When You Hit Rock Bottom, the Only Place to Go Is Up: How Catastrophe Can Bring Us Together, with Lyla June
Lyla June is a poet, musician, anthropologist, educator, public speaker and community organizer of Diné, Cheyenne and European lineages who has addressed audiences across the globe with a message of personal, collective and ecological healing. She blends studies in Human Ecology at Stanford, graduate work in Indigenous Pedagogy, and the traditional worldview she grew up with to inform her perspectives and solutions.
I had the incredible privilege of getting to hear Lyla June speak at Bioneers a few years back. I was deeply moved by her wisdom, her fierce grace, tenacity, and deep commitment to making the world a just and beautiful place. I have been following Lyla June’s career ever since, and all that she has done is an incredible inspiration. I was honored to get to interview her for Bioneers to talk about her perspective on this time that we are living in and how we can move forward in a good way. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I enjoyed speaking with her. —Polina Smith, Bioneers Arts Coordinator
POLINA SMITH: What’s your perspective, as an artist, an activist and a Diné woman on this historical moment we’re living in?
LYLA JUNE: Greetings my kin and my people. My name is Lyla June, and I come from the Naaneesht’-ézhi Tááchii’nii (The Charcoal Streaked Division of the Red Running Into the Water Clan) of the Diné Nation, widely but incorrectly known as the Navajo.
For me as an artist and all the things that Creator has made me to be in this lifetime, these times are really about learning. You know, there’s a very important principle within Diné cosmology about learning from one’s trials and tribulations. My elder, Philmer Bluehouse, talks about this a lot. We are here to learn, and we will learn through both positive things and negative things. We’re in a heavy learning space right now.
The American experiment and the capitalist experiment were never going to work in the long run. It seemed like it could work for a while—patriarchy, white supremacy, human supremacy over other species, male supremacy, all of those things; they were never going to last, so I feel like our bill is coming due. We’ve written all these checks and we thought it was going to work, but now it’s time for us face the consequences of our actions.
So from the global climate crisis to the breakdown of the American democracy (which for Native people has never been a democracy); to the huge fires that reveal that American society doesn’t know how to manage land, soil and water; we’re finally seeing the consequences of centuries of doing it wrong, but I don’t see it as a curse. I actually see this as a gift, a chance to learn how to get it right.
POLINA: That is a very positive way to look at it, but there’s so much heartbreak, so much trouble in this time. How do you navigate it, and how do you suggest we navigate it?
LYLA: Well, prayer is always one answer. We have a lot of stories about periods of collapse in our Indigenous cultural narratives, so there’s this background feeling that we’ve been through this sort of thing before. In Diné cosmology we’ve already experienced the destruction of four or five worlds, so as a culture we’re actually very accustomed to this idea of worlds dying and being reborn.
One of them was with a flood, which happens to be a recurring theme in cultural narratives throughout the world, so we don’t think these are just stories. We think this actually happened. Some of the collapses are social. Things come to a head, and people are forced to evolve or perish. One of those collapses took place in Chaco Canyon. Our people then had caste systems and slavery there and didn’t manage their land well. A lot of Diné people won’t go to Chaco Canyon for that reason. A lot of tourists go to see the archaeological site, but we as Diné never go back because that’s a place where we messed up.
At that time the youth rose up and the Creator sent us a drought, which we needed to give us the courage to change, and then we broke apart and eventually started new, much more evolved societies. We had to learn by going through the fire. Similarly, there’s a California tribe who say that they were in a state of famine, and everything was hard, and the women cried and prayed for their dying children. That prayer, that love, is what gave rise to the acorn maidens coming down to teach them how to gather, prepare and eat the acorns. There are a lot of different stories of collapse and rebirth like that around the world. Europeans have had that too. They had quite evolved social systems that were destroyed by conquerors on many occasions. The conquest of tribal peoples by the Romans, and then the collapse of the Roman Empire centuries later is a famous example.
So, I guess the way we manage it, the way I’ve heard of people managing it (and I’m not an expert) is through prayer, always asking for help. As they say: “When you hit rock bottom, the only place to look is up to Creator.” And humanity right now is going through a collective hitting of rock bottom, so maybe we’re finally waking up to the fact we have a big problem, like an alcoholic who finally faces up to his addiction. Maybe humanity is ready to admit: ”OK. Maybe I don’t have everything figured out. Maybe my universities don’t hold all the knowledge we need. Maybe what’s taught there is on some level actually part of the problem.” And I say that as a Stanford graduate. So I think that’s how we manage it, through humility and prayer, asking for guidance.
