on Mother Earth. Time is short now to make this life-saving change in values. Each person who takes these steps now and helps others learn them can make the difference between survival and destruction.

Indigenous In Plain Sight | Gregg Deal | TEDxBoulder

The indigenous existence in Western and American culture is narrowly viewed and accepted with little to no input from actual Indigenous people. Gregg Deal talks about the use of history as a tool while he navigates the restrictions thrusts upon his work as a contemporary artist while challenging those who hear his words to take responsibility for their knowledge, and create room for this nation’s First Peoples.

Gregg Deal is a husband, father, artist, and a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. As a provocative contemporary artist-activist, much of his work deals with Indigenous identity and pop culture, touching on issues of race relations, historical consideration and stereotype. With this work—including paintings, mural work, performance art, filmmaking and spoken word—Deal critically examines issues within Indian country such as decolonization, the Native mascot issue, and appropriation.

Seeing Modern Native America

Changing the way we see Native Americans | Matika Wilbur | TEDxTeachersCollege

This talk was given at a local TEDx event, produced independently of the TED Conferences.

In 2013, Matika Wilbur took on a project of massive scope: to photograph members of each Federally-recognized tribe in the United States. “My dream,” Wilbur says, “is that our children are given images that are more useful, truthful, and beautiful.” Matika Wilbur—photographer, activist, writer, and educator—has undertaken Project 562, an endeavor of unprecedented impact and scope. Project 562 seeks to photograph every Federally recognized tribe in the United States and reveal in a brilliant spectrum of art, media, and curricula, the rich and complex twenty-first century image and reality of contemporary Native Americans.

A simple, heartfelt idea informs Wilbur’s work: “By exposing the astonishing variety of the Indian presence and reality at this juncture, we will build cultural bridges, abandon stereotypes, and renew and inspire our national legacy.” Wilbur embarked on Project 562 in 2013 with a meager first year budget funded by Kickstarter, driving over 60,000 miles to network throughout Native America and discover remarkable images and stories never shared before. In February 2014, Wilbur launched a second Kickstarter campaign to fund another Project 562 expedition, and after twenty days and a blitz of media coverage (including CNN and the New York Times) Project 562 surpassed its fundraising goal nearly four times over.

As Wilbur sees it, “The success and visibility of Project 562 show that people want and welcome change in how Native Americans are perceived.” Wilbur is a graduate of the Rocky Mountain School of Photography in Missoula, MT and the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara. Her work has been shown at the Seattle Art Museum, the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, the Tacoma Art Museum, the Royal British Columbia Museum of Fine Arts, and the Nantes Museum of Fine Arts.

For more information:

  1. Water Is Life Festival: September 4
  2. Native America’s Gifts To The World
  3. Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples’ Day?
  4. Why We Must Be Honest This Thanksgiving
  5. Celebrating Native American Heritage Month
  6. 100 Year Anniversary of Santa Fe Indian Market
  7. Native American Day: Learning The Way of Earth
  8. How Reconciliation With Native America Can Save Us

Top image: Flickr/Kasia Halka

Neenah Payne writes for Activist Post and Natural Blaze

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