Posted By Luis J. Rodriguez on April 4, 2014
On April 3, 2014, I was privileged to give the keynote speech at the 10th Annual J. Paul Taylor Social Justice Symposium at New Mexico State University, Las Cruces. This year’s theme was “Justice for Native Americans: Historical Trauma, Contemporary Images, and Human Rights.” Below is my talk and the poem I read at the end.
I want to start by providing a number of greetings in the language of a few native peoples:
Yaa’teeh – “It is good” in Dine/Navajo
Kwira Va – “We are one” in Raramuri
Gualli Tonalli – “Good day,” in Nahuatl but can be translated as “have a good destiny”
And In lak’ech – Mayan from southern Mexico and Guatemala: “I am the other you”
What links these greetings is the sense of connection, that we are all related, “Mitakuye Oyasin” in Lakota, a sense that is largely being eroded in our modern industrial and post-industrial world.
I’d like to propose that this disconnection, separation from nature, from our own natures, and each other, is the greatest source of inhumanity, trauma, and disintegration of our natural rights confronting Native peoples today—and I’ll venture to say for everyone else as well.
Separation is what “sin” in the Christian faith is aimed at accomplishing, separating believers from their God. As Native Peoples we saw the invasion, infusion and infection from European powers more than 500 years ago as the single most important root of our separation from what we consider the Great Spirit, Creator, Ometeotl—including the very earth and sky and systems that have sustained us for tens of thousand of years, or as we would say, “forever.”
As most of you know, I’ve been around the world addressing this deep separation in a variety of ways. Because of my work, for example, I’ve visited hundreds of prisons and juvenile lockups. I’ve done this for close to 35 years. I’ve been to California institutions like Folsom, Soledad, San Quentin, and Chino; to juvenile facilities and prisons in New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Nevada, Washington, Oregon, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. I’ve done the same in some of the harrowing prisons of Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Argentina, and southern England.
You have not been to a living hell until you’ve walked down several caverns of a Salvadoran prison with no electricity, no running water, tattooed faced gang youth at every turn, 40 to 50 prisoners in a cell meant for two, including a section for women with babies, who are also incarcerated.
Today I was at the J. Paul Taylor Center juvenile facility in Las Cruces, New Mexico, speaking to adjudicated young men. I can appreciate the difference in how the United States deals with our troubled youth, the much greater resources available, and for the most part staffed by courageous and caring men and women. I had a great time with these youth, great talks, and like always, I learned so much in hearing from them.
Yet, I must say, the separation affecting these youth is palpable, punishing and in my view destructive to their spirits and to our communities.
What traumatized, violent, raging young men need—and this is based on actual practice, study and experience—is more community, more family (and if they don’t have a family, or have a broken one, a healthy sense of family). The wisest way to address their issues—as deep as they may be—is more connection.
Generally, in our so-called adult corrections and juvenile justice systems, in dealing with most trouble, most traumas, we do the exact opposite.
Even the psychoactive drugs we prescribe to ADD children, or mentally ill persons, or the clinically depressed result in artificial separation from one’s own powers and energies to cope and to change.
Why is this so? Because this is what we’ve done to ourselves. The poison of spirit I’m talking about has penetrated almost all our policies, laws and history—it has separated us by so-called races, by economic class, young from old, men from women, gay from straight, powerful from the powerless.
We are a divided country, in a “disunited states” of America, one that is constantly at odds.
I’m proposing another way to re-integrate ourselves, a way to become more integral as a people, to make sure all basic needs and rights as human beings are intact, and a way that will allow us to unite around the essentials, have liberty around the nonessentials, and to be caring, connected and cooperative in everything else.
We as Native Peoples have an obligation to provide such knowledge, wisdom and imaginations to the world.
As a Chicano, my own native roots come from this very Chihuahua desert, before it was divided into two countries and various states, before there were any borders. A time when we all spoke a variance of what scholars call the Ute-Aztecan language group, that encompasses tribes on both sides of the border such as the Raramuri, Yaqui, Huichol, but also Hopi, Shoshone, Paiute, and Tohono O’odham.
My mother was born in Chihuahua City from a Raramuri woman and a mixed Mexican man. Her grandmother and mother left the Copper Canyon—La Barranca de Cobre—section of the Sierra Tarahumara during the Mexican Revolution, walking for miles during a time when whole villages, and what some people didn’t know, small tribes were being destroyed by federal troops.
