Whether we’re addressing our traumatic histories in search of personal and societal healing or working to avoid climate disaster, Native American author and academic Stan Rushworth teaches that we must recognize the interconnectedness of all facets of Life. Only then can we make true progress toward a better world for all.
This conversation with Stan was extremely rich and thought-provoking, but ultimately too long to include in a single episode. If you would like to hear more, please enjoy this bonus discussion about healing for our past, present, and future.
Stan Rushworth was born in 1944 and raised on the banks of the Stanislaus River in the east San Joaquin valley in California by his grandfather, who was of Cherokee descent. He served as an Army volunteer in the Far East during the Vietnam war, and attended San Francisco State University after coming home, where he received a Master of Arts degree in Language Arts and Creative Writing in 1970. During the seventies, he lived and worked among the Maya in Guatemala, and moved to Hawaii in the eighties before returning to California in 1991. He has taught Native American Literature at Cabrillo College, in Aptos, California for the last twenty-nine years, including similar work at the University of California, Santa Cruz as a lecturer, and worked for eighteen years at Cabrillo’s Watsonville Center teaching basic skills and critical thinking surrounding Indigenous peoples’ issues, including six years as Director/Instructor of the Puente Program, a writing-centered project focused in the Chicano community. He authored Sam Woods: American Healing (Station Hill Press, New York) in 1992, and Going to Water: The Journal of Beginning Rain (Talking Leaves Press, Freedom, CA) in 2014. As a tenured faculty emeritus, he currently teaches Native American Literature at Cabrillo College, and works as an activist and advocate for Indigenous people as a teacher, writer and speaker. He is an enrolled citizen of the Chiricahua Apache Nation, and is also a member the Santa Cruz Indian Council, where he is an Advising Cultural Elder. He is the Elder in Residence at the University of California, Santa Cruz for 2019/20, with the American Indian Resource Center. He is married, with two sons and one grandson.
Soon to be published, a memoir entitled Moral Wounds And The Wolf’s Eyes: An Indigenous Veteran’s View Of A World At War.
Learn more at stanrushworth.com.
Susan: The reason I wanted to speak with you, which I consider an honor, is because we need to hear a Native American voice about what’s happening. And a Native American perspective on it. I can get scientists and I can get Buddhists, but I don’t have a really good representative of the Native American perspective on what’s happening. I did speak with a Native American person from South Africa at a conference lately. They’re doing ceremonies and all kinds of things as best they can. And the response from one of them was, “We don’t have the answers, either, about what to do.” So that’s just a quickie, I would really like to hear whatever you think is important to say. That you would like people to hear.
Stan: So, Dahr Jamail and I are working on a book right now of interviews with Native Americans, and we may be including Aboriginal people from Australia. We’re not sure. But so far, we’ve got a pretty big list of native people that we’re interviewing about climate change. So we’re in that process now, and I’ve been going to conferences and talking to a lot of native people—for the most part, right now, native Californians. Dahr has interviewed Fawn Sharp of the Quinnalt Nations. She’s been president of that nation fifteen years. We have quite a list of people, and some of them are quite well known—tribal leaders, landed people, reservation people. We’ve got people also that we’ve already interviewed who are not landed people, they’re not reservation people. There have no federal recognition or state or local recognition, even though that they’re living on or near the lands that they’ve been on since the dawn of time, as with one of the people I interviewed. His people go back twenty thousand years right here in this area where I live, minimum twenty thousand years. Twenty thousand years is what Western science acknowledges at this point. But for him, it’s the dawn of time. They’ve been dealing with this—what I am hearing from every single one of them—have been dealing with this since first contact. And as Gregg Castro says, we’re still in first contact. When you think about the amount of time that indigenous people have been here, even if you acknowledge the kind of relatively short time period of twenty thousand years, and you look at two hundred and fifty years against that, two hundred fifty years is the blink of an eye. Within that time, a lot of destruction has happened, and native people have been recognizing that destruction right from the get-go. So this is not a shock to any of the native people that I’ve been talking to. This is not something new. This is something that’s a logical progression because you cannot treat the Mother this way. You cannot treat animals, you cannot treat other people this way and expect there to be no payback. It’s pretty ridiculous to assume otherwise. Right? It’s, again, it’s part of native science. You know, you do this, this is going to happen.
As I’ve mentioned before, my grandfather talked about this my entire life. I’m seventy-five years old, almost seventy-six now, and I’ve been watching this and trying to respond to it. I try to respond to it in my classes, and I have for the last thirty years. If you go back and you listen to Thomas Banyacya, Jake Swamp, Philip Deere, you see the same thing. And they were talking back in the 1960s—the Tairona people in the 1970s, I think, did a film with BBC called Message from the Heart of the World: The Elder Brothers Warning. And they are speaking to it very, very directly. So, what I’m finding with all the native people that I’m talking to, once again, that that this has been happening for a long, long time. When I hear a lot of non-native people going, “Well, this is the end of life as we know it.” Well, I’d say, in California from 1848-49 to the late 1870s, there was a 90 percent population reduction due to massacre, starvation, disease from starvation. Not, you know, like a big smallpox plague that came in. The plague that came in was the type of thinking that came with the colonists, and that created a 90 percent population reduction in less than one generation. That’s pretty much the end of life as you know it. On the plains, the stats are 60 million buffalo were killed in 60 years. I’ve read reports also that said 40 million of those buffalo were killed in a 12-year period to deny the plains people a commissary when they were resisting militarily the encroachment onto their lands. So the end of life as we know it has been going on for indigenous people for quite some time here on Turtle Island. And at the same time, it’s a very short time.
