What Could Possibly Go Right?

What Could Possibly Go Right?: Episode 68 Sherri Mitchell

February 28, 2022

Show Notes

Sherri Mitchell is the Founding Director of the Land Peace Foundation, an organization dedicated to the global protection of Indigenous land and water rights and the preservation of the Indigenous way of life. She was born and raised on the Penobscot Indian reservation (Penawahpskek) and teaches around the world on issues of Indigenous rights, environmental justice, and spiritual change. She is also a co-host of the syndicated radio program Love (and revolution) Radio, an author, and a Post Carbon Institute board member.

She addresses the question of “What Could Possibly Go Right?” with thoughts including:

  • The return to the land and reparations movements that are “really about reconnecting to the sources of our survival”
  • That young mentors can facilitate our understanding of “newly emerging language that’s helping us identify all of the places where we’ve been stuck”
  • That binary thinking no longer serves us and “limits us from becoming all of who we have the potential to be”
  • The notion of reciprocal sharing for balance and regeneration, rather than reciprocity
  • That COVID is “forcing the discussion of being self-oriented versus other-oriented”


Connect with Sherri Mitchell

Website: https://sacredinstructions.life

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sacredinstructions

Vicki Robin

Hi Vicki Robin here, host of What Could Possibly Go Right?, a project of the Post Carbon Institute, in which we interview cultural scouts, people who see far and serve the common good.

Today’s guest is Sherri Mitchell. Sherri was born and raised on the Penobscot Indian Reservation. She speaks and teaches around the world on issues of Indigenous rights, environmental justice and spiritual change. Her broad base of knowledge allows her to synthesize many subjects into a cohesive whole, weaving together a multitude of complex issues and articulating them in a way that both satisfies the mind and heals the heart.

Sherri received her Juris Doctorate and a certificate in Indigenous People’s Law and Policy from the University of Arizona. She is the founding director of the Land Peace Foundation, an organization dedicated to the global protection of Indigenous land and water rights and the preservation of Indigenous way of life. Prior to forming the Land Peace Foundation, Sherri served as a law clerk to the Solicitor of the United States Department of the Interior and as Staff Attorney for the Native American unit of Pine Tree Legal. And now, here’s Sherri.

Vicki Robin

Sherri Mitchell, welcome. As you may remember, you probably do, we met at a conference called Navigating the Great Unravelling, that was put on by the Post Carbon Institute, which actually led to this podcast. In that, we did scenarios about the world in 2050, with certain parameters. It showed me how much change is in store for us and how unprepared we are to meet that future skillfully.

The quest of this podcast is to find a way into that future that is full of skill and full of healing, not just solving problems, but healing. And that is why I turn to you. I so resonate with what I understand of your ground of being in reciprocity and mutuality. In this being a world of relationships, not just objects, in which the community of life is a web of benefit for one another, I once dubbed the divine, the great giving and receiving. You seem to speak to and from that.

So enough said, I’m going to turn it over to you. What do you see emerging that people can cooperate with? In all that is going awry, what could possibly go right?

Sherri Mitchell

Thank you, Vicki, for inviting me to be here to have this conversation with you. I think this is a time when people are really looking for something, to some solid ground to stand on. It feels like the ground is moving beneath our feet so rapidly, that a lot of people are losing their footing right now. A lot of people are spinning out right now.

We’ve lost a lot of family members and friends and relatives, so the grief is immense during this time. In the midst of all that, sometimes it’s very, very difficult to find what is going right. So I think it’s a perfect time for us to begin looking for it.

One of the things that really, I find is going right is this new wave of back to the land movements that’s going on with young people. There’s a whole Land Back Movement that’s taking place within Indigenous communities. People are starting to recognize the importance of being in relationship with the land upon which you live.

