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.
Very recently I brought this poem to a group of community organizers from a state-wide political action network, and after hearing it, many said they were really touched by this notion of there being a vastness they do not enter, and are therefore limited by. References were made to systems of oppression, to antagonism, to fear and lack of love. There is so much more to this world and by extension to ourselves that we do not tap into that keeps us repeating patterns of behavior and systems that do not serve our fuller humanity.
“We use language not so much to convey factual information as to construct worlds.”
– Barbara A. Holmes
Image by NASA Goddard, shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.
Holmes’ book extends this same theme of vastness, drawing from the fields of quantum physics, cosmology and ethics as a way of inviting a broader perspective and creating new language and thinking that points in the direction of a world where everyone belongs. She writes, for example, about “dark matter” and “dark energy,” which is pervasive and cohesive in the universe, the essentially creative energy that holds things together. Considering this profound and primordial force, Holmes says, we can only wonder at and celebrate “darkness,” not fear or denigrate it.
Holmes also invites us to consider that physics and cosmology point to the fundamental nature of reality as existing in relationship and interdependence and that systems of oppression go against the grain of the unfolding cosmos. She writes, “Our desire for justice is deeply rooted in systems that are holistic and relational. We have not forced, created, or dreamed this shared destiny; it seems to be the way of the universe.”
In times of breakdown and cynicism, both Ortiz and Holmes tell us that creativity and hope are to be found by looking more deeply into nature and more widely into the heavens to re-member who we are and that there are so many more possibilities than what we have created and perpetuate.
What vastness have you not yet entered, what wonders in our world and beyond have you not allowed to grab hold of you that might liberate and generate new possibilities in your change agency?
“Words are how we think, stories are how we link.”
– Christina Baldwin
Last week I had the privilege of facilitating a two-day Network Learning Lab for a remarkable group of conservation leaders and network weavers. I co-designed the session with Olivia Millard and Amanda Wrona of The Nature Conservancy (and at the instigation of Lynn Decker of the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network) to connect and strengthen the capacity of those working at the intersection of ecosystem health and human/community development while building networks at local, state, regional, national and global levels. Our design was informed by input given by the participating network weavers themselves about their core challenges and learning objectives, while leaving room for the unexpected – enough spaciousness for the network magic of emergence to happen.
As with other network leadership institutes that we at IISC have had a hand in designing and facilitating, the experience last week had as its foundation plenty of opportunities for the cohort to authentically connect, to get to know one another on both professional and personal levels. And as with both leadership development sessions and ongoing network development initiatives that we support, we turned to storytelling as a way to create bonds and understanding. This included time for the participants to tell brief stories about their networks, doing so in 5 minute informal bursts sprinkled throughout the two days (which could also have been done as Pecha Kucha or Ignite presentations). The intent was to create a bit more understanding of what might make each network unique in its aspirations, attributes and accomplishments and to whet people’s appetites for further conversation at breaks, meals and into the evening.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
– Maya Angelou
We also set up a couple of exercises within the first hour of the lab for people to hear more about one another’s paths to the work they currently do, not by ticking off their resumes, but by telling stories about what happened to and moved them to be where they are now. Time and again, when I facilitate this kind of exercise, it shifts the tone of the gathering in the direction of greater openness and trust. And as we touched on in our debrief of those exercises, inviting that kind of storytelling into our work can send a signal about what is validated with respect to forms of knowing, expression and parts of ourselves to bring to the table. Along these lines, we also drew from poetry and other forms of creative expression, including a stanza from a favorite William Stafford piece, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” which, to me, gets at the heart of network building … Read More
I’ve had the pleasure of supporting some important work happening through The Nature Conservancy’s Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network. According to the FAC website, a fire adapted community “acknowledges and takes responsibility for its wildfire risk, and implements appropriate actions at all levels.” Actions in these fire-threatened communities “address resident safety, homes, neighborhoods, businesses and infrastructure, forests, parks, open spaces and other community assets.” In addition, the point is made that every community is unique in terms of circumstance and capacities, so that local action may look different from place to place.
While there may be differences from community to community in the FAC network, it is also united by a common belief that there is need for more of the right kinds of fire that support the regenerative capacity of ecosystems. As I’ve learned from members of these communities, “cool fires” can be used to help build resilience into forests, feeding and encouraging new growth and diversity.This is actually a practice that goes back a long ways in indigenous communities, which used “prescribed burns” to support the long-term health of the forested landscape, to enrich soil, clear pathways for fauna and support biodiversity, which supported the health of their own communities. However, many of these practices were outlawed and the result of the newer management practices was a drop in health of the forests and a rise in vulnerability of those living in or near them. As one person in the network recently put it, they are now trying to “reclaim” fire and “give fire back to people.”Read More