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It’s Not Just What You Say – Lessons From an Indigenous Elder

It’s Not Just What You Say – Lessons From an Indigenous Elder
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NOTE: This is a guest post from Susan Smitten, Executive Director of RAVEN.

I’m having talks with my eight-year old daughter these days that start with the notion of tone.  Like when she laments, “You didn’t put the almond butter bagel in my lunch like you promised.” But it comes off sounding like an edict from Queen Elizabeth I. My auto-response is: “Please check your tone. Remember, it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it.” I’ve even had occasion to take that message to the workplace, when some years ago working on a US-based television series, it needed to be pointed out to a colleague that she may have a valid point to make, but it was hard to hear for her foul-mouthed and derisive delivery. (She apologized later.)

Until the recent International Funders of Indigenous Peoples conference in San Francisco, it had never occurred to me that this issue of tone applies also to the work RAVEN does. But after listening to keynote speaker Larry Merculieff, the penny dropped.  Larry is an emissary from Alaska. He has almost four decades of experience serving his people, the Aleuts of the Pribilof Islands and other Alaska Native peoples in a number of capacities. His current role is as a message-bearer from the elders of his community. The indigenous elder’s message was — among other things — the tendency to speak from our ‘head’ affects the message that others hear in their heart. He says we are living in reversal. “The heart used to tell the mind what to do, but now the mind tells the heart what to do.” That reversal has, in Merculieff’s view, put the life support systems of our planet on the brink. To save earth, to create positive change on the planet, we must all speak from our hearts. As Larry says, it’s the indigenous way.

I reflected on the stories we have been sharing. Our messages on behalf of the Tsilhqot’in Nation or the Beaver Lake Cree Nation often strike a chord with people, and generate empathy. I was feeling good. However, Larry went even further on this tack. His next point was that communicating from an orientation of fear or toxicity only perpetrates the toxic, nasty aspects. “Einstein said we can’t solve a problem from the same mindset that created the problem.” Communication, even about the tar sands or an open pit mine poised to eradicate an ecosystem, must focus on what we wish to see, the best possible outcome, and it must come from a place of love. From the heart.

To demonstrate this in one small impromptu session, Larry had a volunteer sit in a chair where the rest of the group could watch clearly. He whispered in her ear, then had her stand. We were all told to pay close attention. The volunteer sat down, Larry whispered in her other ear, and she stood again. The difference was remarkable. The group observed the first time the volunteer stood, she was uncomfortable, grim, off-centre, and with dark or closed energy. On the second round she was visibly lighter, smiling, with an ease of being. She relayed what had been whispered in her ear. The first time she heard, “You can’t do it.” The second time, well, it’s obvious, but in hearing “You can do it” she responded physically and emotionally.

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Photo courtesy of RAVEN.

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3 comments

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4:37PM PDT on Jun 4, 2012

thanks

12:38PM PDT on Jun 4, 2012

This is a beautiful article, one all should embrace.

12:28PM PDT on Jun 4, 2012

Thanks for posting!

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