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

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.

This is when it sank in. In spreading the word about the tar sands and the challenges faced by the Beaver Lake Cree, or about the efforts of the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation to protect Teztan Biny (Fish Lake) it is easy to use language that generates fear. After all, the images of toxic sludge in massive tailings ponds visible from earth’s orbit or the tiered-pit of a gold mine chipped deep into the earth lend themselves to toxic talk. But in this new way of thinking, it means focusing on what we want to manifest — the best possible outcome for the people and for the planet. It means looking toward that which we wish to preserve or create, because focusing on the problem just perpetrates the ongoing injustices.

Now I’ll give you that it’s a bit of a mind twist to think loving thoughts and express them about the people who are behind the actions that we work so hard to stop. Face to face with those who see not a pristine ecosystem and sacred heartland of a culture, but only the gold beneath the soil, I can feel a burn begin. It was good to hear others in this session with Larry express similar feelings. He remained firm. “We cannot share that which we do not have. We must come from a place of love. Love ourselves, love others, love the earth. That is the only way to save ourselves.”

Okay. So — deep breath. Instead of bashing foes or engaging in negative nattering — we will endeavour from this day forward to point out how we would expect to see our governments and corporations behave. As we go forward in our support of the Tsilhqot’in and Beaver Lake Cree, among others, we will operate with a new consciousness. We choose to be positive about the work that needs to be done.

We need to restore balance on earth. We need to speak from the heart. It’s not just what we say, it’s how we say it.

RAVEN (Respecting Aboriginal Values and Environmental Needs) is a non-profit charitable organization operating in Canada (with 501c3 as well). Our mission is to assist Aboriginal peoples within Canada in protecting or restoring their traditional lands and resources; as well as addressing critical environmental challenges such as global warming by strategically enforcing their Constitutional rights through the courts in response to unsustainable settlement or industrial exploitation. We currently support the Beaver Lake Cree Nation’s legal action against Canada and Alberta to stop the expansion of the tar sands industries into their traditional territories. And we support the Tsilhqot’in Nation’s efforts to protect the sacred Fish Lake from being destroyed for an open pit gold mine.

Photo courtesy of RAVEN.


Vicky Pitchford
Vicky P5 years ago


Gayle R.
Gayle R5 years ago

This is a beautiful article, one all should embrace.

Aimee A.
Aimee A5 years ago

Thanks for posting!