BECAUSE OF THE NATURE of my work, I often have contact with many American Indians. The initial conversation usually goes something like this:
American Indian: "Where are you from?"
Me: "I’m from Sonoma County, California."
American Indian: "Is that where you are from originally?"
Me: "No, ah well, originally I’m from Pennsylvania, and before that we were from somewhere in Europe."
At about this point in the conversation I go into a tail spin. I mean, where are you from?
I believe we have reached a time in history where we must begin to inhabit our place. For too long we have not had a sense of place inside our psyches. We have been a nation of displaced people, recent arrivals of at most a mere 400 years. We find ourselves caught in a double bind concerning our cultural identity. We are of European or African or Asian heritage, but we are no longer Europeans or Africans or Asians. We have been born in America but we do not conceptualize ourselves as native Americans. Is our cultural heritage with the Greek gods and goddesses, the Celts, the Druids? Do we take up the ways of the American Indians? Or do we go farther afield and take up the ways of Hindus, etc.
I have a sense that this unclarity regarding where we are from is deeply connected into the destructive effect we have had upon our environment of this continent and other lands we have accessed into. No sane being would destroy their own homeland. Perhaps it is this sense of just passing through, the frontier mentality, that allows us to obliterate cultures and life forms, large and small.
If we are to begin to develop a "sense of place" it must start in our own psyche and work outwards toward our family, our home, our community, our town, our state, our country, our planet. A child can not learn to walk until it has learned to crawl and we are like babies relearning the magic of the Earth. We must learn to inhabit our place, discover its history, make contact with our neighbors, go sit with the land and open to its mystery.
Perhaps one of the greatest revolutions that has occurred over the last fifteen years took place inside ourselves when we witnessed the planet Earth as viewed from outer space. The beautiful blue orb suspended in space created a sense of our own fragility and dependence on one another as one planet. We recognized the Earth as quite possibly a living sentient organism of which we are but a part. This awareness gave rise to the already blossoming environmental movement and to the back-to-the-land ethic. Over the years we have seen growing numbers of people seeking contact with the Earth through recreation and actual changes in lifestyle that allow them the opportunity to live a simpler existence close to the land. One particular expression of this has been the development of intentional communities, places where like-minded and like-hearted people can support one another and often serve the community at large.
In the midst of this we still find ourselves confronting our cultural identity and we see it manifesting in a number of ways. With the rise of consciousness over the last fifteen years, we have had access to the spiritual and philosophical teachings of people from around the world. It has been a time of great cross- fertilization and many seeds have been sown that reap understanding and insight into the human condition. I see this as having had both a positive and a negative effect upon modern American culture. Positive in that communication and understanding is happening between diverse cultures, and negative in that it pulls us further away from having a sense of place.
I am not saying we should throw away the various skills we have learned from other cultures. I feel we have been learning to walk, but now we are up on our feet and the direction we will move in is up to us. We must take responsibility for who we are and what we will become. This can seem like a tremendous burden, but it may well be the greatest opportunity we have ever been presented with. As people return to their own center and refuse to give their power away to institutions, ideologies, or charismatic leaders and teachers, strength will come and answers will manifest. This self-empowerment when combined with a connection to the Earth is a powerful alliance.
When people begin to relate to the land in a sacred way, the land begins to respond. An exchange takes place between our spirits that is undeniable. People experience healing and teaching coming from the land and in turn heal and teach. My sense of this is strong when I visit land based communities, lead people into the wilderness, or when I share ceremonies with diverse groups of people. All of these people share one common theme – the land is communicating to them and through them. The process of "nativization" is happening with these people as they sink their roots into the Earth and find the Earth responding.
My hope is that the 80’s will see us seize this opportunity for transformation, that we can find the native within and pass this knowing on to our children so that they might have instilled within them a sense of place or roots or origin. Our place on Turtle Island is acknowledged by the fact that we are here. This land is a vibrant and vital land. Through harmony, balance and right relationship there is much that can be learned and extended outward to the global community, but first it must begin inside each one of us.
The danger I see confronting us in this process is our ability to get out in front of ourselves. We see the potential for global harmony and we have seen the vision of Utopia. Our tendency as Americans is to want to skip steps along the way towards this larger unity, but it needs to be built on the foundation of a solid sense of place in each of us.
Another danger is that we will imagine that reconnecting with the Earth means regressing back to a primitive mode of action. Quite to the contrary, what is demanded of us now is that we move ahead into the future and find those ways of being native that are truly our own. To discover the North American vision means we must acknowledge that we are visionary beings right at this moment. We must learn to be impeccable in all that we do. It’s as if there is a memory of something so sweet from so long ago and it is calling us to come forth and dream it awake. Collectively the vision is being woven into the fabric of our lives. It is emerging through our lifestyles and the visions we share with one another.
Adele Getty is a co-director of Medicine Ways in Northern California.