From”Sacred Instructions” – The Four Foundations of Self-Determination

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Book Excerpt

Published June 6, 2018

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from “Sacred Instructions: Indigenous Wisdom for Spirit-Based Change,” by Sherri L. Mitchell: 

The Four Foundations of Self-Determination

Water Sovereignty

I was raised to view water as my relative. I have a deep kinship connection to the water of the Penahwabskek (Penobscot) River. I grew up in and around those waters, and the history of my people is tied to them. My life, and the lives of all those who live along those shores, are dependent of the health of those waters. Therefore it is my responsibility to care for them and to ensure that those waters are healthy and safe from contamination and destruction.

Water is the foundation of all life, and it is fundamental to our survival. The misuse and destruction of our water is the most critical issue that we are facing at this time. There are a number of human activities that are posing a threat to our water. The most pressing threats are connected to industrial activity, primarily from the three giants: fossil fuel exploration and extraction, large-scale agricultural practices, and bottled water extraction.

Water sovereignty is not just an environmental issue. It is also tied inextricably to social justice. The human right to life is dependent on access to clean water. Therefore, all human rights are deeply connected to the water. Like all of the other elements of our survival, water has been commodified and broken down into saleable units. At this time, water is the most commercialized “product” on the planet. Knowing that there is a finite amount of water available to us, we can draw some natural conclusions about where the commercial grab for water will lead us.

In many places around the world, the ability to access clean water is a daily challenge. This reality is causing massive migration and refugee crises around the world. People from rural areas across the globe are flooding into cities in search of water, causing wide-scale social dilemmas that lead to conflict and violence.

The water plant tower in Flint, Mich

There are an estimated nine hundred million people in the world today who are facing life-threatening water shortages, and others, like those in Flint, Michigan, are facing wide-scale illness and social collapse as a result of contaminated water supplies. Yet our industrial practices have not changed. We are still using massive amounts of water to further the profitability of industry at the expense of life. And for the first time in human history, we are actively removing water from the water table through the highly destructive industrial practice of hydrofracking, which further erodes our ability to support life on this planet. Rather than strengthening the protections for our water, industrial giants are buying legislation that weakens the protections that are already in place. This is suicidal. In addition, the laws surrounding water protection have very little bite when it comes to enforcement. Rather than jailing those who threaten life on this planet, our governments simply assess fees against them. These fees are not a hindrance to industry. They simply build the fees into their bottom line and violate these protections at will, providing further evidence of the mental and spiritual illness that is at the heart of unchecked capitalism.

Water is sacred. It flows through all life on this planet. It is the building block that allowed life to emerge here on Mother Earth. Most of the recommendations for protection of the water are connected to individual usage: dispose of chemicals properly, take shorter showers, and avoid using toxic fertilizers. Though these are important considerations, they don’t address the larger problems that are being caused by industrial practices. So, how do we meaningfully protect our vital waters for current and future generations? We do so by speaking to industrial leaders in the language that they understand—profit. We have to make it more and more difficult for them to profit from the destruction of the Earth. This means we have to divest our lives, to the greatest degree possible, from those industries that are destroying our water supply.

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The divest movement has gained considerable momentum in recent years. People are starting to become more and more aware of how their dollars are being used to support environmental degradation, and they are withdrawing their support. It is up to us to learn who is committing this environmental destruction, who is financing it, and how we can exert our financial influence to end those practices. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.[i] In order to break free from the stranglehold that industry has over our lives, we must demand changes. We do this by withdrawing our support of practices that harm or eliminate our water on all fronts. We stop banking with those who finance these destructive practices; we stop buying products that lead to water contamination or diminishment; we stop doing business with anyone that supports or subsidizes the destruction of our water supply in any way. For instance, we stop buying bottled water; we stop buying oil and gas products from the worst abusers; we limit or eliminate our consumption of industrial foods; and we work to create alternatives that diminish or eliminate our addiction to fossil fuels.

With conscious effort, we can shift industry back toward more responsible practices, or we can remove them from the field. This process will ask a great deal of us. It will require us to be uncomfortable. It will inconvenience us. It will challenge us to work a bit harder to meet the day-to-day needs of our lives. And it will require us to set aside our difference and coalesce around this central issue. We will need to work in unison and rise up collectively so that we can reach the critical mass needed to make a difference. Although it seems like an awful lot of work, the alternative is catastrophic loss of life. We must show up.