POLINA: As you were speaking, I was thinking of one of my mentors who often says that how we humans learn is by falling to our knees before being able to rise again. We need to be willing to embrace our failures and learn from them so that we can move forward, but many people in positions of power don’t seem to have that ethos, so how do we deal with people like that, when their desire for power is so, so strong and they lead us to destructive places?
LYLA: Creator did not design this world to have hierarchy. Hierarchy can rule for a time, but it will always perish, as it must. It cannot exist on land as sacred as this. For 500 years here on this continent we’ve had an oppressive hierarchical system, and we’re now finding out that it doesn’t work. One good thing about unsustainable behavior is that it can’t be sustained. Only love is sustainable. That’s how Creator made it.
So, yes, we are in this weird little point in time during which it looks like these crazy politicians are winning, but in the grand scheme of things, if we think on the scale of seven generations, it’s a short-lived thing, so we really don’t have to worry about empire. Empires take care of themselves. They may last a few generations, but they all die eventually. The sad part is that they do a lot of damage on the way up and down. I’m not trying to downplay that. It’s heartbreaking, but that model doesn’t win in the long run.
POLINA: But are there specific things that give you hope during this time?
LYLA: I would say the seeds, and our elders’ knowledge, and the intuition that we all have, and honestly the catastrophe itself gives me hope. I know that sounds strange, but when I was in Chile in 2010 they had an 8.8 earthquake, and I’ve never seen people come together with that much love for each other, ever. That’s what we’re going to end up doing. This catastrophe is going to bring us together. Sure, there will be some people who try to exploit it and capitalize on it, but I think it will bring out the best in a much higher percentage of people. It will bring out the beauty in us and force us to focus on what’s essential, not trivial stuff like who’s on the front page of this or that magazine.
These negative consequences are actually our friends, because they reveal the truth; they show that you pay a price when you abuse the land. You cannot have monocultures and genetically modified plants and animals. You cannot play God. You cannot douse your crops with pesticides and herbicides and destroy the rivers and the oceans. You can for a time, but the bill will come due. We can act like we’re the kings and queens of the whole world for a little while, but Mother Earth is starting to smack us down harder and harder to let us know we’re not. If we have the humility to be students of catastrophe, to learn the real lessons we are being offered, we are bound to become wiser and stronger people in the end. Every culture has had to go through that at some point. We’re just doing it on a global scale now, which is very hard, and the stakes are higher, but it’s a good thing if we draw the right lessons from the hardship.
POLINA: Lyla, you were involved with politics, running for office in New Mexico for a time. What was that like? What did you learn from that experience?
LYLA: I’m still processing that. Well, first of all, I managed to raise over $100,000 in 20 days through generate grassroots donations to compete with my opponent at the time who was (and still is) funded by oil and gas and big pharmaceutical companies, and casino interests. You could say he’s a representative of the addiction industries—oil, drugs, and casinos. But, to be honest, it was really hard, because I came with my whole heart and I was probably a bit naive. I thought: “I can do this! I’m going to be the next AOC, and it’s going to be great.”
But because I posed a threat to the really powerful fossil fuel industry in the Permian Oil Basin, which straddles New Mexico and Texas, there was a lot of money at stake for these people. A lot. And my opponent was and still is the speaker of the house in NM, so they stood to lose a lot of power if he lost. So they just did everything they could to crush me, and I just didn’t have the resources or the team to overcome that. That’s one thing I learned: If you’re going to run for office and be an actual threat to the powers that be, you need to have a very, very, very strong team of experienced people with you. And I just didn’t. I had wonderful people who tried to help me, but they were not equipped with the knowledge or skills or networks to help me out when the storm hit.
Long story short, they just slandered the heck out of me. They turned some of my own staff against me; paid people off. It got really ugly. But I learned a lot. I would know how to run a much better campaign next time, if I decided I wanted to do that again, but I’m not really thinking of that at the moment. I’m leaning more towards working outside of the colonial institutional box and sort of doing things that would make sense to my ancestors in this time and work in spaces that have fewer limitations. You can only make change as a politician to the extent that the colonial paradigm accepts it, but at the end of the day you are in that construct.
There is positive change that can be made in the political system, and it’s important and worth doing, but it will only give us so much. We also need to do a lot of other deep cultural work, so that’s why I’m working on trying to start an Indigenous university where we can actually study our own cultures on our own terms for our own purposes, and rekindle the teachings of our elders, and make a space where that knowledge is respected and effectively transmitted to the next generation. So right now, that just seems more productive to me, and, honestly, it’s an area I think I can be more effective in given my specific skill-set and my experience. But there’s no doubt that what happened on that political campaign stung. It was hard. I wouldn’t say I’m totally on the other side of it, but I’m much better. I’m getting there.
