Over the course of a two-decade-plus career working in the horticultural industry, the question of how to work with plants and landscapes in a sustainable way eventually led me to quite a few Indigenous thinkers and teachers.
This, in turn, led me to asking the question of what I had that I could give back. It is a question that has rolled around in my head for quite a long time. While the first reaction is to ask what I can offer directly to Indigenous communities, I’ve slowly begun to recognize that the Indigenous communities aren’t really where my help is needed. They are more than capable of creating their cultural resurgence without one more white lady in the mix.
A bout of media coverage around one more piece of proof of the brutal reality of Colonial harms inflicted on the Original Peoples of this land has created a new flurry of ‘What can I do?’ as we experience the discomfort of the unraveling of the social narrative that many of us were raised to. The question is often a reaction to that discomfort, the seeking of a way to process it so it stops being so uncomfortable.
I would suggest, as many Indigenous people have suggested, that the best thing to do with that discomfort is not to run from it. Instead, we need to sit in it. To let it change us.
And change, deep, visceral, foundational, cultural change is what is really needed.
But changing culture requires changing people. Changing people requires changing the ways that we think. Decolonization of culture starts with the end of thinking and acting within a Colonial framework.
Easier said than done.
I’ve compiled a list of some of the teachers and resources that have helped me get started on a process of change that I expect I will be working on for the rest of my life. But the sense of moving in a direction that sooths, rather than grates against, my soul is more than worth the effort that this journey will require.
While not sufficient on their own, because we don’t truly internalize anything until we begin to practice it, the words of these authors and speakers can help trace out patterns of thinking and living that arise from living in relationship with the land, plants and other life that we rely on for our continued existence.
I’ve roughly ordered them as I would suggest reading/listening to them. Starting with authors who carefully bridge the distance between Indigenous teachings and the Colonized ways of thinking that many of us have been raised within. As you work down the list, you’ll encounter some clear eyed and unapologetic accountings of the wreckage caused by Colonial expansion over the centuries and how that wreckage became the foundation of what is often referred to as the ‘Developed World’.
You’ll also find some works that don’t make much of an effort to bridge Indigenous ideas to Colonial thinking, instead they just tell their stories as they would tell them to an Indigenous listener. Give your mind some space to follow along with the shape of the telling without overanalyzing.
Don’t rush. It took us a lot of years to learn to think the way we do now and to navigate the world as it currently is. It will take time to shape new ways of thinking and to put them into practice.
Toward the end of the list you will find some resources on beginning to build new connections and spaces as you begin to weave your new thought patterns through your day to day life.
Do practice. Journal, set up a book club, find friends working through a similar process or invite your existing friends to join you. Actively look for ways to practice thinking and acting following the wide range of teachings shared. Apply this to real life and real work. It isn’t real unless we do it. While it starts with the mind, and hopefully the heart, it becomes reality when it shapes our choices and our actions.
-This is a modified version of a list that I prepared as part of the SOUL series on the Role of Horticulture in Cultivating Social and Land Equity. The recordings of that series can be found here -
Robin Wall Kimmerer
"Drawing on her life as an indigenous scientist, a mother, and a woman, Kimmerer shows how other living beings—asters and goldenrod, strawberries and squash, salamanders, algae, and sweetgrass—offer us gifts and lessons, even if we’ve forgotten how to hear their voices. In a rich braid of reflections that range from the creation of Turtle Island to the forces that threaten its flourishing today, she circles toward a central argument: that the awakening of a wider ecological consciousness requires the acknowledgment and celebration of our reciprocal relationship with the rest of the living world. For only when we can hear the languages of other beings will we be capable of understanding the generosity of the earth, and learn to give our own gifts in return."
Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses (the longest chapter of this book is about a landscaping project, so it was rather on point for me)
- Both are available in print, e-book and audiobook format
Mary Siisip Geniusz
"Mary Siisip Geniusz makes Anishinaabe botanical information available to native and nonnative healers and educators and emphasizes the Anishinaabe culture that developed the knowledge and practice. Teaching the way she was taught—through stories—Geniusz brings the plants to life with narratives that explain their uses, meaning, and history."
-A nice companion read to this is Cedar Songs, the autobiography of Keewaydinoquay Peschel, Mary's mentor.
"As an Indigenous person, Tyson Yunkaporta looks at global systems from a unique perspective, one tied to the natural and spiritual world. In considering how contemporary life diverges from the pattern of creation, he raises important questions. How does this affect us? How can we do things differently?
In this thoughtful, culturally rich, mind-expanding book, he provides answers. Yunkaporta’s writing process begins with images. Honoring Indigenous traditions, he makes carvings of what he wants to say, channeling his thoughts through symbols and diagrams rather than words. He yarns with people, looking for ways to connect images and stories with place and relationship to create a coherent world view, and he uses sand talk, the Aboriginal custom of drawing images on the ground to convey knowledge."
