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These Are Hopeful Times, But Remain Vigilant!

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As the Gregorian calendar winds down, we enter a period when since ancient times we pause to reflect, assess, envision and prepare ourselves for the next cycle of life. For us Haudenosaunee, and many other Indigenous civilizations, our new year will begin in about three weeks. It is the time of mid-winter—the transition from the current to the new.

Reflecting on the past year has been interesting, challenging, rewarding and inspiring. All in all I feel it was more of a hopeful time than a negative one. Across the world Indigenous nations and peoples continue to have to struggle for the recognition and acknowledgement of their rights. The good news is that we have become more visible in the consciousness, media and forums where we are making our arguments and asserting our presence. One can now find news articles, reports, and other information about Indigenous nations and peoples more readily than even five years ago.

After the 1977 United Nations conference on Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, the Haudenosaunee organized a de-briefing of what the event had meant, what we had learned, and how it would inform our plans and strategies going forward. At the end of the gathering the following position was put forth:

In order for a people to be sovereign they have to have control of these main areas of nation life:

Governance;

Land and Economy;

Education and socialization of young people;

Health and Reproduction; and

Psycho-Spiritual Self Definition

This became and continues to be our Nation Re-Building and Development Agenda.

I am encouraged and inspired by the cultural and language re-vitalization efforts occurring throughout the world. Here in North America there are now more Indigenous-controlled schools that are language immersive and culturally rooted. Some languages that were close to extinction are experiencing a rebounding with more and more of their young people becoming fluent speakers.

These young people are demanding that they know who they are, what their cultural heritage is and, most important, how this informs the decisions they make about their futures.

I went through the time of the 1950s and early 60s when it seemed like we were doomed. Our ways-of-life were about to vanish. Beginning in the mid-60s, this began to turn around. Slowly more and more young people began coming to the ceremonies, began going to their Elders wanting to learn and know about themselves and the way-of-life they were born into.

Through the 70s and 80s this reversal gained momentum, reaching a tipping point for many Indigenous civilizations. We came to a point at which change is irreversible and inevitable.

This period marked a time when many began to seriously re-consider the institutions we had been forced into and began asking, ‘What is our way of doing this?’ The first institution to gain attention was education. Instinctively we knew the western systems were not meant to empower and invigorate our ways-of-life. So a process of critical analysis and re-thinking began that has answered the question of how would we would educate and learn: the emergence of the immersion schools. That movement continues to grow.

The education and socialization of our children is a fundamental, inherent right of nations and peoples. These are the connections we use to heal from and reverse decades of attempts to assimilate us and eradicate our civilizations.

I’m equally inspired by the efforts being carried out to regain control of our health and wellness. We have hundreds of western-trained medical personnel in all of our territories. What is inspiring is how many of them are going beyond their western training and re-learning our original ways of healing and wellness.

One of the biggest movements has been resurgence of Indigenous midwives. The re-assertion of our right to be in control of the birthing of our children is not only a health issue but a political one as well. Throughout the years I’ve had many Elders stress the importance of our children being born within our territories, in our homes surrounded by their relatives and loved ones, and to be ushered into this world with love and caring. And at that same moment they are being born in our countries, our territories where their Indigenous citizenship begins.

Another important effort is in the realm of research and work being done in the field of epigenetics. According to Wikipedia, “The term epigenetics in its contemporary usage emerged in the 1990s, but for some years has been used in somewhat variable meanings. A consensus definition of the concept of epigenetic trait as "stably heritable phenotype resulting from changes in a chromosome without alterations in the DNA sequence" was formulated at a Cold Spring Harbormeeting in 2008. Indigenous healers and medicine people have characterized this as a potential “soul wound”.

Indigenous healers and medicine people understand this in the context of “blood memory” or “spirit memory." As pointed out in an article by Mary Annette Pember, Trauma May Be Woven Into DNA of Native Americans: “Folks in Indian country wonder what took science so long to catch up with traditional Native knowledge. “Native healers, medicine people and elders have always known this and it is common knowledge in Native oral traditions,” according to LeManuel “Lee” Bitsoi, Navajo, PhD Research Associate in Genetics at Harvard University during his presentation at the Gateway to Discovery conference in 2013.”

According to Bitsoi, epigenetics is beginning to uncover scientific proof that intergenerational trauma is real. Historical trauma, therefore, can be seen as a contributing cause in the development of illnesses such as PTSD, depression and Type 2 diabetes.

Another important initiative in this realm is underway at the University of New Mexico’s Institute of Indigenous Knowledge and Development. “Historical and Current Trauma: Examining Community Memories for the Health of a Nation” is a community-based participatory research study initiative by the Seneca Nation and the University of New Mexico—School of Medicine and Department of Family & Community Medicine.

Guided by Dr. Tassy Parker, Seneca community members participated in focus groups where dialogue around historical trauma took place. Moreover, Seneca community members received, filled out, and returned surveys with information regarding historical trauma. Results were collected and analyzed which showed statistically significant relationships to Historical Trauma and negative health outcomes in regards:

· Mental health

· Physical health

· Emotional health

Further, the need for appropriate culturally-based interventions was a particular finding of this study.

The good news is that because this phenomenon is understood within our ancient healing traditions it also means that we have the means to heal it.

Nation re-building efforts are underway in many territories and the results are encouraging. Throughout North America Indigenous governments are asserting their inherent rights, and exercising their sovereignty impacting not only their own territories but the lives of all those around them in positive ways.

As part of these efforts one of the important movements has been in the realm of community and economic development. Such are the examples of the work being done by Thunder Valley CDC in the Pine Ridge territory and the Indigenous Farmers Association in Tesuque Pueblo. Both are excellent examples of nation re-building.

As we head into 2016 there is much to be encouraged about. But we must remain vigilant to the threats to these excellent efforts. The constant effort to erode our sovereignty, limit our rights and stunt our growth is still there. All of which means our work will continue to be interesting, challenging, rewarding and inspiring.

Mike Myers is the founder and CEO of Network for Native Futures, a Native non-profit that works with Indigenous nations, communities and organizations internationally. The network's mission is to support sustainable development and nation re-building through providing of technical assistance, training and consulting.