How can we understand the Bible and other faith teachings in the context of today’s ecological crisis? How can we restore traditional practices that once directed a mutual relationship among God, humans and nature?
These are among the questions raised by Aliou Niang, associate professor of New Testament at Union Theological Seminary, in “A Poetics of Postcolonial Biblical Criticism: God, Human-Nature Relationship, and Negritude” (2019). Niang will discuss these and other issues raised in his book in a webinar on Friday, November 5, at noon Eastern Time.
Left to right: Aliou Niang, Souleymane Diagne, Petra Thombs
A native of Senegal and member of the region’s Diola people, Niang describes his book as “a humble reading of Scripture in conversation with Diola faith traditions.” He integrates the work of Léopold Sédar Senghor, the architect of the concept of Négritude, and other postcolonial theorists to “reposition the colonized” and learn from “people who have been negotiating life with nature since time immemorial and were aware of climate change since its onset.”
At the discussion, Columbia University Professor of French and of Philosophy Souleymane Diagne, who also directs the Institute of African Studies at Columbia, will offer a response to Niang’s presentation. Rev. Petra Thombs, executive director of the Ramapough Lenape Nation Community Center in Mahwah, N.J., will provide a reflection.
“Postcolonial Poetics: Aliou Niang on the Human-Nature Relationship” is co-sponsored by the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and the Institute for African Studies at Columbia University.
This webinar is free, but registration is required.
Aliou Cisse Niang is associate professor of New Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Before joining Union, he served as assistant and associate professor of New Testament at Memphis Theological Seminary in Tennessee, where he was named The Rev. Dr. James L. Netters Associate Professor of New Testament and received The Paul R. Brown Distinguished Teaching Award. His previous books include “Faith and Freedom in Galatia and Senegal” (2009) and “Text, Image and Christians in the Graeco-Roman World: A Festschrift in Honor of David Lee Balch” (2012), which he co-edited with Carolyn Osiek.
Souleymane Bachir Diagne is professor of French and of philosophy at Columbia University, where he also directs the Institute for African Studies. Before joining Columbia, he taught philosophy for many years at Cheikh Anta Diop University, Dakar (Senegal) and at Northwestern University. He is the author of “African Art as Philosophy: Senghor, Bergson, and the Idea of Negritude” (2011), “Bergson postcolonial. L’élan vital dans la pensée de Senghor et de Mohamed Iqbal” (2011), “The Ink of the Scholars: Reflections on Philosophy in Africa” (2016), and “Open to Reason: Muslim Philosophers in Conversation with Western Tradition” (2018).
Petra Thombs is the executive director of the Ramapough Lenape Community Center in Mahwah, N.J., operated by the Ramapough Mountain Indians. She is in preliminary fellowship with the Unitarian Universalist Association, and was ordained in 2021. A graduate from Union Theological Seminary with a Masters of Divinity and a major in church history, she focuses on the Doctrine of Discovery as it has fostered racism and extreme marginalization for Indigenous communities globally.
Water is fundamental to all life on Earth. Protecting water is essential for ecosystem restoration, biodiversity, food justice and calming the climate crisis. As we seek to build frameworks for regenerative systems, Indigenous peoples—who already safeguard water and hold ancestral knowledge and cultural practices necessary to support that work—deserve a place at the center.
Join the Center for Earth Ethics on Thursday, October 7, at noon Eastern Time, for a webinar, “Indigenous Water Ethics: A Traditional Dialogue.” Mona Polacca, senior fellow for CEE’s Original Caretakers Program, has assembled representatives of different Indigenous cultures to present their diverse perspectives and lived experiences stabilizing, protecting and creating resiliency for their communities’ water sources.
Speakers scheduled to appear in the dialogue are:
Rāwiri Tinirau, co-director of Te Atawhai o Te Ao, a Māori research institute focused on health and environmental research. He is also deputy chair of Ngā Tāngata Tiaki o Whanganui, the post settlement governance entity for the Whanganui River settlement—the landmark 2017 case granting “personhood” to New Zealand’s Whanganui River.
Betty Lyons, president and executive director of the American Indian Law Alliance (AILA), an Indigenous and environmental activist, and citizen of the Onondaga Nation. She has worked for the Onondaga Nation for more than 20 years and is a fierce protector of Onondaga Lake and the Creek that connect the Nation to the body of water. Betty is co-chair of CEE’s Advisory Board.
