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Recognizing sacred relationships with land and water through ceremony

By Gregg Newsom

Environmental Justice Principle 11 “recognizes a special legal and natural relationship of native peoples to the U.S. government through treaties, agreements, compacts and covenants affirming sovereignty and self-determination.”

I have to thank my co-columnists for their expressions around this principle. Two week’s ago Victoria Goff’s article Environmental Justice through Tribal Sovereignty discussed how important it is for non-native peoples to acknowledge the depth of the relationship between native peoples and the government. Last week, Patrick Geans-Ali followed up by extrapolating “the definition of “native peoples” from the traditional one” to discuss the current political and economic crises here in Detroit to highlight long-range historical leaning of corporate serving governing bodies towards corruption.

I respectfully reference both pieces as they greatly influenced my approach this week. Being someone who presents as white, discussing native peoples rights or attempting to compare and contrast the lived-experience of colonization to my own or anyone else is a slippery slope I attempt to steer clear of. From my perspective, defining and interpreting native or any other oppressed peoples’ experience has too often been used as a tool to further marginalize their population.

With this said, as I first read this week’s EJ principle I cringed. Thankfully, Victoria’s advice to take the time and make the effort to seek other perspectives served as a point of entry. I found Central Michigan Universities Clarke Historical Library’s Treaty Rights archive and began reading over treaties between the government and native peoples drawn up around the geographic area we currently recognize as Detroit.

I certainly do not want to imply that a little online research constitutes any depth of understanding of the ‘special’, as our principle deems it, relationship between the government and native tribes. However, in the time spent reading through these treaties, and a few historical documents for context, I found myself thinking about current land use policies and how notions of land ownership continue to impact indigenous communities. How does the very way we think about land and the way our culture ‘handles’ land serve to carry forward unchecked corruption that fosters premeditated genocide of populations through efforts that range from salvation-based assimilation to straight-up murder?

As I processed and meditated on these questions around “treaties, agreements, compacts and covenants affirming sovereignty and self-determination”, I also felt a natural inclination to amplify or ‘turn-up’ my relationship with the Land itself. Questions began to swell around my own relationship with land, the suburban enclaves I grew up in, and the culturally engineered drive towards home-ownership and the american dream. I have experienced personal transformation around these issues due to my shift in awareness of and emphasis on food, both growing it and eating it. This transformation has come hand-in-hand with a deepening of respect for the earth itself. I’ve always supported my instinctual awareness of the phases of the moon and seasonal changes, but as I work more closely with the land, I find that awareness deepening. For me, there is a deep profundity in this process, and while being non-dogmatic in its expression, it has become extremely sacred.

While I cannot claim understanding of a native perspective in any way, I have found this sacred yet non-dogmatic process to reflect the handful of authentic indigenous ceremonies I have been blessed to partake in. While rather challenging to articulate, I have also found reflections of these ceremonies within many of the grassroots organizations and individuals I’ve been blessed share with. When I began to build more genuine relationships in Detroit, I found myself sitting in circles, creating safe spaces, respecting ancestry and progeny, breathing together, facilitating healing, participating in collective imagining and visualizing, amongst other practices which, based upon my own experience, I consider to be emergent aspects of sacred ceremonies. Of particular interest here is the relationship between these ceremonial motions and the forms of self-governance these organizations, communities and individuals strive toward.

Returning to treaties, in particular the State of Michigan’s Treaty with the Ottawa and Chippewa from 1855, I’m reminded that, from my limited perspective, tribal governance is deeply rooted in ceremony. This awareness was kicked in fully as I read Article 5 “The tribal organization of said Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, except so far as may be necessary for the purpose of carrying into effect the provisions of this agreement, is hereby dissolved; and if at any time hereafter, further negotiations with the United States, in reference to any matters contained herein, should become necessary, no general convention of the Indians shall be called; but such as reside in the vicinity of any usual place of payment, or those only who are immediately interested in the questions involved, may arrange all matters between themselves and the United States, without the concurrence of other portions of their people, and as fully and conclusively, and with the same effect in every respect, as if all were represented.” Through this paper-based dissolution of tribal governance, there is also the attempted dissolution of collective and communal thought and deed, which I perceive as being facilitated through the ceremonies related to said governance.

I perceive a link between governance and ceremony that I intuit as being reflected in our ability to work, live and breathe more collectively and sustainably. While a great many of our ceremonies have been rendered highly dogmatic, thoughtful ceremonial reconnection to the earth, through diverse non-intrusive means that respect all faiths, like growing food and cooking together, can empower us to connect with ourselves and each other more directly. While I cannot interpret the experience of native peoples, through reading these treaties I can point directly to a process of cultural assimilation that I see being utilized strategically in global land grabs and in efforts by political and economic interests right here at home. With gratitude, I can also point to numerous successful efforts in Detroit to counter this assimilation by reconnecting to the earth, to each other and to thoughts, words and deeds that celebrate and revere these connections.

I currently find solace from the weight these questions in community spaces, in the often simple ceremonies we engage in, and through my attempts to recognize all my relationships as sacred. Personally, I’m attempting to listen to my intuition around land and water more. After the announcement of the state’s intentions for Belle Isle, I found myself heading out to watch the sunrise from the island. An elder had recently shared that the native tribes used to gather on the island for ceremony and governance. As I walked through the pastures to a space where the land meets the water, I attempted to hold the image of a gathering in my head. I sat and meditated for a short time after making humble gestures to the land and water, and then walked away in the silence that comes with awe, reverence and gratitude. As we continue to build together as a counter to formidable political and economic forces, I feel we should get and stay rooted in our personal relationships to land and water and no matter our faiths or lack-thereof, strive to celebrate them together as inclusive ceremonies of re-cognition of one another, those who came before and those who will be.

Gregg Newsom serves as a communications coordinator for the Detroit Food Justice Task Force (detroitfoodjustice.com), People’s Kitchen Detroit (peopleskitchendetroit.org) and other grassroots organizations.

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