Food Sovereignty

Food sovereignty is tied to the land. One of the problems that we are facing is that our current lifestyles take us away from the land. Many people have never had the opportunity to build a relationship with the land around them. They have never grown their own food, or walked softly through the forest to see what it has to teach them. Modern life has taken us farther and farther away from the sources of our survival, which is causing greater and greater risk to our life.

Modern food production is handled on huge industrial farms and in processing plants. Gone are the days when the majority had a direct hand in growing, harvesting, and preparing their own foods. This shift is problematic on its own, on a spiritual and emotional level. However, the impacts that it has had on our planet and physical well-being are catastrophic.

Industrial agriculture is one of the most environmentally destructive industries going today. It threatens human health, compromises the safety of animals, destabilizes small rural communities, and supports rampant workers’ rights violations. The increase in toxic pesticide use, water consumption, and water contamination rates and the increased incidence of animal abuse and mass reduction of biodiversity all connect to large-scale industrial agricultural practices.

Monoculture cropping is the practice of growing single crops on the same plot of land, year after year, with no crop rotation, until the soil is destroyed. It is an unnatural method of farming that leads to countless detrimental effects on the soil. It weakens the soil nutritionally and structurally. Because the soil is weakened and depleted through this process, large amounts of toxic fertilizers must be used to grow crops in it. And farmers who grow single crops are more vulnerable to the loss of their entire stock, from pests and insects that target that particular plant. Therefore, large amounts of pesticides are required to secure production. All of the chemicals from those fertilizers and pesticides are on our food and in our soil, and they leach into our ground water. Since monocropping depletes the soil of its vital nutrients, the foods grown in these environments also lack nutrients, which leave those who eat them nutrient deficient. And since monocropping destroys the ability of the soil to sustain normal plant life, monoculture farms are generally reliant on genetically modified seeds.

In addition to the harm caused by industrial planting, there are also heavy impacts caused by meat production. The meat industry is perhaps the most polluting industry within the agricultural field. The meat industry is a leading cause of deforestation around the world, and its effects are currently devastating the Amazon. The meat industry uses almost half of the land on Earth. It consumes somewhere between 35 and 70 trillion (with a t) gallons of water a year. To produce one pound of industrial beef, it requires approximately 2,500 gallons of water. People are often advised to take personal steps to decrease water usage, which is a great idea overall. However, these impacts are negligible when compared to the impacts that could be caused by changes in the meat industry. For instance, shortening your individual shower time every day might allow you to save 140 gallons of water a week, which may seem like a lot. But when you consider that reducing the beef consumption of the average family could save up to 10,000 gallons of water a week, it seems like a drop in the bucket.

The meat industry also poses a great risk to public health with its rampant use of antibiotics. Approximately 80 percent of the antibiotics produced in the United States are used by the meat industry. Rampant antibiotic use in our culture has created a number of antibiotic-resistant bacteria strains and superbugs. It is also interesting to note that the rise in immunological diseases in our societies seems to have accompanied the industrialization of our food. As you can see, the health and environmental impacts are significant, but they’re only part of the problem.

The meat industry also has one of the largest political lobbies in the country. It is estimated that they funnel close to eighteen million dollars a year into political donations and lobbying, making them one of the leading contributors to the moneyed corruption of our legislative processes.

All in all, the agricultural industry has become a substantial risk to our environment, our health, and our democracy. The control that they wield over our lives by controlling our food is far-reaching. In order to move away from this control, we have to claim sovereignty over our food production and significantly reduce or eliminate our investment in industrial foods.

Native youth learing about American Indian food sovereignty at meeting in December 2017 in Las Vegas. Native News Online photo by Levi Rickert.

Food sovereignty offers us the right to access healthy and culturally appropriate foods that are grown in sustainable, earth-friendly ways. It allows us to localize our food production, moving away from large-scale industrial agriculture and back toward small community farms. The industrial shift away from small community farms has had an incredibly detrimental impact on our communities and our societies as a whole. It has taken us away from another source of our survival, distancing us from what nourishes us and keeps us alive and well. Moving back toward small localized food production provides us with long-term food security in our local areas. Food sovereignty also allows us the opportunity to distribute food more evenly and establish food justice in our areas, where everyone has access to food, regardless of race, class, religion, ethnicity, ability, or any other classification.

