Sherri Mitchell is the Founding Director of the Land Peace Foundation, an organization dedicated to the global protection of Indigenous land and water rights and the preservation of the Indigenous way of life. Sherri is an author and cohost of the syndicated radio program Love (and revolution) Radio, which focuses on real-life stories of heart-based activism and revolutionary spiritual change. She was born and raised on the Penobscot Indian reservation (Penawahpskek). She speaks and teaches around the world on issues of Indigenous rights, environmental justice, and spiritual change.
After her previous appearance on episode 68, Sherri returns to the question of “What Could Possibly Go Right?” with thoughts including:
Vicki Robin: Hi, Vicki Robin here, host of What Could Possibly Go Right?, a project of the Post Carbon Institute. We interview cultural scouts, people who see far and serve the common good - and social artists, people who take the pulse of these times and create in this time, when so much seems to be coming apart, for sure much is coming together that we can't see.
Our guests help us to see more clearly and act more courageously in this potent time of change. Today's guest came to me through the work of Post Carbon and is one of the many blessings of hosting this podcast. I interviewed her twice now as when she speaks and what she speaks comes from both her indigenous roots and her accomplishments. As a lawyer, educator and leader, she is wise and kick ass, both at once.
Sherri Mitchell is an Indigenous attorney, activist and author from the Penobscot Nation. She's a graduate of the University of Arizona Rogers College of Law, specializing in Indigenous People's Law and Policy. She is an alumna of the American Indian Ambassador Program and the Udall Native American Congressional Internship Program.
Sherri is the author of the award-winning book, Sacred Instructions: Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit Based Change. She is also a contributor to 11 anthologies, including the bestseller. All We Can Save: Truth, Courage and Solutions for the climate crisis and resetting our future empowering climate action in the United States.
Sherri is the founding director of the Land Peace Foundation, an organization dedicated to the preservation of indigenous rights and the protection of the indigenous ways of life. She serves as a trustee for the American Indian Institute as an advisory council member for Nero's Indigenous Land Guardianship Program and is board member for Post Carbon Institute, she speaks and teaches around the world on issues of indigenous rights, climate change, and transformational socio-spiritual change. Now here's Sherri.
Vicki Robin: Welcome Sherri Mitchell to What Could Possibly Go Right? You know, you were one of my first guests about two and a half years ago when I started this podcast. At the time, I had some hope that disrupting business as usual as the pandemic did, might open a way for a more humane and life-serving direction for our world.
So What Could Possibly Go Right? at that time was tinged with some expectancy. But this unraveling of the old seems to be more sustained, more widespread and dangerous than I could have imagined, with unexpected and frightening plot twists and cliff hangers. The truth is, this is more likely the privileged white culture encountering what indigenous societies have endured for centuries. We unraveled your way of life, and now our ways are unraveled.
So these familiar ways of control and predictability, order and domination of the earth are unraveling for ever more of us. But from your perspective, this is a centuries old and familiar story. So I feel a calm when I listen to your talks and read what you write, and in you, I sense an older story, an enduring story being spoken again in these times.
So with that ramp up, take it where you will, Sherri, my friend. With all that seems to be coming apart, what could possibly go right?
Sherri Mitchell: Yeah. I think that the coming apart is part of the writing, part of the balancing. We have been living in ways that have been wholly unsustainable for far too long, according to these Western ideals that are really, in many ways, devoid of substance.
I just did a workshop at Omega this past weekend and there was an older white man in the audience who asked me a question that really connected to this particular issue about, what do we do? We don't know what to do in the midst of this moment. There's this real seeking toward indigenous peoples and indigenous knowledge, because there's a recognition, I think, in the white population who's seeking that we've already lived through. Apocalypse, right?
One of my friends at the conference, I had some amazing women there, including Rowan White, who is a seed saver from the Mohawk Nation and she is a young woman who is of Mexican descent, who started the Fridays for Future movement in the United States amongst young people.
We were having this conversation with this man in the audience about that native people have already gone through the destruction of their way of life. Now for the first time in this iteration of life… which is a whole other conversation, right? But in this iteration of life, this is the first time that the population of people who are experiencing the unraveling within the commons, within the mainstream, within suburbia, are experiencing a dismantling of their ways of being, which is calling into question their ways of knowing.
So I think it's a really important question for this time to start thinking about who are we beyond the stories that we tell. We have all of these stories that we tell, some of them carried forward from the past into the future. My partner and I just did a conversation with Rowe Center and the title of the conversation was, Going to Ground. It was about coming home to ourselves in one another and about how deepening our relationship with the Earth led to a softening within us, that created this opening that allowed us to see each other for the first time, even after knowing each other for almost a decade.
