Back in 2019, I worked with lead organizer Mariana Velez Laris to support the design of the first convening, held in Bend, Oregon, but was unable to attend. Four years later, again working with Mariana and her team, we found ourselves in new territory, living in a COVID-rattled and fire-and-water-ravaged world with turbulence on many other fronts – political, economic and cultural. We also found ourselves in the midst of many promising developments, including advancements in the realm of braiding, “Indigenous knowledge” with the better practices of Westernized conservation.
This time around I was able to support the team as both a co-designer and co-facilitator with Mariana and the co-leaders of the IPLC, Andrea Akall’eq Burgess and Briannon Fraley, of a gathering that was hosted on Haudenosaunee lands in Buffalo, New York (which also happens to be my birthplace). The decision to hold it in this powerful location (think Niagara Falls, gateway to the Great Lakes, old industrial city experiencing a rebirth, the lands of the oldest standing confederacy in the world) was really the result of Mariana’s vision, and it would yield untold benefits.
We were clear from the outset that this convening was not meant to be a stand-alone event, but would build on the first VCA convening, along with all the work prior to and since that gathering in Oregon. We were also clear that to be in alignment with a “right relations” commitment, as embraced by our Haudenosaunee hosts and other Indigenous participants, we would need to operate in accordance with Haudenosaunee protocols. Much care was taken to establish trust and understanding, including with the host institution, the University of Buffalo, which is home to this country’s oldest Indigenous studies and environmental studies programs.
The agenda itself, under Mariana’s thoughtful and caring stewardship, became a story of spaciousness and flow, a slow moving river that carried us early on into a Haudenosaunee-led opening with the traditional Thanksgiving Address, or the Words Spoken Before All Else. During this time we were welcomed by faithkeeper Oren Lyons, who has seen such immense change in our world during his 93 years on this planet, and who declared our current situation as a deep spiritual battle. And we were greeted over the course of the first two of the four days by other Haudenosaunee leaders, including Gae ho Hwako Norma Jacobs, a Cayuga elder who writes in her recently released book, Odagahodhes, “We have forgotten about that Sacred meeting space between the Settler ship and the Indigenous canoe, where we originally agreed on the Two Row [wampum agreement], and where today we need to return to talk about the impacts of its violation.”
Much of our time made space to dig deeper into this violation, how it was perpetrated in different places in different though related ways, and how it is perpetuated through certain contemporary mainstream (Westernized) conservation practices. Importantly, we also pivoted towards what it would take to heal the rifts and divisions amongst the relations and the nations and to move forward together. Part of this occurred through a ritual that Mariana and I co-led, pulling from the practices of Fierce Civility and Respectful Confrontation, grounding people in their bodies and breath, and inviting us all to honor self, community, Mother Earth and future generations. This was intended to mark a “crossing of a threshold” to open up new possibilities in the community that was gathered. We framed this ritual around some of the teachings we had heard directly or indirectly from the Elders and other speakers to that point, including:
“One of the greatest gifts is to re-member.”
“Everything is built on reciprocal relationships.”
“Nature is one big family, working together to sustain Life.”
“The best way to learn is in ceremony; it pulls you together.”
“Feel our feelings. Feel the love of the Creator. Love ourselves.”
Participants also heard from a couple of powerful panels of Indigenous women leaders from around the world on their visions for reckoning and rematriation, which included these appeals:
Lead with care
Protect bio-cultural systems
Embrace networks and new structures
Support women’s participation and equality
Let Indigenous groups speak for themselves
Recognize more territories that pre-existed current boundaries
In addition, we participated in other Indigenous-led rituals for healing and joy (optional sunrise ceremonies, a Listening to Niagara Falls visit, a high energy Seneca-led social dance) and ultimately to a session on “planting seeds for the future.” It was not your usual conference, to say the least, and I can safely say that it was one of the most powerful experiences of my life, in no small part because of our Haudenosaunee hosts, and the invitation to “see” (feel and sense) the world from an Indigenous perspective. And I was not alone.
A few months after the convening, Mariana and I held a couple of follow-up sessions, to share what was gleaned from post-gathering evaluations and learn what had moved for participants since we were together. What flowed from those conversations was quite inspiring and encouraging. In the image above you can see some of the major insights that emerged regarding pathways towards Indigenous and community-led conservation. Beyond this, as we listened to those participating in our two Zoom calls share about what they still carried with them and were committing to in terms of action, this is what I heard and noted on a piece of paper:
❤️ Expand the teachings, rather than simply repeating what and how they were given to us.