So what I’m seeing is a lot of people responding very, very directly. They’re responding in a lot of different ways. Mostly through a really wide array of actions. From Ron Goode, who is the North Fork Mono Tribal Chair, doing controlled burns and cultural burns in the area of the Sierras that he lives in. Going down to meet with Aboriginal folks in Australia and learning their techniques for controlled burns. Fire has been used here for thousands of years to control wildfires from happening like we see in California now. And what we see in California now has been happening because the California native people have been prevented by law from doing controlled burns and cultural burns for about one hundred and thirty years. And so those folks for the last 15 years or so have been working—that particular tribe has been working with state forestry, teaching them how to do this. They’ve been working with other tribal communities. Tribal communities are sharing these techniques that are being regenerated and they’re teaching their young here locally. The Amah Mutsun people, of whom I know quite a few, and one young man who is a good friend, is learning all that fire technique right now as we speak. And they’re working with state forestry. So that’s one example of people doing really, really good stuff.
All of this is within a context that I think is very much along my line of thinking, what I was taught right from the get-go. I think Dr. Kyle White, who is a Potawatomi scholar back east—Michigan, I think—and he talks about the tipping point. People are talking about the tipping point being greenhouse gas emissions and 2℃, and this kind of thing. And he says that—and he can articulate a lot better than I can—but the tipping point—the true tipping point—is long past. And that tipping point is lack of kinship. It’s lack of proper kinship relationship. And that has got us to where we are. And so he’s saying, you know, at this point, we have a choice to make as a society—talking about the United States and perhaps you can expand out to the civilizations, but directly here on Turtle Island—we can go into a panic and we can freak out about the two degrees, and we can do all kinds of technological things to try and change that. But we’re not really keeping the long term in mind. So, we’re really not going to accomplish the same thing unless we go back and repair that kinship relations. Now, Dahr’s science says that the two degrees or 1.5-2 degrees is already baked into the system. And so what I get from reading Kyle and from talking with Kyle is that we need to get a more long-term view. As he said, the last person we want making a decision about where to go in a panic situation is the person that caused the problem in the first place. That’s pretty darn clear to me.
And so what we need to do is to have a longer view and say, you know, we’ve got to deal with repairing these relationships that have been broken. That’s going to take education. It’s going to take technology in different senses. American Indian Science and Engineering Society has a credo, “Tradition into Technology.” That’s, to me, a way of bringing back right relationship into technology. A Yokuts friend of mine who is also an anthropologist talked about California Indian peoples being highly technological peoples before the settlers came. And what he meant—and what he explained—was very, very highly sophisticated technologies of kinship. He said that the anthropologists still didn’t understand all the degrees and layers of kinship, even kinship terminology that Californian peoples were using.
Now I say were, but I want to put a “/are” because this is a thing that I think is really important for people to realize: native people are responding to this and have been responding to it since the get-go. We’re not always successful. Having our children put into boarding schools—eighty five percent of them in the 1930s were in the boarding schools being stripped of their cultures, their languages, their practices. That destroys the science, it destroys the social technology, it destroys all of that. So a lot of us are in the process of recovery from kind of an ongoing first contact. We have very high dropout rates in school. That’s something that we have to deal with. And so we have large networks and small networks trying to keep our kids in school, trying to let them and help them get educated in whatever fields they choose. Because there is no one field that’s over another field in terms of putting the relationship back together, because it’s a holistic thing. When we say [speaking Inde’], “With all things I’m related,” that’s what it means. It doesn’t mean you just go over here and do this, or you just go to indigenous people and get the knowledge. It’s not that process.
There was an elder Uncle Henry Tyler who used to come to my classes years ago, and people would ask these questions because he would give these warnings about where it’s all going. And they would say, “Well, what do we do?” And he would point to his brain and say, “You have a mind. Use it. Figure out what you need to do.”
So I have a bit of an issue with people going too much to native people and wanting what they imagine pre-contact ecological knowledge to be. The knowledge that’s needed from indigenous people is how the heck have we survive this colonial catastrophe? How are we still here? How do we deal with the despair? How do we deal—not did, but how do we deal with all the problems that we have socially? Scientifically? Environmentally? How have we been dealing with this and how are we dealing with it now?
Yeah, it’s an ongoing thing. I just recently met a couple of young native people. They work up in San Francisco Bay Area, and they were talking about the seed diaspora. One of the things that we have been dealing with is the diaspora. The highest percentage of native people live in urban environment. The termination policies of the 50s, the forced migrations, all of this has created a huge native community that’s not on its original land base. So those of us who are part of that diaspora are working with people who, because of colonization, no longer have any say over their own lands, but they still live on or near those lands, like here in the San Francisco Bay Area. So these young people—and by young, I say late 20s, early to mid-30s—are going around collecting seeds that native families have kept alive. They mentioned a Cherokee family that’s kept alive a huge variety of native corn. And these seeds have adapted over millennia to particular environments. So they’re bringing seeds, say, from the Southwest to different places that it would be what they call drought tolerant. And now they’re bringing them up here and they’re planting them in northern California, where we have more scarcity of rain. And they’re planting these seeds and teaching young kids how to plant seeds—in the cities. In the San Francisco Bay area. So this, and Aboriginal folks down in Australia are doing the same thing. Young Aboriginal people.
So this kind of this kind of response has been going on for quite some time and I think it’s accelerating now. And I’m not so sure that it’s really the panic around the climate change that’s causing that acceleration. I think it’s something else that’s been building for a very, very long time. That’s kind of gaining a momentum now, and it goes across the board. It’s political. You see it at Alcatraz. More people showed up here at Alcatraz for the sunrise ceremony than ever have. And a lot of people from different races, different political communities. So I see a whole lot of unifying stuff happening that’s really quite extraordinary and quite beautiful.
