Sherri Mitchell’s Keynote Speech

Richard Silliboy (left), vice chief of the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, introduced keynote speaker Sherri Mitchell (center), shown here with April Boucher, Common Ground Country Fair director. English photo

A large crowd gathered on The Common to hear Mitchell’s heartfelt speech. John Williams photo

Standing on Indigenous Rights

Saturday, September 23, 2017 – Common Ground Country Fair, Unity, Maine


Born and raised on the Penobscot Indian reservation, of the Bear Clan from the Penobscot Nation and Crow Clan from the Passamaquoddy Tribe, Sherri Mitchell is an indigenous rights attorney, teacher and spiritual activist. She has won numerous awards, including, in 2015, the Spirit of Maine Award for commitment and excellence in the field of international human rights.

In 2016 Robert Shetterly added her portrait to his esteemed series “Americans Who Tell the Truth.” She is now an advisor to the Indigenous Elders and Medicine People’s Council of North and South America, and she is the founding director of the Land Peace Foundation, which is dedicated to global protection of indigenous rights and preservation of the indigenous way of life.

The documentary “Dancing with the Cannibal Giant” by New Story Film features Mitchell, and her new book, “Sacred Instructions; Indigenous Wisdom for Spirit Based Change,” will be available in February 2018. She and Rivera Sun host the syndicated Love (and Revolution) Radio program, which highlights stories of heart-based activism and revolutionary spiritual change.

In her keynote speech at the 2017 Common Ground Country Fair, Mitchell spoke about the need to develop unity with indigenous rights movements, centering on our shared connection to the earth and our interdependence with one another and with the entire structure of life. Her eloquent and moving speech is posted at and is paraphrased below.

Mitchell noted that Saturday was a very challenging day for her, and she wouldn’t have been at the Fair “except that what we’re talking about today is very important to me in a heart-based way, and this community that’s been created here in the state of Maine is really important to me in a heart-based way.”


Our discussion begins right here, on the land that we are all sitting and standing upon. For many the land of their birth is seen as an extension of their bloodline, not just in a purely metaphorical sense but through tangible connections to the flesh, bone and blood of the ancestors that lived and died there.

Every living thing has its own language, its own story. Once we learn to hear the many stories being told around us, we begin to see things with a new form of reverence. We recognize the value in each aspect of creation, and we begin to see the underlying structure that supports all life. Our ears become attuned to new frequencies. We’re able to hear the voices of the trees, understand the buzzing of the bees, and we realize that the interwoven substance of these floating rhythms holds us in delicate balance with all life. Then we can recognize the perfectly orchestrated dance of creation and see the balance that exists within it – of trees that breathe in carbon dioxide and release oxygen, while our lungs breathe in the oxygen and release carbon dioxide back to the trees. We understand that our web of kinship extends far beyond our human family.

One creation story says that we were created when Gluskop, the man from nothing, shot an arrow into the ash tree and opened the doorway into this world. This story teaches us that we were made from the same fundamental elements that make up the natural world. We are born out of the ash tree; thus the ash tree is our kin and should be honored in the same way that we honor our human family.

The Native Maine tribes still recognize that relationship by weaving traditional baskets from ash – reminding ourselves that we are woven from those same foundational elements that make up all life. This ancient worldview is held by peoples from across the globe in different forms. It reminds us of our place in creation, keeping us grounded and balanced. It also provides an ethos in which the underlying spirit of our humanism extends to everything animate and inanimate in the universe.

Over the last few centuries, we’ve developed a view of the world in which humans are seen as the dominant beings, and the earth and all other living creatures are resources to be exploited. Our laws and social contracts support this narrow view – a view based in dominant ideologies that are grossly imbalanced with the rest of creation. All laws contain both rights and responsibilities. From an indigenous perspective, those rights are inextricably tied to corresponding  responsibilities that require us to maintain a balanced relationship with the rest of creation – the creator’s law, our original treaty. The Abenaki word for “agreement” translates as “entering into kinship with another.” When we enter into those relationships, we’re agreeing to treat the other with the same degree of care and respect that we treat our kin.

