I am sitting in a row of old metal and upholstery chairs in a Lutheran church. A Native American woman named Sweet Water is presenting to about forty people on the topic of decolonization. In the audience are people from work as well as volunteers and members of the community. Most people I have not met. I feel humbled and fortunate. There are windows up high to our left, and as the sun moves from behind clouds, light fills the room. I recognize a mood of respect and openness on the faces of my coworkers who fill up some rows of chairs nearby me.
Sweet Water opens with a timeline of court rulings involving Native Americans, starting with Johnson v. McIntosh, the first court ruling with the word “Indian” in it. This ruling deemed Native peoples “occupants” of the land instead citizens of the United States, and the decision informs and dictates much of Native American life today. Indeed, white colonizers of North America effectively scattered generations of Native American culture. For years, we have dominated and obliterated tribes and their cultures. Meanwhile, our current way of life threatens the entire Earth, including its disappearing cultures.
Sweet Water tells us, “culture is medicine.” She leads us in an exercise called the Oppressor and the Oppressed. We discuss established pathways of colonization in modern society and are asked to share with a partner an instance of trauma in our lives. I hold the other person’s hand in a sharing exercise as they tell me their trauma experience, and they listen intently and I hold a tissue and cry as I share mine.
Shortly afterward, Sweet Water guides us in a meditation. In the meditation, I saw visions and understood exactly what each of them meant. I was happily surprised that the visions came to me so promptly upon closing my eyes, listening as Sweet Water described what we would see.
Many years ago, I had similar experiences with astral projection in the gym of my high school while cutting class with two close friends. In my dreams, I have been touched by spirits including my Grandma who passed. This time, the visions come to me in daytime, in a room full of strangers. When I reflect on this experience, I know I was sitting in a chair in a church, but inside myself and in the shared experience in the room, we were with spirits.
In my vision, a bear approached me, representing unprocessed grief. It was defeated by a flying heron spirit, which was part of me. The heron brought me forgiveness and resolve. Sweet Water asked us when we opened our eyes again what we received from the meditation, and I was empowered to soon after raise my hand, and as we looked into each others’ eyes, we both had tears coming to them. I told her, “forgiveness.”
The bear was empowered by grudges I held, including those against someone I loved very much who hurt me multiple times with his alcoholism. We were blessed with sage in a circle outside to close our beautiful day together. As I left the church in the days to follow, I thought if Native Americans such as Sweet Water, Winona LaDuke, and Idle No More can work in coalition with children of colonizers to give voice to the Earth, give culture as medicine, and heal this planet, I can forgive those in my life who have personally hurt me.
For the past several years, I have been given many opportunities to process grief. We always have choices, including how we respond when we are wronged by another. I’ve learned that some of the choices people in my life have made were wrong. Sometimes my reaction to those choices have been wrong. Facing grief means we aren’t waiting for someone to come along and make us forget what happened. We don’t need to forget. If anything, Native American activists show us that documenting and remembering history is essential to forgiveness and moving in a better direction. Forgiveness allows us to be free. Allowing a process of forgiveness to evolve never hurts, and it always helps.
The future after forgiveness is the gift that keeps giving. When we let go of judging a person, we let go of the roles that prevent us from seeing the context of the situation. When we let go of the false notion that we can control others, we trust the good in people, and we find more autonomy over our choices.
Emotions of resentment, anger, sadness, grief, understanding, joy, compassion, and love–and everything else–are invariably human. Everyone experiences them. When we are open about how being wronged has made us feel and how doing wrong has made ourselves and others feel, we can heal through understanding. We can learn lessons with others and share feelings. People are medicine for each other.
Contrary to what psychologists put forward through much of the twentieth century about people being successful when they are psychologically independent, relational cultural theorists posit the neurotransmitters that allow us to experience calm, acceptance, resonance, and energy in relationships developed as an evolutionary indicator of our necessary interdependence. By practicing healthy relationships in adulthood we are strengthening these pathways (Wired to Connect, Banks MD.) By practicing the emotional processes that lend to compassion and forgiveness, we are stewarding our brain health. By forgiving myself, others in my past, circumstances, the things out of my control, I am able to be more responsible for my own mental health and for my choices in the present.
If we think of forgiveness within the context of generations, we can admit we are always learning from the generation before us, and mistakes are part of learning. No one is exempt from mistakes because we are all human. So, we must forgive. Because as Desmond Tutu said, “Without forgiveness, there is no future.” There is so much future to be present for, and to be present, we must do inner work. We all are part of creating the future the next generation is inheriting.
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