In addition to that, there’s a reparations movement that is really gaining some momentum. My friend David Ragland is just a wealth of knowledge on reparations, and I think he would be somebody to speak to perhaps in the future for you. This whole movement back to the land is really about reconnecting to the sources of our survival. When we’re born, where we have this umbilical connection to our birth mother, and then when we’re born into this world, that umbilical connection is transferred to the Earth Mother, which sustains us for the rest of our lives. The colonial patriarchy has separated us from that umbilical connection to the Earth Mother for so long, that we have really become disconnected from the sources of our survival, and as a result we’re spiralling toward our own demise.

So when I think about what’s going right, it’s that reparations work that’s reconnecting us to the source of our survival, which is Mother Earth; and people really, especially young people, casting off the trappings of the old story, and letting go of their need for material possessions, letting go of their need for status, and really looking for ways that they can live their lives in alignment with a sustainable future.

I saw this meme the other day that said, if you’re over a certain age and you don’t have a mentor under 30, then you’re going to miss out on the newly emerging paradigm because you don’t have the language to understand it. So another thing that I think is right is the newly emerging language that’s helping us in a very, very short period of time, identify all of the places where we’ve been stuck.

I look at the language around breaking down the binary, that non-binary language, because there’s a whole space for movement for us within that space. I think this is perhaps one of the most important things that’s happening during this time, is this recognition that the binary no longer serves us, and that the binary in whatever form it takes, limits us from becoming all of who we have the potential to be as a species.

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So that is encouraging to me, and that’s part of the new language that’s emerging right now. We have new language that’s emerging around the toxicity of our culture. We have new language that’s emerging around the ways that we look at and define equity. All of the things that are happening with this younger population that is rolling out into the society, in ways that it’s often hard for people over the age of 50 or 60, to keep up with; the new language, the new lingo, right? The movement is so swift, but that’s because it’s essential at this time. We are really desperately in need of this new energy, this new life, that these beings who were born for this time are bringing into reality in this moment. So I find those things to be very, very encouraging.

Also, this whole notion of reciprocity has really shifted for me, because I don’t look at things in relation to reciprocity anymore. I look in relation to reciprocal sharing, which is very different. Reciprocity is a kind of exchange, this for that, and what happens with that kind of relationship is that it creates a burden. If you’re wanting reciprocity and you do something for somebody, you’re burdening them, right? You’re placing a burden upon them, when you expect something to be given back in reciprocity. But if you are living under this idea of reciprocal sharing, where the other that is going to give back to you that you’re confident in, is this universal principle of regeneration and regifting that happens as a natural course of life. That reciprocal sharing that is part of that natural course of life, when we’re living in balance with life. That to me is, that’s where it’s at.

That’s the sexy part of the whole thing, is can we move ourselves into this flow of given-taken? Movement that allows for effortless giving, because we are assured of our own sense of being taken care of, of well-being. This is where I hope that we’re going.

I received a gift in the mail from this beautiful young woman who came to a talk that I did in Vermont two years ago. She said, I’m just gifting this to you, as part of my practice of living a gifting economy, so don’t send anything in exchange, because I don’t want it to be part of the exchange economy. I want it to truly be a gift. My friend, Jimmy Vaughn, talks about this all the time. How do we live in the gift? How do we live in a gifting economy? People say that it can’t be done. Well, it can’t be done unless we do it.

So this is what I’m seeing, is that younger generations are just doing it. They’re not waiting for the system to change. They’re not waiting for laws and policies to change. They’re not waiting for Congress to act. They’re just out there moving back to the land. They’re building tiny houses. They’re getting their hands in the dirt. They’re farming and gardening and they’re growing medicinal plants. They’re sharing with one another, with their neighbors. They’re helping one another out. They’re living this gifting economy. They’re casting off the capitalist system. I think that seeing that, witnessing that, and hoping that that continues to grow and to flourish into thriving communities is what gives me the most hope.

I think that what could possibly go right during this time, is that that catches on. And that it’s not just, Hey, I’m going to live this way for a couple of years, and then I’m going to jump into the capitalist system; but it becomes a real way of life that is sustained, and that people work through the challenges and the difficulties of exiting the colonial patriarchal capitalist system, and they are able to bring their best selves to the process of being able to let go of the trappings that we have so comfortably wrapped around ourselves, right?