Austin Nunez, chairman of the Wa:k—San Xavier District of the Tohono O’odham Nation located in the arid Sonoran Desert region of southwestern Arizona. He will present a case study about a 23-year legal challenge to regain his tribe’s inherent well and water rights.
CEE’s Original Caretakers Program promotes learning from Indigenous knowledge to address the ecological crisis. The program also supports wisdom keepers from Indigenous traditions, advocates for Indigenous rights and self-determination, and seeks the engagement of Indigenous peoples in economic development decisions.
“This is a good day,” says Mona Polacca. “This is a good day to come together.”
In this blessing recorded to mark the summer solstice, Polacca, a senior fellow at the Center for Earth Ethics, reminds us of “the many blessings that the summer season brings to us.”
“We are seeking that good blessing to walk in balance and harmony,” she says. “We want to be in balance with all these things that we share life with on Mother Earth.”
Polacca leads the CEE’s Original Caretakers program, which engages Indigenous knowledge and traditions to address the spiritual and practical dimensions of environmental devastation. She is also president of the Turtle Island Project, a member of the Healing the Border Project of the Indigenous Alliance Without Borders, and a founding member of the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers.
Taking time out today to acknowledge this divine creation. Water.
Where is your water?
What is happening to your water?
Who is making decisions about your water?
Where is the water that you come from?
What is your identity in relationship with your water?
The Center for Earth Ethics welcomes Mona Polacca as Senior Fellow, Original Caretakers Program. Mona is an elder of the Hopi, Tewa, and Havasupai lineages from the Blue-Green Waters of the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River.
This piece is re-published on International Women’s Day 2021 with gratitude to President Joseph R. Biden for his Proclamation on Irish-American Heritage Month, 2021 and a call for “all Americans to celebrate the achievements and contributions of Irish Americans to our Nation with appropriate ceremonies, activities, and programs. The story of the Irish the world over is one of people who have weathered their fair share of hard times, but have always come out strong on the other side.”
“We sing a song to Brigid
Brigid brings the spring
Awakens all the fields and flowers
And calls the birds to sing…”
In the rekindling of the sacred fires of early Christianity, a Celtic Christianity that was not afraid of earth based traditions, we pause at the cross quarter days of Imbolc to welcome Brigid – Goddess or Saint – as she brings spring back to the land.
Brigid (Brigit, Bhride,Brighid,Bríd) as Saint is Patroness of Ireland, she is also a triple Goddess figure of a pre-Christian time. She represents the aspects of Irish traditions and culture encompassing blacksmithing, animal husbandry, hospitality and justice. She holds the teachings of the elementals and of alchemy from the forging of iron and shaping of tools to the forging of words, philosophy and spirit into the prophetic bardic tradition of poetry.
It is worthy to note the perspective of the Brigidine Sisters, Catholic Sisters who to this day celebrate the qualities of Brigid as a woman ‘for our time’. She is emblematic of the call to care for the earth and a beacon in the work of justice and a guide for chaplaincy. From the Sisters: “A Life of Brigid” (Vita Brigitae), composed by Cogitosus about 650 AD, places great emphasis on Brigid’s faith, her healing powers, her hospitality, her generosity, her great skill with animals, and her compassion for the poor and the oppressed. Twenty three of the thirty two chapters tell of her extraordinary concern for the poor. Today that call for justice is strong.
The story of the Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes sits as a stain for the Irish people. Irish Central reported in 2019, “The Magdalene Laundries, named after Mary Magdalene who was in earlier centuries characterized as a converted prostitute, existed from the early 1760s through the late 1990’s in Ireland, the UK, Australia, and the US. An estimated 30,000 women were confined.” The last laundry closed in 1996, just 25 years ago. The numbers of women and babies held was largely speculated but ultimately unknown as records of forced labor and imprisonment as well as records of pregnancies and forced, sometimes illegal, adoptions were not always kept. It has long been a sore reality of children now grown into adulthood not knowing their histories having been separated from their shamed mothers, some not even knowing their own birthdate.
The grievousness of this buried trauma came into painful focus when 796 children, most of them infants, were found in a mass grave on the grounds of the Mother and Baby home in Tuam that had been operated by an order of the Roman Catholic Church between 1925 and 1961. The bodies of the children were found conspicuously in the area of a sewage tank with no shrouds, no coffins. This horrible discovery begged the question, what else was hidden, what else was unknown about this terrible time in Irish history?
