Connection

Cisco“Sit here on the ground with me,” I encouraged the hesitant woman. She was an older beginner rider who had contacted me because she was afraid of riding her horses. She wanted to ride but didn’t know how to get past her fear. As we stood in her dusty, New Mexico arena, I told her to sit down on the ground and not worry about getting her horse yet. “One of the things that can happen when we have fear with riding is that we feel disconnected and out of control. What you need to realize is that we are always connected to the Earth. You are not disconnected. When you are riding, your horse’s feet are right here on the Earth. You are connected through your horse. Through each footfall. Feel that connection.”

When the woman got on her horse, I helped her to continue feeling connected. It’s easy to think that being on a horse means we’re suspended several feet about the ground. But that’s simply a perspective. In reality, we are still connected. As I held her horse so he wouldn’t move, the rider closed her eyes and felt her connection down through her body and then into her horse. From there, we mentally went down each of her horse’s legs until the rider felt that she was very solidly connected to the Earth with four horse legs and hooves connecting her to it. From that point forward, the rider was able to ride her horse and handle her fear whenever it arose. Whenever she rode, she took time at the beginning to connect with her horse. If she got scared while riding, she simply reconnected with her horse’s legs and their connection to the Earth.

AnnieThe lesson the rider learned that day can be used as we deal with COVID19 fear and anxiety. Right now, a lot of people are feeling as if they are disconnected from everything in their lives. They don’t know when they will go back to work. They don’t know when they will be able to hug a loved one again. They don’t know when they will be able to go out to dinner or to the gym. There is so much uncertainty, and that uncertainty leads to fear and anxiety.

But the horses can teach us, just like they taught that fearful rider, that we are always connected. We are never truly alone even in this time of self-isolation and physical distancing. You are probably sitting or standing as you read this post right now. Take a deep breath and think about your feet. Think about your body. Where are they? What do they feel like? They are connected to the Earth, whether your feet are actually on the ground – remember, your floor eventually goes down through layers and meets the Earth – or your body is in a chair that is connected to the floor. We are always connected. Through the Earth, we are connected to each other. Every single human being on this Earth is connected right now. No one is alone. YOU are not alone. Feel the connection and breathe.

 

Hunkering Down with the Horses

The wind came rolling down the canyon, rustling the pines and then spreading out along the flattened area where the horses would normally be grazing. We had been told a big snow storm was coming, perhaps even a blizzard. I had put hay in the two barns, hoping to encourage the horses to seek shelter in either one. Instead, I watched as the horses moved in a way that looked like they had been assigned places in the pasture. As if choreographed by some voice I could not hear, they turned their hindquarters to the wind. Then, they dropped their heads low, almost reaching the ground. They stood close enough to be companionable but not in a way that any of them touched each other. Then, they waited. There was no anxiety among them. No frantic whinnying. No white-eyed fear. They knew, deep in their bones, what to do. Turn away from the storm, drop their heads to protect their eyes and ears and noses from the wind and snow, and wait it out. The horses knew the storm would end.

I have learned many things from horses during my 20 years of researching the horse-human relationship from within Indigenous worldview, and I will be sharing many of them on this blog. One of the most important things I have learned is to listen to the horses. Listening doesn’t mean just with the ears. It means listening to their entire being, to their herd, to the way they interact with life without projecting anything onto it. I have seen horses react in stressful situations such as evacuating from a wildfire. I have seen them need to be removed from fencing in which they have gotten tangled. I have seen them give birth, and I have seen them die. They have lessons they can teach us for this time of pandemic. The one I write about today is to be quiet, go inward, and know that the storm will end.

Mustangs, horses of the Land, were especially made to weather storms. Their tails have a very low set, which allows it to cover the space between their back legs, keeping them warm. They have smaller ears, meaning there is less surface area to allow heat to escape. They grow thick coats that catch snow and ice on the ends of their fur and keeps their skin warm and dry. These are the tools they have, and they use them successfully because where they live, there are no barns and rarely any trees under which to shelter.

