Lessons in Belonging from Indigenous Leaders | Sojourners

Lessons in Belonging from Indigenous Leaders

Relief workers prepare supplies at a farm, used as a base for aid to Navajo families quarantined in their homes due to the coronavirus disease in Hogback, Shiprock, N.M. April 7, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Hay

“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” — e.e. cummings

COVID-19 America has revealed how young it is — that we are a nation still struggling to grow up and figure out who we are. The daily news bears this out:

  • We are seeing inequities in which communities are being hit by the virus, communities that are being ignored or even punished by the government.
  • A nurse in New York City said in a video that patients are ‘literally being murdered’ by the negligence of the government.
  • We grieve and speak up about the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a young man who was shot and killed by a white father in son in Georgia while out for a run simply because he was black.
  • According to the latest jobs numbers, Hispanics are being hit the hardest by the economic recession with a nearly 19 percent unemployment rate.
  • The Navajo nation continues to report a rise in COVID-related deaths, bringing it to at least 79 as of Tuesday.
  • And in Seattle, a health center caring for Native COVID-19 patients asked for medical supplies and received a box of body bags instead.

This is a stark and morbid metaphor for what Indigenous peoples have faced in America since its beginning; we ask for partnership and help and we are answered with erasure and oppression. People continue to say, “This isn’t who we are,” while denying the history of this nation, built on the foundations of white supremacy and oppression of Indigenous and black peoples. America is struggling to figure out who we are in this time of crisis, and it is only revealing that we have a long way to go to become the land of the free and home of the brave.

But even as non-Native news sources are slowly beginning to report on the great inequality that this virus is exacerbating across the world, Indigenous peoples are rising up to care for their communities in beautiful ways, showing that resilience has lasted for centuries and will continue long after this pandemic has passed.

Yesterday I smudged with my children and prayed for the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, who are fighting to keep their land from being taken out of trust by the Trump administration. The next hearing date is set for May 20. Danielle Hill called for people to pray for the tribe, to light a fire, a candle, to show support as they fight for their right to keep and care for the land.

Indigenous peoples have always been connected to the land. So, in this time of crisis, Indigenous peoples are practicing in ways that have always been part of who we are. We are planting seeds, we are harvesting medicines and maple syrup, and working to stay connected to our languages. We are acknowledging our trauma and having conversations about how to care for one another and our non-human creature kin.

Native leaders are hosting webinars on how COVID-19 is affecting different Indigenous communities across Turtle Island. Indigenous scientists are online sharing about how medicines are keeping our immune systems healthy during this time, reminding us to return to the land.

We are checking on our elders, trying to get essential items delivered to their doors, because they are the carriers of our culture. We are beading jewelry and designing face masks, we are writing and creating and coping as best we can, knowing that the trauma buried deep in our bones is alive and well in our experiences.

What can the world learn from us during this time? Why is being Indigenous important?

We are a constant reminder that the land is always listening.

Right now, we are seeing a global pandemic steal thousands of people away, and we are asking what comes next: Will our capitalist system survive, and if not, how will communal ways of living and belonging shape our future? Can we give up our American individualism for ways of taking care of one another?

During COVID-19, some churches have continued to meet together, and many of the churches that practiced social distancing are starting to come together in person again, claiming that, as one woman said in a news interview, “I’m covered in Jesus’ blood!”

They are taking their individualism and passing it off as faith, and in doing so proving that they have no care for those on the margins, for people who are immunocompromised or disabled, for the elderly, and for black, brown, and Asian communities who are suffering far worse than privileged, white communities.

What would it mean to practice belonging, no matter who we are, what religion we practice, who our people are? What does being human really mean?

It means we can live and we can die.
It means we are not immune to grief.
It means are capable of deeper relationships.
It means we are not alone in this.

Indigenous ways of belonging remind us.

I’ve been thinking about Potawatomi ancestors who lived through removal and sickness, remembering the Trail of Death that removed many Potawatomi people from Indiana and forced them to trek to Kansas and live on land they had never known, let alone cultivated before.

They had to begin again, asking what was on the other side.
And so, we are beginning again, asking what will be on the other side of this.

I hope that America gains the courage we need to grow up and become who we really are. I hope we can find the courage to face the truth about our own origins, and do what’s necessary to become better than we have been in the face of this crisis.

Muscogee poet laureate Joy Harjo sums up beautifully in her poem “Remember" what it means to be human right now. May we carry this embodied belonging with us, and create a better world on the other side of this.

Remember you are all people and all people are you.
Remember you are this universe and this universe is you.
Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember language comes from this.
Remember the dance language is, that life is.

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