In 2015, a federal commission was formed to collect survivor testimony with the intention to produce a report of what happened principally between 1925 and 1998. When the report was to be completed and released in the fall of 2020 in the midst of Covid, a series of missteps began to occur. Survivor testimony was reported lost, portions of the report were leaked, motions were passed in government at a moment’s notice seemingly without regard for the survivors themselves. These events compounded other issues. In January of 2021 the Mother and Baby Homes Commission reported 57,000 children being moved through these homes and over 9,000 infant deaths, however, only 18 out of over 150 homes were included in the report and the recommendation by the Irish Human Rights Commission to apply a human rights framework to the Mother and Baby Homes investigation had been rejected.
The image given to the public was one of a desire to rush through to the completion of the investigation without response to areas of concern and without consultation from survivors, those whose stories of abuse would be summarized, assessed and filed away. While the government leader, Taoiseach Micheál Martin, offered an apology, for some it has not been enough to bring justice to the wounds of the past. In his remarks, Martin said, “One of the clearest messages of the testimonies in this report is how this treatment of women and children is something which was the direct result of how the State, and how we as a society acted.”
This statement inspired the daughter of a Mother and Baby Homes survivor, Laura Murphy, to write an extraordinary history as to what created the conditions that led to the mistreatment, humiliation and oppression of women and their children at the hands of both the church and state when from their collusion, ‘A terrible beauty was born’. In her declaration, “The Irish people were coercively controlled – indoctrinated – through instruments of shame and fear to behave in ways that were contrary to our nature. Muintir na hÉireann did not give informed consent.” “Mná na hÉireann (the women of Ireland) did not give informed consent”, “the people of Ireland did not give informed consent”, separating the actions of the church and state from the will of the people (‘we as a society’).
In this clarion call for justice, her words speak volumes to the loss of Brigid for the Irish and descendants worldwide and to the potential watershed of healing as we acknowledge and repair the trauma of colonization and the ‘perverse’ religious narrative that was adopted and continues to perpetuate harm.
Murphy writes, “Our society was the remnants of one invasion after another from the beginning of our history, the vestiges of a perpetual battle for the reclamation of sovereignty and the preservation of the spirit of our people and land. It was a miracle that we – a small, pillaged, broken nation – had any remaining energy or means to fight for and win our freedom. But we did. Irish women were pivotal in the winning of Irish independence. When Pádraic Pearse declared Irish independence, he addressed ‘Irishmen and Irishwomen’. The promise of our proclamation was ‘equality, happiness and prosperity for all men, women and children’. We were a war-weary, exhausted, divided and vulnerable society. Women and children were written out and the Roman Catholic Church was written in. This truth needs to be understood, acknowledged and acted upon. Survivors need real respect, redress and support, not just lip service. As part of this I am calling for a new national holiday to mark Brigid’s Day. It is time to honour Ireland’s women, past, present. and future.”
In these days when the call to justice, not just recapitulation, is bold and strong we must heed the wisdom of those who keep their hearts and minds close to what is truly being called for. Black Lives Matter and Land Back movements are among those pointing the way. Justice does not come from tolerance, but from equity. Justice comes when we tell the truth about our history. Reconciliation only comes after the Truth.
There is much to learn from the history of the Irish and Irish American people’s experience having been colonized on their own soil by the British; then emigrating, persecuted and punished; then assimilated into ‘American’ and other westernized cultures. Similar to other colonized peoples such as those indigenous to “the Americas” and “Australia”, the Irish, despite being white bodied, were also subject to beatings and humiliation in their post-colonial schools if caught speaking their native language. Their skulls were measured, some on their heads and some stolen from graves, by British researchers in an attempt to prove the Irish as the ‘missing link’ in evolution between monkeys and black bodied people.
When the British came to Ireland they burned the trees to enforce their domination. It destroyed the shelter in which the Irish could hide from their colonizers and simultaneously destroyed a cultural connection to the land, terrorizing a free people away from their language and traditions which were rooted in the forests. For the Irish, their first laws and language emerged from the trees. Brehon Laws were passed to wisdom keepers by oral tradition until the monastic scribes wrote down what they could to preserve them. The Irish language formed from the Proto-CelticOgham alphabet where each letter was representative of a species of tree. This system of law and language for many is interwoven with their living indigenous forms of timekeeping which align seasonal, agricultural and archetypal calendars.