I’m not uncomfortable for sure, in my life. So what can I do with that? Do I feel guilty that I’m not uncomfortable? Well, I grew up extremely poor, sleeping four to six to a bed. What’s on my mind with everything that I have, is how can I share this with others, as an act of excitement and joy, and be able to offer the benefit of whatever labor that I’ve put into what exists around me to help bring in new energy and new ideas and movement and to create a community of that kind of excitement and engagement.

So that’s what I’ve been doing here. I’ve reclaimed 200 acres of my traditional homelands, and the community here means “let’s help one another”. This land was land that was given away in a land grant when the state was formed, and our traditional territories were broken up and given away to settlers. It was almost 200 years to the day when I was able to reclaim this land, and to move on to this land, where we’ve hosted ceremony here in the last 18 months, probably half a dozen times, and giving people the opportunity to be seen and to be heard.

That’s all part of it, because this whole movement that’s being inspired by all of our ancestors and what they’ve taught us, and being brought to life by largely people under the age of 30. So my advice for how do we find hope and move through this time is to find yourself a mentor under the age of 30.

Vicki Robin

Yeah, there’s so much to this. I was actually telling you earlier that a lot of stories from my younger life are coming back to me. Part of it was back to the land, communal living, having very little materially but growing food. And bits and scraps, literally patches; patching together a way of life that was so nourishing, and yet so out of step with the dominant life. We held on to it and held on to it, and we had a house, etc.

And when it really became clear that that way of life had unravelled to the degree that I really needed to establish myself as an individual, I called it: I do not want to go into the billiard ball world, you know? This feeling of billiard balls, that one hits, another hits, another hits, another hits. I don’t want to be in that world, but that was the world that was available to me at that time. I feel like what you’re saying is a kind of return.

I’m interested in this non-binary. From the patriarchal dominator society, non-binary seems like: These are weird young people and weird language and we’re going to get rid of it as quickly as possible. But it isn’t just about one’s choice around sexuality. It’s around that recognition that it isn’t like a billiard ball world. It is a world of flow. And there’s no word for that. What is the word for that?

Or intersectionality? I mean, what a tough word to explain to the dominator society, that discovery that there’s a common root to the suffering that movements have been trying to move on, whether it’s women or people of color. These movements that, it’s almost they’ve been siloed and ignorant of one another. Suddenly, we realize; Wait a second, the environmental movement is a movement for justice, is a movement for Black lives. Even just discovering, after years of wondering why this whole thing is falling apart, really discovering that it’s colonialism, patriarchy, wetiko, or whatever you want to call it. We have a name for that now.

So I really am interested, also, in this naming and how the language is shifting. That’s a few things that stand out for me, and if you want to go off in any other direction, just let me know.

Sherri Mitchell

Yeah, I want to talk about this concept of, you’re talking about non-binary and intersectionality. I think that really, what we’re talking about is the same thing. When I’m thinking about the importance of non-binary, and you’re like, Oh, this is just a way that kids are labelling themselves. Non-binary is a term for one binary. But we live in a multiplicity of binaries, right? The entrenched two party legal system; male and female; black and white; right and wrong; this or that; you’re either with us or against us. We have all of these binaries that we have locked ourselves into step by step. And now we’re moving in lockstep with those binaries, and not allowing ourselves to expand beyond that.

So when I think about what’s the beauty in this movement, in relation to breaking down our binaries, what I think about is for us, in our spiritual tradition, there’s a term that’s related to our spiritual way of life. The literal translation of that word, that origin of that word, is it’s the space that exists between the skin and the drum. Where the wood of the drum and the skin of the drum come together, that coming together is where the sound is formed, right? So that space in between is where everything happens.

When we limit ourselves to here or here, we miss all the possibility that exists in that space in between. It’s the same with intersectionality. It’s the points where we all come together, where we intersect. At those intersecting points, there’s also that space in between, where there’s all kinds of potential and possibility that exists.

