Why We Need Healing and Reconciliation

Foreword from Alexis Bunten, Indigeneity Program:

Indigeneity is a Native-led program within Bioneers that shares Indigenous solutions to our most pressing social and environmental issues. We welcome all people to re-indigenize by learning from Indigenous teachings and the experiences of your ancestors. Maija West and I have had many conversations about the healing lessons we each gained by returning to the homelands of our European forbearers who immigrated to the United States and now, we explore ways to heal while sheltering in place. We invite you to take a first step to reconcile and heal from recent events in our nation’s capital.

Maija West

By: Maija West
January 12, 2021

The January 6, 2021 events in Washington DC have been a tragic undermining of the democratic process,  and we are all still very much in shock, as the impacts of that day continue to unfold.  And while President Trump recently called upon a “healing and reconciliation” in a speech since January 6th’s events, what we are talking about is quite different.  

Our democracy was built on laws much older than many of us can comprehend, which should be cherished and made better with the participation of all. But also we cannot move forward until we reconcile the past by healing from the harms of colonization.  

Quite simply, this view is about the “why” of the “what.” 

When I heard the news on the morning of January 6th, I was meeting with two Indigenous leaders on the deck outside of my home, grateful for the sun that helped warm us as we did our best to gather safely with both masks and jackets on, always trying to find that delicate balance between safety and connection in these changing times. We were gathering on the topic of healing and reconciliation and how to best tell the story of our country’s history from an Indigenous perspective.  

In response to the morning’s events, one of the leaders reminded me of an often forgotten part of the origins of our country’s principles of governance. The Great Law of Peace came from the Iroquois Confederacy, and it is part of what makes our country’s democracy so unique. Terri Hansen summarized it here:

“The Native American model of governance that is fair and will always meet the needs of the seventh generation to come is taken from the Iroquois Confederacy. The seventh generation principle dictates that decisions that are made today should lead to sustainability for seven generations into the future. And Indigenous nations in North America were and are for the most part organized by democratic principles that focus on the creation of strong kinship bonds that promote leadership in which honor is not earned by material gain but by service to others. In the plains, there was great honor in giving your horses to the poorest members of the tribe. The potlatch still practiced in the Pacific Northwest is another example of voluntarily redistributing wealth to those who have the least.”

[Source: Terri Hansen]

The “What”

The “what” is the deep division in our Country, historic and laid bare once again. The “what”  shows up in our deadlocked partisan process and in leaders shackled from being able to pass meaningful legislation. It shows up in powerful structural ways that have always existed.  The “what” are the laws that formed this country. The laws of taking and broken promises.  The “what” includes those who benefited from the taking and the brokenness. Those who could own land, vote and had free agency given based on circumstance and timing under the arc of our Country’s history.  

The “what” is inherited history in each of our unique ancestral lines. Lessons implanted so deeply it takes decades for their roots to materialize.  

Perhaps you, like I, have grappled with these issues most of your life, or perhaps you are just now arriving here with us, wide-eyed and feeling the powerful emotions of anger, grief, shame or panic. I feel that I carry both with me now, a combination of both knowing, and not knowing, the “what”. In any case, what I want to share today is the “why.”

The “Why”

I have had the opportunity to live in rural communities with a strong Indigenous presence most of my life.  The principles of governance that contributed to today’s democracy are supported by underlying core values that can feel quite different than the way many of us were raised.  When patient Indigenous friends and advisors subtly and permanently planted these values within my heart, something changed in me. I started feeling hope. I was beginning to learn the “why.” I learned to use the “why” as a  tool for understanding myself and others, that which would eventually lead me to committing my life’s effort to healing and reconciliation.  

The “why” is the time we were separated from our peoples and our lands. For many reasons, we are a Country where many of us forget. We forget that before we were “white” or “black” or “brown,” most of us Americans came from a place. Another place. We were Congolese and we were Irish. We were Oaxacan and we were Basque. We were so much more than a color. We were rich cultures and languages and honored traditions. 

Though Indigenous people tried to share the Great Law of Peace with immigrants and settlers, it was received with a lack of understanding and perspective. White settlers twisted the laws which led to the harmful and destructive colonization of these lands.  

What does this have to do with January 6th, you might ask?  From the healing and reconciliation perspective, we cannot move forward until we reconcile the past by healing from the past harms of colonization.  And, when we do, it is for the benefit of all of our citizens, however they identify or affiliate.    

How can we reconcile the past, you might also ask?  To start, I invite you to join me in a nationwide challenge. Please reach out to at least two people who have political views that are different from your own. Ask them if they would be part of a dialogue with a goal of mutual understanding.  

  • Send a text or make a call and say: “I would like to talk to you about what happened on January 6th and hear your thoughts. I value you as a person and I care about what you think.” 
  • Before sending the text or making the call, notice how it feels to even consider taking this step.  Behind any fear you might feel, is there a longing to be more connected? How might you act from that longing, rather than that fear?
  • Once you agree to meet, then listen fully and be ready to clarify your understanding of what they said. When they are done speaking, repeat back what they said and add empathy, to make sure you fully heard them. Notice how you feel afterwards.

A couple of days ago, I did this very thing. I texted two women I care very much about and invited them into this very same conversation. We did have those conversations, which are still continuing today. What I learned from each of them has enriched my life and strengthened our bond. During a time where my connections can feel so threadbare,  I learned that we each love our democracy, despite its horrible failings, and that we care very much about each other. And we want our Country to stop being led by those who use the divisive language of disconnection, and we want to heal.

This suggested action is only the beginning of many, many actions we must take as citizens over these coming months and years in order to heal. But this one action is a start.  

Many amazing healing and reconciliation efforts are occurring throughout the United States right now. We seek to connect, not divide. We seek to heal past harms, not seek revenge. We are not affiliated with the government.We are not affiliated with the church. We are a people’s healing and reconciliation movement. By the people, and for the people, in honor of our need to reconnect with each other, and to get back in right relationship with the land. Everyone is welcome. Please join us. 

Maija West is an attorney and co-founder of the Healing and Reconciliation Institute.

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