In our first agreement we were given the right to inhabit this earth and to live off the sustenance provided by the land. The responsibility that we took on to balance that right was to live in harmony with the natural world. We have honored that agreement by living in respectful balance with our land and waterways for thousands of years. Evidence of our continued adherence to that agreement is in the core principles woven into the practices of modern-day tribal governance; in the conscious steps we’ve taken to honor and protect the lands and waters we inhabit; in the harvesting limits in our forestry programs; in fish and game laws that ensure the sustainability of our traditional food sources; in decades-long projects that have restored and revitalized our sacred waterway, the Penobscot River; in the creation of land and water quality standards that protect and sustain the health of our lands and waters for all current and future generations.

Taking active responsibility for our obligations under this original agreement provides a natural balance and a solid footing for the rights that we claim. Without this balance we would destroy the very ground that these rights are built upon. If we want evidence of this truth, we only have to look at the unchecked destruction of the natural world being caused by capitalist greed, the failure of industry to take responsibility for the destruction of our planet, and our complacency and complicity. They’re quickly taking away our right to live our lives on this planet.

As human beings we have fallen out of step with the rest of creation. We have lost our way and overinflated our sense of value. In doing so we have walked away from the fundamental law that keeps this world in balance. As a result the entire creation has become imbalanced. Man’s attempt to regain balance has resulted in legal obligations that inform us how to treat one another. We’ve become so lost that we have to have laws that tell us how to be human and how to engage in human relationships.

These laws are vital to securing our freedoms and liberties but fail to consider the need to balance the place of human beings within the larger context of creation. To achieve true balance, we must extend those rights to all living beings and to Mother Earth herself.

We must recognize that an exclusive and empty insistence on rights creates a vacuum of need that can never be filled. Demanding rights without taking responsibility creates a warped sense of entitlement that often leads to violence, lawlessness and chaos.

We also have to acknowledge that the rules of law pertaining to our rights are only as strong as the men and women who are willing to act with honor and justness to secure those rights for all – not just for their group; not just for their species.

When my tribe decided that the Penobscot River needed to be cleaned of decades of toxic waste created by industry, they didn’t simply stand on a soapbox and claim a right to clean water; they worked with others and took on the responsibilities of cleaning those waters to benefit all current and future users. We recognized that if we wanted to claim the right to clean water for our own people, then we had to take responsibility for ensuring clean water for everyone.

Our right to subsistence living also came with unique responsibilities to work to protect the rights of Mother Earth to exist with all of her ecological systems and biodiversity intact.

We cannot claim a right to clean water without taking responsibility for actively protecting the water from contamination and overuse. We cannot claim a right to clean air without taking responsibility for the creation of healthy and sustainable energy sources and industrial practices. We cannot claim a right to a more equitable economy without taking responsibility for how and where we spend our money. We cannot claim a right to ethical leadership without taking responsibility for voting in candidates that we believe in rather than those that we believe can win. We cannot claim a right to life without first taking responsibility for the lives that have already been created. And we cannot claim a right to peace without taking responsibility for cultivating peace within ourselves and in our relationships with others – even those we oppose.

When our rights are not balanced with a solid sense of responsibility, we lean toward dependency and begin blaming others for the problems we face, and we begin demanding that others solve those problems. We accuse and condemn those who are refusing to do what we ourselves have failed to do. We become increasingly angry and lash out.

This is where we depart decisively from our most basic moral compass – when we fail to adhere to the golden rule: Do unto others as we would have them do unto us. When we demand something for ourselves that we are not willing to ensure for others, our demand loses all of its power. When we fail to take responsibility for the condition of our lives and the lives of those around us, we relinquish the power to chart our own course and the course of humanity, and our ability to change the world.

However, when we take even small steps to accept the responsibility needed to balance our demands, we immediately begin to see change in the world around us. Every person at the Common Ground Fair has taken at least one step. Look around; you can see all who are complicit with you in changing the world.

To create change, we must remember that we are many; that we have the power to completely divest our lives and financial resources from harmful practices that threaten all life; to disengage from fear mongering, sensationalism, othering and other discordant tactics that are used to divide us.