So, again, I think there’s a danger in looking back to the concept of traditional ecological knowledge as it’s imagined being in existence before the settlers came here. Because I think there is the danger is, that it’s a conception of non-Native America. It’s an overlay. It’s a conception that’s formed out of the Western mind, and it’s not really the depth of relationship that comes out of the indigenous community. It’s like a formulaic kind of projection, really. And it ignores the genocide which has caused the radical alteration of life as we know it. So the real wisdom that’s needed, once again to repeat myself, is how have we survived this? And how do we continue to survive it with dignity, and with educating our children, recovering cultures that have been under attack and still are under attack? I live in a very progressive community, and I have maybe one or two, maybe three students that have ever read an indigenous writer coming into my classes in a college setting. That’s pathetic. And yet that same society wants traditional indigenous knowledge? There’s something really absurd and kind of insulting in that.
Stan: So those are the kinds of frustrations that we have to deal with. But we still deal with it. I don’t get mad at my students coming in who know absolutely nothing about native culture because I realized that they’re victims of the American educational system. They’re victims, in a sense, of the erasure of us—which continues! Which we’re smack in the middle of. That’s where Gregg is saying we’re still in first contact and they want something that they imagine we had in order to solve the problem that we’ve been warning them about since day one.
Susan: And they caused.
Stan: Yes. And continue to perpetuate. Right?
Stan: The people in the United States when the United States was formed—we’re not even talking about the original colonists—but as the United States was formed on true abuses of treaties and creation of treaties and decided to be in a dominant relationship to the native nations. And so kind of the parallel is like a dominant parent and or a dominant spouse, and it’s chosen to maintain that relationship over time. And so now it wants something from that “child.” We don’t see ourselves as children, but certainly I think the dominant culture does. And now the dominant culture thinks it wants something from us, but as I mentioned earlier, the something it wants is its own picture. And it’s still maintaining the dominant relationship. And actually, listening to Dr. White’s admonition to return to right relationship, that relationship needs to be based on respect and not on dominant position.
Susan: That’s why we don’t listen: because we don’t want to hear that. Because it means a real change, not a superficial change.
Stan: That’s correct. And I think largely what people don’t want to hear is the nature and degree of abuse that has been laid on native societies and continues to be laid on native society by virtue of what many native scholars now call erasure. And if we’re talking about coming back to respect, respect is found through understanding of the nature of the relationship and the history of the relationship. And any kind of abusive relationship between a spouse or parent and child or whatever, the abuser needs to fully understand the nature of its abuse before they can move on as a respectful pair.
Susan: And with nature.
Stan: And when the dominant person—which in this case I’m arguing, is in our country, the United States—when the people in the United States are unwilling to face the nature of the abuse, then there can really be no reconciliation. And so it’s very difficult to move forward in a mutually respectful manner. And so then the knowledge or the information—the methods that the dominant culture wants—can’t really be gotten, they can’t really be understood, because that dominant relationship is still being maintained.
The school system is a good example of it. I think there are only two states in the country, maybe three now, that require native written curriculum in K through 12. And so we’re maintaining a really deep ignorance of native history here, of native ways and exactly what’s going on, because the abuse has been so profound that the dominant society is afraid to look at it, I think, for fear of having to deal with guilt. For fear of having to deal with pain. And I think the society is kind of almost like a health, wealth, beauty cult in the sense that it doesn’t see pain as part of life and part of growth. It doesn’t see emotional pain. So it’s still holding out in a position of entitlement by saying, “Well, I didn’t do that, so I don’t have to deal with that.” So it’s not really looking at the mutually experienced trans-generational trauma that comes from the degree of abuse that’s happened. So a lot of native scholars today would argue that that the erasure in the school system is another form of cultural genocide, in a sense, because we continue to create generation after generation of ignorance of what the deeper issues are. If you want to show disrespect for a person, the biggest way to show that disrespect is to ignore their existence. That’s where disdain comes forward. And as far as I’m concerned, the American educational system is very guilty of that.
And perhaps it’s a numbers game. Perhaps there aren’t enough native people to be perceived as having power like as a voting block and stuff like that. And so it doesn’t get a looked at. But I think the real reason is it challenges the American idea of American exceptionalism and moral clarity and the values of freedom and equality, and all that kind of stuff is not being lived when it comes to native people. And it hasn’t been. So the difficulties within the native community pretty much get laid on the native person. The social ills and stuff. We don’t really look and see, well, why is this person doing this? Why is this particular community struggling with these things? We don’t look at the boarding schools. We don’t look at the havoc that they wreak. We don’t look at the broken treaties. None of it.
So I think all that has to be looked at really honestly, not just accepted. “Well, we did a bad thing.” I think really the nature of the badness needs to be studied. Again, back to the abusive relationship. It really needs to be understood. The perpetrator has to really understand what he or she has done and be able to communicate that to themselves and to the “victim” in order for respect to be generated. Then you can have communication. Then I think we can move forward.
So my point is that it’s a very systemic issue, and it’s going to take time and it’s going to take kind of a deepening and broadening will on the part of the people of the United States to come to grips with this.
At the same time, positive relationships can be generated. It’s not strictly, “Well, you have to do this before you can do that.” But it has to all happen at once. And I think there has to be the will there, there has to be the desire, and there has to be an understanding of what’s needed in order to start generating this respectful dialog to get back to kinship.
Susan: Can I just say one thing here, that everything you’re saying applies equally to our relationship to nature.
Stan: Yes, exactly. Well, there is no separation there.
Susan: I’m talking from a white person’s perspective. So I just wanted to make that focus. You don’t even have to because, yes, for you, there’s no separation. But for most people listening, we need to make that clear.
Susan: So, two other questions. One was you were talking about first contact and that we’re still in first contact. But are you referring to first contact with European culture coming over here to the Americas, or to first contact in Australia and all over the world?
