First, a number of greetings in the language of a few native peoples on this continent:
Yaa'teeh – “It is good” in Dine/Navajo
Kwira Va – “We are one” in Raramuri
Gualli Tonalli – “Good day,” in Nahuatl, although this can be translated as “have a good destiny”
And In lak’ech – Mayan from southern Mexico and Guatemala: “I am the other you”
What links these greetings is the sense of connection, that we are all related, Mitakuye Oyasin in Lakota, a sense that is largely being eroded in our modern industrial and post-industrial world.
I’d like to propose that these disconnections—separation from nature, from our own natures, from each other, and the divine—is the greatest source of inhumanity, trauma, and disintegration confronting Native peoples today, and, I’ll venture to say, everyone else as well.
First, because all peoples have native roots (indigenous to some part of the world, even if we all originated in Mother Africa). Secondly, because as the world spirals into deeper crisis, ancestral knowledge, often told through stories, mythic imaginations, become much-needed guides through the current morass.
As Native Peoples we saw the invasion, infusion, and infections from European powers more than 500 years ago as the single most important root of our separation from what we consider the Great Spirit, Creator, Ometeotl—including the very earth and sky and systems that have sustained us for tens of thousand of years, or as we would say, “forever.”
For years now, I’ve been around the world addressing this deep separation in a variety of ways. Because of my work, for example, I’ve visited hundreds of prisons and juvenile lockups. I’ve done this for over 35 years. I’ve been to California institutions like Folsom, Soledad, San Quentin, Lancaster, and Chino; to juvenile facilities and prisons in New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Nevada, Washington, Oregon, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. I’ve done the same in some of the harrowing prisons of Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Argentina, and southern England.
You have not been to a living hell until you’ve walked down several caverns of a Salvadoran prison with no electricity, no running water, tattooed faced gang youth at every turn, 40 to 50 prisoners in a cell meant for two, including a section for women with babies, who are also incarcerated.
Two years ago, I was at the J. Paul Taylor Center juvenile facility in Las Cruces, New Mexico, speaking to adjudicated young men. I can appreciate the difference in how the United States deals with our troubled youth, the much greater resources available, and for the most part staffed by courageous and caring men and women.
I had a great time with these youth, great talks, and like always, I learned much in hearing from them. Yet, I must say, the separation affecting these youth is palpable, punishing, and in my view destructive to their spirits and to our communities.
What traumatized, violent, raging young men need—and this is based on actual practice, study and experience—is more community, more family (and if they don’t have a family, or have a broken one, a healthy sense of family). They need more connection.
Generally, in our so-called adult corrections and juvenile justice systems, in dealing with most trouble, most traumas, we do the exact opposite. Even the psychoactive drugs we prescribe to ADHD children, or mentally ill persons, or the clinically depressed result in artificial separation from one’s own powers and energies to cope and to change.
Why is this so?
Because this is what we’ve done to our whole culture: alienation from the fruits of our labor and creativity, from each other, from the energies in nature and spirit that sustain us.
The poison I’m talking about has penetrated almost all our policies, laws, and history—it has separated us by so-called races, by economic class, young from old, men from women, gay from straight, powerful from the powerless.
We are a divided country, in a “disunited states” of America, one that is constantly at odds. Riddled with social, income, and other gaps. I’m proposing another way to re-integrate ourselves, a way to become more integral as a people, to make sure all basic needs and rights as human beings are met, and a way that will allow us to unite around the essentials, have liberty around the nonessentials, and to be caring, connected, and cooperative in everything else.
We as Native Peoples have an obligation to provide such knowledge and imaginations to the world. My Dine teachers call this at’e—it is. Being whole in the face of immense fracturing.
As a Chicano, my own native roots come from the vast Chihuahua desert, before it was divided into two countries and various states. Before there were any borders. A time when we all spoke a variance of what scholars call the Ute-Aztecan language group, that encompasses tribes on both sides of the border such as the Raramuri, Yaqui, Huichol, as well as the Hopi, Shoshone, Paiute, and Tohono O’odham.
My mother was born in Chihuahua City from a Raramuri woman and a mixed Mexican man. Her grandmother and mother left the Copper Canyon—La Barranca de Cobre—section of the Sierra Tarahumara during the Mexican Revolution, walking for miles during a time when whole villages, and what some people didn’t know, small tribes were being destroyed by federal troops.
My father is from a part of the southern Mexican state of Guerrero with many Nahuatl-speaking peoples but also former African slaves. When my dad’s village of birth was destroyed, his mother carried him as a baby in swaddling on the back of a burro just before federales attacked.
I have Native roots from both areas. Yet there’s a blue-eyed grandfather in my lineage. A recent DNA test shows I’m almost half Native; around 60 percent from people of color, including from Africa; while the rest is a fantastic mix of European cultures. As I’ve written before, I have the whole world inside me.
At’e—it is what it is.