We must stand up for and communicate with one another in a spirit of unity; to see one another as kin.

We must remember that we have the collective power to direct our economic and political systems and move them away from practices of domination and destruction and back toward a more humane and restorative path; that we are all co-creators of the reality that we inhabit and that we have the freedom to choose a new path that protects the rights of the entire ecosystem to live in balance. When we balance our demand for rights with our acceptance of our responsibility toward one another and all other living beings, we take back our power. We can begin charting a new pathway forward by balancing the rights that we claim with a corresponding action that ensures those rights for all. Then piece by piece we will build a foundation for a balanced, just and harmonious rights-based society. It probably won’t be easy, but it won’t happen at all if we don’t make it happen together.

Countless people around the world are recognizing that projection becomes perception, and that we project both the light and the darkness onto the screen of our reality. Our minds are the projector, our thoughts are the film, and the screen is the world that you see around you.

Projecting the darkness is what happened on this land when there was a genocide of indigenous peoples; when you see something like the genocide in Nazi Germany; when saying that Black Lives Matter is a terrorist group or that people in other parts of the world, such as the Middle East, are terrorists for protecting their homes, life and families. That is a projection of darkness and a separation of our power. We’re taking the power from within us, we’re projecting it out and passing blame on someone else.

Our savior complex, our dependency on leadership and other people to come in and to solve our problems, is also a separation of power.

All over the world people are disengaging from the systems and structures that have been leading to our destruction. They are recognizing that it is an act of conquest to supplant one candidate with another within a broken system and expect that that candidate will be able to change anything. It’s like putting somebody in a car that has no steering and no brakes and putting the car into motion. The car will go for a while but eventually will crash. They pull the car out of the ditch, clean it off, put a different driver in, put the car in motion again, and it inevitably goes off the road. This is our current political system. We need to break away from that illusion that putting someone else in the driver’s seat is going to change the outcome. It’s always going to derail because it was never made to drive straight.

When we think about where we invest our power, energy, money, hearts and passions, we have to think about what the world we hope to create actually looks like. Then start being and doing that. Step outside of the system that’s being kept on life support artificially and start moving it into a new way of being, a new normal – because what’s become normal is completely unnatural. It’s unnatural for us to become separated from our source of our survival; to be separated from one another in a heart-based way; to not live in community.

We need to reconnect to our natural state of being in harmony and kinship with one another and with the rest of the world. Then we need to create, together, based on that grounded place, that grounded sense of knowing a new normal that we can all walk into together.

That’s the impetus for the work I do and that a lot of you do. The primary thing we need to do right now is to decolonize our minds; to let go of the illusion that someone else is going to come along and solve our problems for us.

Rob Shetterly was talking about the concept of original sin. In my mind, original sin is our belief in the illusion of separation. That’s where we decisively parted from our own source of power and of survival; our inherent truth that we hold as living beings that are part of one large living creation.

Our people call the time that we’re in now the dance of the cannibal giant, Giwakwa, who lives deep in the forest and only awakens to a specific cry from the Earth Mother – when people are consuming faster than she can produce, and are harming her faster than she can heal. Giwakwa’s goal is to dance civilization into a blind fury of activity until they dance themselves off the edge, to destruction, so that the Earth Mother has time to restore and renew herself. We’re living in the time of the fourth dance of the cannibal giant. We’ve been told that we’ve been here before, and we weren’t able to get it together. Every time we come closer and closer, and we unify more and more.

We’re also living in a time of prophesy – of the Rainbow Warriors, the Eighth Fire prophesy, the Crazy Horse prophesy, the Eastern Door prophesy – all these prophesies rising up and coming together. Is it our responsibility to just watch those come and go, or to actively engage in order to create an outcome aligned with our true heart? I believe that that is our true purpose.

We have a sacred property in Passadumkeag, Maine. We had a very large gathering called Healing the Wounds of Turtle Island there over the summer with representatives from every continent except Antarctica. The people came together with the intent of healing the common wound that we all carry; healing the shared history of violence that we all participated in, whether as victims, perpetrators or witnesses, recognizing that we all carry a spiritual wound from that and that we can’t heal unless we take responsibility for one another’s healing. The Earth can’t heal unless we’re healed. We can’t heal unless the Earth is healed. There’s this dance of interconnectivity that we’re all a part of.