The horses teach us how we can weather the COVID19 storm. The biggest thing they are teaching us, a lesson that many people still are having a hard time listening to, is to hunker down and wait it out. Not to panic but to do the things we know we need to do until the storm is over. The horses don’t see storms as a disruption to their lives. They recognize that storms are a part of life. Illness is a part of our lives. It always has been. We have become complacent due to modern medicine but COVID19 is a wake-up call. We now have the opportunity to adjust our lives when this storm passes so that we learn how to live with and survive the storms of illness.

We have the ability to weather this storm because we can stay in our homes until this storm is over. We can work from home or we can take this time and do the things we always say we are too busy to do. We can read, exercise, talk to friends and family via the Internet, write poetry, learn a musical instrument, and the list goes on. If we are essential and must work outside the home, then we can come back to it as the safe haven that it is. We have the tools to hunker down. We simply need to recognize them and use them.

When the horses hunkered down for that storm in their pasture, they didn’t know how bad it would be or when it would end. They simply knew that no matter how bad it got, it would end. While we know that this pandemic will become a severe storm, a blizzard, we also know that it will end. And when it does, we will be changed, individually and as a herd. What we do with that change is up to us. Hopefully, we will learn from the horses so that we will be prepared for other storms.

You know you belong to the Land

You know you belong to the Land

Indigenous understandings of the world and of life are woven deeply into the American experience in ways you simply don’t notice. Here’s an example, one that should give you a lift of powerful joy. It’s from the very end of the main number for which the movie “Oklahoma!”(1) is named. The scene takes place at the end of the story. Watch it once, just to enjoy it and feel the lift it gives you. Then read my explanation below, and watch it a second time with new eyes and ears. (See footnote for full citation.)

The Land itself speaks to you through this little film clip. Here is why I say that. First, the word “Oklahoma” is in the Choctaw language. I have always loved it that this production has all these non-Native people crouched down and rising up, chanting in Choctaw. What they are saying is “Indian Nations” in Choctaw, the language of one of the Five Tribes sent in the 1830s to what has since become the state of Oklahoma (2). The non-Native people in the movie represent settlers who moved into Indian Territory, despite promises it would always be land set aside for Indians. In the film clip, they are chanting “Indian Nations” in the Choctaw language! And here is the salient point about that: we Native people see our languages as having been given to us by the Land itself. So there’s actual, real power in this chanting.

Second, these non-Native people are doing what sure looks to me like part of a Round Dance. At the beginning there, when the people in the middle are crouched down, there are two lines of people moving in opposite circles around the outside of the crouching group. You see that in a very big Round Dance that winds far enough to turn back on itself. The people who choreographed that scene might say they hadn’t ever seen one of our Round Dances or weren’t thinking of it if they had. But we Native people believe our dances were given to us by the Land, too. So I would ask, “Where do you suppose the idea to have people circle this way during this chanting came from?” I think there are things moving here a lot of people just don’t see at first.

By the way, if you want to say there are, in your own homeland’s culture, dances that circle this way . . . well, that Land of your culture’s home provides people with dances too. That’s how we see it, anyway. It’s not just our Land here that does this. A Circle is a very important shape and often shows up in dances, designs of many kinds, and in natural structures such as nests, dens, and lodges. The point is: a circle is an important natural shape that manifests important attributes of the Land, and that therefore shows up in dances the Land inspires. And there it is, right in that movie scene. The Land is literally moving through those dancers and the choreographer.

Finally, listen to the words the people sing when they stand up at the end of the clip. “We know we belong to the Land” is not at all typical of the way people in the dominant culture see Land ownership. They say “I own this piece of land. This land belongs to ME” — not “I belong to the Land.” No, that phrase “We belong to the Land” expresses a particularly Indigenous view of reality. And to say “We know we belong to the Land” . . . well if that’s not the Land itself speaking through the song lyricist’s pen, I don’t know where those words came from. You might be able to explain away the two previous things I’ve pointed to, but this phrase “we belong to the Land” defies any logic of Western worldview. Added to that, the phrase is preceded by a strong statement that “We know this” to be so.

The words of the song are telling you that you know the thing it’s telling you — the thing that runs counter to one of the most fundamental principles of Western culture, that people own the land. It’s telling you that’s not how it is, and that you already know this. The song’s words say, literally, that we all know, deep inside, that we belong to the Land. Oscar Hammerstein II, who wrote these words, was of Jewish and Scotch-Irish descent (from what I was able to learn). He certainly didn’t seem to be of Indian descent.

