Rituals and Relationships Healing and forgiveness, from Native American rituals to truth and reconciliationDown arrow

YES! illustration by julie Notarianni

Part One

The Way to Forgiveness “What you do to me lives on in you.”

Portrait of Mpho Tutu and Desmond Tutu.

Mpho Tutu and Desmond Tutu. Photo by Andrew Zuckerman

Could there be racial peace in the United States?

Can we recover from the legacy of slavery, lynching, land theft, disenfranchisement, redlining, job discrimination, and mass imprisonment? We turned to Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter the Rev. Mpho Tutu for wisdom on this question. Desmond Tutu led the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, formed in 1995. Many people anticipated violence and a breakdown of society as decades of apartheid ended. Instead, the country transitioned relatively peacefully to a multiracial democracy, in part because of the truth and reconciliation process.

As Archbishop Tutu describes, the process was tough but redemptive. Those seeking amnesty for human rights violations had to fully disclose their actions. Some apologized and asked for forgiveness, but not all; in the end, only 850 of the 7,000 amnesty applications were granted. Across the nation, South Africans watched the televised proceedings, witnessing the grief of survivors and regret of perpetrators, and the discussions within the formal proceedings were mirrored in discussions throughout every level of society.

Enabling the spirit of forgiveness was Ubuntu, an ancient southern African belief. Ubuntu holds that individuals exist only in relationship with other living beings: I am because we are. It is our responsibility as relatives to take care of one another.

Might truth and reconciliation, informed by the ideals of Ubuntu, play a role in the United States? Is it time—as Fania Davis proposed in an article for yesmagazine.org—for truth and reconciliation processes to examine and attempt to heal the police violence aimed at black people?

Archbishop Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, claims to be retired at age 83, although he continues to be sought out for his wisdom and counsel. The Rev. Tutu, is an Episcopal priest, the executive director of the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, and coauthor with her father of The Book of Forgiveness.

Fania Davis and Sarah van Gelder interviewed the father and daughter via email questions; the two answered with an audio recording. An edited version of the conversation follows.

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Mpho Tutu and her father, Desmond Tutu. Photo by Jane Feldman

You speak of the idea of Ubuntu. That concept seems like one that we in the West should understand better. Could you explain what it means?

Desmond Tutu: Ubuntu speaks about how we need each other. God, quite deliberately, has made us beings that are incomplete without the other. No one is self-sufficient.

Mpho Tutu: Ubuntu recognizes in the most profound way that we are interdependent, and that any action that I against you has consequences for me and for my life. And so, the golden rule—do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you—is a more Western expression of the concept of Ubuntu. What you do to me lives on in you.

Can you speak of a moment that brought you to your deep appreciation of Ubuntu? And how has Ubuntu informed your work?

Desmond Tutu: One is constantly aware of it, but I think many people would be able to appreciate this instance: People who had been ill-treated, subjugated, instead of seeking revenge, were ready to speak about reconciliation, forgiveness. Of course, they were given a wonderful example by the magnanimity of a Nelson Mandela, who came out of prison not spitting blood and fire, but saying we need to understand the other person and we need to forgive. And our country was saved from devastation by this willingness to understand and to forgive.

And it’s not a one-way thing—the generosity of spirit from one side provokes a response in kind from the other side. People wondered when they saw the caterpillar that had been South Africa—repulsive—turning into a gorgeous, beautiful butterfly.

In the United States, how might we interrupt cycles of historic racial trauma that began with slavery, then morphed into lynching, and then into the racial violence associated with Jim Crow, and today into mass incarceration and deadly policing? Could truth and reconciliation have a role?

Mpho Tutu: For it to work in the United States, there has to either be a willingness for both sides to engage in the process, or there needs to be some sort of carrot and some sort of stick. In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission offered the carrot of amnesty to perpetrators, and the stick of possible prosecution.

"Our country was saved from devastation…"

Desmond Tutu talks about the forgiveness that transformed South Africa. You can listen to the entire interview at yesmagazine.org.

What is the role of truth-telling, and how do we get to reconciliation from truth-telling?

Desmond Tutu: Obviously, if we want a reconciliation, it’s not going to happen if you tell half-truths. That is why here in South Africa, for people to be granted amnesty, it had to be quite clear that they had made a full divulgence, and you had people who were checking the veracity of those who were applying for amnesty.