Stan: I can’t speak directly to Australia because the term—
Susan: That was just an example. What did you mean by the term “first contact”? Because it wasn’t just here.
Stan: No, it’s been the reason I can’t speak to Australia is because I’m not aboriginal from Australia. So the term first contact is not so much an intellectual concept as it is an emotional relationship, a response. It’s an emotional response. It’s an actual inter-relationship that’s kind of an ongoing thing. So I can only speak to it here on Turtle Island because I’m of Turtle Island. My friend Gregg Castr, who is a former Salinan Tribal Chair—he’s worked with the Society for California Archaeology for the last twenty-five years, he’s an activist—he uses the term, and as he explains it to my students, when you look at being in your space, your home for twenty thousand plus years—or as he puts it very dramatically, since the dawn of time—and you’ve got two hundred years of experience adapting to the colonial culture here in California, you’re still in first contact because two hundred years is absolutely nothing in terms of twenty thousand years.
And that brings up the whole notion of time, as Gregg explains it. I explained it to my students—and in the book, Going to Water, Leslie Silko deals with this—time is like an ocean. It’s not a linear construct. So if you’re caught in the Western idea—and I use Western just for lack of a better word, because I think that Western science is shifting—this idea of time is strictly linear. As it was recently explained to me by an astrophysicist, if you see time as linear, it’s very easy to kind of arbitrarily put that which you don’t want to deal with—emotionally, financially, psychologically, socially—it’s very easy to put all that in the past. Oh, my goodness. That was the past. We can’t deal with that anymore, as Leslie Silko would put it. That’s pretty much the position of privilege. Well, native people—native Californians, specifically—don’t have that position of privilege. So their experience is still an experience of radical adjustment to what’s come here.
For example, there are thousands upon thousands of native people here in the San Francisco Bay area, as I mentioned before, that have no federal recognition. They have no reservation, they have no land base, they have no state recognition. They don’t get anything from the federal government whatsoever. In order to become recognized within the state or within the federal government, they need to be able to prove, I think, seven points. But the bottom line is they need to be to be able to prove that they were maintaining their culture and their sacred spots and their relationships with each other, their tribal identity, their tribal ceremonies, and that they were maintaining that for the entire time that the dominant culture was attempting to destroy that. And they have to present that to the society that has been attempting to destroy them in order to get recognition by that society. That’s first contact. That’s still first contact. Big time.
And all of that reflects in the school system. When I have my class of 30 people, and instead of having one or two people who’ve ever read a native scholar, I have all 30 of those raise their hand on first night and say, “Yes, I have read so-and-so, I’ve read so-and-so”—and they’re naming native scholars and native artists—then I’m going to say, well, maybe we’re taking another step in terms of this contact. But for all my students reading this native history, it’s the first time they’ve gotten it. So it’s their first contact with a real native voice as well. So we’re still separated. That’s why Gregg uses that that way. And that’s why I use it that way as well.
I suspect In Australia, it’s very, very similar. Some friends of mine were just here from Australia, and they were talking about the depth of the racism there and the struggles of the Aboriginal people in getting recognition. And a journalist just sent me an email talking about that. She grew up in Australia and has done a number of films with Aboriginal people, and she said they have nothing down there. They’re like the California native people. They have no reserves, no treaties, no nothing. They’re still in first contact, too, I would argue.
Susan: It’s similar with the Bushmen in the Kalahari, too. So as I was saying, I think that first contact is everywhere that Western civilization went. That’s what I would argue.
Stan: Yeah, you’re probably right. And I think it’s an important concept because it implies an interactive relationship and an ongoing relationship, rather than things being over and done with. And that’s, I think, really, really important. And that speaks back again to Dr. White’s idea of building relationships. And of course, this is what we see around here. A lot of young native people like Kanyon Sayers and her mom, Ann-Marie Sayers, have really spent a long time building relationships with the surrounding community in order to stop fracking and all kinds of things that they’ve done. Kanyon’s big thing is building community. So these are responses to climate change, responses to encroachment by Western civilization and by colonialism. There’s really no separation between these phenomena. I think it’s very dangerous to think of climate change as being separate from colonialism. So if we want solutions, the solutions have to be across the board.
So, I think Kyle’s right. We have to have the long-term perspective. We have to look and see that indigenous people are in the midst of this long-term action. It’s not like they’re picking up the ancient stone of indigenous wisdom now. They’ve been doing everything they can to hang onto it since the settlers first came here—which is a broad span of time, depending upon where on Turtle Island that you live. That said, I think it’s also really important—and Dahr and I want to include this in our book—to acknowledge what was happening before the Europeans came here. I met a man, a Kumeyaay scholar down in Southern California, recently. He was quoting early Spanish soldiers coming through, saying that they came across a valley, for instance, with immense numbers of people. And as far as the eye could see, native edible plants being farmed. Without massive, architecturally designed, engineered irrigation systems, because they’re operating with the natural landscape as it is. So they’re growing things that don’t require a whole lot of irrigation coming in, which is the opposite of what we have here now with this technological society. Herds of deer with a thousand deer in them. This is what they’re describing. Bruce Pascoe, an Aboriginal scholar, is talking about the same thing in Australia. He’s quoting early English settlers and early Irish settlers who were saying the exact same thing—that they’re seeing fields of grain as far as the eye can see. Fish traps. All kinds of things like this. Large numbers of people living quite well. And they recently found a tool for grinding flour. Sixty thousand years old. That’s a long time. And these folks—these early English people–are saying, “You know, they gave me a cake to eat that was the sweetest cake that I had ever eaten.”