Image by Yuri Leitch, author, The Ogham Grove
When the Irish came to the shores of Turtle Island they were leaving under duress fleeing famine and persecution at home. As descendants of Irish immigrants in the Americas many of us learned a skeletal version of the story of the potato famine. As has been done with other genocides and actions against marginalized peoples, much was erased from our school books. Most of us were not taught how the English sent food that was growing in the nearly barren soil back to England, starving the poor and the hungry people native to the land all while burning their houses and their forests. Some report the most sacred Oaks were cut and used to build the stately homes of the oppressors.
We know that this was not the only instance of colonization enforced through the desacralization of trees as the British had also applied a similar tactic at home. Hawthorne trees, for example, are sacred to the Celts and pre-Celtic nations of many European lands. You will find them commonly beside sacred sites, especially holy wells, as one of the designated ‘guardians’ of these sacred openings into the womb of the Mother. The English co-opted use of the Hawthornes from their place in indigenous culture and turned them into shrubbery used to demarcate property – another design of the dominator culture to enforce ‘ownership’ of the land – a concept both foreign to original peoples. What we understand from this is that for colonization to take root and to thrive it is necessary to cut the relationship between the land and the people. And it is only by the enforcement of this disembodiment can the dominator maintain control.
During the time of the Great Famine many Irish departed for foreign lands from a place called the Bridge of Tears in the north of the republic near Donegal so named because it was the place where families said goodbye to loved ones making far-away journeys. Those leaving did not know if they would ever be returning home – those staying behind not knowing if they would ever see their loved ones again. Some left for the likes of Australia or South Africa, others to Nova Scotia where Irish communities still exist, some co-mingled with Native American populations like the Mic Maq on Cape Breton. Some came through the gates of the ‘New World’. Into the twentieth century they may have faced the signs of racism “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish”, or in London ‘to let’ signs reading “No Coloured, No Irish, No Children.”
Patrick became the Saint they carried with them – a Roma-British missionary from a wealthy family credited with the arrival of Christianity to Ireland and driving out the snakes. Patrick himself was brought to Ireland initially as a child under capture and ‘found God’. When he returned to Ireland as an adult he challenged the Druids – and drove the earth based traditions into the ground – a story told in the allegory of driving out the ‘snakes’. Brigid herself – Irish patroness, symbol of justice, love for the stranger, care for the earth and all her creatures was largely forgotten. While some describe Patrick as a figure who embraced the old world and the new, one can read the Catholic encyclopedia’s full story on Patrick’s battle against the Druids onlinehere. The success of replacing Bhride with Patrick is evidenced easily by the popular parades each March 17th in the US, Ireland and all around the world. It is also noted by oral tradition keepers like John Willmont of Carrowcrory Gardens, stories of more subtle but enduring maneuvers, such as the renaming of holy wells to shift their dedications from Brigid to Patrick changing the course of local traditions and veneration.
Why is this important especially in these times?
In a time of great upheaval, and in the US, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and a wholly unacceptable number of black brothers and sisters in the United States, white descendants of immigrants (and sometimes of the original colonizers themselves) have been asked or rather tasked with a sometimes uncomfortable demand – to go back and wrestle with the truth of our own heritage and the sins committed both by and against our ancestors. We are tasked with undoing the inculturation of white supremacy – of all forms of supremacy – to relieve our black, brown, yellow and red brothers and sisters of the burden white supremacy has placed on them. To relieve the burden the doctrine of domination has wrought upon the earth. There is no question that in addition to the burdens placed upon our colonized ancestors, there was a moment when the old world’s stories were put to the side to rise within the new society where one’s ability to conform and willingness to compete, paved the way for acceptance and material success. But now what?
White bodied people in the US are instructed not to culturally appropriate from the traditions of others in our ‘melting pot’ of diversity but what, if anything, does that leave? With churches seeing record numbers of losses in membership and systems of privilege, capitalism, and patriarchy under fire for abuse, where does that leave so many people? On defense? With shame? An unending apology? Reparations? – yes. But if we can look at the shame that is exposed and make that sincere apology we can begin to make equitable amends and to retrieve our own cultural and spiritual identities.