Reconciliation is often disdained as something that comes from a position of weakness, of making up and letting bygones be bygones, and as surrender and giving in. How do you view reconciliation?

Mpho Tutu: I think that reconciliation is actually a demonstration of strength. It takes incredible courage to go through the process that will lead you to reconciliation—to tell the story, to be able to articulate how you have been injured in ways that may feel excruciatingly painful and shameful. To name the hurt: shame, feeling disdained, feeling belittled or demeaned. And then to be able to grant forgiveness!

You get to tell your own story in your own words and to say that the perpetrator is not the person who describes who you are. Because when somebody injures you, it’s as though they define you. If somebody slaps your face, they then define you as the person whose face can be slapped. When you are able to forgive someone for slapping your face, what you’re then saying is, “No, actually, I’m better than what you say I am. I am not the person whose face can be slapped. I am the person who can say, ‘That doesn’t happen. I’m done with you, or I’m done with being in this kind of a relationship.’ ”

How do we get to a common understanding of history, especially when the experience of whites and blacks has been so different? Is it even important that we come to a shared understanding?

Mpho Tutu: I think I would call it a shared narrative rather than a common narrative. We’re not telling an identical story. We’re telling the same story from different perspectives.

In the United States, in Richmond, Virginia, there is a statue of an unknown Confederate soldier. Richmond was the transshipment point for slaves—first slaves coming from Africa, and then, once the trans-Atlantic slave trade stopped, it was the place where black slaves were sold down the river to the plantations in the South. And the Richmond slave trail begins at what is now that memorial to the Confederate dead.

The story of slavery and the story of the American Civil War is not only a story of a war that brought an end to slavery, but is also a story of hundreds of thousands of white Southerners whose brothers, fathers, sons died by the thousands and by the tens of thousands. These, too, are people who have a story and a perspective and a passion.

When my son dies, it’s my son who dies. I don’t frame my son’s death in your narrative; I frame my son’s death in my narrative. You frame my son’s death in your narrative.

Truth and Reconciliation at Work

On November 3, 1979, Ku Klux Klansmen and Nazis opened fire on a group of protesters in a black neighborhood in Greensboro, North Carolina. Local police stood by and watched. Five protesters died and at least 10 were wounded.

Fania Davis

Fania Davis is a civil rights attorney and co-founder and executive director of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth. Davis is an advisory board member for the Ferguson Truth-Telling Project.

Two criminal trials resulted in acquittals by all-white juries. A civil trial held the police complicit in one killing. The community was deeply divided over the outcome, and lingering tension led a group of Greensboro citizens to form a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2004. According to its mandate, the TRC’s aim was to look into the past ‘to provide the best possible foundation for moving into a future based on healing and hope.”

Although city authorities declined to participate, the commission held public hearings, reviewed historical documents, and interviewed hundreds of people. In 2006, the TRC issued a report calling for official apologies, public monuments, a community justice center, a police review board, and anti-racism training for police and other officials.

Some of these recommendations were or are being implemented. Despite the city government’s lack of participation, the Greensboro TRC opened dialogue and increased trust, according to residents. Some of those responsible for the violence apologized.

Truth and reconciliation processes hold special promise for addressing the U.S. epidemic of racial violence, exposing its deep historical roots, and working toward reconciliation. Truth-telling encounters between those who have caused harm and those who have been harmed can promote accountability, address the needs of everyone affected, and lay a foundation for reconciliation, justice, and transformed social structures. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is the best known of about 40 truth commissions formed between 1980 and 2010. The commission investigated human rights abuses from 1960 to 1994, heard victims’ and perpetrators’ stories, and considered amnesty petitions.

Like the outcome in Greensboro, the results of South Africa’s TRC are mixed. The expected reparations were not made, and apartheid’s legacy of extreme poverty remains intact. Nonetheless, South Africa’s truth and reconciliation process established a spirit of forgiveness that helped the country transcend hundreds of years of hatred and violence and liberated millions of Africans from the yoke of apartheid.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was created by the federal government in 2008 to investigate the legacies of Indian residential schools. Beginning in 1874, aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their homes and taken to residential schools, where they were punished for speaking their language and practicing their traditions. Many suffered physical and sexual abuse; thousands didn’t survive. The last school closed in 1996, and to this day much of the alcoholism and drug addiction found in Native communities is attributed to the trauma suffered at these schools.