So this whole kind of gather-hunter lack of sophistication of native people—and it’s like a simple life, and stuff like this—this is part of what needs to be eliminated. Because we have to see again, as Chuck Smith is talking about, that technology is the social technology. And that includes all the beings that live in that landscape, including the plants, the animals, everything. There has to be what now people call holistic and sustainable thought. But there’s something underneath of that that’s much more profound than the technology of it—which is not to say that the technology of it should take a second seat to a more “spiritual relationship.” And I put quotes around that because I think a lot of people go through this spirituality without seeing that it needs to be the spirituality and the politics and economics, gender relationships, the relation to animals. All those kinship things are part of this spirituality. You can’t have the spirituality separate from the politics, the social justice issues, community organizing. All of that is part of it. So, you know, I have kind of issues with people wanting to use spirituality in order to solve this problem without jumping into the fray and saying, well, this is all one thing here. You can’t separate them apart. That’s part of what the problem has been. People come here and impose their religion, and they practice that religion one day a week or they practice that religion and impose that religion in the way that they want, that really doesn’t consider a deeper sense of balance that’s inherent in nature. It becomes more of an ideological thing. And that’s where the appropriation of native spirituality is problematic within this whole context of climate change.
Part of the thing, you know, the grief needs to be dealt with. This is certainly something. I heard a Lakota scholar talking about at one point, around the turn of the century, how most native people knew far more people who were dead than alive. So how do you deal with that grief? And how does that grief come down over generations? That’s something that social scientists within the colonial communities really have to address. And from my perspective, teaching this material for 30 years, the grief over the genocide here, and all the destruction, is deeply placed in non-native psyches as well.
So, when you look at the grief over climate change, that has to be recognized as something that dovetails with the grief over the genocide. That trans-generational trauma does not apply only to the “victims” of the genocide. Talk to any German psychologist and he’ll tell you exactly that. Or a psychiatrist, if he’s dealing with Germans today who were not even born during the Holocaust over there. They’re all still having to deal with this. And they’re not Jewish people, they’re Germans who have inherited the trauma of that Holocaust. Well, Americans, the same thing. And I would submit that Australians and any colonial people that comes in and wreaks havoc. Their children have a legacy that they have to deal with. And I see that tremendously in my students. Once they open up to see what really happened, they’re going, “Oh, I knew that. I knew that was there.” And it’s part of a very deep sorrow. And where that touches into climate change, really, really needs a deep analysis and expression. They’re not separate issues is the point I’m trying to make. They’re intimately tied together, climate change and the holocaust here.
Susan: Yeah. But one of the things I wanted to ask you was—or not ask you, because you’ve already said it—but if you can explain again how there is no separation. How spirituality isn’t just a separate thing, but it’s woven into everything we do, and that we wouldn’t even necessarily call it spirituality, perhaps. We might even just call it respect, so that everything we care for, we care for. But that comes from a spirituality.
Stan: Well that’s a difficult thing to explain, because one time years ago, I was in a philosophy class and I kept arguing with the teacher and everybody in the class all semester long. And finally, this student from Texas with a real thick accent kind of thicker than my grandpa’s even, said, “Stanley, I finally get you.” He said, “We’re building all these small parts and aiming them towards a whole. You’re coming from an assumption of the whole and talking about how all the parts, the little parts, swim together.” And that was kind of a revelation to me, because my way of seeing was strictly to me at that point, my way of seeing, and I couldn’t quite understand why I was struggling so much with the class. And Michael Eaton was the man’s name, he articulated it better than I could. I didn’t have that perspective.
So, you know if we if we look at the natural world, if we look at nature, it’s really difficult for me to see a forest, or the ocean, or the sky, or the earth as being something that I’m not a part of. It’s completely beyond my imagination. So I know that I’m completely affected by the weather. I can kind of see all of human reality in finite terms as existing between the surface of the earth and the place where the atmosphere dissipates into a space where we cannot live. And that’s a very small cuticle around the Mother. It’s a really small cuticle of experience around the Earth. And all the parts of our bodies are made up of all the parts of the earth. And there’s something—I don’t know what to call it—but there’s something also that’s of the universe that gives us that spark where all those parts of the earth and the sky and everything all ignite within that coalescence of minerals and gases and such to make us a human being. So there can’t be a separation in any sense, but an intellectual sense. And so that’s where I think the ideologies have to be looked at, the religions need to be looked at. You know, the millennial religions. I mean, I have a lot of respect for every religion, but I think there are places where people apply them to thinking it only matters what happens after you die. It’s kind of a simplistic way to put it, but they’re about the by and by. They’re not about how to live now, at least as I see them being applied. I think within all of them that I’ve looked at closely, there is very much an aspect of them that teach you how to live in a in a good manner. Here, right now, and to respect all life. But that’s not what is practiced, in my view, for the most part.
Susan: So you wanted to get back to right relationship, I think. I interrupted you, you were going to talk about getting back—did you finish what you wanted to say about kinship?
Stan: Well, in that description of life existing in this small cuticle of experience, there can be nothing else but kinship as the primary relationship—interrelationship. That’s why people say, “all my relations.” It doesn’t mean only what people call sentient beings, it means all forms of life and every form that we see, sit on, touch, smell, or are surrounded by is a form of life. So it’s all relative and—not relative, but a relative. I think it’s important to have that as a concept. I think it’s more important to entertain it as a daily experience as much as possible within a society that’s kind of divided up, separated.
Stan: I don’t know where that came from. Perhaps it’s a Western model. I certainly know in the educational system, what’s cutting edge now is this concept of intersectionality, where the different disciplines start to touch each other. To me, that’s kind of like sustainability being a cutting-edge idea. I would think sustainability in the ideal world would be the priority for the last 50-60,000 years. But I think what happened is a set of ideologies came in that broke apart that sustainability, that notion of sustainability. And I think we’ve had that before. And I think that we’ve probably, as humans, had a much longer period of time living with sustainability and kinship as the central modality than we have this time of separation. And yet we’re defining the human experience today and human nature within a relatively short time frame of non-sustainability. We kind of tend to think about evolution and human evolution in a straight line where we’re getting better and better. But I think that that’s really not the case. We have to be honest, looking at where we are now and how we’ve gotten here, and see that this is perhaps an aberration. It’s not human nature. It’s an aberration.
