Weaving Ancient Knowledge into our Current Lifeways

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Becoming Allies through Self-Healing

by Lyla June Johnston

Excerpted (by Rebecca Selove) from Kathleen Rude’s interview with Dr. Lyla June Johnston .

KATHLEEN: Lyla June is an Indigenous musician, scholar and community organizer of Diné, Cheyenne and European lineages. Her research focuses on the ways in which pre-colonial indigenous nations shape large regions of Turtle Island to produce abundant food systems for humans and nonhumans. Her other messages focused on indigenous rights supporting youth, traditional land stewardship practices, and healing intergenerational and intercultural trauma. Welcome, Lyla June, to this gathering.

LYLA: We call ourselves Diné, which means “all the people, as my people and as my kin, my relatives.” And I have to honor that clan, which I get from my mother. We get our last names from our mothers and not from our fathers. So that’s the lineage that I carry. … I think the common denominator between all of the things I do is communications, transmitting knowledge, transmitting information, transmitting paradigms and ideas. I’m like a transmitter, I think, and a messenger. It’s what I think I do through a variety of media.

 KATHLEEN: What are some of the teachings that you feel are most important for humanity to learn now, and could help heal our planet, our relationship to the planet and our societies today?

We have to heal ourselves from our personal, racial, and collective existential trauma.

LYLA: Well, the first thing that comes to mind is self-healing, which is connected to becoming a more regenerative force on the planet. We have to heal ourselves from our personal, racial, and collective existential trauma. It’s like so many concentric circles outward, from our self, our family, our lineage, our homeland, our homeland’s interaction with other homelands. There’s so much work to do to unravel the trauma and unravel the points of contention, the points of self-hate, and the points of hate for others. 

How do we serve as a vessel that is here to give?

And I think the biggest thing, ideally, if we lived in a perfect world, is generosity, you know, transforming ourselves from beings of self-centeredness to beings of output. How do we serve as a vessel that is here to give? And so, in Diné culture, there are a lot of ceremonies that go into training someone how to be a generous person. What we do is we give the baby a little bit of salt, and that salt is held by the baby, and people walk around, and they will take a little bit of the salt. …it’s about teaching the baby to honor their joy and honor their laughter. But also that there is joy in giving, there’s laughter in giving, there’s laughter in community. And so that’s kind of a cool ceremony. 

And then another one is when you have your first menstrual cycle, you have a four day ceremony, and you grind corn for four days. This corn is used to create a very large cake about a foot deep. It’s made of corn cake, you bake it in the ground covered in corn husk; it’s delicious. After the fourth day after you grind all this corn, you bake it on the fourth night in the ground, and you sing all-night ceremonies, songs going into the cake, altering the consistency of that cake through our songs and our prayers. And then you give it all away, you can’t have a single bite. What we’re teaching the young woman is that you have the power to feed a nation, and that your womanhood rests in your ability to be a giver. 

And then there’s some nations where the manhood ceremony involves killing a first deer, right, and he has to give it all away, he has to give the deer – he can’t have a single bite. And that’s to teach him to be a giver. 

Self-worth in our [Diné] culture is defined by how much you can give.

I think our deepest psychosis is wanting to be hoarders, wanting to be takers, wanting to be dominators. It’s very common with a lot of men these days. They’ll say they want to build an empire, they want to amass, they want to retire early. It’s really, really self-centric. Self-worth in our [Diné] culture is defined by how much you can give. There was a competition back in the day, who could be the most humble, who could be the most generous, who could be the most brave, who could be the most honest, who could be the most meek. That is obviously going to run a [much better] society, because you have all these humans trying to give into the system versus taking out of the system…

KATHLEEN: Thank you. … the question comes up of cultural appropriation and how do we work with? How do we work with the teachings of the peoples who know the songs of this land that we’re on? And do it in a way that is respectful, and not appropriating? …

LYLA: That’s a great question, actually. I think the litmus test for “Am I appropriating, or not?” is, “Am I benefiting with self-gain from this knowledge, or not?”

I think the appropriation comes when you’re using someone’s culture as a footstool to get something else

I think the appropriation comes when you’re using someone’s culture as a footstool to get something else, like the Atlanta Braves, right? They have this terrible caricature of native people that they’re just taking. They don’t care about the people, it’s just for their logo, for their brand, for their beer, whatever, which is totally against everything we stand for, right? We’re not into zero sum games, we’re not into alcohol. We’re not into  capitalism. 

But let’s say you approach a community, and it’s about giving, you know, and you learn from it. The two temptations are to use it for money or to use it for reputation, right? A lot of people might take native knowledge and sell it for money. A lot of people might take native knowledge and then become the guru. Like, I’ve been taught by this person, and now I can teach it, and it’s like an ego boost. And so I think those are the two most extreme points. 

We need to know who we are.

But now going back to the realm of respectful interaction with communities. I really think this is a big one, so I’ll say it gently. I don’t think we should attempt to be native. We need to know who we are. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from and be in community with Native people. But I think building up that indigenous route of who we are. So that when we step into the circle with Native people, we’re bringing our ancestors with us and our own medicine to the circle as wholly what we are. And that means researching like, Okay, what happened to the Scottish? What happened to the Polish? Who the heck are the Hungarians? Where are they? You know, what kind of medicine is there? What can I find? I’m being more European centric, but also my Aboriginal? Am I from Africa? What’s my roots there? You know, or maybe you’re Afro-indigenous? Or maybe you’re European indigenous, like me? What do you bring? … 

My big mantra is, you go to the communities, and you say, “How can I help, if at all?”

