Reclaiming Relationship & Tradition: Towards a Future that Works for All

By Nina Simons, Co-Founder of Bioneers and Cultivating Woman’s Leadership

Opening Remarks from the 2016 Bioneers Conference

As seasonal cycles become wobblier, and migrations increasingly uncertain, and food harvests ever more unpredictable, wars rage, hurricanes land and millions flee their homes and police-on-black violence became so widely visible it passed the breaking point…

As political vitriol flashes hotter and meaner, igniting millions with misogyny, fear and hatred, as the sweet waters of Mother Earth become too toxic to drink and Indigenous protectors gather from all directions courageously standing to stop the plunder for the sake of future generations and all life on Earth….

I’ve been listening for guidance.

Life has taught me to look for patterns to help me understand what’s needed to shift our culture, to reorient toward what’s sacred and whole.

The first way I learned taught me to balance my body, heart, mind and spirit. Using those filters helped me to witness myself. It required listening to what my body knew, and heeding my emotions and intuition, as well as the reasoning of my mind.

I noticed how often linear thought, strategic plans and well-planned arguments tended to win the day. However, as I practiced inwardly listening to my heart, body, dreams and intuition, I found it helped to balance and calm my busy mind.

As the poet Rumi wrote: When I run after what I think I want, my days are a furnace of stress and anxiety; if I sit in my own place of patience, what I need flows to me, and without pain. From this I understand that what I want also wants me, is looking for me and attracting me.”

When I discovered how my gender identity affected my lived experience — and learned how many women discounted the value of our dreams or visions, and our emotional and physical intelligences — my frame of reference expanded.

I recognized larger social correspondences to the imbalances I’d previously noted mostly within myself. I realized how frequently my embodied experience, feelings and passion, my deep care for relationship and intuition were ascribed to the ‘feminine,’ were considered “soft,” and were diminished, dismissed or undervalued.

I saw how I’d bought into those biases, and had come to internally undervalue these gifts.

I am also amused, knowing that anyone who considers the practice of long-term relationship to be a “soft” skill clearly has not tried to do it.

I noticed how frequently I felt patronized, my perspectives belittled, how difficult it felt to be taken seriously — how often I was left feeling small, shamed or disrespected.

These past weeks, like so many other women, I’ve had the internal wound that began in my adolescence and teens suddenly reopened — the profoundly painful and awkward feeling of being related to as sexual prey.

The number of times I recall being fearful of an unwanted man menacing or ‘coming on’ to me landed in me like a stomach-punch.

Back then, those interactions were so commonplace, so unremarkable that I viewed them as an inevitable byproduct of being female.Like so many, I learned very young to be cautious, to be cavalier, and to cover my fears well.

And that’s the experience of a privileged white, Middle class, Jewish girl from New York City.

Working with women from all backgrounds has taught me that most others have experienced far worse. Through eleven years of co-facilitating Bioneers Cultivating Women’s Leadership intensives with an array of wildly diverse women, I’ve realized how that shared experience of the pain and injustice of gender bias could be a bridge — an empathic window into finding common ground.

I’ve learned how helping knit women together in song and dance, story and ritual — to share our vulnerabilities in webs of relational caring and empathic connection can fling open the possibilities of healing, collaboration and aligned sisterhood.

Being in ceremony, practicing ritual and story with open hearts, is what’s made those relationships across differences possible. I now believe that these practices could yield the same results among all people.

I’ve seen how recognizing the truths of our shared yet differing wounds can create pathways for our factionalized women’s movements to grow into the larger web of resistance, voice and power that is needed to reclaim our democracy.

Last month, I visited friends who live traditionally on the Penticton Indian reservation in the Okanagan region of British Columbia. I share these learnings humbly and cautiously, as I am aware of my ‘outsider’ reality, with no intent of misappropriating Native culture.

My only purposes are towards learning and healing, and honoring the immense value of Indigenous knowledge traditions to us all in this precarious time. I visited Penticton during their seasonal Salmon Ceremony, a time when I could experience their practices of nurturing their relationships with the land, their community, the river and their traditions.

The Okanagan culture is designed around teachings called the Four Societies, or Enowkin wixw. It is an ancient social technology that has taught them through generations how to relate in a balanced and respectful way to all the various parts of people, community and Mother Earth.

The Four Societies reminds us that it’s necessary to respect, include and accommodate them all equally in our decision-making. As Jeannette Armstrong, culture bearer and educator from the Okanagan Syilx Nation, puts it: Our tradition demands four things from us and they all have equal weight.