❤️ Protect and nurture endangered experiences, beyond endangered species.
“The challenge is to replace practices that distance and disconnect with ones that evoke empathy, caring, and creativity.”
In our collaborative change work with organizations and multi-sector networks, we at IISC are adamant about doing thoughtful stakeholder analysis at the start of an initiative, and returning to this work periodically, asking the question, “Who are we missing?” As important as this can be, not everyone loves the word “stakeholder.” It can sound somewhat wonky and impersonal, and I myself have been thinking about the word “stake” and what it says about people.
To have a stake means “to have a share, interest, or involvement in something or someone.” Going back to the early 1700s, a stakeholder was one to whom money was deposited when making a wager/bet. And in the colonizing of what is now the United States, stakes were literally placed on lands that were stewarded by indigenous peoples as a way of claiming ownership of them. What none of this conveys is a sense of care or caring. I don’t mean whether or not someone cares (or is indifferent), but whether there is a genuine heartfelt sense of connection or deep desire to protect, create and/or contribute. Increasingly, this sense of care and caring (along with reckoning and making amends) is showing up as a crucial factor in making the difficult work of complex collaborative (systemic and culture) change happen.
Is likely to be impacted by the outcome of the effort/decision
Voices unheard or typically marginalized perspectives
Functions as a connector in or across sector(s)/field(s)
Is in a position to implement the effort/decision
Is in a position to prevent it from being implemented
Has relevant information or expertise (including lived experience)
Has informal influence without authority
Is responsible for the final decision
Applying a lens of “caring” or (or even “loving”) to these criteria brings another level or nuance. Beyond functionality and/or positionality, who really connects to and cares about what we are trying to do? This can raise the bar for the analysis and also potentially expand possibilities for the initiative. Farmer, poet and essayist Wendell Berry has talked about the importance of what he calls “the turn towards affection.” Having spent many years reflecting on and pushing back against the unfortunate demonstrated human capacity to despoil landscapes and demonize “the other,” he takes a strong stand for deep connection, or affection:
“For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. … By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it.”
What if we asked ourselves and others what might be illuminated by people bringing their affection and/or love to the initiative, work, place and/or goal in question? Who already has this? How might we inspire it in others?
“Cares deeply about the effort/decision” might become its own worthy category/criterion. And in looking at the criterion from the list above, “Is in a position to prevent it from being implemented” (the proverbial “blocker(s)”), bringing a lens of care might help us wonder what perceived “adversaries” actually care about/love/connect to. Might this kind of curiosity help to build bridges and understanding from the outset?
In addition, recent conversations among a group of IISC staff and affiliates about these categories and criterion have raised important considerations of Indigenous peoples and perspectives. Increasingly we are seeing an interest in acknowledging and addressing harms done, validating indigenous ways of knowing, and working to establish “right relationships” and “decolonize” systems. So we might add another criterion/consideration: “Is indigenous to the lands we are on or where the work is happening.” And perhaps by extension of these notions of indigeneity and caring, we might also consider who: “Speaks for the land” (see the work and writings of Jeannette Armstrong, of the Okanagan people) and also “Speaks for the more-than-human realm.”
Finally, and relatedly, I am reminded of our IISC Collaborative Change Lens, which includes the facet of “love” as a force for social transformation and justice. As we say on our website, “We nurture the love that does justice: the desire for the wellbeing of others, which is central to every social change movement. Love infuses our power with compassion, reclaims our resilience, heals our wounds, causes us to see ourselves as connected, and enables our radical imagination.”
What might care and care-holding bring to your consideration of who and how to engage others in your social change work?
Over the last couple of months I have really savored my reading of Tyson Yunkaporta’s Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World. Yunkaporta is an academic, arts critic and researcher who belongs to the Apalech clan in Queensland, Australia. His book met me during found me in these times of disruption when I was searching to further disrupt myself and pry open some widening cracks in my older ways of thinking, feeling and being.
It is important to say that any review of the book or excerpting from it necessarily de- and re-contextualizes the content, which is a key point Yunkaporta makes – many people are caught up in low context cultures that are rather disconnected from the specifics of place and community. With that awareness, I wanted to offer some take-aways that have helped me to bring different, more energizing, engaging and empowering perspectives to multiple contexts in which I move, in the event that they may help others make enlivening shifts.