So this year, we can begin. Begin by honoring the ways of your ancestors. Begin making relations with the land you are on and the waters where you reside, but also, begin to research, to study, to understand, and even to practice what it was that your ancestors did to offer their gratitude, to pray, to connect to the earth. To honor the cycles and the seasons – just begin.
As social justice innovator Sonya Renee Taylor offers, there are some questions to ask, and a quest to fulfill:
“White people cannot escape the violences of whiteness without reckoning with their history. Without reckoning with their ancestors…The history of whiteness is a trauma on the whole world, and every day people of color have to deal with the trauma of whiteness. The problem is white people have been trying not to deal with the trauma of whiteness in their own lives.
And the only way to do that is to actually go back and heal –
To heal the relationship with your ancestors
To grieve the loss of their humanity through their violent acts
To learn what it was that it made them
To seek who they were before they became white
To see what can be salvaged from that place that is within your own culture
and to account for that which was done in harm to gain power.
That’s the only way to move from whiteness…
It is in the cultural mindset of whiteness to figure out how to not have to sit in the discomfort of that history. Be clear I’m talking about an indoctrination in whiteness (not the color of your skin). You actually have to become really clear about how whiteness operates as a system and where it operates as a system. And then the work is to not only remove it from yourself, but to remove it from the systems and structures in the world where it continues to wreak harm.”
Not the both / and that asks us to give equal airtime to the oppressors and the oppressed. This is the both / and of both dismantling the broken system of white supremacy – and beginning to sow new roots in the culture and traditions we have been uprooted from.
Just for today, just for now, remember and recognize that your people, wherever your ancestors are from, were connected to the earth. No matter how far back you have to go to find it. They prayed with the fire and the water. The forests were sacred. They still are: a realization and a revelation of our time on Earth “When we come to it,” as Maya Angelou says again and again as a mantra of awakening in ‘A Brave and Startling Truth’.
As President Biden writes in his address for this month of Irish-American History, ”Everything between us runs deep: literature, poetry, sadness, joy, and, most of all, resilience. Through every trial and tempest, we never stop dreaming.” In beautiful confluence with International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, let us join in a chorus for Brigid to raise her into our consciousness again with the goal to bring forth justice.
Lady, from winters dark,
Star of Imbolc, rise
Dance around our threshold,
Scattering warm laughter,
Seeds of hospitality, forgiveness!
Return again to the folk;
You the spring we yearn for!
Walk to a well, a river, a stream and tend to the waters in reverence. Return among the trees. Be a Brigid of hospitality to a friend, a family member, or a stranger who needs it. Do the work of justice on the inside. Let that guide you in the work of justice without. Be in community. Take care of one another. Alchemize – metal into fire, words into inspirations, poetry into action.
Support the establishment of Brigid’s Day as a National Holiday in Ireland beginning in 2022 and for Irish Americans to stand in solidarity with our kin. #BrigidsDay2022.
You can learn more by watching Ms. Murphy’s Feb 26, 2021 interview with Carrie Ford onOne Boat International Chaplaincy for Covid Times. “The Friday Conversation with activist Laura Murphy discloses a terrible history of shame, cover – ups, lost lives, workhouse conditions, silencing, traumatised lives, and over 9000 documented infant deaths in the recent revelations of the twentieth century experiment of social control exercised by the Catholic Church and State in the first century of the Republic of Ireland. And opens up a pathway for healing and hope.”
**This piece was researched and compiled in cooperation with Karen Minchin, Bean Feasa.
Sean Sherman is one half of the founding duo that is The Sioux Chef behind Indigenous Food Lab in Minneapolis, MN.
Indigenous Food Lab is an education and training center that will serve as the heart of NATIFS’ work establishing a new Indigenous food system that reintegrates native foods and Indigenous-focused education into tribal communities across North America. We envision a future of developing and supporting Indigenous kitchens and food enterprises in tribal communities, bringing cultural, nutritional, and economic revitalization across North America! Learn More at www.natifs.org.
Karenna Gore is the founder and director at the Center for Earth Ethics.
The Center for Earth Ethics is a forum for education, public discourse and movement building that draws on faith and wisdom traditions to address our ecological crisis and its root causes at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Learn More at www.centerforearthethics.org.