Susan: Speaking with a friend of mine who is a brilliant Buddhist. His feeling was that as soon as we began agriculture, we started leaving the land and treating plants and animals as things or as enemies coming into our area. That agriculture was the beginning of it. But you talked about the native peoples practicing agriculture in complete harmony, without any sense of separation—fields and fields of grain, you mentioned. So that kind of changes his idea that that’s probably not the origin of our problems. Not agriculture itself.
Stan: Yeah, I think agriculture gets a bad name, in a sense. It is seen as an evolution of hunter-gathering cultures and those—the hunter-gathering cultures—are very often seen as these kind of simple, small-numbered cultures that didn’t really impact on the landscapes that much—although there are arguments that they impacted the landscape tremendously. But I think it has to do more with the social technology, and I think that the gatherer-hunter cultures very often practiced agriculture and certainly animal husbandry in ways that we don’t really develop a lot of analysis of, which we should.
If you look at the Plains societies as kind of a direct example, people use the term roam—they “roamed the plains.” Well, what’s the image of that? They just kind of walked around and shot a buffalo when they ran into them and that kind of thing. But if you listen to Lakota economists today, they will tell you, the buffalo is going to be in this place at this time of the year, and so the people are going to be at that place in that time of the year. There are natural cycles that the animal and the people are working together with. And so that’s a type of animal husbandry, in a way. And the word “roaming” doesn’t really cover that. And that’s kind of the same thing here in California.
So I’m not so sure that agriculture is the culprit, as I’ve heard very often. Perhaps manners in which agriculture was practiced in Europe, certainly, because from some of my readings I’ve seen that the rivers of Europe were completely polluted in the 1400s because of agricultural runoff and such. You couldn’t drink the water and so on and so forth, all the way back then. So there’s something else that was happening that I think’s more a removal from the natural world psychologically and socially—and exactly what that is, I’m not really sure, but I think it’s important to think about. And I think that I’d like to read more studies on that. You know, when I listen to Bruce Pascoe talk about agriculture sixty thousand years ago, we don’t see the environmental devastation where that was being practiced. And certainly here in California, agriculture was being practiced. But it’s more with what is being grown naturally in an area. It’s working with native plants. And it’s not putting so much an intellectual concept or ideology on top of the landscape as it is working with the landscape. That comes back to the idea of kinship at the center of the society.
Perhaps when we see agriculture becoming destructive, it may be when there are certain kinds of stratification within society that preclude the kinship. Not to say that there was not stratification in sustainable native societies. I’m sure there was. But I think they’re more a benevolent stratification. Certainly, when we look at the archaeological record, we can only say that they were benevolent stratifications. A friend of mine who is an archaeologist told me one time when people are saying, “Well, Indians killed each other, too. They did war, too.” His approach was, “Yes. People have a tendency to do that kind of stuff. But there’s no archaeological evidence for any major conflagration here on Turtle Island for at least ten thousand years.” He told me that 20 years ago. So the number ten thousand has doubled at this point. However, if you go into the empire builders down in Mezzo-America, you see a lot more conflagration. So there’s something about the impulse to empire that is perhaps one of the seeds there. People make that just seeing the lack of sustainability.
Susan: You’re talking about the empires in South America?
Stan: In Central and South America. And perhaps empires wherever they come up.
Stan: Although the term empire is used for people, for non-western peoples here in North America, I don’t think it’s a true application of what empire is about. I think it’s more of a projection. Like people say, “Well, the Apache empire controlled the southwest.” Well, none of the Apaches that I know—which is quite a few—would accept the term “empire” as being what they were about. Or what they’re about today. Because what they’re about today is kind of a reflection of what they were earlier—of course, with all the ravages of colonization being part of that.
Susan: Thank you, Stan. This was lovely.
Stan: Yeah. I mean, it’s the way I relate to it is not really mine.
Susan: Right. But what is yours is the courage is which you’ve dealt with it. That’s yours.
Stan: Yeah. None of this, I could say none of this without all the people around me and all the people that I’m constantly learning from. So in a sense, really, most of what I said to you is stuff that I’m in the process of learning right now from Gregg and Kyle Whyte and Harold and Rita and all these folks that I’m always talking with about this. So, when I do something like this, I’m just kind of saying what everybody else is telling me and how I’m interrelating with it at the moment. I mean, these conversations are happening right now, which is pretty cool. I think that says something, too, to the people who often talk about the resilience of native people. I hear a lot of native people complaining about that word; they don’t like it. At the same time, there is something—I think it’s more the courage, really. I think it’s more the courage. And that’s what really feeds me. It feeds me the courage I see in here around me doing this.
Susan: And beauty.
Stan: Yeah. It’s a beautiful thing.
Susan: Alright, Stan, thank you for your time.
Stan: Thank you. Have a great day.
Susan: You, too. Bye.
Susan: I’m going to ask a question that I hope doesn’t sound silly, but the reason—and you’ve said it already—but the reason I’m saying it is because I would like to have it really… Well, I don’t know if it’s even possible to make it clear, but as clear as possible to people who are listening. When people want Native American spirituality, they have an idea, and it’s a little woo-woo and it’s not connected to much. And the word spirituality is loaded, too. My sense of Native American spirituality—and this is just me, not trying to be arrogant, it’s just where I sense it—is that it’s very grounded. So, I don’t know if is possible for you to explain. You did in a way before already when you said we’re all related and the items on earth are in us and all that. Is that what you would call it? Is there a way to try and take people away from the silly idea of what spirituality is and try to make Native American spirituality more clear? And if it’s too silly a question, don’t bother answering it.
