I’m a filmmaker. Or at least I was. I’m on hiatus at the moment. A moment that has lasted for the last 3 months. A moment that will last indefinitely. I’ve become a full time caretaker for my parents. They are in need. I dropped my life of working on films for various enviro causes, left my home state and now live with my parents. It’s not what I thought I’d be doing at 48 years old. Like I said, there was a need.
My other need though, that I will return to someday, is to work on the films that are important to me. My time here on hiatus has given me space to think about the films that I have “in the can”. I have plenty of footage. Enough to craft two feature length films or more. One is about an old school rock climber. I’m excited about that one for sure. The other is about First Nations and how salmon purchasing decisions here in the USA and around the world negatively impact First Nations and their way of life. It’s about connections to nature that the industrialized world has forgotten how to have. As the protests have shut down much of the rail travel in Canada/Turtle Island this month, I am thinking a lot about the filming that I did in that part of the world in 2017. And ever since I was there, sitting across from Indigenous leaders and hereditary chiefs and matriarchs, I have been conflicted about the very definition of “indigenous”. I’ll get to that later though.
I was there on Vancouver Island meeting with humans that inspired me. Some of them identified as First Nations or Indigenous. And to me…they were that. They were land connected and community connected in ways that I had not experienced before. I wanted to meet with and interview them because of their unique perspectives as First Nations peoples. But that was secondary. The primary reason I wanted to have them sit down and talk to me was because they had inspired me, as fellow human beings, through their actions. They were fighting for righteous causes and in an ethical and principled manner. I felt like they were people who other people should know about. I also met equally with folks for interviews that many indigenous peoples in the region would call “settlers” or “colonizers”. These folks were just as dedicated to protecting the Earth and wild salmon. They too wanted to fight for the rights of First Nations. It was my first time being exposed to this kind of language and separation based thinking though. Settler, colonizer, indigenous. I had a lot to think about. More on that later though.
In both cases, Indigenous or Settler, I also realized that most people would never know about these leaders, outside of their circles of influence. Vancouver Island isn’t a big place. Here in the USA I wanted people where I lived, to see a film about the causes that both groups were fighting for…and to take it to heart and hopefully it would inspire the viewers to do more about climate change, species protection, and valuing one another. I felt lessons from that part of the world, where uprising and activism is so much more pronounced, might spark things in a good way in other parts of the world where people were feeling held back and afraid to stand up for what was right. But I have always struggled, and still do, with the idea of how to present to USA viewers the ideas of how there were two different groups in the film. I wanted to respect the way that there is a very obvious division recognized in that part of the world. But I also had to reconcile how I felt about what I was seeing and hearing in regards to these distinctions. Having time to focus on caretaking for my parents has allowed me to disengage from filmmaking. I’ve instead spent a lot of time trying to understand my own feelings about all this.
Furthermore, the vehicle or reason that allowed me to meet these indigenous and non-indigenous folks was a group that I was touring with. A group of performers from Norway. They were storytellers and musicians. One of them was also a First Nations musician who is Sami. The other two were…well…now here’s the part where I will speak my peace about why I am writing this in the first place.
I am writing this piece because I was born on the planet most of us call Earth. I am indigenous to Earth. For the sake of contrast…imagine that you placed me on a spaceship and cast me out into the void. Now imagine that I landed somewhere with “other” life that I could communicate with. I would accurately tell them that I am indigenous to the Earth. Because I am. It’s where I am from. Every human being is from here. Every living thing on this gorgeous little planet is indigenous to this planet. It exists no where else. Never has. Never will. This whole place is unique among the cosmos. All the lineages of every single species of plant, mineral, animal are from here. All the humans that ever existed come from the same place. Look at us now though. Divided. Split. Give us enough time and now all we see is differences instead of similarities. Give the humans enough time and we’ll muck things up pretty badly. Some of us, I totally agree, have mucked things up way more than others. The lineages that mucked things up more are the ones that I am more recently descended from. It seems that they decided a while back to stop living close to the land. I am descended from people that slowly rejected the way of life that included the beauty of being indigenously connected to land, to place, to tribe. I am connected to people that began more recently living individually and it seemed better to them somehow than living communally. I am connected to those who rejected spirituality that was inseparably connected to the natural cycles and rhythms of nature. The separation of humanity and “natural” began to be baked into “civilization” over so many generations and thousands upon thousands of years. In 1971, little old me…I was born into it. Clueless. Blameless. I had no idea what my more direct and totally un-indigenously living ancestors had been up to.
Guess what I am not going to be doing about it though? I am not asking for anyone’s forgiveness. I’m not apologizing. I apologize for the things that I have done. I apologize for my missteps and mistakes. If it happened before 1971, it wasn’t me. That’s a fact. I don’t feel guilty about what I had no control over.
What I do feel is appalled to be connected to people who knew that what they were doing hurt others and they did it anyway. I feel appalled at how people treated people and continue to treat people. Racism appalls me. I lose sleep over it. I rack my brain daily for what I can personally do. But apologizing for the color of my skin isn’t one of those things. I didn’t seek to be born into the lineage of colonizers and oppressors. But I was. If someone can’t tell that being born that way is totally separate from choosing to be an oppressor or choosing to be someone who wants to take land and freedom from someone else…that’s really their issue to work with inside of themselves. The kid born in 1971, plain and simply…didn’t do it. Waking up though, from societal norms, IS my job because so much baked in racism is present all around. Being white though…that isn’t my problem. Being a human being, IS my problem. It’s yours too.
