Decolonizing the Mind

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“I acknowledge the traditional territory rights of this place. I thank the Grand Ronde people for allowing me to enter their traditional territory.”

I’ve been to events organized by and for indigenous peoples before, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard the keynote speaker kick off his talk like this ever before. We were sitting, standing, and packed into a conference space at Portland State University, in downtown Portland, in the state of Oregon, in the United States of America. But with his first words Dr. Yellow Bird made us realize that wasn’t true. We were on the last spit of land separating the Willamette from the Columbia River, seldom visited by ancestors of Grand Ronde peoples who were not fond of the wet, mildew climate here. They came to hunt, fish, collect cedar trees for lumber, and gather edible plants, respectfully.

Until that land was Occupied by settlers. We did not come as immigrants, following the laws, traditions, and societies that were in place when we arrived. We came as settlers, attempting to carve a place for ourselves, conquer the people, the land, and its resources, then move on to conquer again and again.Because our ways and our God are superior to all others.

Intuitively aware that native traditions could be used to effect political resistance, their children were taken from them to colonial boarding schools, punished severely for speaking their native languages, and taught to emulate Euro-American culture. Wealth is the bottom line. Aspire to be all that you can be, and forget about that traditional stuff.

These acts of cultural, environmental, and physical violence were perpetrated by settlers who themselves are embedded in a society of inequalities. Many of them were not asked if they wanted to come here. Many of them are motivated by the desire to feed their families and make a better life, because in the capitalist society there is no one you can turn to for help outside of the nuclear family. We are all free to do as we want, so why should we have to help our neighbors? Wealth is the bottom line. Aspire to be the best, and forget about the people who didn’t try hard enough. The settler culture is rich in material resources, but if we do not have relationships with our neighbors and extensive family-networks that we can turn to in times of need, we must actually be very poor indeed. Destitute. And bound to perpetuate systems of inequality, foster violent tendencies, and remain afraid of one another.

As Dr. Yellow Bird explains, his work is dedicated to healing the wounds created by colonization. The process begins by decolonizing the mind through ritual mindfulness exercises. Dr. Yellow Bird uses neuroscientific research to document the changes in the human brain that result from engaging in traditional mindfulness practices. On average, permanent changes to the brain’s activity take place after an average of 22 half-hour sessions of breathing awareness, leaving the practitioner in a permanent state of awareness, empathy, and creative thinking. Dr. Yellow Bird encourages us all to participate in our own traditional practices in politically motivated acts of resistance against colonial social structures and values.

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