The TRC of Canada’s interim report from 2012 said these schools “constituted an assault” on First Nations children, families, culture, and autonomy. Survivors say this acknowledgement begins the healing process, although much more is needed. The commission, after traveling to more than 300 communities and taking testimony from 6,500 witnesses, will issue its final report this June.

The Ferguson Truth-Telling Project (FTP), for which I am an advisory board member, was formed in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown to initiate a process of truth-telling in which victims of police violence and their families share their stories—stories that will serve as documentation to support structural change. The FTP is also planning to create community groups to provide a space for empathetic listening and identifying solutions.

Healing is long, slow work. But if we start with authentic truth-telling and engage in an inclusive search for solutions, we can begin to transform relationships and move step-by-step down the path to reconciliation.

Fania Davis is a civil rights attorney and co-founder and executive director of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth. Davis is an advisory board member for the Ferguson Truth-Telling Project.

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You talk about the South African Truth and Reconciliation process both revealing “an extraordinary capacity for evil” and “a marvelous magnanimity” on the part of victims. What has that insight led you to believe about human nature?

Desmond Tutu: That we are extraordinary beings! All of us have the capacity for the greatest possible evil. All of us! None of us can predict that under certain circumstances we would not be guilty of the most horrendous atrocities and cruelty. That is why, when they said in the newspapers that someone was a monster, I kept saying, “No. That person carried out monstrous acts.” That person can change.

And, yes, it taught me that human nature can plumb the worst possible depths, and race has got nothing to do with it. And human nature can also scale the highest heights of nobility, and, again, race is not a determinant factor.

Truth and reconciliation often takes place after a traumatic period is over. Is this process possible in the United States, where racial violence and exclusion continue today?

Mpho Tutu: YES, it is possible. Truth and reconciliation are processes, and because they’re processes, they’re ongoing. In a place where racism continues or where the harms continue, we can still engage the process. We go as far as we can go. We tell the truth as much as we can tell the truth. We tell our story as much as we can tell our story. We explain as much as we can explain what the impact of the action is on us, and those who are able, forgive. For those who are not able to forgive, they reset and start telling the story over again.

Would a truth and reconciliation process here in the United States differ from the South African process? And if so, how?

Mpho Tutu: Oh, I think that an American process really would have to be homegrown. The South African process isn’t a template. It’s not a one-size-fits-all pattern. In every society and in every situation, you will tailor the process to fit the realities on the ground.

Many well-meaning white Americans welcome the idea of “forgiveness” and are perhaps too eager to close the door on our history of racial trauma. What has to happen before we reach the phase of seeking forgiveness?

Mpho Tutu: We describe in our Book of Forgiving what the process of forgiving is. It begins with telling the story, so you can’t get to forgiveness without confronting the reality of what happened. And you must name the hurt. You can’t get to forgiveness without saying, “This is how I have been injured.”

It is only after you have done those two things that you actually get to forgiveness. So forgiveness isn’t a cheap “OK, everyone, let’s just forgive and forget!” No, you can’t. You have to actually remember in order to be able to forgive.

What is the role of apologies and reparations?

Desmond Tutu: It’s quite amazing how powerful “I’m sorry, please forgive me” can turn out to be when it is genuine. But the genuineness will be tested, in fact, by whether you are prepared to make up as far as you can. Are you ready to provide material resources that will seek to redress the balance? In the United States, that’s schools, and housing, and work, job—

Mpho Tutu: Job discrimination, redlining—

Desmond Tutu: YES. Things that actually you can get to work on.

And those who have been hurt must be the ones who have the right to propose what it is that will begin to assuage the anguish, or you’ll just be repeating the same cycle of the perpetrator, who is a top dog, prescribing.

Why do you say, “Without forgiveness we have no future?”

Mpho Tutu: Even the most cursory glance around the world can show you the difference between countries that have engaged in some kind of process of truth-telling, reconciliation, forgiveness, and those that have not.

In places where no effort has been made to forgive, the cycle of violence continues, generation after generation, century after century. In other places, the leaders have decided that it stops here.

So for instance, Rwanda is not necessarily a shining example of what a country should be, but it is a shining example of what a country can be on the way to being. Having engaged in a reconciliation process and in a truth-telling process, that is a country that is beginning to flourish, as opposed to, say, Syria or Egypt, where the pattern has been retribution that begets retribution yet again.