Now watch the clip again, hearing the Choctaw chant and seeing the Round Dance and the strong assertion “We know we belong to the Land.”

Taking all these things together, maybe you can start to see why, if you look at this clip with Native eyes and ears, you start to hear and see the strong presence of the Land moving through all the people involved. Why does this matter? After the people sing “We know we belong to the Land,” they sing, “And the Land we belong to is grand.” That’s also a true statement, and a very important one. It’s true the Land is grand because it is literally the ground of our existence. It is written into your body — your bones, your teeth, your blood, your muscles. Where do you think the atoms come from that form your physical body? The Land is written into the bodies of all the people who somehow staged this incredibly Native piece of song and dance, too — a production number that brought audiences to their feet in live theaters and probably brought your heart to its feet just now. Because you could FEEL it, couldn’t you? A little like the way you felt something powerful moving in you when you played the videos of quarantined people calling and singing and clapping together from their apartments? You felt the power of knowing that we ALL belong to the Land, and the Land we belong to is grand, and that this connects us in a fundamental and essential way. The Land is grand, not for its military might or its economic muscle or its scientific prowess, but for its genuine life-giving POWER. This is why yesterday I said that we Native people are drawing on the Power of the Land to help us through this time, and suggested you might join us in doing the same.

You may not have been consciously aware that the Land is part of who you are, and you are quite literally a part of everything around you, but your heart knows this truth. It leaps with emotion when you perceive the deep connectedness between us. This is what Indigenous people mean when we say “we are all relations.” It’s an essential concept for these times. It’s what can help us, as a nation of people — not a nation of political ideologies or a nation of economic agendas, but a nation of people — to triumph over the challenge facing us now. There is great wisdom in the Land, and in real reciprocal relationship that can guide us through this time of terrible danger — if you can learn how to perceive and respond to it. More importantly, this wisdom can lead us into a powerful time of renewal on the far side of the events unfolding today.

Remember the power of paradox.


1. “Oklahoma!” 1955. Fred Zinnemann, Director. Sonya Levien, William Ludwig, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Lynn Riggs, Writers. Magna Theatre Corporation and Rodgers & Hammerstein Productions. Oscar Hammerstein is the lyricist who wrote the words sung in this film clip. However, “Oklahoma” itself — Okla Humma — is Choctaw. This video clip is used under the Fair Use as stated in the Copyright Act of 1976, 17 U.S.C. § 107.

2. That forced migration is known as the Trail of Tears, and it was a hard time for many people. It’s estimated that about 2,500 of the 15,000 Choctaw alone (not counting the other nations) died of exposure, disease, and hunger on the Trail of Tears. That’s a fatality rate of over 16%. By comparison, the fatality rate of COVID-19 is roughly 2% of those infected. But not everyone is infected with coronavirus, which is why our actions now can make a difference. If we can reduce the numbers of people infected, it will make a huge difference in the number of people who die. Everyone who went on the Trail of Tears, however, was at risk for fatality. No one escaped the “infection” of forced relocation.

Together We Are a Strong People

Together we are a strong people. Our actions provide hope as we face COVID-19.Today, Sunday the 29th of March, we finally saw the projected numbers for possible deaths that I have long known* were the reality we face. I expect these numbers gripped many Americans in a physiological shock response. Here is how to know if that’s what happened to you. In a shock response, you feel all the energy in your body drop into the pit of your stomach like ice water. At the same time, you feel the blood drain out of your limbs as if someone pulled a plug somewhere. All this happens in the space of a fraction of a second. If you’re standing up at the time, you feel you may faint. A shock response is the body’s reaction to traumatic levels of fear. If that happens to you, here is what you must do.

First, breathe. Focus on the exhale. Don’t just think about it, but do it right now. Exhale longer than you inhale. At first it might be hard. You might even feel like you can’t get a breath to come IN to your lungs at all. That’s why it helps to focus on the EXhale at first. If you have to, push in your stomach with your hands a little, to help drive the air out of your lungs. Close your eyes when you do it. Feel the air coming up out of your arms and legs as well as your lungs. Yes, I know technically, physically, that isn’t what happens. But in other ways, it is precisely what happens. Try it, and keep trying it, and you’ll see.