Small-scale farming creates food security, builds community, and strengthens the local economy by allowing the money to stay within the community. It also provides residents access to healthy and nourishing foods that they can trust. Cooperative farms are another option that allows for sustainable and eco-friendly practices to be shared within a community. Investing in local farmland cooperatives or land trusts also helps to protect those lands from industrial destruction going forward. And when we invest in community-supported agriculture projects, we allow small farmers, who are our friends and neighbors, to make an adequate living. Finally, the most important benefit of reclaiming our food sovereignty is that it allows us to take control of our own survival and reduces our dependency.

Energy Sovereignty

Energy sovereignty involves the right of individuals, communities, and peoples to define for themselves the parameters of energy generation, distribution, and consumption that is most aligned with their social, ecological, cultural, and economic position without impacting others negatively. It incorporates local traditional knowledge and seeks to work in harmony with the natural world, causing the least amount of harm. It allows each community to determine what its energy needs are and to find the path to meeting those needs in ways that benefits the entire ecological system, rather than simply benefitting the human population.

The type of energy sovereignty that I am talking about is very different than the type of energy sovereignty asserted by the fossil fuel industry and politicians, where energy production is tied more closely to profit than it is to need, and is often pursued at the expense of the Earth and the people impacted by the environmental pollution that it causes.

Most people have lived the majority of their lives without giving much thought to energy, where it comes from, how it was made, or what impacts it’s having. However, growing awareness of the impacts and risks associated with climate change and other forms of ecological destruction are causing many to think about energy in more pointed and meaningful ways. It is clear that we need to move away from the dirty energy production associated with fossil fuels, and quickly, if we hope to slow and then reverse the destruction to our planet. People around the world are beginning to think seriously about how they might take control of their energy production, reduce their local impact, and become more ecologically sound

We all know that the fossil fuel industry causes severe environmental destruction, but there are other costs that many people don’t take into consideration when gauging the overall cost-benefit analysis of fossil fuel use. The impact on communities living in proximity to extraction or production sites is severe. These individuals often suffer severe health problems such as asthma, cancer, and other immunological diseases. The cost associated with these health impacts is exorbitant, costing taxpayers millions of dollars each year. There are also costs passed along to citizens as a result of the huge tax subsidies that are given to fossil fuel companies. When all of these costs are added up, the price of fuel is much higher than it appears. The belief that fossil fuels provide a low-cost energy option is a complete fallacy. The cost of fossil fuels is high for the environment, public health, and the economy.

Moving away from fossil fuels and toward local renewable energy collectives provides communities with the greatest opportunity for becoming self-sustaining. First of all, it allows local residents to determine the best method of energy production for their region, giving them a greater capacity to manage the overall well-being of their community. When renewable energy production is localized, it tends to create more jobs and provide greater economic returns. Although there may be some benefit to allowing an outside source to develop renewable energy projects in your area, such as allowing them to absorb the initial costs, those benefits are quickly outweighed by what is lost. When energy production is outsourced, the bulk of the profit leaves the community, the highest-paying jobs are often located outside the area, and control over long-term energy management is taken away. Keeping it localized allows you to keep all the benefits within the community.

In order for energy production to be truly local, it must be local in terms of geography, ownership, and scale. Local renewable energy projects work with the geography and climate of the region. For instance, sunny climes are best suited to solar; higher elevations to wind; and waterfront regions to noninvasive hydro power. Keeping energy production to scale with the needs of the community reduces costs and the impact on local ecosystems and community development.

In regard to ownership, nearly all of the negative aspects of outsourcing are reversed when efforts are localized. Long-term management is retained by the community, allowing the people to make adjustments based on need, changing technology, and availability of resources. When ownership is localized, all of the jobs stay in the area, providing employment opportunities for individuals with a diverse array of skills and levels of expertise. The profits also stay in the area, with user payments supporting the infrastructure and other local initiatives, and income from employment being invested back into the local economy. Increasing local ownership can also push broader policy initiatives that favor renewable energy, allowing for the expansion of renewable energy into other areas and increasing positive impacts.

Large-scale energy producers have accumulated a great deal of social and political power, which is often used in detrimental ways. The current energy oligarchy has wrested significant power away from the people by taking majority control of our government. A number of politicians have energy investments that cloud their decision-making while in office. Those who aren’t invested in fossil fuels receive benefits in the form of inflated political donations, contributions to their organizations, and political negotiations that favor their priorities. The energy barons also engage in high-priced lobbying efforts that further corrupt our democratic process.