POLINA: Could you share a bit more about that vision of an Indigenous university and how the idea came to you?
LYLA: I’m still in a learning phase. I’m not an expert about Indigenous education, but did experience Stanford as an undergrad, studied American Indian Education at the University of New Mexico for my masters and I’m currently obtaining my PhD in Indigenous Studies from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. So I’ve been through the school system a lot. I’ve seen a lot of Native youth go into the school system, and in many ways it winds up being basically a modern-day form of assimilation. We have to give up who we are and how we see the world in order to get a degree. Our social status and our economic wellbeing is held hostage unless we get these degrees, which 99 percent of the time involve adopting world views that not only don’t respect our cultures but contribute to their destruction, as well as our lands and our people.
Most of the disciplines within the American university system are rooted in colonial ways of seeing the world, so I would love to have a place where Indigenous people could just learn and grow and obtain certificates and degrees in real skills that would actually help them and the world without forcing them to lose themselves and their souls, and their hearts, and their people, and their cultures. That’s something I’ve been dreaming of for a long time.
It’s looking more and more possible all the time because we are building the kind of networks that we will need to actually put it together. We’re in a research phase now, looking at what’s happening in some other nations, such as what the Maori and different peoples in Mexico and Canada and South America are doing, creating schools already. We’re in fact behind the times here in the States, compared to what a number of Indigenous peoples are doing in other places, so it’s time to do that, and hopefully, if we plant that seed today, who knows what it could become in a century or two centuries from now.
POLINA: Lyla, one thing that you speak about very powerfully is your own past of dealing with different addictions and coming out of that. Could you talk a little bit more about that journey, what you learned from it and what you can say to people who might be struggling in that way right now?
LYLA: Well, I still have addictions. They’re not chemicals now. They’re things like workaholism, so I’m still working on my healing journey. Basically it comes down to the basic kind of path you’re on: Am I choosing to face and learn from the pain of life, or am I avoiding those feelings through different forms of escape? At any given moment, we’re all doing one or the other, and it’s something I still have to struggle with. Feelings can get really uncomfortable for me because I fear that if I feel a little, then the whole dam will break. So I’ve been taking time to sit with that ocean of grief, so that I can then release it and learn from it. The political campaign was like that — a challenge, a catastrophe. I was lucky to have the guidance and support to become a student of that and use it to grow.
This is a good change, because most of my life I was trained to run from feelings. I grew up in an environment where there was a lot of drug dealing and addiction. That was very normalized in my little brain as a kid, so I started doing drugs when I was 11 years old, and that was my way of running, early on, from everything that was going on. Then I started to do pretty hard drugs and partying, which is part of what they dug out of the closet to smear me during the election.
POLINA: Oh my god.
LYLA: Yeah. I experienced child sexual abuse, and it kept going all throughout high school. I did not know what healthy intimacy was. I had no model of it, no compass. Mixing drugs and alcohol with sexual intimacy seemed normal in the worlds I had been exposed to. My path of healing isn’t just about overcoming addictions to substances; it’s about healing my understanding of myself, my body and the ways we should relate to each other in this world.
So I sometimes talk to people about these issues when I feel it can be helpful for me to share my experience and to explore how we can come to love ourselves again after experiencing these sorts of traumas. How do we come to see our own sacredness again? We have to start by having the courage to feel what really happened to us and to really understand deep in our bones that it wasn’t our fault and that we aren’t bad people. A lot of us women blame ourselves if we are raped. And my definition of rape is very broad. Anytime you do something intimate because you “have to” and not because you want to. There are all kinds of ways we can get pressured into doing things we really don’t want to do.
I finally got sober at age 23. I’m 31 now, so I’ve been clean almost eight years. I’m so grateful for it. I love every minute of it. I haven’t had a drop of alcohol or a puff of anything, or any pills, nothing. I made it to Stanford somehow and graduated with honors, even though I didn’t really get sober until my junior year.
All of these addictions are simply us abandoning ourselves, abandoning our inner child. I’m really into Margaret Paul right now, a wonderful author of a book called The Inner Bonding Workbook. She says that what we’re doing when we reach for an addiction is avoiding feeling an aching inside instead of exploring why we’re aching and being there for ourselves. You have to learn not to run away from the feeling but to sit with it.