Stan: It’s not a silly question at all. But in a way, it can’t be answered. I think in a sense, it has to be experienced. There is a danger in defining it in any particular way because then it just shifts. It just shifts the concept and as long as it’s conceptual, then it’s conceptual.
To give you examples, I could say that all the experiences that I’ve had with native ceremony—which is a really broad range in the sense that I’ve heard many people say everything you do in your life is ceremony. So I think what that points at is the practicality or the pragmatism underlying all native ceremonial practices that I’ve been part of or witnessed in my life, right from the time I was a kid with my grandfather. He was not a ritually oriented person, but he took me through experiences that gave me a very pragmatic relationship to the natural world which we’re all part of. So I had experiences with the natural world where I was not separate from it, it was not separate from me. Not an ideology.
For instance, when I was taught to build the fire for a ceremony, for what they call a lodge ceremony, every step of that process has a meaning both in a pragmatic sense and in a sense of understanding what you’re doing in the sense of prayer. And the sense of creating a space that everybody who is coming that day to be part of that ceremony is going to get the best possible outcome out of it because of what you put into it while you’re building fire. So that’s part of the prayer aspect. At the same time, and equally important, is how you place the wood to build a cradle. And that’s where you place the stones. How you place everything. How you build that whole thing is extremely pragmatic. And if you have a lot of weather coming in or if you have any kind of change in the natural world, there can be shifts in how that’s done in order that the job gets done, in order that the stones get penetrated, that the heat is there. So you have to be in right relationship with the Earth, who’s going to take that fire. Also, it’s going to feel that pain. So you have to be recognizing that. The air that’s going to be part of building that fire. You’ve got to recognize that and be part of that.
So the ceremonies, as far as I can see, are really not about implanting an ideology at all. What I want to say is that the function of native ceremony that I’ve experienced is to bring people into community where the individual is going to feel and respect all the other individuals involved in the ceremony. You’re going to support each other any way they can in their lives. They talk about stuff, they’re in relationship, and at the same time, they’re able to go within their own worlds to get the life forces of the world around them to kind of slough-off the layers of society—or the layers that are preventing them from feeling the natural world and being part of the natural world—to where they’re going to come out stronger. They’re going to come out understanding themselves a little bit better, and therefore understanding their role in the world. Therefore, understanding that man or woman next to them. They’re going to understand how to be with their parents in a better way, with their children in a better way. That’s the function. It’s not to take in the ideology. What the east and the south and the north and all that means. Those are part of that, but that’s not the prime reason to be there. The prime reason to be there is to understand yourself better and the world around you better and to be a better person. Right then and now.
Susan: This is the wisdom that we don’t want to hear from you.
Stan: Is it? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe so. Maybe you’re right about that.
Susan: Not because it’s not wonderful. It’s because it’s hard work.
Stan: Precisely. It is very hard work. Because you’d have to face your stuff.
Stan: You know, you have to really face your stuff. And that’s kind of the central message. It’s that you can’t have the kinship unless you face your stuff. It’s that simple. It really is. You can’t build a relationship unless you see what’s in the way of that relationship.
Susan: And also, what you’re saying—if I understand you right—is that if nothing’s in the way, you’re constantly feeling in relationship to everything. Air, people, stone, animals. Everything, all the time. You are in a web, a network of relationship all the time as experience.
Stan: My students tell me that when they first began to realize that, it can be overwhelming. But then after a while they say it’s actually very comforting.
Stan: So we’re overwhelmed by it when we create an image of ourselves as separate from the world around us, we’ve got that cuticle around us as individuals. And I see this in academia: a cuticle around the math department, anthropology department, sociology department, English department. There’s all this compartmentalized stuff, and so when we’re compartmentalized as human beings, now we’re approaching what the academic world now is calling intersectionality, being within that movement of intersectionality. I’m using academic terms now, just for the fun of it, just to say how it applies.
Susan: It’s the same as interdisciplinary. What’s the difference?
Stan: Yeah. It’s kind of the same. It’s kind of the same thing, only it’s being used a lot more than I’ve seen it being used in my 30 years here, which I think is a good thing. But you know, where we carry that as individuals around the world, is problematical. It really is. It is metaphorically—and literally at the same time—the separation from the natural world. And it’s the separation from our sense of time. A larger sense of time, I think, gives us a greater responsibility. If we’re locked into linear time, we can come to a point and say, “Well, okay, we’ve got this problem” with, say, a nuclear power industry and spent fuel rods. And we can say, “Well, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” without realizing that we’re at that bridge the moment that we’ve created some that has a 250,000-year life of destructive potentiality. Yeah, we’re always there. And that’s the other thing that I see a lot with the students as they come into realizing, thinking about considering time. Every moment in time touches every other moment in time, and in that there is a much deeper sense of responsibility, and that comes back to relationship. Relationship over time, or kinship over time. We’re akin to what happened in the past, we’re akin to what’s going to happen in the future.
Susan: Do you think we can heal retroactively?
Stan: Sure. I do.
Susan: I mean, back through time help generations that were before us.
Stan: Absolutely. Again, that’s having the right relationship and doing the best that we can here. We can’t change history. We can certainly change our perceptions of history. Very easily. The fact that someone was killed or that a child was thrown into a fire right here in California while it was still alive, we can change how we relate to that. We can either ignore it and blow it off, and therefore lose compassion for a child that existed in the past, who was a different culture, a different race. Who was, perhaps, in the way of what the settlers wanted, so it was dehumanized. If we don’t look at that, we perpetuate that dehumanization to today’s native children. If we look at it, we shift our relationship to it. So that child’s death, even though it will forever be tragic, can then have a positive meaning. And where do we go from here and how we relate to today’s children and tomorrow’s children? Because we’re able to look at that and say what created that in that soldier or in that settler? Because it wasn’t a soldier; it was a settler, in that particular case that I’m thinking of. What created that in that settler’s mind? How do we heal that? How do we heal what we’ve inherited from that settler’s mind? And our minds now, how does that affect our perception of the past? So then, the past becomes something that we can gain from, rather than something we’re running away from. That’s a very active shift. Does that make sense?