We had this gathering at a beautiful, sacred place called Nibezun (which means “healing”), where our ancestors used to gather. That property went out of the hands of tribal people for a long, long time. Now tribal people are trying to take that land back, to turn it into a center where people come together to engage in activities that facilitate healing. It was a perfect place for us to hold the Healing Turtle Island gathering, because within its essence it holds the energy of that healing.

Indigenous lands that remain in the hands of traditional, indigenous peoples are some of the only remaining untouched lands on the planet. Indigenous peoples have unique rights under both domestic and international law – hence the concerted effort around the world to dismantle indigenous rights. In our water case with the state of Maine, I’m going to give you a series of events that occurred.

In July of 2012, Canada passed a resolution allowing for a reversal of Enbridge Line 9, to allow that pipeline to flow to the east instead of the west so that they could bring dirty tar sands from Alberta to the east. Shortly after that, Gov. Paul LePage, representatives from the DEP and others met with Canadian officials and Exxon Mobile. In August the Maine Attorney General’s office issued a memorandum saying that the Penobscot Nation did not have territorial rights to their waterways – rights recognized in the 2010 Maine Supreme Court case Maine v. Johnson; in countless treaties; in the 2010 Bureau of Census maps. But in 2012 all the tribe’s rights unilaterally disappeared because the route for transmitting dirty tar sands and hydrofracked gas was from Coburn Gore to Calais, Maine, to shipping ports.

What else was scheduled to go from Coburn Gore to Calais? The big East-West Corridor. When you put the dots together, and when you’ve done indigenous rights work outside of Maine and the United States, you recognize a pattern of preemptive strike against indigenous rights before such construction.

The Penobscot River is the lifeblood of the entire ecosystem of the center of Maine. It’s the largest body of water in Maine. And all of the cities and towns from Coburn Gore to Calais would be impacted because it’s not a matter of if a tar sands pipeline will leak, but when. It’s in all of our interests to ensure that people who have taken responsibility for being good stewards of the lands, which the Penobscot Nation has proven to be, are allowed to maintain their relationship with those waterways so that those waterways are protected into the future. That critically important work not only impacts us but the entire ecosystem connected to the Penobscot River; every city and town in Maine.

That’s why it’s important for all of you to protect indigenous rights. From a human and spiritual standpoint, we’re all in this together. The destruction of any one of us leads to the destruction of all of us.

We must stand up and make those assertions, hold back the tide of harm to the degree that prevents it without inflicting harm on the other. We’re saying, “we’re not going to allow you to harm our lives or the lives of our children, but we honor your life and we’re not going to harm your life.”

Before I end, I want to ask if you would stand and hold hands with the people next to you. I want to share something very personal, and the reason I almost wasn’t here today. This year has been very difficult for our family. In January one of my cousins went missing, and his body was found in the Penobscot River. A week later my beloved nephew was lost to suicide. In Native communities, the suicide rate is four times higher than the national average because of the unrelenting oppression that our communities have experienced. The majority of the children I grew up with died by either suicide or drug overdose. It’s an epidemic in our community that is caused by people turning a blind eye to our suffering; by people not standing with us in times of struggle; by our young people not seeing a future for themselves because of constant oppression, racism and degradation of our images and our names.

This morning at 2 a.m., one of my other nephews took his life. I’d like to ask you to not only pray for him but for his father and his little girl, and to acknowledge the preciousness of every single life. Acknowledge the separation that makes us believe that any one of us is traveling alone. Don’t blow off as “I don’t have time, I’m too busy, you’re annoying, go get some help for your issues.” Please send prayers for the spirits of those lost young men. That’s our future that we’re losing. They were beautiful people, every one of them. Turn to the people you are holding hands with and tell them, “You are precious, you are important, you matter, I love you.” Give them a hug, and we’ll end our time together like that. 


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