Towards the end of the book, Yunkaporta sums up what he and a number of other indigenous people with whom he “yarns” see as an indigenous approach to engaging with living systems – respect, connect, reflect, direct. He offers corresponding embodied centers for doing this work as: gut, heart, head, hands. He also makes the point that Western colonizer cultures reverse this progression, leading with action and control (direct), and only perhaps later capitulating (respect, or “looking again”), if at all, when things do not go according to plan. This “indigenous progression” aligns strongly with a community of practice of which I am a part (Respectful Confrontation/Fierce Civility), which is based in Taoist philosophy and practice, and invites devotees to lead in grounded and focused ways that put one in right relationship with their (multiple) selves and so-called “others.” I can say from experience that this is a very powerful way to prepare myself for engagement, especially in these volatile and unpredictable times.
Yunkaporta also lifts up what Aboriginal and indigenous knowledge asks of those who are attempting to bring about change in complex systems (all living systems). What he calls the “complexity agent protocols” includes:
Connectedness (create bonds to self, others and wider networks)
Diversity (respect and engage across difference)
Interaction (continuously transfer knowledge, energy and resources)
Adaptation (remain open to change, as that is the constant)
This, of course, is the much older wisdom that more recent so-called “regenerative” (agriculture, development) efforts are calling for and building upon, engaging the dynamics of network structures and energetic flows that constitute life.
The rest of what follows is a selection of twenty quotes that I pulled from the book, and that I can continue to read from time to time, to jolt my own tendencies towards complacency and stasis.
“Increase is different from growth, because you don’t want the size of the system to grow, but you want the relationships within the system, the exchange within the system, that needs to increase. And you can increase that quite infinitely.”
“Many Aboriginal stories tell us how we must travel in free-ranging patterns, warning us against charging ahead in crazy [linear] ways.”
“All Law-breaking comes from that first evil thought; that original sin of placing yourself above the land or above other people.”
“Nothing is created or destroyed; it just moves and changes, and this is the First Law.”
“Every unit requires velocity and exchange in a stable system, or it will stagnate – this applies to economic and social systems as well as natural ones.”
“Sedentary lifestyles and cultures that do not move with the land or mimic land-based networks in their social systems do not transition well through apocalyptic moments.”
“People today will mostly focus on the points of connection, the nodes of interest like stars in the sky. But the real understanding comes in the spaces in-between, in the relational forces that connect and move the points.”
“If you live a life without violence, you are living an illusion: outsourcing your conflict to unseen powers and detonating it in areas beyond your living space. … The damage of violence is minimized when it is distributed throughout the system rather than centralized into the hands of a few powerful people and their minions.”
“It is difficult to relinquish the illusions of power and delusions of exceptionalism that come with privilege. But it is strangely liberating to realize your true status as a single node in a cooperative network.”
“There is more to narrative than simply telling our stories. We have to compare our stories with the stories of others to seek greater understanding about our reality.”
“There’s no valid way to separate the natural from the synthetic, the digital from the ecological.”
“Most of us today are living in a state of compliance with imposed roles and tasks rather than a heightened state of engagement. We are slaves to a work ethic that is unnatural and unnecessary.”
“The assistance people need is not in learning about Aboriginal knowledge but in remembering their own.”
“The only sustainable way to store data long term is within relationships.”
“[From an Aboriginal perspective] an observer does not try to be objective, but is integrated within a sentient system that is observing itself.”
“Understanding biological networks appropriately means finding a way to belong personally to that system.”
“Somewhere between action and reaction is an interaction, and that’s where all the magic and fun lies.”
“Your culture is not what your hands touch or make – it’s what moves your hands.”
“Guilt is like any other energy: you con’t accumulate it or keep it because it makes you sick and disrupts the system you live in – you have to let it go. Face the truth, make amends, and let it go.”
“Stop asking the question: ‘Are we alone?’ Of course we’re not! Everything in the universe is alive and full of knowledge.”
I’m the one that’s all shook up. I’m just getting back from doing some very powerful work with Reading Village in Guatemala and I’m still processing the experience. It is difficult not to be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of poverty and palpability of oppression. I come back with images of the smiles of an incredibly resilient Mayan people and I can not understand how they have withstood five centuries of aggression. It is in this context that we were called to do our work. Read More