So when we’re thinking about the breaking down of binaries, it’s not just terminology that we’re talking about. We’re talking about entrenched ways of thinking, that are very limiting, that prevent the expansion of our consciousness, that prevent the full realization of our being. I’m teaching a class right now on decolonizing relationships between and among women, just because we’ve been so set up to be in competition with one another, to be fighting over scraps, that there’s only so many places at the table. That we have to really think about the ways that we engage with one another, who we invite into our community, who we allow to be in our inner circle. All of these things based on the ways that we’ve been taught to see one another, to engage with one another as women.

What the world needs right now more than anything is it needs this powerful sisterhood of strong matriarchs to lead us out of the disaster that the patriarchy has led us into. When we’re thinking about all the ways that we have been conditioned and entrained to think and to behave, when we think of the way that our emotions have been manipulated; we have labeled everything as being good or bad, even our emotions, right? We have positive emotions and we have negative emotions, rather than just letting our emotions be that space in between, where all possibility exists in the way that we respond to, and can learn to respond to through emotional intelligence, rather than react to the emotions that are rising up; they can guide us toward any possibility of behaviors and opportunities and actions.

It’s really about developing the emotional maturity within our own spiritual practice. It’s about developing our emotional intelligence to allow for the possibility that something exists beyond the limited scope of vision that we have been allowed to see. Because the roles of gender keep us locked into identities that cannot possibly allow for the fullness of our being.

So when we are thinking about that, one of the things I was talking about was this notion of a double deviant theory of criminology. When we think about this concept in terms of women in the criminal justice system, that there’s this belief that women are treated more leniently within the criminal justice system. And it’s absolutely not true, because the criminal justice system is very patriarchal.

Under this double deviant theory, there’s the deviation from the laws of the society has set up, and there’s also a deviation from the unspoken rules around gender roles that the women have broken, by not being obedient and meek, by being disobedient, by breaking the laws, by creating turmoil, resisting the rules that the system has set up for them. So they’re often punished more harshly because they’ve deviated from both of those norms. They’re not being meek and obedient when they’re breaking the law, so their infractions are viewed far more harshly, and their punishments correspond to that view.

When we are thinking about the importance of breaking down these binaries, it’s theoretical down to the most practical application that we can think of within the spectrum of our lives. Because we have all of this stuff from how we behave in our family, how we behave in our faith community, how we behave in our educational institutions, how we behave with our peers, how we behave in our work environment. All of these things have rules attached to them, that have been broken down into all of these systems of zeros and ones, if you will. That’s part of the matrix.

So how do we break free from those limitations that have been defined for us? And that is by shattering our hold on the binary thinking that has led us to these entrenched ways of being in relationship with one another. The hopefulness in that is profound, when we really start to think about all of the ways that it applies to all of the boundaries and the barriers that have been inflicted upon us through this binary thinking, across all disciplines and all areas of our lives.

Vicki Robin

Wow, you sparked so many thoughts. One of them was, I wrote (and it’s not been published), I wrote a book about freedom; like, rethinking freedom outside the entitlement definition of freedom. What I got to is exactly that; the liminal space, the doorway, where things are passing back and forth, or this idea of the ecotone, the edge of an ecosystem that touches another ecosystem, and that’s where speciation happens.

In a way, we’ve even interpreted where we are in a binary way. We’re stuck in a pandemic, and there’s going to be a next, and who’s going to define it? So we actually create these bubbles around things so that we can have a sense of control, then we scope out the next bubble that we’re going to have to figure out. Actually what’s happening is a very fluid situation where we’re trying to control it through vaccines – and God bless vaccines. But it’s a transformational time. We’re really up against something that we don’t understand, because it’s not in the old frame.

So it’s really, if you’re willing – and young people are very often willing, because they have less at stake, they have less accumulation – if you’re willing to allow the mystery of this to inform you and teach you to be your mentor, as you say… It’s like we’re being mentored by something. What you’re doing is like opening up a space where actually the patriarchy doesn’t live in. That’s a lot of liberation.