Susan: Yeah. It makes excellent sense. My question was a little more mystical one in the sense that I wonder if we can go back and heal the pain on some level that happened.
Stan: For whom?
Susan: The people who experienced it.
Stan: That child, for instance?
Stan: I can’t really speak to that because that’s not my realm. To me, that kind of is seeking—it’s asking me whether I see that child as kind of a specific entity that lives in a “spiritual world” back in the past. I don’t really see it that way. I see that child living within me now. Okay, so that comes back to the thing of linear time. So that’s kind of asking me to go back, you know what I mean? It’s asking me to go back and see a finite being within a linear time frame. And I don’t really conceive it that way.
Susan: I was thinking to some degree in the way that time is not linear, but circular.
Stan: Well, if time is an ocean—which may be a little bit different than circular—then there’s a constant interrelationship with that child. So that child lives in me ever since I learned about it. This is what my friend Gregg talks about when he comes across remains. There’s this ranch, and something happens—a river opens up the graveyard or a burial site, or there’s a development that opens up a burial site. When he comes and deals with those remains, that’s a very emotional thing for him, because that’s his sister, or that’s his brother. That still lives within him. And because of the way he sees time, there is no separation. So that sister doesn’t live back there in a linearly constructed framework, so much as it lives within him now. That is a subtle difference, but a profound difference at the same time.
So the short answer to your question is yes, we can, and we must do that healing. We must do that healing. Whether we can alleviate the pain of someone having been thrown in the fire as a child in 1880, I don’t think so! That experience was that child’s experience at that time. And that’s the hard part we have to look at, I think. That’s where that child’s pain—if we allow that child to be alive now, we’re going to feel that pain. The purpose of feeling that pain is not to eliminate the pain for that child. But to understand what we have inherited from that murder. And that pain is within all of us if we open up to it. And that’s, again, part of what I think: for lack of a better word, “colonial” culture doesn’t want to deal with that pain. Because it doesn’t see itself as responsible. So it doesn’t want to acknowledge that that pain exists within our psychological and spiritual body today. But it does. It does—very much so. That pain is what keeps us from being able to do, like you said, what is the hard work.
Simon Ortiz, a Pueblo writer, deals with this. He says, why do they see pain and death as something bad? Pain and death are part of life, and you learn from them. It’s not that you need to hang out and beat yourself over the back, like the flagellants or something like that. But it has to be dealt with. Buffy Sainte-Marie talks about it as a fuel—the pain, the anger, the rage, all of that has to be dealt with, honestly. It’s like a fuel for getting to the next place. And will it ever go away? I don’t think so. I think it’s like asking somebody with PTSD to forget about their war experience. They can’t do that, but they can learn how to handle it the best way possible. The vets that I have the most respect for, that’s how they say it. And I think it’s the same thing with what’s happened here. We have to dive in. We have to look at it. We have to see how we fell away from our nature, in order to come back to it.
Susan: Actually, that’s a very beautiful place to stop. How we fell away from our nature, in order to come back to it.
Stan: You know, I think the only thing that I would add that I think is really important when we look at these things is to really emphasize that in the preponderance of human experience here—I mentioned this before—I think we have far more time doing it right than we have messing it up. And I think that’s really important to think about so that we can acknowledge that part in our DNA, so to speak, that knows how to do it right. This is why I think that what Dr. Whyte is talking about, what Gregg Castro is talking about, what Bruce Pascoe is talking about, all this is really, really important. You don’t have to go somewhere that we’re unfamiliar with. We have to go back into what we are really deeply familiar with and face our mistakes. It’s a matter of maturity, really, in a sense.
Susan: Yeah. That’s wonderful. All of it. Wonderful. Not the topic, but wonderful in the wisdom and profundity and meaning of the things you shared.
Stan: Well, thank you. I just believe we can do it, because I see it happen semester after semester with my students at the college. I see it in the young people working in the city with the seed project, and farming, and coming in and telling a whole group at the university of native kids and non-native kids what they’re doing. I see everybody lighting up. I see the beauty of this in young people and elders and native people and non-native people alike. It’s quite extraordinarily beautiful. And I think it’s very easy to fall over into the “woe is me.” And I think we are facing tremendous woes. And I think we, as Dahr’s science says—not Dahr’s, but what he’s reporting—that we perhaps have 2℃ baked into the system. That’s going to create radical change. So rather than focusing solely on that 2℃, I think we need to have much more focus on how we’re going to adapt and how we need to start adapting immediately to the changes that are built into the system. I don’t think we’re going to reverse it. I think we’re going to have to adapt to it. The parallel is like, we couldn’t stop the genocide here, and a lot of us fell off our path by attempting to use the methods of the colonists in order to fight the colonists. And that didn’t work. What happened, happened, and is still happening in different ways. And we need to stick to our path. And we’ve had to adapt to monstrous change. And it could be—I don’t know for sure, but it could be—that that the whole of humanity is going to have to adapt to absolutely radical change as well. And in order to succeed at that, it has to know that it has the capacity. This is why I don’t really have a lot of patience with, “Well, the world will be better off without us.”
Susan: Oh, no! We are magnificent as much as we’re awful. We’re magnificent.
Stan: We’re part of it.
Stan: We say [speaking Iss], “We are your children.” So, yeah. We need to stop being 2-year-olds.