On a more personal note, I wonder if you can give an example of how truth and reconciliation worked within your family? Was there a time when you as father and daughter had to tell difficult truths within your family and seek reconciliation?

Desmond Tutu: Hmmm!

Mpho Tutu: I think that our family is, unfortunately, not unique. We’re like every other family. We have fights and struggles. We have times when we turn away from each other, and times when we actually have the courage to face each other, and tell our truth, and seek reconciliation. But, no, it’s not easy. We have to work at it, too.

Desmond Tutu: I agree! (Laughs)

You suffered for years under the apartheid system, and you have witnessed terrible atrocities during your travels to places like Rwanda. How do you achieve the inner peace you seem to have?

Desmond Tutu: I am very fortunate because I know that there are many people praying for me, and I am the recipient of the gift of their praying for me.

I laugh easily, but I cry easily, as well. I cry quite a bit.

And I try to bring things to our Lord. During apartheid times, I used to go into the chapel and remonstrate with God, saying, “How can you allow such and such a thing to happen, for goodness sake?”

Mpho Tutu: The benefits of some wonderful spiritual guides. I don’t know which one it was who said, “You can either be a vacuum cleaner or a washing machine.” If you’re a vacuum cleaner, you suck it all up, and you hold it until you explode. If you’re a washing machine, you let it in, and you let it out. You hand it over to God. It’s impossible to carry all the pain, but God can carry it all.

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”All of us have the capacity for the greatest possible evil. All of us! None of us can predict that under certain circumstances we would not be guilty of the most horrendous atrocities and cruelty. That is why, when they said in the newspapers that someone was a monster, I kept saying, ‘No. That person carried out monstrous acts.’ That person can change.”—Desmond Tutu. Photo by Jane Feldman

How to Ask For Forgiveness

We assume it is hard for the person being asked to forgive. It may be harder still for the person seeking forgiveness. Why do we reckon it is easier to be contrite than to be forgiving? It is not. When we have done wrong and seek to make it right, we show the depth of our humanity. We reveal the depth of our desire to heal ourselves. We show the depth of desire to heal those we have harmed.

“From The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World” by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu. Copyright 2015 by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu. Reprinted by permission of HarperOne, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Stefaans Coetzee traveled the Fourfold Path from Pretoria Central Prison. On Christmas Eve 1996, when he was 17, Stefaans and a trio of members of the white supremacist Afrikaner Weerstandsbewegining (AWB) planted a series of bombs in a shopping center in Worcester, South Africa. Their target was a venue frequented by the black population of the city. Their goal was to exact the maximum death toll. Only one of the bombs exploded, but it injured 67 people and left four dead. Three of those who died were children. Shortly after the incident, Coetzee expressed his disappointment at the low death toll.

It was a fellow prisoner who set Coetzee on the healing journey. Eugene de Kock, nicknamed “Prime Evil” by the media for his role in numerous apartheid-era murders, became Coetzee’s mentor. “Unless you seek forgiveness from those you have harmed, you will find that you are bound inside two prisons—the one you are in physically and the one you have around your heart. It is never too late to repair the harm you have caused. Then, even though you are behind bars, you will still be free. No one can lock away your ability to change. No one can lock away your goodness or your humanity.” On Reconciliation Day in December 2011, a letter from Stefaans was read to a gathering of the surviving victims of the Worcester bombing. In the letter, Stefaans expressed his remorse and asked for forgiveness. Many have forgiven him for his horrific act. Indeed some of the surviving victims of the bombing have visited him in jail. Some have not yet been able to forgive. Stefaans understands that he cannot demand forgiveness, but he describes being forgiven as “a grace … that resulted in freedom beyond understanding.”

Cover of “From The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World” by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu.

When I harm another, whether intentionally or not, I inevitably harm myself. I become less than I am meant to be. I become less than I am capable of being. When I harm another, I need to restore what I have taken from that person. Or make a gesture of recompense. I need to restore what I have lost within myself through my harmful words or actions.