Sherri Mitchell

It is, yeah. I’m writing a book right now that I’m trying to finish, called Women Rise Wild. That’s really what it’s about. It’s about how do we exist beyond the patriarchy. Part of that is really learning, who were we prior to colonization? Who were we prior to the imposition of patriarchal values in our lives in a homogenised way? We can’t really figure out where we’re going in a decolonized sense, as my friend Leo Killsback says; you can’t decolonize unless you knew what you were like before colonization.

We don’t know what we’re working toward, if all of our framing is within a colonial context. So we first have to decide who were we before our sovereignty was taken. Thinking about some of the stories… I mean, we could spend a couple of hours here talking about this, but we don’t have a couple of hours.

So just thinking about one more thing I guess I can talk about here that I think is important, is what COVID is giving us the opportunity for. When we think about the whole experience with COVID, and we think about the incredible losses that have occurred as a result of COVID, not all of them are illness related, at least physical illness related. There are some mental and spiritual illnesses that have also come to the forefront.

I think what COVID is forcing us to do is to recognize that we have become a very self-oriented society. This whole thing about my freedom – my choice, my body – my choice, is very self-oriented. It’s not thinking about the other. And the ways that our humanoid species has survived in the past, against great threat to our survival, was by being other oriented. By looking out for one another, being communal, being cooperative, living in a relationship with one another that allowed us to be the keepers of our sisters and our brothers.

What COVID is kind of forcing the discussion of, being self oriented versus other oriented. Being truly self-oriented is allowing for all of these variants to emerge that, whether you’re vaccinated or not, taking basic precautions for the well-being of other people is an other-oriented perspective, right? Vaccinations completely aside, just being responsible in the ways that you behave because you realize that other people are going to be impacted by that. That being able to be other-oriented in that way, I think is just so important for us to think about on a large scale.

This is why we’re being given the gift of COVID, is so that we have the opportunity to think about ourselves in relation to others. So that we have the opportunity to think, Am I going to continue to live my life in a self-oriented way? Or am I going to begin to be other-oriented, in that I’m going to be careful of the well-being of those who are around me, whether I know them or even like them? Can I be the keeper of my sisters and my brothers?

Vicki Robin

I know we have to start steering toward the end, but one other thing is that… I’m very interested in and participating with a subculture, inside the culture that my book Your Money or Your Life was part of, called FIRE (financial independence retire early). But this is a group of people who don’t want to retire; they want to work differently. I asked them about the Big Quit, because the media is interpreting that, the Great Resignation.

Why are people not going back to work? Doing a very casual non-academic analysis of what people fed back to me, 100 responses, the biggest thing in aggregate was disrespect. That their work was disrespected; that the bosses made out like bandits and they got nothing; that this game is not worth the candle; that we are giving our lives to a system that is not designed for our well-being. And it has nothing to do with socialism, it has nothing to do with political. It is a fundamental sense that, I don’t matter, and the society I’m in that has some contract for taking care of one another, is now designed to abandon us.

Who knows what’s going to come of this? People are figuring out other ways to work, other places to live. Some of them are doing the back to the land; let me grow my own food, let me grow money called berries. It’s part of what you talked about in the beginning. I just think that quality of respect, because respect assumes mutuality, assumes that our lives are impacting one another. So we want to preserve the quality of that connection, that space in between, because that’s the real treasure. Anyway, what you were saying reminds me of that, and I’m going to give you a chance to, to ride this pony home.

Sherri Mitchell

When I think about where we are right now, and I think about the newest variation of back to the land, and I think about the newest variation of the movement for equity and justice, for racial justice, for racial equity, for economic equity; all of these things that we’re all working so hard to address within the society. It’s all kind of the same thing, right? Where we just keep coming back around until we’ve exhausted all of the learning around one thing. These are all cycles for us, of really cultivating and nurturing our humanity.