My father is from a part of the southern Mexican state of Guerrero with many Nahuatl-speaking peoples but also former African slaves. When my dad’s village of birth was destroyed, his mother carried him as a baby in swaddling on the back of a burro just before federales attacked. I have Native roots from both areas, some African, and, of course Spanish. There’s a blue-eyed grandfather in my lineage.
However, for the past twenty years I’ve cleaved closer to my native roots when I decided to sober up after having been on drugs for seven years as a youth, including heroin, and then drinking for twenty years on top of that. I gravitated to the Mexika traditions that are now in almost every major Chicano community in the United States, first in Chicago where I lived at the time. I also had teachers among the Lakota, from Pine Ridge, where I helped bring contingents of Chicano, Puerto Rican, and African American gang members. I’ve done ceremonies there, as well as in and around Illinois and the Midwest.
In 1997, I began to go to the Navajo Nation for ceremonies and teachings, as well as work with youth and families there. I learned the medicine way from a roadman, Anthony Lee, and his wife Delores of Lukachukai, Arizona, who soon adopted my wife Trini, who has Huichol roots from Jalisco, Mexico. We’ve gone back there almost every year. My other teachers include Macuiltochtli and Tlacaelel of Mexico; Julio Revolorio of Guatemala; La Dona and Panduro, Quechua traditional practitioners from the rainforest of Peru; Ed Young Man Afraid of His Horse from Pine Ridge; and Huitzi and Meztli, a Nahuatl-speaking couple who currently run our Mexikayotl and Nahuatl classes at Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural—the cultural space and bookstore that Trini and I helped create thirteen years ago in the Northeast San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles.
Trini and I were also among the founders of the Pacoima and San Fernando sweat lodges—and Trini now runs the Hummingbird Women’s Lodge of Sylmar, CA.
While most people know me as a poet and writer, with 15 books in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, including a best-selling memoir, this aspect of my life informs what I’ve done for the past twenty years, including my current run as the officially endorsed Green Party candidate for governor of California.
Here is what I say we need today and in the future, drawing from these varied but linked traditions and teachings, which I believe are more relevant than ever before—these are not to be written off as “archaic” and “quaint” traditions that no longer apply.
–Coherency: We must help our youth, families and communities understand their roots, rituals and practices, that they were valid then and valid now. The destruction of our elder systems due to conquests, colonization, industry and un-education, as I call it, is detrimental to our spiritual and physical growth. These traditions, as has been done for all time, also need to be renewed, re-imagined and re-invigorated. Young people must feel they can shape and reshape our ties and connections. Rituals and practices have the key element of bringing people together. The root meaning of religion is said to be “to bind, to connect.” It’s personal and social.
–Cooperation: As a country for more than 235 years, we’ve lived in a capitalist system where competition, maximizing profits, and politics as war by other means have ruled most of what we do or don’t do. We “cooperate” in a shallow sense—to keep the system going, with our complicity, our compliance, and often our ignorance. We are governed by the assumptions of scarcity and mantras such as “killed or be killed.” We need to align instead to the highest level of evolutionary development—cooperate to sustain and maintain our species. Competition has its place. But the constant should be cooperation for the wellbeing of everyone—that the healthy and whole development of each is dependent on the healthy and whole development of all.
How do we continue to allow a situation where the biggest part of our national budget is for war? Where poverty and joblessness are ingrained, purposely kept active, and justified by blaming the victims of what are largely economic and political decisions? In a cooperative, connected system the overriding aspect would be abundance, the way nature and our own particular natures work. In proper relation to nature, following its own laws of regeneration and development, we can feed, house and clothe every human being on earth. That’s God’s way, the Creator’s imprint, Ometeotl.
Scarcity, like borders, like mortgages, like the wage system, are man-made—invented illusions, a matrix, as many have said before, made to feel like they were derived from God or nature itself. We’ve fallen into the traps of these illusions—and nothing dramatizes this more than our incarcerated youth, too often for hurting, stealing or killing. We’ve created this world, and then punish these youth for carrying out what we’ve set up to its disastrous and maddening conclusions.
I hate that young people kill each other for little or nothing. But don’t we do this as a nation, sacrificing our warrior sons and daughters, and people from other lands, for political and economic goals that have nothing to do with our whole or healthy development?
We go to war and we continue to have poverty, drugs, terror, and deep disconnections? We sacrifice so much for little or no lasting results. Our world is still topsy turvy, still unequal, still dangerous.
–Consciousness: It’s time for all of us to think, to use our highly developed brains, what is often referred to as the highest form of matter on earth, to create new ways of doing things, new ways of sustenance, new means to continue as a species beyond the scarcity, the violence, the income inequalities, and growing hopelessness. Our brains are the greatest tool and weapon we have, totally derived from God and nature, and yet most of our thinking is limited, kept in the dark, confused, filled with so much information and facts, but little discernment and wisdom.
