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Thursday, March 28, 2024

Our Indigenous Roots

 This is a long post so please click READ MORE

This map shows you which Indigenous lands you’re living on.

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BY Rob Brezsny (SUBSTACK)

Our Indigenous Roots

Even if our forebears arrived in what we now call Americas in the 1600s, and our predecessors have lived on the continent for the last 14 generations, we can all trace our ancestry back to some group of Indigenous people.

Maybe your people were Celts who lived in what’s now Austria during the ninth century BCE. Or perhaps your biological line was Jewish Egyptian three millennia ago, or Chinese as far back as the ancient Xia Dynasty, or Mycenaean in the Aegean area of what we now call Greece circa 3200 BCE.

One fact is indisputable: In a literal sense, every one of us has Indigenous roots. At some point, our ancestors fit the official definition of Indigenous: “a culturally distinct ethnic group that is native to a particular place.”

Let’s go further. Mythologist and storyteller Michael Meade tells us that whether or not we know our own Indigenous past, we can and should strive to be in close touch with our inner Indigenous person.

What does that mean? Meade says we can benefit from seeing the world through an Indigenous perspective, with a reverence for nature and receptivity to the teachings available to us from the non-human intelligences of animals and plants as well as the spiritual realm.

Here’s the sticky part. Even if we have not personally participated in damaging the Indigenous cultures of the land we now live on, our destinies are defined and shaped by the fact that those cultures were damaged. Everything we do is built on the results of the damage.

When most of our fellow Americans came of age, our education included little about the calamity committed against the native people. If the evidence for the desecration appeared in our history textbooks, it was dealt with cursorily. We grew up with a carefully cultivated amnesia about the tragic origins of the United States. The story of African American slavery was almost equally suppressed.

Our hypothesis is that this amnesia, this failure to fully acknowledge the roots of our civilization, dampens our ability to be, as Michael Meade recommends, in close touch with our own inner Indigenous person.

We may not feel guilt, remorse, and shame on a conscious level. But like all suppressed emotions, they churn and burn in our deep psyches, alienating us from the Indigenous perspective we all need.

And yes, we need that perspective if we hope to reverse the juggernaut of humanity’s ecocidal ways—and preserve our earthly paradise for the generations to come after us.

On a personal level, we need a full, generous communion with our inner Indigenous person because it has tremendous power to keep us grounded. It potentially provides us with essential support in our lifelong labor to ensure our mind is anchored in earthy practicality.


Malidoma Patrice Somé was born into the Dagara tribe of Burkina Faso. At a young age, he was kidnapped by Jesuits, but eventually returned to his village to undergo an initiation rite into manhood. Later he emigrated to America, where he taught his unique blend of modern and traditional spirituality.

One of his featured themes was the hardship that Westerners’ souls endure because of the destructive impact of the machine world upon the spiritual world.

He suggested that there is “an Indigenous person within each of us” that longs to cultivate the awareness and understanding enjoyed by Indigenous people: a reverence for nature, a vital relationship with ancestors, and a receptivity to learn from the intelligence of animals.


To annihilate indigenous populations eventually paves the way to our own annihilation. They are the only people who practice sustainable living. We think they are relics of the past, but they may be the gatekeepers to our future.

—author and activist Arundhati Roy


These are a few questions our inner Indigenous person longs to know and takes action to discover: How well do we know the land and the ecology of the place where we live, including its history? Can we name ten local species of trees and plants? Ten species of birds and insects? Do we know the story of the geological past? What are five bodies of water near us? Do we know which Indigenous people once dwelled where we do now?

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Before the US military began to unceasingly invade and disrupt foreign governments in the 1890s (continuing to the present), it focused on invading and disrupting the lives of the Indigenous cultures that had lived on the continent for hundreds of generations before the European invasion.

For 148 uninterrupted years, American militias and the American army waged a series of wars against the native people. There were more than 70 conflicts that lasted from 1776 until 1924.

These endless brutalities were partly responsible for the destruction done to 600-plus Native American cultures. Diseases brought by the invading Europeans were a second major factor causing the annihilation.

Was it genocide? Scholars argue about that question, since the mass death was only partly intentional. When smallpox killed 90 percent of the Massachusetts Bay Indians from 1617 to 1619, the European invaders who infected them with smallpox didn’t do so on purpose.

But the wars that the US government and its citizens waged on Native Americans were quite intentional.

Here’s a list of America’s Wars against Native Americans:

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White Americans like me live on land and use resources that were Native Americans’ for at least 500 generations. “Theft” is an accurate term to describe how our ancestors, who have occupied the land for no more than 15 generations, came to “own” all this magnificence.

The justice-lover in me says this history is deeply unfair. Beyond any political consideration, I yearn to identify acts of recompense that might bring some justice for those whose ancestors were so deeply cheated and wounded. All but a few of the original Native nations are still very much alive, doing their best to nourish their cultures and thrive in an altered landscape.

There have been very modest efforts in the direction of redress. Beginning in 1946, the US government awarded $1.3 billion in reparations to 176 tribes, although that averaged out to just $1,000 per member of those tribes. (And there are 574 tribes.)