So that whole respect issue, when we think about that in terms of employment, lack of respect that has been going on for decades in regard to inequity between the rate of pay and the rate of inflation; inequity in the ways that people are compensated for the skills that actually allow for people to survive. Those people who do almost nothing all day are the ones making the most money and who aren’t really contributing in meaningful ways to people’s survival.

When we start getting reduced to survival, things start to become a little bit clearer to us, right? And COVID has reduced us to the state of survival. So it’s easy to see where is our survival connected. It’s connected to food. It’s connected to quality medical care. It’s connected to being able to connect with and have a sense of belonging with your people, to have meaning and purpose in your life. I think that those things have been on the minds of people who hadn’t been thinking about them prior because they were so caught up in the system that kept them so busy and distracted that they didn’t have to think about those things. So we’re being given a real rare opportunity for a course shift right now.

I also think that the employment shortage is in part, due to the fact that we have had a doubling in the amount of people who have died in the last 18 months. We have to consider that there has been a lot of people who have died, who hurt and are not able to go back to the workforce. People who were in my age group, that highest earning generation, people in their 40s and 50s, who were at the top of their game, so to speak. I have right now in my circle of friends, I have four friends who have lost their spouses to COVID, and countless others who have lost their parents.

And the amount of Long COVID sufferers that are out there is multiplied within my group of friends. I have a lot of friends who have Long COVID symptoms. My son and my daughter-in-law just had COVID and they’re both vaccinated, and they had minimal experience with COVID, fortunately. That’s not so for some of their peers, as well; people who are much younger, who are getting COVID and having long COVID symptoms that are debilitating to them.

We’re living in an interesting time, which is really, really giving us an opportunity to take a different path, to choose a different way forward, to look at all of the flaws in the system to see what’s not working, so that we can begin investing our time and our energy in the things that are going to give us a sustainable life into the future.

I think that more and more people are starting to become aware of where that space of survival is. Where is that sweet spot that allows us to move forward with the least amount of damage to the environment and to others? And how do we move forward in a way that preserves our greatest asset, which is our humanity? Which has not been valued in the way that it should be valued, because under capitalism, human value, humanity, integrity, compassion, empathy, have not been considered in the equations that have been worked out through capitalism.

All life and everything that is sacred is on the line under capitalism, so how do we move forward in a way that allows for the sacredness of life to be central to our movement? I think that’s the challenge of our day, and that’s actually what gives me hope, is that more and more people are looking to that place.

Vicki Robin

The spaces in between, unoccupied by capitalism, because capitalism can’t even see them. So thank you so much, Sherri. As I’ve told you many times, I could listen to you forever, and keep learning. I really, really appreciate that you took time right now when so much is going on to share this and I know that people are going to love this conversation. So thank you.

Sherri Mitchell

Thank you so much for inviting me and for holding space for these kinds of conversations to take place that are so critically important right now.

Vicki Robin

Vicki Robin is a prolific social innovator, writer, speaker, and host of the What Could Possibly Go Right? podcast. She is coauthor with Joe Dominguez of the international best-seller, Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship With Money and Achieving Financial Independence (Viking Penguin, 1992, 1998, 2008, 2018). And author of Blessing the Hands that Feed Us; Lessons from a 10-mile diet (Viking Penguin, 2013), which recounts her adventures in hyper-local eating and what she learned about food, farming, belonging, and hope. Vicki has lectured widely and appeared on hundreds of radio and television shows, including “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Good Morning America,” and National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition” and “Morning Edition.” She has also been featured in hundreds of magazines including People Magazine, AARP, The Wall Street Journal, Woman’s Day, Newsweek, Utne Magazine, and the New York Times. She currently lives on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound and is active in her community on a range of social and environmental issues including affordable housing, local food, and community investing. For fun, she is a comedy improv actress, sings in a choir, gardens, and nurtures a diverse circle of friends.

Tags: building resilient societies, indigenous lifeways, indigenous rights, Landback, non-binary thinking, reparations