Released in March 2020, One Word Sawalmem was a finalist in the short film program of the Tribeca Film Institute, and has been selected for and won awards at 20+ festivals in Argentina, Bolivia, Bhutan, Brazil, Canada, Chile, the Czech Republic, India, Singapore, Spain, Switzerland, the UK and the US.
Directors Pom and Natasha have been invited to speak at a number of events including UNESCO’s International Congress on Indigenous Languages in Cusco Peru, NY Climate Week, UC Berkeley, Cornell University, California College of the Arts, the Sunray Native American Elders Gathering, middle school classrooms and youth leadership groups.
Traer las cuatro banderas
(la roja, la amarilla, la negra, la blanca)
y las cinco cuentas (de piedra verde, de oro,
de pedernal, de obsidiana, de barro)
a esta altura no es fácil.
Se marchitan la flores,
se desgarran las plumas,
se gasta el oro, se astilla el jade.
Se ponen las banderas
al este, al sur, al oeste, al norte;
en el centro se arreglan las cinco cuentas.
Se celebra la ceremonia,
se hace la penitencia,
se abre, se valora el corazón.
Se alza la flor y el canto,
se dan gracias a la vida.
La Tierra escucha.
To bring the four flags
(the red, the yellow, the black, the white)
& the five beads (of green stone, of gold,
of quartz, of obsidian, of clay)
to this height is not easy.
The flowers wilt,
the feathers are tattered,
the gold is worn, the jade chipped.
The flags are placed
to the east, the south, the west, the north;
in the center are arranged the five beads.
The ceremony is celebrated,
penance is made,
the heart is opened, appraised.
Flower & song are raised,
thanks is given to life.
The Earth listens.
~ Rafael Jesús González
October 10, 2020
Rafael Jesús González
Born in the bicultural/bilingual setting of El Paso, Texas/Juárez, Chihuahua, attended the University of Texas El Paso, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, & the University of Oregon. Professor Emeritus of Creative Writing & Literature, taught at the University of Oregon, Western State College of Colorado, Central Washington State University, the University of Texas El Paso, and Laney College, Oakland where he founded the Mexican and Latin American Studies Dept. The first Poet Laureate of Berkeley, CA.
Contributing poet for Earth Stanzas, Earth Day collaboration between the Center for Earth Ethics and Wick Poetry Center at Kent State University and election cycle project, “Where I am From.”
Mindahi Bastida, General Coordinator of the Otomi-Toltec Regional Council in Mexico, issued a statement in response to the murder of Maya Traditional Leader, Domingo Choc, in Guatemala. A video of Mindahi reading his response was recorded and can be viewed here. Read the statement below.
The Indigenous Peoples of the world are the ones who care for life and the Earth, our Mother, since time immemorial. It is time to recognize our work and that others recognize it fully. We are the main guardians of Diversity and Biocultural Heritage in the world. The greatest biocultural diversity is found in our territories, and this is thanks to our material and spiritual practices, which are based on the ancient wisdom of caring for life and relating with the sacred.
Our territories and the collective life of our peoples, both material and spiritual, are seriously threatened by the increasing deterioration of ecosystems and territories resulting from neoliberal economic development. It is urgent to halt ecocide and ethnocide not only to protect nature but to protect its guardians. If we want to protect the biological diversity of the world, it is necessary that national and international entities give absolute guarantees of protection to indigenous peoples, and especially to their spiritual and material leaders.
The historical and recent events of assassinations of indigenous leaders throughout the world have being taking place since the invasion of our territories. The Doctrine of Discovery has been in effect for at least 520 years and the colonial process of domination has been, and still is, devastating. Among other acts against life that we witness and suffer daily, we see with horror that those exercising ancestral spirituality in their own right are being victims of practices from the times of the Inquisition.
On June 6, Domingo Choc, Maya-Q’echi, a Spiritual Leader and Traditional Maya Healer, was burned alive in the Chimay Village, San Luis, Petén, Guatemala. A number of Pentecostal evangelicals set him on fire accusing him of being ‘a witch’. They killed him for practicing Mayan spirituality and, as inquisitors, they did it in proclamation of their Christian faith.
This aberrant and horrendous event is not an isolated case, for it happens often in many countries of the world. In Colombia, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and in other countries and continents such as Africa, indigenous spiritual and material leaders are assassinated or arrested for who they are and what they do—which is only in benefit of a good life for the community.