So contained within that was this acknowledgement that there are these stories that we tell ourselves about who we are, stories that we tell ourselves about our place in the world, narratives that we've carried with us from our really problematic, violent past.
The collective past that we share as human beings is wrought with violence and with competition and cutthroat politics, but that's a relatively new story. That story of capitalism, the story of this episode of patriarchy that is absent of any type of matriarchal knowledge, that story is roughly 5,000 years old. and we've been around for a lot longer than that, right? So what are the stories that we had, that allowed our humanoid species to exist into this day and age, to perpetuate life to this point?
Those are stories about cooperation and community and collaboration, collective sharing and reciprocity and caring for one another. Those are kinds of the things that we've forgotten along the way, and those are the teachings of the matriarchs. So, that's part of the problem, is that we're living in this state of imbalance right now that is causing destruction on a large scale to species and planet, but also finally beginning to cannibalize itself in a lot of ways.
In that cannibalization of itself, we're starting to see the unraveling of the systems and structures that have been created under the status quo of the times that we're living in.
Vicki Robin: There's so much that's interesting to me in what you said. I wanna get around to the matriarchal piece, but also what you just said about this society is cannibalizing itself. I think part of that, the evidence we see - and I'm not here to rag on what's going wrong at all - but the evidence, the data points that I've been seeing recently; one is that, basically there was a hearing with Katie Porter, in which she had a chief economist admit, she had one of her major charts that basically the cause of inflation is corporate greed. It is that the corporations are taking too much profit out of the system. So that's cannibalizing us.
Another piece of evidence is forgiveness of student loans. When a society does not invest in their children as the future, then you know that it's cannibalizing itself. So in a way, these are the things, this is the heartbreaking evidence that we're seeing in Western white society, right? We're seeing it now. We're cannibalizing the working class. We're cannibalizing our young people. I mean, you could run around with a little watering can, trying to put out all the fires that are now burning because it's all part of like a root fire.
It's like one time I built a fire and it didn't burn, I didn't create a right fire pit. So later on, the roots were burning and the smoke was coming up at different places. So it's always been an image for me that there's a root fire going on and the smoke is arising in all these different places.
But our conversation is what could possibly go right. Not as what should go right or what ought to happen, but where are we seeing the emergence, the green shoots, let's say. After the fire is out, you start to see new life. I hear in what you're saying that there's clues in the matriarchy and there's clues in the deep history of the human presence on this planet.
So what are the clues that you're seeing that's that? Other patterns that sustained us for millennia are emerging?
Sherri Mitchell: Well, I think that what I'm seeing is the young people reaching for those stories. So we're seeing this time of renaissance within indigenous populations around the planet where there's revitalization of languages, there's reconnection to ceremonial ways of being, restoration of traditional ways of living.
All of those things to me are evidence of the reemergence of those ancestral stories that sustained life into the future. But we also are seeing… Sharon Blackey, I mean, is just a phenomenal example of this. Sharon Blackey who wrote, If Women Rose Rooted, and she has a new book out called Haute. She is a woman of Celtic descent. After having been influenced by her experience with indigenous peoples in North America, she worked for a big tobacco company, gave it all up and went back and started searching her own history for her own stories of being rooted, of being connected deeply to the Earth.
It's those stories of rootedness that really open something up within us that changes who we are fundamentally. There's a lot of studies out there that tell us that. In his book, Sand Talk, Tyson Yaka Porta talks about this, about when he first got a cell. It started actually changing the structure of his brain.
He had to kind of get away from it and all of this technology actually changes us. The more that we can get away from the technology and reconnect our bodies to the earth, the more realigned we are with those old stories and the more they emerge, the more that teachings rise up out of the earth.
Just like your smoke in different areas, right? Rivera Sun talks about the dandelion revolution, of the dandelions popping up everywhere. You just can't stop it. It's the same when we have this establishment or reestablishment - my friend Rowan White calls rehydration - of our roots. But when we have this rehydration of this ancient knowledge, sprouts begin to emerge and that information is sprouting up. They're starting to see that happen more and more, as young people and people of other origins, people who have different origin stories than I do as an indigenous woman.
There are other people who have their own origin stories from their own places, where their ancestors are deep in the earth. And when there's a reconnection to those stories, the wisdom that rises up about the ways that we sustain our lives, the ways that we balance our lives with the rest of this living creation, start to emerge.