Legalized Indian casinos have been another meager source of payback. A few tribal casinos in close proximity to major cities have been successful, but more than 60 percent of the tribes don’t have casinos, and those that do are mostly in relatively poor rural areas.

Economic facts: Native Americans are unemployed, homeless, and economically depressed at a much higher rate than any other segment of the population.

Can we think of other constructive means to accomplish restitution for the people who lived here before our ancestors invaded and occupied?

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Whose Land Is it?

We’ve known conservative white men who place great emphasis on the fact that throughout history the migration of people from one land to another has always been common.

Everyone on earth originated somewhere else, they say. From a historical perspective, it’s not unusual or problematic that Native Americans were displaced by invading Europeans.

After all, in their distorted understanding, Indians had originally wandered to the Americas from original homes on another continent.

Amusingly, the conservative White men who make this argument are usually worshipers of the right to own land. For them the concept of private property is a sacred dispensation. They also neglect to acknowledge the huge distinction between humans migrating into previously uninhabited land and humans invading land already occupied by great numbers of humans.

Their hypocrisy would be hilarious if it weren’t so astoundingly ignorant. They sputter and go blank when we remind them that the ancestors of modern Native Americans arrived in what’s now the United States at least 15,000 years ago—600 generations.

They seem unable to acknowledge the truth that even if their forebears reached the “New World” as early as the 17th century, their people have occupied the land for a mere 16 generations—less than 3 percent of the indigenous span.

In light of these thoughts, here are questions for my fellow Americans:

● Let’s say you bought the property and home where you now live, or else inherited it from your family. Is that place more thoroughly your personal property than, say, the places inhabited by the Duwamish people, circa 1800, who had been living in what’s now the Seattle area for at least 390 generations?

● Imagine this scenario: An invading army of extraterrestrial beings with highly advanced technology arrives on Earth. They seize your land and home, and force you to flee. Do you complain? Do you fight back?

I guess it’s possible you might say to yourself, “Oh, well, the migration of people from one land to another has been common throughout history. I’m just another example. Guess it’s time for me to move on.”

But probably not.

● What could you do to develop a deeper and more intimate bond with the land where you live? What knowledge might you seek? What rituals might you perform? How might you express gratitude for all that you have been given by the land?

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Spiritual Earth

I am perplexed by how many politically progressive people—my natural allies—are adamantly materialist. They are rigidly and belligerently skeptical of The Other Real World, even in the face of the fact that relationship with spirits (including beings like fairies) has been a key element in virtually every Indigenous culture.

I am especially puzzled by the dogmatic materialism that some environmentalists cling to. They don’t seem to acknowledge that Indigenous peoples’ loving relationship with the earth is inherently spiritual.

Dream author Robert Moss says, and I agree, “Indigenous and ancestral shamans know that we are all connected to the world of the animal powers, and that by recognizing and nurturing our relation with animal spirits, we find and follow the natural path of our energies.

“Yet many of us have lost this primal connection, or know it only as a superficial wannabe symbolic thing that we look up in books and medicine cards without feeding and living every day.”


According to The Pluralism Project in the article “Native American Religious and Cultural Freedom,” “the animistic perspective is so widely held and inherent to most Indigenous peoples that they often don’t have a word in their languages that corresponds to ‘animism’; the term is an anthropological construct.”

The animist perspective is that just like humans, everything else is alive and animated by spirit: plants, animals, stones, rivers, clouds, glaciers, thunderstorms, planets. They are all our kin: intelligences that have will and agency. They listen and express themselves and always seek relationship.

If we humans learn their language and commune with them, we enrich our sense of intimacy with the world and deepen our devotion to preserving nature’s health and beauty.


Having relationships with fairy-like beings has been common among Indigenous people.

For example, the Nunnehi are a race of immortal spirit creatures for Cherokees, and Yunwi Tsundi are small humanoid nature spirits.

Here are names used for the “little people” or “fairies” by some other Native American people:

• Chaneque (Aztec)

• Ircinraq (Yup’ik)

• Ishigaq (Inuit)

• Jogahoh (Iroquois)

• Mannegishi (Cree)

• Memegwesi/Memegawensi (Anishinaabe)

• Nimerigar (Shoshone)

• Nirumbee or Awwakkulé (Crow)

• Nunnupi (Comanche)

• Pukwudgie (Wampanoag)

• Yehasuri (Catawba)

• Canotila (Lakota)

• Popo-li or Kowi Anukasha (Choctaw)

• Mikumwess (Wabanaki)


“The Chief of the Little People said to me, ‘You have a will. Learn to use it. Make it work for you. Sharpen your senses as you sharpen your knife. You already possess everything necessary to become great. Use your powers. Make them work for you, and you will become a Chief.’

“I became very happy, lying there looking up into the sky. My heart began to sing like a bird, and I went back to the village, needing no man to tell me the meaning of my dream. I took a sweat-bath and rested in my father’s lodge. I knew myself now.” —Plenty Coups, also known as Alaxchiiaahush, principal chief of the Crow Nation and visionary leader, after receiving a visit during his youth from the Chief of the Little People


The superstition of materialism is the dominant ideology of a majority of people in the world. It’s the specious doctrine that physical matter is the only reality and that nothing can be said to exist unless it’s perceivable by a human being’s five senses or detected by technologies that humans have created.

