What Are We Fighting For?

Sherri Mitchell

Sherri Mitchell

Guest Commentary

All across the globe people are rising up against corporate tyranny. The Indigenous peoples that are on the front lines of this uprising recognize that we are fighting for more than cultural survival and the protection of a way of life. We are fighting for nothing less than our survival, and the survival of all life on this planet. Toward that end, we are engaged in multiple layers of action. We are mounting defenses that are based on historic treaty rights, statutory rights, cultural rights, and basic human rights under mechanisms of both domestic and international law. We are engaged in policy debates, protests and other forms of direct action against tar sands, shale gas, mountain top mining, big agri-business and countless other destructive practices. In many instances we are on the defensive, trying to prevent looming threats to our traditional and cultural way of life, our health and safety, the rights of future generations and the rights of Mother Earth.  All of this work is vitally important. But, the time has come for us to do more.

We need to be willing to not only stand on our cultural way of life, but to ask ourselves hard questions about how our current way of life moves us beyond the immediate threats that we are facing. And, we have to be willing to be honest about the many ways that we are contributing to the existence of the very threats that we are working so hard to avert.

As traditional people, we recognize the sacredness of all life. Our ties to the sacred provide us with an understanding of the inherent value of every living thing. And, these ties teach us of the threads of connectivity that inextricably bind our lives to all living beings within the creation. When we pray, we end our prayers with an acknowledgment of this connection. When we say N’dilnabamuk, or all my relations, we are acknowledging that our prayers not only impact us as individuals, but that they impact the entire creation, such is the nature of our connection. As a result of this understanding, we recognize the necessity of maintaining our balance with the world around us, knowing that each individual has an impact on the wellbeing of the whole. We recognize that our balance is essential to maintaining a harmonious life with our Mother, the Earth, and with all of our relations including: the two legged, the four legged, the insects, the winged ones, and those who live in the waters; the sacred elements of earth, water, wind and fire, and the trees and plants that feed us, shelter us, and provide us with tools and medicine.

When we speak to the entire creation we say M’zeetah N’dilnabamuk, which means all of my relations, all of us together. This reminds us that we are all tied to one another, one family, and one living system. These beliefs permeate our spiritual understanding of our place within the creation and they form the foundation of our original instructions as caretakers. We cannot simply say that we are caretakers of the Earth. The Earth does not need us to survive; it is we that need the Earth. Therefore, we recognize that we are caretakers of our place within the structure of creation and that our responsibility is to maintain a state of harmony and balance with all elements of that creation. These beliefs guide and define our way of life.

Unfortunately, our current way of life has fallen out of balance with these beliefs. We still speak these beliefs, we stand up for them, but very few of us actually live in accordance with them. This must change.

Today, our survival is reliant upon a return to the way of life that is defined by our core beliefs and original instructions. As caretakers of a harmonious and balanced way of life, it is our responsibility to model that way of life for those who have become lost. This requires us to do more than fight against an overgrown and destructive system. It requires us to abandon that system completely. How can we fight against the fossil fuel industry when we continue to use fossil fuels in our cars and our homes? How can we fight against big agri-business when we are the ones buying their foods? We have to begin to demonstrate a new way forward, which means that we have to begin to take this concept of sovereignty seriously. We need to engage in energy sovereignty, food sovereignty, medical sovereignty, educational sovereignty and legal sovereignty. We need to create food systems that are based in our traditional subsistence practices. We have to create large scale community gardens and traditional medicinal apothecaries. We have to utilize alternative forms of energy that work in harmony with the natural world. We have to reclaim the education of our children. And, we have to create legal systems that are designed in accordance with our cultural values and beliefs.

We have abandoned our communal way of life, for lives that are disconnected and individualized. In doing so, we have contributed to the destruction that is now consuming the Earth. This disconnection didn’t happen overnight and our return to a communal way of life is not going to be recreated overnight. But, we must start moving in that direction today.

As we move forward, we must continue to protect our lands, waters, and our rights as human beings and as Indigenous peoples. But, we must never forget that those rights originate from the agreement that we made with the Creator at the beginning of time. This agreement is our original treaty. We can only claim the rights granted under that treaty if we meet our responsibilities. Those responsibilities require us to live in harmony with one another, the Earth and all other elements of creation. It is time for us all to unite under this common purpose, as we all share the common goal of survival, for ourselves and for the generations yet to come.

Sherri Mitchell is a member of the Penobscot Nation. She is an Indigenous rights attorney and activist. She currently serves as Executive Director of the Land Peace Foundation, working with tribes in the United States and Canada on the protection of Indigenous lands, waters, and sacred sites. She also provides training on the creation of effective nonviolent Indigenous rights movements to tribal groups and their allies.  


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