BOOK REVIEW: Sacred Instructions, 2018

In today’s political climate, one of our greatest tasks is being able to engage with people who are different from us in views, politics, expression, interests, values. There are many things we will not agree upon. But can we agree that living in harmony with the ecosystem — for our very survival — is among our highest callings?

In the year before my mother passed away, she gave me Sherri Mitchell’s Sacred Instructions: Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change. She felt the book’s ideas can help at this critical juncture in human history, where our own survival is threatened. What are the threats? We are destroying our home — the earth and many species, lost in a colonial mindset and system, and we need to change our views and actions to turn the ship around.

Sherri Mitchell’s book offers clear-eyed guidance, comfort, and a true way forward.

Mitchell brings to us the teachings from the Penawahpskek Nation and broader Indigenous traditions for the guidance we need to reverse destruction and thrive in balance with each other — an intention practiced by Indigenous peoples throughout their time on earth. This ecological balance is counterposed with the colonialist mindset that has held people under its domination for centuries and contributed to ecological collapse. We have lost connection to heart-based wisdom in our narrative toward conquest and materialism. The colonial mindset fosters obedience toward authority figures and indoctrination in our governments, educational systems, employment policies. We can heal from this by creating a world intent on questioning the patriarchal narrative and making shifts to support the integrity of all life.

Mitchell draws a yin-yang comparison in the imperative to balance male energy (focused, analytical, active) with female (intuition, empathy, and compassion) to find solutions to the problems we face. She traces the foundational origins of US land claims to religious and political extremism, citing polarization as a common tool of conquest. Today, with so much division, how can we find bridges between our opinions and sensibilities, and listen to each other? She describes the “talking stick” method of her people, where one person holds a stick, and for that time all others listen until they, in turn, have their chance to hold the stick and be heard. In today’s political climate, one of our greatest tasks is being able to engage with people who are different from us in views, politics, expression, interests, values. There are many things we will not agree upon. But can we agree that living in harmony with the ecosystem — for our very survival — is among our highest callings?

In finding ways forward, we need to name the problems, and Mitchell does this with a graceful fierceness. She describes how the integrity of our waters are threatened by industrial agriculture, and fossil fuel, bottled water and oil and gas extraction: “For the first time in human history we are taking water out of the water table by injecting it beneath the bedrock through the process of hydrofracking.” She highlights how large-scale agricultural practices contribute to loss of biodiversity through the use of pesticides that destroy life and degrade the water supply. Her ideas call for active counterpoint to colonization by emphasizing its opposites including healthy diversity vs. homogeneity; and for each to develop their unique gifts vs. loss of individual willpower toward effecting change.

This may include changing our expectations of men and boys — releasing them from identities that deny sensitivity, vulnerability, and empathy. It includes skill- and time-sharing to pass along skills in self-reliance such as sewing, growing food, building, imparting environmental knowledge. Among the skills my mother taught me were identifying flowers in walks in the woods and fields — trillium, lady slippers, buttercups — and birds at the feeder — evening grosbeaks I haven’t seen for years, chickadees, finches — which burned into my memory as a child and linked me to her. (However, the sewing lessons were grim sessions with the Singer — applying force to the pedal would often send it manically churning and the seam would zig and zag off the cloth, there was the menace of getting needled …) Sharing skills in-person requires patience, presence. It’s an increasingly lost “teaching” skill in a world of rapid gratification and self-reflective social media posting.

Sacred Instructions is a study in contrasts — yet Mitchell’s comparisons are nimble as her opposing concepts meet on a circle. She posits that we need to reclaim our autonomy and think for ourselves, but only through community. Cooperation is essential, yet competition can be healthy when it’s used to sharpen our skills and helps us improve ourselves — and competition involves a great deal of cooperation. Mitchell includes a study of contrasts between Native American and Euro-American Values that my mother copied to share with her school students: patience vs. aggression, listening vs. speaking, inclusion vs. exclusion, humility vs. arrogance. And the author upends the image of current environmental policies as “brilliant colonizer schemes,” describing, for example, carbon credits as creating an “illusion of responsibility for those destroying our ecosystem — allowing polluters to divert attention away from devastating impacts by claiming they’re offsetting those impacts by improving conditions in some other place.”

In the call for radical change, Sacred Instructions offers a hopeful note that humans are on the edge of an evolutionary leap, echoing some Indigenous prophecies that people are waking up to protect life on earth. That translates today into making choices to protect biodiversity, stepping out of the narrative of domination and destruction which includes complacency and subordination, to writing new chapters based on active stewardship. Mitchell’s recognition of our interconnectedness and understanding how our thoughts, words and actions have impacts echoes Buddhist philosophy.

There was some repetition of ideas and concepts throughout the book, but they could be considered worth repeating toward a sort of rhythmic dawning of new ways of viewing our world today. Solutions forward will require being willing to change, which is hard — yet we cannot continue to operate on the same plane we have. The process of change may become more firmly rooted with a litany of ideas over time. Mitchell offers her petitions like prayers, sometimes gently, sometimes fiercely, changing form like water.

Whether or not one agrees with her views on patriarchy, or feminine/masculine principles, or industry culprits, Mitchell’s guiding imperatives toward taking care of the life around us has a spiritual depth that’s orienting. It’s not outlining so much what to go out and do, but rather takes us back to the historical formation of our attitudes and habits to give us perspective on how we might reorient ourselves. We might ask, how are we each a part of the destruction, in innocent, yet complicit participation, in deference, in complacency, in our oppression, in our privilege, in the ways we move through the world and expend carbon, what we buy and support, what we say yes and no to, what we throw away, what we care about and act on? Should we, do we have an agreement with the earth to not be harmful, but rather to help sustain life, including the small and beautiful creatures right outside our windows? By engaging in a process of consciously trying to “decolonize” our mindsets, we can consider other ways of being on earth. Mitchell beckons us to take a great pause to reflect on our humanity and how we can set on a new path toward a beautiful meadow resplendent with life. She presents foundational seeds of inquiry, and then leaves it to the reader to interpret and discover and flower — through the very empowering process she’s asking us to reclaim. The book is rounded out with a call to warriors, described as people committed to protecting the sacredness of everyday life. The Indigenous way of life held by Mitchell’s people incorporates “remaining ever mindful of our responsibilities to the sacred agreements that we have with every living being,” and the wisdom imparted here offers a sustainable way forward if we choose to open up to it as warriors and peacemakers, both.




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Suzanne W. Church

Suzanne W. Church

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