I think that the biggest thing about honoring the medicine of the land you’re on is seeing yourself as an ally of those nations. I think that’s the biggest, deepest way to not only not do something harmful, but to do something wonderful. My big mantra is, you go to the communities, and you say, “How can I help, if at all,” and when you say that, you open up a universe of possibilities, and you’re coming respectfully, because you are asking them to be in the driver’s seat of how you engage, and they’ll say, “Oh, great, someone wants to help. And they’re letting us say how they help.” Because a lot of times people come in with a prepackaged notion of how they’re going to help. So yeah, I think going into the communities as an ally going into the communities, as like a volunteer, is a big, big help, because, yes, you are going to help them with whatever project they’re working on. 

But perhaps more importantly, you’re going to show them they’re not alone in the world. And you’re going to show them that the people or the colonial culture that they’re surrounded by every day, [in which we’re just feeling suffocated, right. We’re just like, wow, this is so intense. Like, this is not what our and our world used to look like, right?] cares.  You’re showing them an olive branch and like, Okay, who there is hope, like, this colonial culture, isn’t necessarily going to just take. There are givers here, and they want to support me. And that is healing just as much just knowing there’s relatives out there who care, that volunteer work. Yes, you’re building the house, or your whatever. But more deeply, you’re building trust, and you’re healing the past in your healing, the family ties that we have lost. And I think that’s  an extremely potent to do,  is “How can I help if at all?”  even if it’s one day, a month, or whatever you can do. Just being in connection with the community around you.

KATHLEEN: Thank you. Well, wanting to respect your time and that you’ve given us so graciously, so Lyla, is there anything else that you would like to share with regard to anything that we’ve talked about, and knowing that there are people here who are very much involved in the Work That Reconnects and are committed to the great turning? 

And the more we clean out and hollow ourselves, the more Creator can work through us.

LYLA: Yes, there is something else I’d like to share. First of all, thank you, Kathleen. Thank you, everyone who has made this happen. I want to say that what I was taught is that we are vessels. We are porous beings, and things come through us. And the more we clean out and hollow ourselves, the more Creator can work through us. 

I believe that every single human being on this planet was born with great purpose. And every single being on this planet is sacred. And every single being on this planet is beautiful. And that your body, your mind, your soul, your heart, are all parts of this very sacred apparatus is able to connect to a wealth of ancestral, angelic, being, whatever you want to call it. It is an ocean of love that is trying to get into this world. It just needs vessels. It needs windows to shine through. And the more we can clear up our window, the more It can shine through. 

That clearing process to me is a process of self-love. Instead of blaming and shaming, “Why is my window so dirty? Oh, there must be something wrong with me. I’m such a terrible person.” – No. Look back to your childhood, what was going on there? Were you getting the love that you needed? Were you getting the support that you needed? Chances are, probably not, for most of us, right? So give yourself a break. Take some time to grieve what happened when you were [a child]. What kind of situation were you in? If you’re like me, you’ll say, “Oh, I had a perfect childhood.” Think again. Maybe not. Maybe that’s what we tell ourselves to not have to feel how imperfect it was. And that doesn’t mean our parents are bad, it just means they healed as much as they could. There were some things they couldn’t heal, and it’s our turn to fix those parts. 

Clearing our window is really about healing ourselves, grieving, and, most importantly, coming into a place of self-love.

Clearing our window is really about healing ourselves, grieving, and, most importantly, coming into a place of self-love. Because one of the greatest reasons why the Creator can’t shine through someone is because they won’t let him. They think, “I’m not worthy, too tainted, too broken.” Creator, being the respectful being that he or she or whatever is says, “Okay, if you say so. I can’t shine through if you won’t let me.”

 I had to see that that wasn’t my fault. A huge fundamental part of your window cleaning is: what happened to you is not your fault. And when you do that, a little more light comes through. My dream and my hope for each and every person here is that you get to a clear enough point where you are a hollow bone, that’s what our ancestors called it. “May I be a hollow bone. I am a beautiful being among beautiful beings.”

part of being what we are is being in service to the whole.

The more we allow ourselves to just be what we are is the moment that medicine just naturally starts flowing through. Because part of being what we are is being in service to the whole. This broken, imperfect person has a perfect intention in this moment to be of service to the whole and then you can open your wings up and you could say, “Create or use me, you.” That’s a powerful prayer. When we ask to be used like a vessel, he can play us like a flute. He can play us like an eagle bone whistle, and we can be that window that these forces are aching to shine into this world.

This article is an edited transcription of a talk given at the Gaian Gathering of the Work That Reconnects Network in November 2023.  A video of the full talk is available on the WTR Network website here.

Dr. Lyla June Johnston (aka Lyla June) is an Indigenous musician, author, and community organizer of Diné (Navajo), Tsétsêhéstâhese (Cheyenne) and European lineages. Her multi-genre presentation style has engaged audiences across the globe towards personal, collective, and ecological healing. She blends her study of Human Ecology at Stanford, graduate work in Indigenous Pedagogy, and the traditional worldview she grew up with to inform her music, perspectives and solutions. Her doctoral research focused on the ways in which pre-colonial Indigenous Nations shaped large regions of Turtle Island (aka the Americas) to produce abundant food systems for humans and non-humans.

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