Re-Membering our Indigeneity
By Molly Murfee
Dear Reader: Interacting with the word “indigenous” as a descendent of European settler culture is complicated and perilous, the likes of which I cannot hope to unravel in my short time on this particular page. Here I humbly offer a tiny excerpt of a much, much larger chapter in my book-in-progress that does attempt to speak to all the nuances. My intent here is to simply ask the question of how our relationship with the land would change if we were to remember our most ancient of ancestral roots. Please forgive any essential omissions in this brief discussion, it is not my intent to harm, nor co-opt Native People’s identity, but to open a conversation of re-definition and possibility for the sake of all of us who share this planet.
“We’re all indigenous to this earth,” Wise Crone Woman said to me, quickly, with a wave of her flowing robed arms, as if she were catching me up on something long known, so we could move forward with our task at hand, which was preparing a seasonal celebration for the community.
She used the word “indigenous.” I wondered if it was disrespectful to the First Peoples of this land to use any version of this word in any sort of proximity to myself. Indigenous to this earth. Not to here, this particular place, but to the planet. I looked around to see if anyone, anything, had heard us. The river and cottonwood. The soil and sun.
European settler culture is not taught we are indigenous to anything. We don’t belong to the countries of our ancestors. We don’t belong to the land they stole from others, far across the sea from our origins. In essence, we don’t belong. And this, I think, is a huge part of our problem. We have separated ourselves, hovering unnaturally above the earth, conducting our dominion from on high. How can we love and care for something we don’t belong to?
But in this small exchange, I caught a glimpse of that belonging. Yes. I do belong to this earth. The door to possibility audibly cracked.
I hear it again.
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez descends from an Aztec lineage of Mexico on his father’s side, who taught him the sacredness of everything on earth, and our duty to protect it. Xiuhtezcatl is now known the world over as a youth leader and environmental activist. At a 2016 Bioneers Conference he tells the packed and cheering audience, “Regardless of whether we’re Indigenous or not, or the color of our skin, or the god we believe in, we’re all indigenous to this earth. We share that. That’s a human thing that connects each and every one of us that is undeniable. We all come from the same earth, we drink the same water, we breathe the same air. We got one planet.”
The word “indigenous” can be a loaded term, fraught with controversy for innumerable reasons. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s first definition is simple: “produced, growing, living, or occurring natively in a particular region or environment.”
The United Nations defines, among other things, that Indigenous People “possess invaluable knowledge of practices for the sustainable management of natural resources. They have a special relation to and use of their traditional land. Their ancestral land has a fundamental importance for the collective physical and cultural survival as peoples.”
“Indigenous” comes from the Latin “indigena,” which means “native.” It is derived from the Old Latin “indu,” meaning “within,” and “gignere,” meaning “to beget.” To beget from within. Considering to be Indigenous is to be original to a place, an identity inextricably tied to the land itself, to say to be Indigenous is to be “begotten by the land” seems to hit the mark.
Dr. Jeannette Armstrong, of the Okanagan People and professor at Okanagan College in British Columbia, in her TEDx talk “Indigeneity: A Necessary Social Ethic to Take Us Beyond Sustainability,” speaks to indigeneity not just as a race or ethnicity, but as a social ethic, a state of the human as a perfectly integrated part of nature rather than separate from it. To be Indigenous, she says, is to adapt to the realities of a specific place over a long period of time. We come to understand our interdependence with every other living thing, she continues, and use our knowledge of the land’s regenerative capacity as a guiding force for our actions. As a result, reciprocity happens. Our relationship with the land becomes a life practice intent on the full regeneration of each local place.
Botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Robin Wall Kimmerer, in her monumental book, Braiding Sweetgrass, writes this, “For the sake of the peoples and the land, the urgent work of the Second Man may be to set aside the ways of the colonist and become indigenous to place.”
What would it mean for us, all of us, to re-member our indigeneity? Not to label oneself Indigenous; not to appropriate terminology, identity, or customs; not to lay claim to the benefits of money or land rightfully due to those of official Indigenous status from political agreements; not to undermine or ignore the grave issues of marginalization of Native American peoples of this continent, and Indigenous people around the world … but to behave with the sensibility of a people originating from a place, being begotten by that place? With that much care, that much respect, that much reciprocity. To uncover and relate to our own ancestral identities that existed before the centuries of wars and genocide. A time when we valued more than money and power. An epoch before we became known as “settlers,” or “colonists.” It exists.
We must go back to that place and time when we still belonged. Before the separation. Thousands of years ago we had an indigenous sensibility, were indigenous to a particular place. Perhaps even as short as half a century past, we still lived wrapped in the ghostly tendrils of this memory. We behaved as if we were integrated into the fabric of this earth. It is this, torn into fragments and threads, we must re-member, stitch together, until we have woven ourselves back into wholeness.
Place-based author Molly Murfee is a recent finalist of the Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction and a contributor to the Bread Loaf Environmental Writer’s Conference. Molly has taught environmental literature and creative writing with Colorado College, Colorado State University, the Audubon Expedition Institute, and Western Colorado University. She is at work on her creative nonfiction book, The Adventure of Home, re-membering our indigeneity to this Earth by unraveling the destructive foundations of colonialism, and reweaving mythologies of a sacred wild. Sign up for Molly’s Earth Muffin Memos Blog & Newsletter for more on her book, field-based writing and nature connection workshops, online advertising and syndicate column opportunities, and freelance writing services at www.mollymurfee.com.