Large-scale industrial energy production, especially when it is connected to fossil fuels, severely diminishes our autonomy. It endangers our local communities, having devastating impacts on our environment, health, and economy. We support these negative impacts when we stay hooked into these systems. In order to step away from the harm caused by these impacts, and reclaim our self-sufficiency, we must regain and retain local control over our energy generation, distribution, and consumption.

Educational Sovereignty

Our children are our most precious gift. They come to us pure, with their hearts still open to the Creator. In their innocence, they remind us of truths that we may have forgotten, simple truths like how to love unconditionally, how to forgive easily, and how to meet the world with wonder. Our children are entrusted to our care by the Creator. They are the Creator’s promise that we will have a tomorrow. The responsibility to care for them is a sacred gift. Our relationship with them is reciprocal. We are the caretakers of the children, and the children are the caretakers of our future. Thus, how and what we teach them determines the type of future that we will have.

In our cultural tradition, we view learning as a circular endeavor, rather than a linear process. We recognize that everyone has something unique to share with us. No one shares eyes with another human being. No one share ears with another human being. No one shares a heart with another human being. Therefore, we all see, hear, and feel differently. As a result, everyone has a unique perspective to offer those around them. Regardless of how long we have lived, or how many experiences we have had, we will still never see life from the perspective of another unless we are willing to recognize that they have something unique to offer us. Because we understand this truth, we view our children as our teachers, acknowledging that they have as much to show us about the world as we have to show them. The way that we teach our children determines not only who they will become, but who we become as a society.

Indigenous learning is formed around concentric circles that encompass all aspects of the child’s being: spiritual, individual, familial, communal, global, and universal. In the first circle the child establishes their foundation in the world. They learn who they are, where they come from, their kinship networks, and their cultural values. The family is the child’s first teacher. Through their interactions with the family, the child first begins to learn who they are in relation to the world around them. First, they learn who they are in relation to the family, then to the larger community, and finally to place. They also learn the core cultural values that form the basis for their family’s beliefs, and how to interact with and treat others, which forms the foundation for their social skills.

Sherri Mitchell

I learned some of these lessons by learning to introduce myself in my language. When I introduce myself in the language, I first say my name, Wena Hamu Kwasset, and where I’m from, nejayu Penahwabskek, and who my relatives are, Awesus nil Penahwabskek naka Kahkakuhs nil Sipiyak. When I introduce myself in the language, I never simply give my name; I place myself in context with the land and within the family that I belong to. This grounds my identity and informs me that my life is tied to something greater than myself.

The second circle contains knowledge that connects the child to the world beyond the family. The child learns to connect with the natural world and begins to understand interconnectedness and compassion for other living beings. Here, the child also learns how his or her family fits into to the larger community. I learned many of these lessons from grandparents. My grandfather walked me through the woods and introduced me to the plants and trees. He told me which plants were safe to eat and which ones to avoid. He taught me which trees were used for baskets and which ones were made into canoes. He paddled me up and down the river, and taught me about the current and introduced me to the animals that made their home along its shores. He taught me about my clans; how each clan had a particular role to play in the community, and that each role was as important as the next.

My grandmother taught me how I was connected to her Passamaquoddy family that lived near the sea. She told me about the foods that they collected along the shoreline and how they picked sweetgrass and learned to braid it and then weave it into baskets. My grandparents also taught me how their tribes were related to one another and how they fit into the larger confederation of tribes that made up our confederacy. All of this information taught me how I fit into the larger world, by expanding my circle of connection beyond my immediate family. It also taught me how to live in connection to the natural world and how to incorporate my cultural traditions into my daily living.

The third circle involves learning the meaning behind our cultural traditions. This is the first stage of initiation into the tribe, where we learn the meaning of our songs, dances, and ceremonies. This information deepens our knowledge of our culture traditions and engenders a greater understanding of the values that are held within those traditions. Since our songs, dances, and ceremonies all express a connection to different aspects of our lives, they also help strengthen our understanding of our connection to life. Within this circle, we learn of our origins, our connection to spirit, our connection to the Earth, and our connection to one another. And we learn how our traditions provide continuity to our culture that goes back thousands of years. This allows us to develop cultural pride and honor our lineage, and it instills within us a sense of obligation to carry that lineage into the future.