So that's the thing that could possibly go right in my mind is that more and more people begin reaching for those stories; beyond the story of capitalism, beyond the story of colonization, beyond the imbalance of this patriarchal representation that we've been living within, to find the stories that are rooted in the earth of a time when there people lived in connection with life.
Bring those stories forward, look at them in comparison to the story that's created this elusive reality that we've been living in, and realign them with the stories that we need to take us into the future. And how do we do that?
We do that by learning to be quiet. We do that by walking away from all of the technology. We do that by walking away from our fear of missing out, or our fear of being irrelevant. We do that by reconnecting with that flow of information and truth that has been flowing right beneath our feet since the beginning of time, since the beginning of life, certainly on this planet, that there's a continuum there that's steady.
And we're up here making all of this noise and that continuum continues to flow, to alignment with that flow and begin to stop all of this busyness up here. Because what it is, is our head separated from our bodies. It takes us away from being connected to the parts of us that are actually rooted to the earth.
So my own experience moving through this process has had incredible changes, and created incredible changes in my life. It has had a profound impact on how I see myself in relation to the work that I do, where I had to go through this period of time where I had just a small amount of energy, and I had to really decide, how do I wanna use this energy in support of the work that I'm doing?
I noticed that when I engaged in activism work that was about deconstructing or tearing something down or conquering some reigning power, because I believed that the people that I knew had better ideas than them, that all I was doing was perpetuating cycles of conquest. When I did that, when I engaged in that type of work, it sapped my energy for days because I was aligned with a destruction and with an energy of death.
When I aligned myself with those energies that were creating something new, that were about imagining and building the possibility of a new reality of giving birth to something that I was aligned with life and my energy would be up days after that activity.
So that really showed me who I wanted to be personally in the world. Do I want to be a conquest activist or do I wanna be someone who is aligned with the flow of life and birthing something new? And that doesn't mean that we forget about all the horrific things that are going on right now.
I wrote about that in my book, about this 80 10 10 rule where we have to pay attention to what's coming at us, use 10% of our energy to look around, see what's coming at us. We have to use another 10% of our energy being in a protective stance to stop the flow of harm. But then behind that protective wall, we have to be actively building with the other 80% of our energy, the life that we want to be living, the world that we want to be able to walk into.
We have to have the vision for that and hold it collectively and breathe life into it, so that we can walk into that as flesh and blood down the road. We're not gonna have anywhere to go. Once we dismantle it, we'll just be living in collapse. And so, unless we want to spend another epoch of our lives living in collapse, we have to be actively building something that we're gonna move into in this next phase.
Vicki Robin: I had two thoughts when I was listening to you. Thank you for all of that. One is that in terms of this podcast and what people are seeking as they listen to it, we have faithful listeners now, people who come to this drink of the well.
Part of it is that question, what can I do? And the demand of responding to the unraveling, the demand that arrives every day to do something about it. I have to meditate after I read the news. My nervous system's like, Okay, we're gonna do something about this. What are we gonna do about this?
In a way it's amplifying the story. If you hear a new word that's part of the story. I remember, I think you were one of the first people I heard use the word decolonization in terms of a mental construct. Now my mind was alerted to that word and then I started to hear it and I started to make sense of it.
So to realize that for each of us, our speaking of the new language of what is coming together, not as an imposition, not like I'm gonna tell you a story so that you get my story and you start living my story. But just that process of trying on the wise, the capes of wisdom that come and trying on the words and seeing what they could mean. So many of the new words are coming from the margins. It's coming from indigenous people, it's coming from LGBTQIA+ people.
People are finding a new language for what it means to be a human on this planet, beyond the suffering that's been imposed by the dominator systems. In saying that, I'm even saying that word with no hostility. It's just what we're all caught in.
So that's part of what could possibly go right through us, is that allowing ourselves to incorporate into ourselves; not just hear cool things, but think about them. Incorporate them in, like the next time you take a walk with a friend, you go like: I heard this. What's this about? We're all collectively, actually languaging a story together. It's not something somebody figured out and they're the cool person and we're all gonna follow. It's that we're languaging what's coming together.
If I had another idea about it, it's gone because I've just got taken with that. But I feel emergence through your words. Oh, that's the other thing, and now I'm sorry to do two points at once, but I have so many young friends, in my circles around this financial independence movement. There’s a lot of young people who are buried in tech. That's where they can make their money, whether they're doing online entrepreneurship or they're doing programming or whatever those young people are doing. They live in cities and they are not there. There's nothing about their lives that's embodied.