Eventually you will be able to draw in a nice breath. It might even make you shiver or hiccup when you do. When you can get a nice breath this way, make that next exhale even longer. Focus even more on the sense that all the rigidity in your arms and legs is melting or dissolving, and being blown out of your body with your breath. Once you get this process going, keep it up until you can feel the relaxation spreading through all your body, finally up through your shoulders, then your neck, and at last your jaws and face and scalp. Then shake your arms and hands loose, and shake out one leg at a time. Shake yourself all over. Yawn. Stretch.

Now. We don’t need to go into the biology of how or why that works. But it does, and you should be feeling a bit better as a result. Any time you feel your body grow rigid in the coming weeks, or you feel you can’t take a breath, repeat this process. It’s very important to keep your body relaxed enough for blood to circulate properly. This also keeps your body from secreting hormones that increase your sense of anxiety and fear. Feeling calm is a losing battle if you are fighting your own body. Breathing like this helps you and your body be on the same side. It helps you work together. This is important because fear actually makes us less able to think clearly.

So here are some clear thoughts, now that your mind and body are calm: Human beings have faced much worse pandemics than this one many, many times over the millennia. Most of them were from diseases that were a lot more lethal than this one. We all carry the genetic memories of those earlier times of plague — what we now call a pandemic. So of course our bodies respond with fear. But THIS time we humans know more than we did then. We understand how to short-circuit the disease’s transmission. In the past, people didn’t know any of the things we know now, that can help us protect ourselves and our families.

  • We know that the disease is caused by a virus, not by some strange characteristic of the air (called “miasma” — the place people of the dominant culture used to think diseases came from). Because we know where the disease comes from, we know that the key to staying healthy is avoiding close contact with someone who is sick, and also not spreading the disease ourselves through our own actions. That may seem very simple, but it’s something people did not know in the past.
  • Many, many researchers and physicians have been studying this particular virus for about three months. They have learned how it is passed from one person to another, what it takes to kill it, how long it can live on a surface such as a doorknob, and many other things. They have used this information to prepare all those guidelines you’ve been hearing: to wash your hands with soap for 20 seconds, to stay at least 6 feet away from other people, and to wipe down non-porous surfaces such as shopping cart handles, cell phones, and doorknobs. All these pieces of life-saving information are things people did not know in the past.
  • We know how diseases move through populations. By now you are hearing terms like “exponential growth” and “doubling time.” These are terms you will come to understand soon, if you haven’t quite wrapped your mind around them yet. They help all of us — and will help you — be able to SEE when our efforts to slow this virus’s spread actually take place. This will encourage us to not quit too soon. Some places are already seeing this slow-down happen. The measures we are taking have been taken in other places and they’ve worked. They will work here, too — IF we follow the guidelines.

The biggest threat to all of us is for some of us to act like we are still living in the year 1220 instead of the year 2020. Follow the guidelines. Live.

We also have many ways to treat viral pneumonia now that we didn’t have in the past. It’s true that our hospitals may be short on the equipment that can treat the sick, but that’s even more reason to follow the guidelines. Slowing the spread of this disease “flattens the curve” (as you’ve also heard) and allows hospitals to keep handing the influx of people who are ill. Again, if we pay attention to the things we know now that we did not know in the past, we humans can triumph over this pandemic.

Now for the non-medical parts of dealing with your shock response. Indian experience of being ravaged by new diseases is pretty recent. European settlers brought many diseases to America that had never been here before. Sometimes entire villages were wiped out within days by diseases such as smallpox. If any group of people in the world should be in a panic about this pandemic, it’s Indians. Let me share the way many of us are trying to see it, how we are talking about it to one another. Of course, that is what I have been doing for several posts already, and will be doing for many more to come. But right now we are talking about the way to handle this fear response, this sense of shock.

When you read the following words, I give you permission to “repeat after me” and say them (or some version of them) for yourself:

We have survived epidemics before, and we didn’t know as much then as we know now. We will survive this epidemic. It cannot beat us. We are a strong people.