-Available in print, e-book and audiobook format
"This compilation is edited by Lesley Forrester who worked with Tom to allow his truly unique voice to be heard. The book includes oral history and traditions, as well as personal experiences and teachings of the Six Nations Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), especially the Mohawk Nation. The book is organized into chapters that cover the essential understandings and teachings of the Iroquois including Creation, Opening Address or Thanksgiving Address, colonialism, Language, the Clan System, the Four Sacred Rituals, the Four Sacred Beings, and the Great Law of Peace. Additional information about funerals, weddings, pregnancies, child rearing methods, leadership, and tobacco is included. The book also includes commentary about casinos, prayer, and the future."
Jack D. Forbes
"Celebrated American Indian thinker Jack D. Forbes’s Columbus and Other Cannibals was one of the founding texts of the anticivilization movement when it was first published in 1978. His history of terrorism, genocide, and ecocide told from a Native American point of view has inspired America’s most influential activists for decades. Frighteningly, his radical critique of the modern "civilized" lifestyle is more relevant now than ever before.
Identifying the Western compulsion to consume the earth as a sickness, Forbes writes:
"Brutality knows no boundaries. Greed knows no limits. Perversion knows no borders. . . . These characteristics all push towards an extreme, always moving forward once the initial infection sets in. . . . This is the disease of the consuming of other creatures’ lives and possessions. I call it cannibalism." "
Harold R. Johnson
"An urgent, informed, intimate condemnation of the Canadian state and its failure to deliver justice to Indigenous people by national bestselling author and former Crown prosecutor Harold R. Johnson."
(This book goes far beyond the justice system and speaks to systemic issues and about what creates health and harm in communities)
-Available in print, e-book and audiobook format
"Martín Prechtel’s experiences growing up on a Pueblo Indian reservation, his years of apprenticing to a Guatemalan shaman, and his flight from Guatemala’s brutal civil war to life in the U.S. inform this lyrical blend of memoir, cultural commentary, and spiritual call to arms. The Unlikely Peace at Cuchumaquic is both an epic story and a cry to the heart of humanity based on the author’s realization that human survival depends on keeping alive the seeds of our “original forgotten spiritual excellence.” "
-Available in print, e-book and audiobook format. I highly recommend the audiobook.
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s many books and talks
- Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies
- This Accident of Being Lost
- Dancing on Our Turtle's Back
- The Gift is in the Making
"After almost every presentation activist and writer Mia Birdsong gives to executives, think tanks, and policy makers, one of those leaders quietly confesses how much they long for the profound community she describes. They have family, friends, and colleagues, yet they still feel like they're standing alone. They're "winning" at the American Dream, but they're lonely, disconnected, and unsatisfied.
It seems counterintuitive that living the "good life"--the well-paying job, the nuclear family, the upward mobility--can make us feel isolated and unhappy. But in a divided America, where only a quarter of us know our neighbors and everyone is either a winner or a loser, we've forgotten the key element that helped us make progress in the first place: community. In this provocative, ground-breaking work, Mia Birdsong shows that what separates us isn't only the ever-present injustices built around race, class, gender, values, and beliefs, but also our denial of our interdependence and need for belonging. In response to the fear and discomfort we feel, we've built walls, and instead of leaning on each other, we find ourselves leaning on concrete."
adrienne maree brown
"Inspired by Octavia Butler's explorations of our human relationship to change, Emergent Strategy is radical self-help, society-help, and planet-help designed to shape the futures we want to live. Change is constant. The world is in a continual state of flux. It is a stream of ever-mutating, emergent patterns. Rather than steel ourselves against such change, this book invites us to feel, map, assess, and learn from the swirling patterns around us in order to better understand and influence them as they happen. This is a resolutely materialist “spirituality” based equally on science and science fiction, a visionary incantation to transform that which ultimately transforms us."
(I highly recommend reading Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler before reading this book)
A Few Online Resources:
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s CBC Ideas episode: The Brilliance of the Beaver: Learning from an Anishnaabe World
This CBC Doc Project episode How WIBCA's Helping White Folks
Braiding Corn – Cultural Appropriation & Entitlement (On not taking what isn’t offered to us)
Rowen White Farmer, seedkeeper, garden mentor, published author, creative intuitive, mother, wife, orator and storyteller, facilitator and strategic leadership guide, and lifelong learner You can also find her teachings on Facebook
Joce Two Crows Tremblay, an Earth Worker with the Indigenous Land Stewardship Circle in Toronto.
They participated in this panel discussion
And some of their current work is described here
Siwook Hwang Dangers of Scarcity Axiom: Unpacking the ideological baggage of ecology and environmental sciences