I find it so damn offensive that someone else thinks that they know me and what’s in my heart based on the color of my skin. But I can’t stop there. Being offended doesn’t solve anything. It’s just a waystation to understanding. As long as Indigenous people look at me and see “colonizer” and “oppressor” and “settler” we (all of us) can’t be together-and we really need to be. We are all on Earth together. But as long as we are not acting together for the good of all, then none of us are going to have the peace that we want. I hope that’s a safe assumption to make? That down deep we all want equality and peace? What’s baked into the humanity cake though is that the Earth is too small and we are too many, for us to afford to continue with divisions based on the past and based on skin colors.
Our ancestors started the divisions. But we all come from common ancestors. Whenever the color changes happened and some humans ended up more brown and some more white and on and on…and some groups remained closer to the wisdom of the land and some eschewed it for the city-states…we are the ones here now.
What are we going to do about it now? I wouldn’t take anyone’s land from them on purpose. Would you? I wouldn’t take food out of anyone’s mouth. Would you? I don’t want anyone to have less so that I can have more. Would you? My skin is made of skin. What is yours made of? Is pigmentation really an indicator of my morality? Is yours? Is what I look like now indicative of my acceptance of what other people who looked like me did to someone else in the past-or today or tomorrow? Is yours?
What was fascinating to me about being on Vancouver Island is that I could tell that some First Nations folks definitely saw me as a “settler”…literally as being a direct descendant of the white settlers and colonists that invaded their land against law and stole that land from the indigenously living people there. I mean, it’s a fact that something immoral and unthinkable happened then. It’s a fact that no reversal or admission or reconciliation has yet to powerfully materialize and that is wrong as wrong can get. I’d never been anywhere that made me angrier to see such injustice.
But you have to understand, that for me, a complete outsider, I saw the long time ‘white’ residents of the region in the same way that First Nations people likely did. The more I learned about what Unceded Territory meant, the more I was like “what are all the descendants of the settlers still doing here!!!??? If they know it’s wrong, then why aren’t they giving the land back?”
Then it got really interesting for me when I would feel the way some First Nations people looked at me though. I always wanted to say “but wait, I am from the USA. I am descended from people from Italy and Spain and Germany that migrated to the USA illegally through Florida and legally through Ellis Island. You’ve got me all wrong. I am not related to the people that did any of those things or the people that still are impacting unceded lands today.” But my skin tone always pigeon-holed me. I was white and that was that. It was a huge barrier to any kind of open communication. The one time that I did speak up and shared my perspective someone then was quick to say that it didn’t matter…because I was still just a “colonizer” who suppressed African Americans and Native Americans. Ironically it was a white person that told me that I was, after all, a suppressor of others-just a bit further South.
I am not whining about being seen a certain way. I am pointing out the flaw in judging anyone standing in front of you based on the color of their skin. Don’t think you know me because you know my skin color. I’ll do you the same favor. Anytime any single one of us humans is making presumptions about another human, based on skin color or gender or whatever…we kind of cease to be human. We are ceasing to live in a spiritual reality any longer. We are only dwelling on base level instincts. Humans fear. We all do it. Spirituality doesn’t see skin colors. The skins we wear are literally only skin deep. It’s got nothing to do with how we are connected. Only freedom from fear will stop racism. What we have to be fighting for is trust. We have to fight for seeing one another as trustworthy and good regardless of what we look like to one another.
It’s my karma to be white. I can’t avoid it. Being so has left upon me a wound that can never truly heal. I’ll never know what it’s like to be raised in communion with nature. So few of us humans get that opportunity any more. I’m from a tribe that forgot how. And that loss has caused me to live a long time trapped in believing certain lies. I live in the most obese country with the highest rates of cancer and suicide. I don’t have to use my imagination for what I think are the reasons why this is so. Starve a person long enough and they’ll look for answers where they aren’t. Being deprived of spiritual realities is like starving. I’ll never know what it’s like to feel connected to a people. I’ll always be searching for a birthright that I’ll never touch. It’s a human birthright to be spiritually and physically connected to the land one is born on. How many “settlers” or “colonizer” descendants know what that is like?
My argument is that every single Indigenous person knows something that every non-indigenous living person desparately needs to remember.
Non-indigenously living humans ALL have Indigenous ancestors. But they are so far back on the family tree that there isn’t enough wall space to draw that one out. Not having that connection makes one lose perspective. It makes one lost. Because of my lineage it’s a thirst I’ll never slake and I will always walk the Earth wondering why I had to be born like this…missing out on that. But that thirst has led me to seek out those who are here who are still miraculously connected. It’s a miracle, in today’s world that any indigenous culture still exists. It is their path to be more closely associated with these things I have missed. To be borne into a community that can lay literal claim to be Indigenous, to still be on land that has been continuously understood and loved and occupied by their people is an endangered way of life that can’t be lost. If it’s lost then we all lose. The human tribe loses. The global community loses. Those things are things that must be understood by everyone who has never had it. Impossible? Maybe. But I will keep trying to learn. Because inherent in that connection is the answer to the question “why don’t people care more about the planet?” If people all around the world don’t learn what indigenously connected people can share that’s valuable, then we are all lost.
The greater human tribe loses as long as we are in a place where we are locked into seeing one another as if we are from different planets. Whether we like it or not, we will have to learn, how to learn, from one another. The presumption that “white culture” has nothing to teach and stains everything it touches is false. The presumption that Indigenous culture represents all that is good and pure is also false. No one stands completely in the right or the wrong. Good humans and bad humans aren’t based on skin tone and lineage. We are all here to learn from one another whether we like it or not.
We all have a lot of work to do. I can just say for myself that my personal aspiration is to rise above where I have been as a human being and to make more right things happen now, to the best of my ability. And if people don’t want to work with me because I am white, I’ll just be patient and circle back around to them when they’ve realized that being white is my path as a human…but that being Indigenous to the Earth comes first with me. Meet me in that way for I am trying to be an ally with humans, one person at a time.