We know that what matters is caring for our helpless, our very old, our very young, our mothers bearing babies. We know that those of us who are young and strong must be certain these others have food and water, shelter and clothing, and medicine. We are a people, not just individuals. We are relations. In our quarantine, yet we are one people and we let ourselves perceive this. In this unity is a strength that can overcome any challenge.

We know that the mind and body work together to keep people whole and healthy, to give people strength and keep people strong. We know we must rise each morning and pray for guidance and strength, and then pray again at night before we lie down to sleep. We must take good care of our bodies through this time in order to have the strong, calm wisdom these times call upon us to have. We must thank our bodies for helping us to be strong. We must thank our minds for helping us to think clearly and without fear.

We must breathe in the air of this Land and ask for its strength every day — for the strength of the mountains, of the rivers; of the skies and the forests, of the vast grasslands, of the deep lakes, of the seas that beat upon the shores and everything in those waters. These things are part of us, and we are part of them. They will help us in this time of trial. We must thank them for their help every day.

We must set aside time each day to do an act that reminds us to focus on these things. We Native people like to burn sage, but you can light a candle, pray or chant using beads, ring a bell, kneel, sing a sacred song, recite a poem, read a sacred text or tell a story from your own religious tradition, or any other thing that is an ACTION that calls your entire being into a focus on this one moment. And in that moment, rise up within yourself and feel the absolute KNOWLEDGE that you can face this time. For you were born into it, and here you are. So of course you can face it. More, you can help everyone in your family face it. Engage them in these actions with you. Include the children, for they are afraid too. Teach them these ways of your ancestors, who are also their ancestors. You can be the one who helps them find this strength within themselves, as you have found it.

Make no mistake, the strength to walk this road is within you. Fear can drive you away from that Knowledge. Fear can make you forget the Knowledge researchers have given you so you know what to do to protect yourself, your family, and everyone in your community from the ravages of this plague. Fear can make you forget the Knowledge of our ancestors that tells us how to live as strong human beings, with pride that we are part of a greater and very mighty whole. It is important you REMEMBER these Knowledges. Do not let fear make you forget them.

You are a human being. You can do this. WE can do this. TOGETHER.

—-

* I knew the numbers of expected fatalities because I am an evolutionary biologist. And, yes, I am enrolled Choctaw.. Those things are not mutually exclusive. If this seems puzzling or illogical to you, please read our pages on Different Ways of Knowing. It’s what we are all about, here. Thank you.

Some COVID Hope in Quarantine

We’ve talked about how important it is to slow down and start living in Real Time if you want to get in touch with the beneficial wisdom of Indigenous Knowledge that can generate COVID hope. Here’s your opportunity to experience Real Time, at least a little bit, and the peace it can bring in a time of great anxiety. We all need COVID hope while we’re in quarantine, self-isolation, or shelter-in-place.

Play the video below. Focus on the sound of the wind in this video. Listen for the birds. Look at the grasses moving. Breathe. Let your body relax. Open your heart to the earth and the sky, the wind and the trees. Let the Land give you a sense of calm peacefulness. Exhale.

Now play the video again. See the area on the hill to your left at the beginning? There are fewer trees there because some years ago there was a very large and devastating wildfire that burned through this entire area — even the place where the photographer was standing to make this video! Why is this important? Because it reminds us all that sometimes things change, and in ways we consider devastating. That’s simply a part of life. But life goes on. And somehow there is beauty again. The world isn’t exactly the same as it was before, but the wind still blows through the grasses and the pines, the birds sing their winter song, and the sun shines even in a clouded autumn sky.

Life will come back again. Breathe. Relax your body. Release your anxiety. Resist the habit impulse to engage in displacement behaviors that will only make make your body more tense.

Watch this video whenever you want. It’s the Land’s gift of Real Time peace for COVID hope.

Filmed by Jo Belasco on the Pine Ridge of northwestern Nebraska, November 2019. The view is to the south and southwest, which are the directions associated with Experiential ways of knowing and Spiritual ways of knowing, respectively. If you look at the directions of south and west on our Circle model, you will see why these directions will help you receive healing from this video.