Can we imagine a collective awareness, the full powers of each of our brains times the number of people on this earth? We could solve anything. Every problem has its solutions right next to it. That’s nature’s way. It’s our short-term, shallow and fear-driven concepts that keep us away from this knowledge, often addicted, lost and broken in the dark. Revolution in our economy, our politics, our technology—which is already gone beyond the constraints of politics and economy—must first occur in our minds. Our consciousness. The spirit of teaching must now be linked to the natural spirit of learning in all peoples, what the Mexikas called Nemachtilli.
And I want to leave you with the last “c” in this list, one that is rapidly becoming in short supply: Caring. Nothing works better than caring. When I was a troubled youth, in schools that had no place for me, I remember the few caring teachers, and the ones who were mean and ugly. But I don’t remember the majority of adults in my life because they were mostly indifferent. Caring to me is the opposite of indifference. It means giving a “hoot.” I’d use a stronger word, but that would be inappropriate for this audience. I’ve found that when it comes to crime, dysfunction and prisons, people respond by not caring. A few get “tough” on crime, mostly from in front of their TV sets as they bombarded with images and stories of the worse of our humanity, fiction or documentary. But I have said this for forty years, and I’ll say this for the next forty years, it’s tougher to care.
This is why I support restorative justice practices, which have roots in Native systems. This is how we draw on the very geniuses and gifts that people bring, to re-connect, to bring together offender and victim, hurt and healing, the wrong with the right. In all things there must be a clear path to restore, repair and help make whole what was taken away or broken. Instead of punishment, young people need treatment, tools, teachings.
Recently, I took part in a poetry event held at the largest juvenile lock up in North America, the Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar CA, just five minutes from my home. Several youth read poetry. One of them was 14 years old, a baby-faced young man who did a beautiful poem, with his mother and grandmother in the audience. Later I found out, this youth was facing 135 years in prison.
Anyway, you look at it, this is wrong: We throw away our young people we throw away our future.
I’ve learned from my native elders that we are now into a new age, often expressed as a new spiral from five previous spirals, that must take into account the four points I just expressed. My Dine teacher says it’s time to realign with our earth and sky systems, governed by the female and male energies in all things, and that this does not have to be against anybody or anything—except the clearly detrimental and destructive aspects I’ve mentioned so far, among others. We are not against so-called white people or Christianity or some of the important values brought here from Europe, Africa, Asia, and other parts of the world.
But in honor and respect to our ancestors, to this land, to our truths, we need to bring forth what we know, the bone knowledge that’s in our DNA, tapping into the richness of thought and practices of our peoples, into this modern dilemma, to address these modern traumas and empties, to become meaningful, relevant and vital for our time.
To end I’d like to read a poem about leadership, a new kind of leadership, the leadership that everyone must now have for us to continue fully into the future.
I thank you for listening, and I pray this short discursive opens up a deeper dialogue, with questions, comments and more questions.
When a leader appears…
When a leader appears the earth springs into song
Flowered with new hope,
A bright beginning even from a terribly seeded past
Where dust and stones are a bare sowing ground.
Wise ones have long declared:
“Leaders are people who see farther and feel deeper.”
Such leaders know there’s a design to our lives.
Braided with threads of the future
We don’t just make history,
We are called to it – just as the fleeting or slanted
Become solid and direct.
Aspiring to be a leader, you become a leader,
Turning what’s possible into what’s next.
Not just creating a nest for oneself
Made of familiars who agree or keep one comfortable,
Not just basking in the spotlight or the imagined power.
But by cultivating character, courage, discipline,
Leaders carry this sacrifice with grace.
Always remember the unrecoverable moments,
With loved ones—with family—
While also giving to the whole
Even at the expense of one’s time,
All proper sacrifices are rooted in the sacred.
Blessed and cursed,
Loved and hated,
Seen well or lied about,
No leader can escape the human energies
That both destroy and lift up.
Yet true leaders are matched for this challenge.
There is a leader-seed planted
Before birth and carefully nurtured
By the alignments of universal sway.
You feel this in the bones – somewhere the message is:
“I was meant to be here.”
The fact is leadership is in everyone:
They emerge from the human sea.
Yet, as deeper truths go,
Leaders see farther and feel deeper:
Just like the rest of us, only more,
Turning time into learning, into passion, into revelation.
They bargain with God for how to be in the world:
Learning for learning,
Passion for passion
—revelation for revelation.