However, for over twenty years I’ve cleaved closer to my native roots when I decided to sober up after having been on drugs for seven years as a youth, including heroin, and then drinking for twenty years on top of that.
I gravitated to the Mexika traditions of Mexico, which is taught and honored in almost every major Chicano community in the United States. I also had teachers among the Lakota from Pine Ridge, where I helped bring contingents of Chicano, Puerto Rican, and African American gang members. I’ve done ceremonies there, as well as in and around Illinois and the Midwest.
In 1997, I began to go to the Navajo Nation for ceremonies and teachings, as well as work with youth and families there. I learned the medicine way from a Dine roadman, Anthony Lee, and his wife Delores of Lukachukai, Arizona, who soon adopted my wife Trini, who has Huichol roots from Jalisco, Mexico.
We’ve gone back there almost every year. My other teachers include Macuiltochtli and Tlacaelel of Mexico; Julio Revolorio of Guatemala; Panduro, Quechua traditional practitioner from the rainforest of Peru; Ed Young Man Afraid of His Horse from Pine Ridge; and Huitzi and Meztli, a Nahuatl-speaking couple who once ran our Mexikayotl and Nahuatl classes at Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural—the cultural space and bookstore that Trini and I helped create fifteen years ago in the northeast San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles.
Trini and I were also among the founders of the Pacoima and San Fernando sweat lodges. Trini now runs the Hummingbird Women’s Lodge of Sylmar, CA. I also help with the Lincoln Heights sweat lodge, working with friend and teacher, with Purepecha roots from Michoacan, Mexico, Luis Ruan. We often have tattooed face former gang members and prisoners in this lodge, now on healing paths.
Here is what I say we need today and in the future, drawing from these varied but linked traditions and teachings, which I believe are more relevant than ever before—these are not to be written off as “archaic” and “quaint” traditions that no longer apply.
There are four key connections we need as human beings.
First is the connection to our own genius, our own unique internal designs, patterns, “dreams” we were born with. This is where callings come from, the great passions of our life, and eventually the character to carry what we need to live the life we were intended to live. This comes from deep soul work, but also proper initiation, healthy and solid community and family, and quality of struggle so we can give “life” to life.
The second key connection is to nature, so we can align to the laws, rhythms, and energies all around us—from ground, trees, sun, clouds, moon, air, animals, and more. In the past 5,000 years of so-called civilization, we’ve become largely estranged from nature, its abundance and potent powers. With massive manufacturing, mining, and such we’ve created a precarious world for most of us. We have false scarcity in our economies. Nature is our greatest teacher if we pay attention, honor its parameters and possibilities, and always allow nature to regenerate and give back.
The third connection is to each other. In the Bible, Jesus said to treat others as one wants to be treated. That means even with disagreements, different belief systems, customs, sexual orientations, and languages. We learn to respect each other as part of the greater human family. We learn to give and care, instead of take and detach. There are too many predatory relationships, even in families, but also in nations, religions, institutions, and corporations. Dignity for oneself also means allowing other people’s dignities to remain intact. No superiority or inferiority. No valuation systems based on who has money, certain skin color, or the “right” sexuality or gender. Everyone belongs. Everyone is valued.
And fourth, is our connection to the divine. What some people call God, Allah, Jehovah, Great Spirit, Brahman, and many more. The names are diverse. These are not as important as what they purport to represent (although they are important to those who believe in them). What I’m talking about is the universal divine/sacred unleashed when one is most aligned, creative, tapped into their genius, and properly attuned to nature, people, and one’s own nature.
You don’t even have to believe in God. You can be as scientific and secular as possible, yet you can still find the beauty and bounty in all things, all arts, all relationships, all humanity and earth. The divine appears in poems, songs, sculptures, painting, dance, stories, prayers. It shows up anytime, especially in the timeless moments within linear time that touches on an eternal quality of existence. Those not linked to this often feel empty, shallow, disaffected. Again, this may or may not be linked to any faith or church. It’s part of who we are if we properly integrate them into our lives, towards a higher level of wholeness.
I contend that with these four key connections, we can renew and rebuild our families, states, and cultures. These connections go counter to the current global capitalist society that is based on exploitation, oppression, power, and war. We don’t have to choose between “lesser of two evils,” jobs or healthy climate, safety or police killings, between dying of cancer or heart disease—and mostly forced to live meaningless and pointless lives, full of delusions and disappointments.
This is how the indigenous mind, ancestral knowledge, mythic imaginations, can be pertinent, vital, and necessary again, especially in these dark, uncertain, and violent times. This can inspire real hope, transformative relations, real personal and social reckoning.
The blog post is based on a keynote speech I did two years ago at the 10th Annual J. Paul Taylor Social Justice Symposium at New Mexico State University, Las Cruces on "Justice for Native Americans: Historical Trauma, Contemporary Images, and Human Rights."