So how do people in that situation feel rooted? How do they feel connected with stories that are older in time than them. So those are two streams that I'm picking up from what you said.
Sherri Mitchell: Well, I think this question of what happens for people in urban centers is something that I get a lot. So let's get to that next. First I just wanna talk about we're taking in all of this stuff, right? You're talking about we're taking in all of this, all of this information.
We're hearing all of these words, and if we think about taking something in to nourish us, we think about that. In regard to rootedness. What do the roots do? Those tap roots have to go really, really deep in order to be connected, right? To carry all of the nutrients, up to the tree, for the water to get all the way down to extend to those tap roots.
I mean, there's this system of flow, but the rootedness and the depth of rootedness determines how broad and how tall we can grow. So if we're taking all of this stuff and we're taking it in, we're taking it in, but it's not sinking in, it's not nourishing us in the long term.
It's like fast food, right? Oh, it fills us up in the moment and then we go back to despair. It's because we haven't gone within ourselves deep enough to allow a space for that sinking in to occur. So we need to have that space.
My friend Dr. Katherine Wilkinson talks about this, the last time she was here visiting and about how, if we only engage in a shallow experience and exploration of ourselves, then our actions will remain shallow, and limited to a small space. On the surface, there will be no depth of activity that we can engage in because we haven't even explored the depths within ourselves to know what we're capable of holding.
I think that's where we need to be, is we need to be really exploring the depths within ourselves to see what we are capable of taking, dealing with the transmutation of the obstacles and differences that it possesses or presents to us, and then taking the nourishing parts of it, integrating it into our being, allowing it to feed something within us that gives us the space to grow; both in height and in breadth, and grounded by the depth of our roots and our rootedness.
It’s kind of a fundamental part of the movement that is being overlooked. If we continue on as we are taking in all of this information, all of this information, all of this information, we're gonna die of starvation because nothing's gonna be nourishing us. So I wanted to talk about that piece.
And for people who live in urban centers, my suggestion for them is to get out of the city. There have been studies that have been done on the energy transfer from the earth to the bottoms of our feet, and it doesn't go through asphalt. It'll go through some forms of untreated concrete, but it won't go through asphalt.
So you're not even getting an energy transfer with the earth if all you're doing is walking on asphalt all the time. You have to get your feet on the ground. You have to put away your cell phones, away from all of the distortions of all of the technology that's zipping through your body every single day, and cleanse yourself. Allow your brain to reorganize and connect to the source of life.
We were walking through Boston the other day. I did a talk in Boston and we were walking through Boston to get back to our car, when we were leaving the city the next day. We heard this young man say, if my brain was a cell phone and I was thinking your brain is a cell phone, because it's been so influenced by the technology that surrounds you and is not being grounded by the essence, that flow that I'm talking about, that essence of life that flows beneath all of this.
We're separating ourselves by living above the asphalt. And so, tear up the asphalts, plant some gardens. That idea of creating those community gardens in old parking lots. Create spaces, where people can actually go and have a connection, a meaningful connection to the earth.
Putting rooftop decks, rooftop gardens out is not sufficient. Putting planter pots on your deck is not sufficient. You need to be in a place where you can have an energetic transfer from the earth, through the soles of your feet. So take the time, make the time to get out of the city.
Vicki Robin: The thing is that what I'm seeing in the young people I know who are a bit techy, is that one of the odd results of the pandemic is that they can work from anywhere. And they won't take it. The Great Quit or the Great Resignation, The Big Quit.
I've been fascinated with that, and I think in part it's that they don't ever wanna go back into an office. They don't want to ever go back into a city, an office or cubicle, sharing a bedroom with six other people, in an apartment in New York City. So the rest of the country is getting repopulated.
Unfortunately, it's driving up real estate prices for people who like living there, but nonetheless, there's a great shuffling. I think part of the shuffling is that if people can work remotely, if they can stay connected with the leading edge of what's happening in this world and yet live in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, that could make a difference.
Sherri, I think it's just that all bets are off in terms of being able to predict any outcomes. We just have to stay with the flow of this. I love that you're talking all about roots. You know that there are times in history when it's all about the branches and all about the things that are out there and visible and we're creating.
But I think this is a time of returning down into the deep depths of the earth.
Sherri Mitchell: You know, I wanna try to find this thing that I wrote, about a week ago, and let me just read this. And it doesn't have to do with what we're talking about, but it absolutely does. Okay. It's called Rooted. Finding the courage to become rooted in a driftless world, live on purpose and with purpose on a landscape that has claimed you as its own.