To recover what has been lost requires that we take an honest look at ourselves and confront our past mistakes. It requires that we admit what we have done and take responsibility for our actions. It requires a genuine remorse, which comes from understanding how our wrongs have affected others. It requires that we look into our own souls and realize that a person who hurts another is not the person we wish to be. It requires that we be willing to make amends and to do whatever is required to repair the relationship, even if this means never seeing the other person again. We must be willing to respect our own progress along the Fourfold Path. We must be willing to respect that the one whose forgiveness we seek must make his or her own journey along the Fourfold Path. We cannot dictate that person’s pace or progress. Even if we never find the forgiveness we seek, we make the courageous choice to walk this path because we must make every effort possible to do the right thing.

“From The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World” by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu. Copyright 2015 by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu. Reprinted by permission of HarperOne, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Part Two

Racial Etiquette: “I’m Not a Racist, But …” and Other Things to Never Say How white people can be real allies: self-reflection and honesty

WHite hand handing wilted flowers to a black hand

Illustration by Jeff Neumann; Photos by LoloStock/Shutterstock

I am white, and the woman I’m meeting is black. I have lived in Austin, Texas, for more than two decades, and she recently moved here. We bumped into each other at an event and learned we have similar political interests. I invited her to coffee to talk about local organizing, and after introductions the first thing I say is, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to join a nonprofit board.” Thankfully, she laughs at my attempt at white self-deprecation. Non-white people in progressive politics are used to being asked to join boards or speak at events to diversify an otherwise all-white group. Such invitations often come too early, before people have worked together long enough to know if the invitation makes sense. Sometimes, as my joke suggested, the invitation comes right after the coffee is poured.

Robert Jensen

Robert Jensen, a journalism professor at the University of Texas, is the author of “Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue.” He is a YES! contributing editor.

How do I know about this problem? Because I’ve been part of it. In my first organizing efforts in the anti-war movement in the 1990s, I sometimes found myself in meetings with other white people, looking around the room and saying, ‘There are no people of color here. Where can we find some?” But if cross-racial alliances don’t already exist, last-minute efforts to find a non-white speaker for the rally or a non-white committee member are not only transparent tokenism but corrosive to creating meaningful connections.

So, my first rule for myself as a white person is: Avoid tokenism. No matter what the issue, think about the question of racial justice at the start of a project, not when it’s too late to create a real coalition.

Here’s my second rule. Listen up homies. Don’t sprinkle “street” terms picked up from movies or songs into conversations in an attempt to sound hip.

OK, enough rules. There are lots of guidelines for white people that cover everything from complex tasks in building cross-racial solidarity to simple reminders about avoiding racialized rudeness. For instance:

“Twelve Ways to Be a White Ally to Black People” in The Root, “Guidelines for Being Strong White Allies” on author Paul Kivel’s website, “Code of Ethics for Antiracist White Allies” on author JLove Calderón’s website, and “11 Rules for New Anti-Racist Allies” at Forward Progressives.

Such guides can be helpful, but I’m skeptical of checklists, fearing that having rules to follow can replace the endless struggle to be strategic while remaining a decent person.

So, rather than a list, I want to offer two phrases that white people should never utter.

The first: “I’m not racist, but …” Whatever follows is almost guaranteed to be racist; if a statement isn’t, there’s no need to announce its non-racism. If you hear yourself forming that phrase, shut up and think about what you intended to say and why.

The second: “I know I’m a racist, and …” This is a different evasion, a more subtle attempt at inoculation. YES, it’s true enough that virtually all white people are socialized into some kind of white-supremacist thinking (myself included) and that the struggle to unlearn those lessons is not simple and never completed (again, personal experience here). And all white people, even those who might legitimately claim to have purged all that racist training, still retain the advantages that come with being white.

But invoking the “I know I’m a racist” trope is dangerous. Instead of suggesting you have transcended white supremacy, you confess immersion in it, as if the confession is evidence of clarity and therefore whatever comes next is beyond challenge, given your heightened level of white self-awareness. But the “confession” is disingenuous; if we cannot distinguish between progressive white people working to achieve racial justice and members of the Klan—if all white people truly are “racist”—then the word has no meaning. It’s dishonest for progressive white people to claim to be beyond racism, but it’s counterproductive to pretend that none of us have made meaningful progress.

As long as I’m focused on words to avoid, let me nominate two more phrases: “white ally” and “doing the work.”

If one is white, being an ally to non-white people in a white-supremacist society is a good thing. But “white ally” too often becomes a merit badge to mark that one is on the right side. No matter how much we remain critically self-reflective, merit badges tend to lead us to think of ourselves as superior to those without the badge. That leads, understandably, to people of color being wary of self-proclaimed white allies.

