The physicist Fritjof Capra, founder of the Elmwood Institute, tells the story about a meeting convened years ago by him and his colleagues with a group of Native American elders and thought leaders to explore different perspectives around ecological thinking. From the outset, the gathering was marked by some suspicion towards the Elmwood group, given the historic dynamics of exploitation. The meeting opened with a round of introductions, and an Okanagan woman from British Columbia was first to speak. She began by stating the tribe from which she came and then described the landscape where the tribe lives. She then talked about her father’s and paternal grandparents’ origins, in similar detail, and continued with a description of where her mother and maternal grandparents’ came from. In the end, she linked each family member not just to a named geographic location, but also an illustration of the associated rivers, mountains, plants, and animals. “This is who I am,” she said, wrapping up. “The features of the land determine my conduct, responsibility, and ethics. Now I want to know to whom I am talking, before I say anything else of substance. And I don’t want to hear the books you’ve read, the degrees you’ve obtained, or the organizations you are a part of.”
This became quite a challenge to those who followed, especially the members of Elmwood, who found themselves dusting off childhood memories to talk about the places that had formed them. In the end, the process of introductions alone took 4 hours, and left many with a deep sense of sadness about all of the connections they had lost over the years.
I find this story moving on many levels, especially as it asks us to raise up a mirror and consider who we think we are. How do we tend to introduce ourselves? What do we lift up as markers of our identity? Do we consider the features and circumstances that have determined and continue to shape our conduct, responsibility and ethics? What is the impact of externalizing these, or not? How does the awareness and expression of our own sense of belonging impact where we might go or who we might become? I will continue to consider these questions as I am invited to introduce myself and invite others to do the same.