Taking the time to learn its movement and rhythm to hear its restless bluster and contented sigh is a deep practice. Good love has deep roots. They settle in and grow toward one another. Reaching and merging, creating an unspoken language that communicates things that can only be felt through the long intertwining of shoots and tendrils.
As the blossoms grow and fall, the roots remain steadfast, nourishing, the constant cycling of life above the ground. Living in a long love gives you the roots needed to reach the richest nutrients within the soil. If we want to reach that nourishing soil, we have to find the courage to remain. What does that mean for us now?
It means having the courage to remain on one path. In a long love to remain connected to our own spirit and to all life. To feel the pain, the sorrow, the joy, the loneliness, and the wonder to experience the deep connection that will guide us to the answers we need, and to a reflection of a shared truth that exists in balanced harmony.
This is really what we're talking about. We're talking about this experience of being rooted. It brings to the forefront all of the things that we've shoved to the back in our hurried pace. the things that have been taken for granted the things that have been recognized as important but not prioritized.
We have all of this great poetry about being in a long love, right? We have all of this poetry about being connected to nature. We have so many incredible writers who talk about this. We don't ever stop to think that in this fast paced world of technology and isolation that comes from working by remote, there's a sense of isolation and disconnect that happens as a result of not being connected to other human beings. That's also a part of that equation, right?
So, there's benefits to working by remote, but it takes us again away from one another in ways that creates instability within our mental wellbeing and our emotional health. When we start to put together all of these factors, we realize that the courage that it takes to really stay in place and become deeply rooted with all of the life that surrounds you is really an act of deep love. That's really what it comes down to, that we have to change the way that we're living.
Earlier before we were recording, I was telling you a quote from Tim de Christopher where he said that when he stopped focusing on fighting the corporations and the systems that infuriated him and shifted his focus to building relationship with the earth that he loved. Something fundamental changed in him, and he recognized that the way that he had been engaging with the world was not the way that he was going to continue engaging with the world to shift. And he's now an organic farmer.
And so when we think about the way that that relationship with the earth transforms us, to beings who are actually living the life that we hope to arrive in one day, what does it mean for us to be citizens of the world that we hope to live in?
So we are very adept at describing the water that we're drowning in. Can we come to a place where we are able to envision and step into being the people, the citizens who live in the world that we're hoping to create? And Angela has this great quote that I don't know if I can get my hands on, in this moment where she talks about this transformation in her own activism that went from focusing out there on what needed to be changed, to focusing on how she could become the citizen of the world she wanted to live in.
That was the place where the real transformation begins, because our species is so caught up in the description, in agonizing accurate detail, our slow death that we leave ourselves very little time to visualize the beautiful life that we hope to have.
And so what could possibly go right is having more spaciousness, more quiet, more connection that allows us to be deeply rooted in this one, sustainable life that supports us all, what we call Mother Earth, and then to sit in that space of rootedness and visualize the world that we most want to inhabit and then become a citizen who is able to live there, in a peaceful, just and equitable way.
You figure out what that looks like, then maybe we'll really know something that we can start toward, right? Maybe we'll really have an understanding of what we need on the deepest levels, because right now we're reacting to the madness, the dance of the cannibal giant. And we're missing all of this thriving life beneath our feet. So for me, that's where my hope lies. My hope lies in the earth, who has shown us what sustainability looks like.
What harmonizing with various forms of life and incredible diversity looks like what it means to move through moments of conflict and to readjust and to pivot and to slowly settle back into a place of harmonized, being in relationship with one another. That type of example, the beauty within that example is what we all need to be looking toward if we wanna find our way.
Vicki Robin: That's a perfect place to wrap this up. Thank you so much, Sherri. I'm gonna let those words sink into me. I'm going to digest them and integrate them and let them nourish me, and let them pass through the deeper waters that have no words inside me and emerge again as fresh water, as living water. Okay, my friend, thank you so much.
Sherri Mitchell: Thank you for inviting me to be in conversation with you.
Vicki Robin: Hey, thanks for listening. Don't forget to subscribe and leave us a five star review so that this hopeful message can get out to more people. Check out Post Carbon Institute's Resilience website for show notes and for more guest information. Thanks also to Asher Miller. Amy Buringrud, and Clara Winter at Post Carbon Institute, plus production assistant Michelle Wigg from FrugalityandFreedom.com.