POLINA: It’s extraordinary, Lyla that you were able to have gone through high school and then to Stanford with all that turmoil in your life. The tenacity of your spirit is extraordinary.
LYLA: Thank you, but you know, I’m still trying to figure out if that was tenacity or simply another form of escape. I had a very bizarre drive to be the best, and that’s not always healthy, so, to be honest, I don’t know if that was the healthiest expression of my being. Who knows what I would have done if I didn’t feel that drive when I was younger. I was a high-functioning addict.
POLINA: Was there a specific moment when you quit the chemical addictions?
LYLA: That big earthquake in Chile broke my hip and my spine. I couldn’t walk for two months. I was at rock bottom, and I prayed for divine help. I was finally ready to ask for some help and to admit that I had a problem, that I was an addict. And boom that changed everything. Creator was literally ready the whole time. He just needed me to ask for help!
The more nuanced answer, though, is that, as I mentioned before, in order to stop the drugs, I had to heal from the rape. So the way Creator answered my prayer was to send me some very special mentors in my life who helped me understand that just because they touched my body doesn’t mean they touched my spirit. You are unchanged. You are unscathed. You are your spirit, not your body. The body’s here today, gone tomorrow. The spirit remains. They said: “We don’t see you as a victim, we see you as a veteran of a war, not just against your body, but against your self-esteem, and we honor you the same way we’d honor a veteran coming home from war.” So it wasn’t a bad thing anymore; it was almost like a badge of honor. I survived and I still have love in my heart. That’s amazing. But it all started with that prayer and that realization that I was really ready to get sober. After that all of this help, all of these mentors, all of this spiritual support came to me to show me a path forward.
POLINA: I wonder what you think about how our personal addictions relate to our societal addictions to things such as fossil fuels and our wasteful way of living. Can dealing with personal addictions be a gateway to start thinking about quitting larger destructive societal addictions and dream a new world into being?
LYLA: Absolutely. I think that America is also running from feelings. It’s running from its past, from slavery and genocide and dubious wars. That feeling of guilt is so scary that they would rather write whole textbooks that completely omit the truth. They’re running from that feeling, so I think you’re absolutely right. The same principles that applied to me healing from my abuse apply to America healing from its past.
I abused people too, albeit unknowingly. If you grow up in an abusive environment, you are very likely to view that as “normal behavior” and think it is “okay” to abuse others in turn. European history is full of things like the Inquisition burning women at the stake and countless brutal wars. Europe was sort of a torture chamber on and off for about 2,000 years. It was horrible. Our ancestors on that side really went through intense suffering, so they tend to perpetuate abuse because it’s a hard pattern to break. To break the chain, you have to build the courage to look at how you’ve abused others. That’s not easy. You have to first just sit with it. It’s not going to kill you. It feels like it’s going to kill you, but just sit with it and explore it, investigate it, and come out the other side as someone who’s wiser and stronger.
POLINA: I’ve heard you talk about larger positive and negative spiritual forces that act through us and that act differently for women. Can you explain that more fully?
LYLA: I don’t mean to get too hetero-normative; there’s a lot of space for non-gender-conforming relatives in this discussion, but for the sake of simplicity at this moment, the way you destroy a woman’s spirit is different than the way you destroy a man’s spirit. As a woman generally speaking, one of our covenants with the Creator is that we have the capacity to bring forth life. That’s of course not at all the only way to express womanhood and it’s not everyone’s role or fate, but it’s one of our covenants: we are willing to bring life should Creator send it to us.
Conversely, the male covenant is to protect the sacred. So the way that negative spiritual forces can trick a woman are different than how they can mislead a man. If a woman accepts the trick and the lie that the rape is her fault, she can start to believe she has desecrated her covenant. She can start to feel awful about herself. It is a trick of coyote. Not the truth. And we’re really good at blaming ourselves. It’s my fault I drank alcohol or didn’t say no loudly enough, etc. If we believe that lie, it’s the first chip away at our spirits.
For the men, their spiritual goal is to protect the sacred. So if they accept the trick and the lie that the domestic violence is their fault, they can also start to hate themselves. For instance, if their mom gets beat up and they can’t stop it or protect her. Even if he is just a toddler the boys often blame themselves, which makes them think they’ve failed in their covenant of being a man. That’s when overcompensation and other forms of unhealthy behavior come up.