The four societies are: tradition and vision, relationship and action.

The tradition society relates to what’s worked before,to the land and the sacred. It corresponds to the elder within us.

The vision society focuses on what’s ahead, on the future, on what creatively has yet to come. It is related to the energy of youth.

The relationship society is responsible for caring for any impacts or influences of a decision upon the people, and all beings. It is related to the feminine archetype.

The action society focuses on how to do things, on analysis, implementation, sequencing, tools and resources. It is related to the masculine part of our psyches.

People are trained by their elders to listen and speak for one of each of the four societies.

Any decision the people make must integrate all four perspectives with full equality. This approach from the Okanagan culture is an ancient, living blueprint for Justice, Equity and Inclusion.

Reflecting on the Four Societies, I see how often we’ve privileged vision and action over tradition and relationship. I see how our systems and structures have perpetuated a bias, a deeply-entrenched valuing of only two of the four. Vision and Action have systematically trumped Tradition and Relationship.

In scanning for patterns among Indigenous philosophies, I see how deeply tradition, land and relationship are valued. In the Okanagan language, for instance, the word they use for their bodies contains the word for land within it. “We’re not just part of the land”, Jeannette writes, “the land IS us.”

From Tiokasin Ghosthorse I learned that in the Lakota language, the word for soil means “who we used to be.” Imagine remembering that relationship to Mother Earth each time we mention soil.

As Jeannette writes: “When we include the perspective of the land, and we include the perspective of relationships, people in the community actually change. The desire to secure material wealth and fear of not having “things” to sustain you disappear. When you start realizing that people and community are there to sustain you, this gives the most secure feeling in the world.” I call that the relationship economy.

Arriving at the Salmon Ceremony, we drove into a provincial park adjacent to the Okanagan river. The day sparkled with dappled sunlight, and the feast had just begun.

While most of the people there were from the traditional tribal community, others included international students and locals who were curious, or friends. Walking in, everyone was welcoming. Each person I met gazed into my eyes with warmth, curiosity and dignity. Everyone was served, a couple hundred of us, and the salmon was sweet and moist.

Afterward, the salmon’s bones and entrails were returned ceremonially with blessings to the river. There was a purification ceremony. To traditional drumming and ancient songs, at the river’s edge a woman prayed as she cleansed each one in turn.

Then, at an open mic, Okanagan cousins from Texas had just come from Standing Rock. They spoke with pride of the determination of the Protectors there, noting how many peoples from so many nations were gathering, and praising how their Lakota friends were welcoming everyone, regardless of their background or color.

Next came a give-away, where this community who have so little, monetarily and are so wealthy, culturally, distributed gifts to everyone assembled. Four tarps were mounded high with goodies and one by one, accompanied by traditional songs and the frolicking laughter of children, all were gifted.

Generosity, kindness and gratitude filled the air. When I left, I felt suffused with thankfulness. I had the sense that I’d experienced something of the “preferred state” that Buckminster Fuller spoke about. That state of equilibrium and reciprocity where all is in right relationship.

Well, almost.

I wept much of the way home to the U.S., as I was overflowing with gratitude.

May we have the humility to listen for guidance from the land, from our ancestors, and from our bodies and hearts, minds and intuition. May we then have the wisdom to hear it, and act upon it, even if it comes from the least expected places.

May we face this fractured young nation’s history — built upon genocide and slavery, lies, broken promises and domination — and choose, for the sake of healing, to walk through the fear and traumas, tears and fires needed for healing, together.

May we find the collective vision, courage and will to decolonize our minds and hearts, reclaiming a balance of feminine & masculine, of tradition and vision, relationship and action in equal measure that flow through us each and all.

May our partnership with the land, our mother, and the sweet and salty waters that flow in her veins, the winds and clouds that caress her, and the fires that cleanse and restore her vitality become our devotional long-term relationship practice.

Awomen. Amen. May it be so. Thank you.

Nina Simons, co-founder and President of Bioneers and founding Director of its Everywoman’s Leadership program (which includes “Cultivating Women’s Leadership” intensives and other retreats and workshops), co-edited the anthology book, Moonrise: The Power of Women Leading from the Heart. An award-winning social entrepreneur, Nina previously served as President of Seeds of Change and Director of Strategic Marketing for Odwalla before co-founding Bioneers.