One of the most profound and enlightening lessons I have ever received came from Stan Rushworth, a wise elder with Cherokee ancestry, a lesson that was also gifted to me by most of the elders I have studied under for the past 20 years.
They imparted upon me a crucial distinction between the Western settler mindset and the indigenous mindset. This paradigm shift revealed the contrasting perspectives of "I have rights" versus "I have obligations."
In our Western society, we are often conditioned to believe we are inherently entitled to certain rights. We tend to prioritize and emphasize our individual needs, desires, and freedom. It goes for the same when we attend to our healing, we often separate and divide our “individual” healing (there is no such thing) from the connected-collective healing.
This self-centered focus can sometimes disconnect us from our responsibilities to our ancestors, our present community, future generations, and the Earth itself. It can get us blind to acknowledge the real cost of our ways of living, the work we do, and how it is far away from our deepest prayers. It also can get us disconnected from true healing and transformation.
However, the indigenous mindset, deeply rooted in ancestral wisdom and interconnectedness, takes a different approach. It recognizes a profound responsibility to the world and all its inhabitants. This perspective calls on us to view ourselves as part of a greater whole and acknowledges that we are connected to a vast network of relationships and obligations. I remember vividly that every time my elders prayed, their prayers were always for the “others” and never really for them. They asked for the blessings and healing of their relations understanding that if this happens, they will heal too.
Like me, you are probably heartbroken by the devastation of our ecosystems, our waterways, our forests, and all the systems that support life as we know it on Earth. Not a day comes without a new scientific report that shows that we are beyond the possible recovery of this balance as we knew it. And for me that always brings the reflection onto every word and action I take in my life, to see if that is truly what matters the most in this moment. As my wise pastor tells me “What is God asking of us in this time?”.
To embody this ancestral indigenous perspective, we can engage in practices that remind us of our obligations. For example, we can honor and learn from our ancestors by exploring our lineage, traditions, and cultural practices. By understanding the struggles and triumphs of those who came before us, we can develop a deep sense of gratitude and reverence for their sacrifices. We can also witness how far we have gone from their connection to the collective and to Nature, and what we need to do to return to it.
Furthermore, we can actively engage in activities that benefit our present community and future generations. This could involve volunteering for causes that align with our values, participating in communal projects, and sharing knowledge and wisdom with younger generations. In my lineage and the altar I carry, in Andean Cosmology, we are asked to “shed our antlers of wisdom” to gift what we have learned to others. Reminding us that nothing we indeed carry is for us and that we will take nothing with us when we die.
"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main." - John Donne.
By recognizing our duty to contribute to the well-being of others, we foster a sense of compassion, empathy, and interconnectedness. We can in fact most often experience deeper healing and liberation when we are in service of “the others” than when we just serve ourselves and our lives.
In addition, adopting sustainable and environmentally friendly practices becomes an essential part of fulfilling our obligations to the Earth. This may include reducing our carbon footprint, conserving resources, supporting ecological initiatives, and advocating for policies that protect the environment. It also includes assessing how we live, the type of society & systems we support, what we participate in, and inquiring about its alignment with those ancient principles. We become conscious stewards of its well-being by treating the planet as a living entity deserving of our respect and care. We cannot keep living life as usual waiting for the courageous departure from the capitalistic systems of greed and oppression.
The shift from a rights-based mentality to an obligations-based mindset ignites a desire to actively participate in the betterment of the world. We find ourselves committed to preserving cultural heritage, protecting the environment, and fostering harmony among all living beings. Our perspective broadens beyond personal gain as we understand that true fulfillment lies in contributing to the greater whole.
"We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children." - Native American Proverb.
Stan Rushworth and my elders' teachings on the contrasting mindsets of rights and obligations have had a profound impact on my worldview. Embracing the indigenous perspective has expanded my understanding of my place in the world and the responsibilities I bear towards past, present, and future generations, as well as the Earth itself.
"In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught." - Baba Dioum.
As we close this exploration, consider these questions:
"How can we shift our perspective from individual rights to collective obligations?"
"In what ways can our daily actions reflect a dedication to our rich heritage, our present community, and our future generations?"
"What steps can we take now to align our lives with these ancestral principles and become active stewards of our environment for generations to come?"
It's a call to question our place in the greater web of existence. To ask ourselves if we are serving the "I have rights" or the "I have obligations" mindset. If we choose to embrace the latter, how will that transform our lives and the world?
The seed for change is cast, and its germination is in our hands. Let's dwell on these inquiries as we navigate our path in the journey back towards interconnectedness, purpose, and a grander sense of responsibility.
We can only do this together.