We have to bring these folks back so they can build the inner courage to face what has happened and to find the sacred within themselves. They have to realize that in many cases it wasn’t their fault. They were in situations in which Coyote, those negative forces, were just too strong when they were young and vulnerable, but then they have to be willing to face the truth that somebody did indeed hurt them, or those they love and work to change, to reconnect with Creator and feel that they are worthy. It’s not easy, but it’s always a prayer away.
POLINA: But when people rape or commit acts of domestic violence, can you really say it’s not their fault?
LYLA: I think we have distinguish those who hurt people as a result of their damaged childhoods and resulting lack of control and desperation and those who hurt people very knowingly, coldly, for their totally selfish advantage. Both need to be forgiven, but what are you forgiving? Are you forgiving someone who didn’t know any better? Or are you forgiving someone who did know better and still did it? Unconditional love is what I choose for both. But you have to forgive what really happened. Unconditional love doesn’t mean you ever have to see them again, as that wouldn’t be safe. But in your heart, you forgive and pray for them.
POLINA: These are really tough questions. Women and gay and transgendered people are victimized a lot, and we have seen so many people in power exposed through the #MeToo Movement, but our incarceration and criminal justice systems have also completely failed us. So what does justice look like? What could the vision of a real fair justice system be? And should we be expected to forgive or is it up to perpetrators to come forward and ask for forgiveness if they really find the truth within themselves first before we can forgive them?
LYLA: Yeah. Those are questions I’ve been grappling with my whole life, and I don’t proclaim to have the answer, but obviously forgiveness is a big part of my story. It had to be for me to heal at all. When I was healing, my elders said it was a three-step process: first look, then feel, and finally forgive. Looking is hard because what if you look, and it turns out you really are the person you feared you were; you really are a tainted woman or a “bad” man?
Generally I think that if you can have the courage to look anyways, what you find is that at your core, you’re quite wonderful, and something really bad happened to you. Then you can start to let yourself feel, and then forgiving is both the first and the final step of true healing, because you relieve yourself of the last wound they served you: the wound of the bitterness and hatred we carry.
But for those in positions of major power who have gravely not just broken human laws that are written on paper but cosmic laws that threaten countless people and living things, maybe there need to be much bigger consequences, but I’ve thought a lot about the carceral system. My brother’s in the carceral system, and we know how racist that system is and how black and brown people are jailed much more readily and treated so unfairly. So I don’t believe in that system as it exists, but there have to be consequences for harming others. In many Indigenous cultures if someone ever beat a woman, say, they were simply ostracized, and that was equivalent to a death penalty, because it was hard to survive alone. That’s not at all to say I condone the death penalty; I’m just giving you an example of how seriously this was taken.
But I don’t know. I really don’t know. What I do know is that I believe in love. I believe in forgiveness. I believe in prayer for those who have harmed, are harming. I even pray for Trump regularly, and most people I know think I’m crazy. I believe that prayers do have an impact, but I also believe that first and foremost getting ourselves to a safe space is the first priority, and some people have to be prevented from harming us, even if we can forgive them.
POLINA: Thank you so much, Lyla. Thank you so, so much for your time and your words and your wisdom and your work and your art. Before we end, is there anything that we didn’t talk about that you would like to say?
LYLA: I think the only last thing I would say is that I encourage everyone to make offerings in the morning when you wake up, whether it’s with tobacco or cornmeal or something special to you. Put them on the ground and ask for guidance and help in these times, not just for the world but also for yourself, and keep those prayers flowing because right now we need prayers and guidance. And if you are not Indigenous to the land you are standing on, please pray about how you can support the Indigenous peoples of your area – how you can help those communities in a respectful way, which is to always have them lead the effort. Because we need a lot of support right now. We need people to listen, to learn. Just offer help, but then follow their lead if they ask you to. Maybe they don’t want help, but if they do, please support them and their languages and their cultural programs in every way possible. Be patient as you learn from them, but if possible, continue to learn from Indigenous peoples around you, because we are carrying some of the most advanced wisdom on the planet in our knowledge systems.
Learn more about Lyla June and helpful resources:
To discern whose homeland you reside upon: www.native-land.ca
To learn a deeper way to be in solidarity with Indigenous Nations: https://whiteawake.org/participant-page-forging-settler-indigenous-alliances-w-lyla-june/
Lyla June’s PhD Research on Indigenous Food Systems: https://bioneers.org/lyla-june-on-the-forest-as-farm-zp0z1911/
How to not abandon ourselves: https://www.innerbonding.com/show-page/358/the-inner-bonding-workbook.html
A good read on the incommensurability of Indigenous sciences and academia: https://journals.openedition.org/socio/524