In the fourth circle, we begin to explore who we are on our own. This is where traditional rites of passage take place. Women enter in the moon lodge and the men go off on a vision quest. In the quiet stillness, we learn to face our fears on our own, and discover the strengths and gifts that we carry within us. This is also when the elders begin to focus on our gifts and help us learn to develop them more skillfully. Here, we gain confidence in who we are and what we have to offer. We recognize our creation song and begin to learn it note by note. This was when I learned to recognize the voice of my inner teacher and when I began developing my own voice. This is also when I first began sharing the things that I heard from spirit with my elders and peers, and when the elders first began encouraging me to follow the guidance that spirit was giving me, as a priority.

In the fifth circle, we look for ways to offer our gift in service to our community. We take everything that we have learned and put it into practice in our daily lives. We begin to think about our larger role within the community and beyond, and determine how we are going to contribute to the larger scheme of creation in meaningful ways. This is where our creation song is sung to the world, where we determine our true path in life and begin walking it purposefully.

In the sixth circle, we come to a place of reevaluation. Here, we must contemplate all that we’ve learned within our family and within our larger community and expand it to a more global perspective. At this stage, we shed all the barriers that separate us and merge more inclusively with the larger whole. For me, this was the time when I began truly healing the wounds of generational trauma and connecting my heart to the larger heart of humanity. This is when I became able to translate my own teachings into a broader perspective and harmonize them with the teachings of other wisdom traditions.

In the seventh circle, we transcend all of our previous teachings and integrate fully back into the mind of creation. Here, we have fully balanced our mind, body, and spirit and harmonized the masculine and feminine aspects within us. This is the stage of enlightened wisdom, the stage of the true spiritual elder.

This path of learning guided us through the stages of our lives with purpose and meaning. It grounded each stage of learning into a structure that supported us and allowed for full development of each aspect of our being. Unfortunately, this path of development was greatly disrupted by the colonial education system that was structured along linear, hierarchical lines whose only purpose was to prepare us for participation with the patriarchal paradigm. It did nothing to develop the deeper aspects of our being, or to allow for the full fruition of our individualized gifts, or the integration of those gifts into the larger whole. It kept us fragmented and compartmentalized, and prevented us from reaching our full potential.

One of the keys to knowing who we are is in understanding where we have come from—not only physically but historically, culturally, and spiritually. The colonial education system disallowed us from learning those lessons by emphasizing and centralizing the dominant narrative. It failed to allow us to see our way of life, our core values, or our cultural relevance centralized. We were reduced to the shadows, where discussion of our existence became part of a fringe discussion. We were reduced to a column on a diversity checklist that focused only on surface differences, without any examination of deeper ideological differences that left no room for discussion on how those ideological viewpoints may have held benefit to the larger society.

The colonial educational system promoted the notion that the establishment knew more than we did. It suppressed all thoughts and ideas that didn’t fit into its narrative, and crushed individuation that challenged the status quo. It discouraged creative thinking and disallowed critical thinking. Within this system, we were devalued and we were taught to devalue ourselves. Assimilation was the chosen course and presented as the only path out of the poverty and enslavement that it had placed us in. Yet even that path was laced with trickery, as it forced us to believe that we had to choose between financial poverty and spiritual poverty, making poverty a foregone conclusion. It denied us the richness that was held in our cultural traditions, and the possibility of a way of life that was harmonized with the rest of creation. Colonial education was filled with contrasts and compromises that diminished the value of everything that had meaning to us. But we were forced to accept it.

The pathway out of the poverty that the colonial patriarchy creates is through educational sovereignty. This path allows us to escape the reservation of the mind established through the colonial education system and returns us to the way of life offered by our ancestors. It allows for the development of all aspects of our being and enables us to fully integrate our lives with the larger creation. It unleashes the creative powers of our minds and the beauty of our hearts.

Our children are the keepers of our future. In order to prepare them for the future that they hold, we have to engage a process of learning that educates, enlivens, and transforms their inner being. We have to teach our children to become fully integrated beings who can function in harmony with one another and the world around them. The proper educational experience opens a child’s heart and mind to lifelong learning, and it provides them with the self-knowledge and self-confidence needed to inspire transformational change. If we hope to change the world, we must first provide an environment for change to take place. That environment is cultivated through the assertion of educational sovereignty.

[i]. Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963, in Why We Can’t Wait (New York: New American Library, 1964).


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