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Nature is constantly extolled for its healing benefits. And for good reason: Western science connects spending time in nature with improved physical and mental health. But what is sadly left out of that equation is acknowledging and honoring the original inhabitants of the land we live on and their ancestral wisdom—even as First Nations people tirelessly advocate for climate justice and land protection.
First Nations people have historically been excluded from mainstream wellness. Until 1978, with the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, it was illegal for Indigenous communities to practice their ancestral healing traditions and customs and speak their native languages. Acosia Red Elk, founder of Powwow Yoga, says that her ancestors were forbidden by law to practice their culture or pray through ceremonial dance (which is why Tribal Dance is an act of resistance for her today).
Worse, their healing practices have been co-opted: You can buy sage and palo santo off of Amazon, without any recognition of the Indigenous people who have grown and used these plants in sacred rituals.
In my own personal practice of yoga, individual liberation is intimately connected to collective liberation, and learning from the Indigenous peoples of the land we live on is a vital aspect of this liberation. When we heal the wounds of the past through accountability and shared responsibility, we can work on healing ourselves—and collectively work to heal each other.
Living in relationship with the land
Before North America was colonized, Indigenous peoples were thriving in a healthy and balanced ecosystem. The land was in pristine condition and teeming with abundance, because Indigenous peoples knew how to live in a reciprocal relationship with the land. Their cultural practices fostered a deep sense of responsibility to care for and live in relationship with the land, which allowed us all to thrive, says Melina Laboucan-Massimo, the founder of Sacred Earth Solar, and the co-founder and healing justice director at Indigenous Climate Action.
Laboucan-Massimo, who is from the Cree Nation, was born in the community of Little Buffalo, in the heart of the Alberta tar sands, which has been heavily impacted by the logging, fracking, and oil industries. Across America, October 11 is now being recognized as Indigenous Peoples’ Day (as opposed to Columbus Day) in an effort to acknowledge the theft and genocide of Indigenous peoples in North America and to celebrate their values, cultures, languages, and traditions.
Indigenous cultures also live by a promise to the creator, says Elk. That promise is practiced and lived by the 7th Generation Principle, a philosophy that the decisions we make today about our energy, water, and natural resources should be sustainable for seven generations into the future.
The 7th Generation Principle can also be applied to our bodies; our own mini earths, says Elk. “Our blood, water, matter, and spirits need to be healthy and sustainable in order to protect our Earth, our water, our First Foods and our cultures and communities,” she says.
Our yoga practice reminds us that we are all a part of the whole of Creation. We need to remember our connections, to know who we are and where we come from. Because we feel healthiest when we are most in alignment with ourselves, our communities, and Mother Earth, says Elk. Protecting the land we live on and working to fight climate change ties into the yamas, our moral observances of ahimsa (non- harming), asteya (non-stealing), and aparigraha (non-possession and non greediness).
5 ways to honor the land and native practices
Nature functions through reciprocity: Birds eat the fruit from trees, then scatter their seeds so new trees can grow. We must protect the sacred and wild places that we benefit from visiting and living in, says Laboucan-Massimo. Reciprocity includes showing up for climate change events, rallies, and protests. If you are unable to go in person, you can support those that are doing this work by following and learning from online resources about Indigenous land protection and climate change via organizations like Indigenous Climate Action, Sacred Earth Solar, NDN Collective, and Seeding Sovereignty
Acknowledge the land that you’re on
Learn the true history of the land where you live, and your own family history. When you learn about the land you live on and uncover its history—and how atrocities against Indigenous peoples continue to be perpetrated—you can heal your relationship with the land, and with those that have suffered from structural oppression via racist policy, says Laboucan-Massimo. For preliminary research into the history of the Indigenous lands you are on, you can search your location at Native Land. Land acknowledgements are ways to situate yourself in your location, but should go beyond acknowledgement to action.
Resist with your vote and your wallet
Laboucan-Massimo’s elders taught her that what we do to the land, we do to ourselves. When we reap all of its natural resources, we damage the very Earth we live on, and ultimately hurt ourselves. Become educated about extractivism (extracting natural resources), then use your vote, and your spending to stop supporting companies that damage the Earth.
Take a tech break
Reconnecting to our spirits through our relationship with the land and the spirit world allows us to see from a broader perspective. Step away from technology; even consider a social media break for a few days (or longer!). “When we prioritize efficiency and convenience over genuine relationships, we are given the illusion of connection without actually forming embodied connections,” says Laboucan-Massimo. “I have heard Elders say, when the world speeds up, we must slow down.”
Show up for the frontlines
Support the people who are doing challenging work on the frontlines, says Laboucan-Massimo. Frontline land defense benefits us all. Black, Indigenous, and racialized people who are working on the frontlines hold deep interconnected relationships and knowledge that they have built over thousands of years, and they face the impacts of colonization and systemic racism firsthand. “This means that we understand the issues and generate solutions,” says Laboucan-Massimo.
About the Author
Anusha Wijeyakumar is a Wellness Consultant at Hoag Hospital in Orange County, California, and author of Meditation with Intention.