Materialism paradoxically preaches the value of being agnostic about all phenomena it does not recognize as real, even as it obsessively evades questions about its own fundamentalist assumptions.

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Why is the World So Beautiful?

Indigenous botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer writes: “As a scientist, I have been trained to refer to our relatives, the plants and the animals, the water and the Earth herself, as ‘it.’

“In Potawatomi languages, we characterize the world into those who are alive and the things which are not. So we speak a grammar of animacy. And that’s because in the beautiful verb-based language, a language based on being and changing and agency, the whole world is alive.”

Kimmerer says she was driven to study botany because of the central question in her heart: “Why is the world so beautiful?”

Full Rights of Personhood

According to United States law, a corporation is regarded and treated as a person. There is even a legal term, “corporate personhood,” that ensures corporations have the same rights as an individual.

In recent years, Indigenous North American tribes have joined the international Rights of Nature movement, whose goal is to protect certain natural features by granting them the “rights of personhood.”

The Yurok of Northwestern California hope to reverse the human damage done to the Klamath River, and thereby preserve the health of the salmon that live there. These people have designated the Klamath as having the full rights of personhood.

In Northwestern Minnesota, the White Earth Band of Ojibwe has made a similar move, granting personhood status to manoomin, or wild rice.

The tribe’s resolution asserts that the wild rice has “inherent rights to restoration, recovery and preservation,” including “the right to pure water and freshwater habitat,” the right to a healthy climate and “a natural environment free from human-caused global warming.”

Homework for all of us: What natural feature would be your first choice for gaining the right of personhood?

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In his book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, Charles C. Mann says that much of what we thought we knew about pre-Columbian life on our continent is wrong.

For example, civilization in the New World was in some ways more advanced than in Europe. Cities like the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan had large populations that enjoyed clean streets, botanical gardens, and running water.

The Olmecs, who lived in the land we now call Mexico, had a sophisticated form of mathematics that employed the number zero long before it was discovered elsewhere. Their calendars were more precise than those of Europeans, and they created books using tree bark.

Farmers in the Amazon exploited the resources of the rain forest without damaging it. Indigenous American scientists developed ingenious techniques for breeding corn.

When Columbus arrived in the New World, the Iroquois Confederacy in what’s now northeastern North America had been practicing participatory democracy for 350 years. Their visionary principles influenced the formation of the United States and its Constitution.

Maybe we will be inspired by these revelations to undertake a thorough revisioning of the history of the place where we live.

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The People Who Came Before Me

I revere the ancestors and honors the history of the places where I have lived. For over two decades, my home has been Marin County, California, which was once the land primarily inhabited by the Indigenous Coast Miwok people. They lived in three villages: Awani-wi, Ewu, and Shotomko-cha.

They still live here! Today, over 3,5000 Coast Miwok reside in their ancient homeland.

Many Coast Miwok have been animists, living with the understanding that soul and sentience animate all animals and plants as well as rocks, rivers, mountains—everything, really. That happens to be my understanding, as well.

Centuries ago, their food came from hunting and gathering, and they lived in small bands without centralized political authority.

In the springtime they hunted salmon and other seafood, including seaweed. Otherwise their staple foods were primarily acorns, deer, and rabbits.

One of their creation stories says that Coyote and Silver Fox got together and made the world by singing and dancing it into existence.

While I personally suspect that there may be some credibility in the modern scientific myth of the Big Bang as the origin of the universe, my dream life and eternal wild self assure me that it’s more complicated than that. So I love entertaining the possibility of the Creation beginning through song and dance.

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Recommended books:

A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn

An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World by David E. Stannard

1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann

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Haudenosaunee Confederacy

One of the earliest democracies was the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. It’s a group of Indigenous American nations, whose people collectively refer to themselves as the Haudenosaunee. According to some scholarly research, it launched in the year 1142. Other sources trace it to 1390 or the years between 1450 and 1500.

The constitution at the heart of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy inspired the United States Constitution. In 1988, the US Senate acknowledged this fact, passing a resolution that reads, “The confederation of the original 13 colonies into one republic was influenced by the political system developed by the Iroquois Confederacy, as were many of the democratic principles which were incorporated into the constitution itself.”

You can read the Iroquois Constitution here:

Here’s one of my favorite parts of the Iroquois Constitution, Clause 24:

The Lords of the Confederacy of the Five Nations shall be mentors of the people for all time. The thickness of their skin shall be seven spans—which is to say that they shall be proof against anger, offensive actions, and criticism.

Their hearts shall be full of peace and good will and their minds filled with a yearning for the welfare of the people of the Confederacy.

With endless patience they shall carry out their duty and their firmness shall be tempered with a tenderness for their people.

Neither anger nor fury shall find lodgement in their minds and all their words and actions shall be marked by calm deliberation.


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