Taking into consideration the circumstances that led to this act, we demand Justice in the following terms:
1. Criminal and spiritual punishment to the material authors of the murder of Domingo Choc, basing the criminal punishment on articles 36 and 66 of the Political Constitution of Guatemala which refer to freedom of religion and that recognize the ethnic origin of the nation.
2. Granting of protection to the spiritual and material guardians and traditional authorities of Indigenous Peoples of Guatemala, Central and South America and the World.
3. Establishment of an inter-religious and spiritual dialogue to raise awareness and application of spiritual justice based on religious norms.
4. Investigation of cases related to bioprospection and access to traditional knowledge of medicinal plants in the territories of Indigenous Peoples.
It is time to promote the unification process with dignity, recognizing diversity. We all have rights, and we all have the responsibility, individually and collectively, to promote intercultural and inter-spiritual dialogue.
With respect and self-determination, on day 10 Reed, Zanbatha, Valley of the Moon, México. Mindahi Crescencio Bastida Muñoz
Member of the Alliance of Guardians of Mother Earth
With the support of the Center for Earth Ethics
For indigenous people, history plays an unavoidable role in interpreting the pandemic. One elder from Michigan called Joseph to talk about how difficult it’s been for her to care for herself and her family. After some reflection, the woman realized why: She was weighed down by thoughts of the smallpox epidemic that had killed so many Native Americans. She felt she needed to forgive the U.S. government for intentionally giving her people the illness.
While documentary evidence that Europeans or Americans purposely spread smallpox is scarce, there’s little doubt that colonizers brought infectious diseases that killed an estimated 90 percent—some 20 million people or more—of the indigenous population in the Americas. “Even though we may not have been alive in the time of the smallpox epidemic, that’s in our blood memory,” says Joseph, “just as historical resiliency is also in our blood memory.”
Those deeply rooted experiences can lead to acceptance, especially among elders. “They have been through so much and experienced so much that there’s no need to fear or even panic,” says Tiokasin Ghosthorse, the Stoneridge, New York-based host of First Voices Radio and a member of the Cheyenne River Lakota Nation from South Dakota. “It’s almost like this [pandemic] is familiar.”
As such, indigenous communities aren’t dwelling on the pandemic’s backstory. “Indigenous peoples don’t always need to go and explain what happened, why it happened,” says the Reverend David Wilson, a Methodist minister in Oklahoma City and member of the Choctaw Nation. “We just know it’s there.”
“We’re taught not to think of nature as separate,” explains Ghosthorse, and that includes COVID-19. “The coronavirus is a being,” he says. “And we have to respect that being in an ‘awe state’ and a ‘wonder state’ because it has come to us as a medicine” to treat spiritual ills.
Lessons for the future
While this pandemic is presenting an opportunity to find meaningful ways to connect, it’s also a wake-up call with important lessons for the future. “If we don’t learn from now,” warns Mindahi Bastida Muñoz, general coordinator of the Otomi-Toltec Regional Council in Mexico, “then another thing, more powerful, is going to come.”
Bastida, who is also the director of the Original Caretakers program at the Center for Earth Ethics in New York City, says the world is out of balance and that anthropocentrism—our human-centric outlook—is the cause. “We think that we are the ones who can decide everything,” he says, “but we are killing ourselves.”
“Mother Earth is saying, ‘please listen,’” adds Joyce Bryant, known as Grandmother Sasa, the Abenaki founder of a healing center in New Hampshire. “We have to care about others. You know, the grass, the trees, the plants, the air, the water—all are extensions of ourselves. And they teach us.”
“Living in harmony with Mother Earth is a lot of work,” says Bastida, but it can be done by reviving the indigenous idea that humans serve as caregivers of nature. He’s working with spiritual leaders across the world to return to the old ways—producing food by hand, finding medicine in plants, animals, and minerals, and performing rituals and ceremonies that send prayers to Mother Earth.
Perhaps the biggest lesson that indigenous spiritual leaders hope people will take from the pandemic is that it’s a time to be still, to reflect, and to listen to elders. Both Joseph and Wilson likened this period of stay-at-home orders to a long winter, when people would traditionally stay inside and listen to stories. According to Joseph, it’s like Earth is saying “not today, humans, you need some more reflection.”