“Doing the work” feels plain self-righteous to me. What exactly is the work that needs constant marking? Often the most effective white people in a community organization simply model anti-racist behavior without trumpeting it. I’ve seen the phrase misused enough that I shy away from it.

Checklists can remind us of important rules. But the main rule is to cultivate the instinct for critical self-reflection—which we too often suppress because it can be painful—so that we believe in ourselves enough to be honest with others. Instead of striving to be white allies doing the work, we can do our best to avoid the many traps white supremacy lays for us and struggle to be fully human. We white folks cannot expect others to treat us as if we are fully human until we believe it about ourselves.

Robert Jensen

Robert Jensen, a journalism professor at the University of Texas, is the author of “Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue.” He is a YES! contributing editor.

Part Three

Rituals That Heal A Medicine Wheel to Guide Us

Medicine Wheel

YES! Illustration by julie Notarianni

When she was three, my daughter Bre ran to me crying. We were in a park, and as I sat nearby reading a magazine, she was happily talking to herself in the sandbox. Another mom arrived with her two young children. A few minutes later, my bright-eyed baby had tears streaming down her face. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “They won’t play with me ’cause I’m brown,” she said. My heart stopped. Then tears spilled out from my eyes, and my heart broke open.

Patricia St. Onge is founder of Seven Generations Consulting. She provides training and consulting in community organizing, social justice advocacy, and consensus building. She lives in East Oakland with her partner and six children.

What happens when the pain of the world breaks into our lives? In recent years, as I’ve watched the unfolding stories of the murders of unarmed people (overwhelmingly men, women, and children of color), the wounding is fresh with each one, and it sits on the scars of generations. Burned, lynched, force-marched, dying along the way. What heals the collective broken heart of a community that has experienced injustice?

The Medicine Wheel is a framework for communities and individuals that seek transformation. As we seek wholeness, we need to attend to our bodies, minds, hearts, and Spirits. Each direction of the Medicine Wheel has gifts to offer. Many indigenous traditions have unique frameworks for the Medicine Wheel. This is the framework that I use in my work as a consultant and coach, a framework I’ve developed from my background as a person of Mohawk descent.

In the East, the direction of Spirit, the work is to reimagine the world we want to live in. This work is being done by individuals and groups dedicated to social justice across the country. At the Full Harvest Urban Farm in Oakland, California, for example, people recently out of prison reimagine themselves in a living, sustainable, healing world as they work on the farm.

In the North, the direction of the body, the work is action. It’s here that we resist destructive structures. This work is happening in movements like Black Lives Matter and Idle No More that resist oppression and racism.

In the West, the direction of the mind, the work is introspection. Here, we design alternative structures that move us toward the world we imagined in the East. When communities establish local currencies or municipal ID cards, for example, they are doing the work of re-designing structures.

And in the South, the direction of the heart, we attend to the work of healing and repairing relationships. Here, ceremony plays an important role.

For the healing work in the South, I turn to the condolence ceremony. The ceremony is rooted in the story of Aionwahta. There are many ways this story is told; this is how I remember it from Tom Porter, Mohawk of the Akwesasne community:

This story is about Aionwahta, whose wife and daughters were murdered. Heartbroken, he wandered the Earth until he came to a lake filled with quahog shells, white and purple. Here he began to string the shells onto a thread of sinew.

As he beaded it, he spoke his blessings of condolences for the sad and brokenhearted. He said: “If there is anyone in the world who feels as brokenhearted as I do, I will go see them. I will take an eagle feather and wipe the dust of death from their ears so they can hear the children talk, laugh, and sing. I will take a soft deer skin and wipe the tears from their eyes so they can see the beauty of Mother Earth and see the joy of their family. I would console them by taking the death from their eyes. And I will take medicine water and offer it to them so that when they drink, it will dislodge the grief and sadness so they will be refreshed, and can live again, and speak, eat, and be nourished.”

Today, when someone loses a loved one, we use the condolence ceremony. As communities are devastated by the trauma of murder, police brutality, and climate destruction, we can dislodge the grief from our throats through shared ceremony.

On our land in East Oakland, we have a sweat lodge for healing rituals. When we enter the deep, dark belly of the turtle, we are cleansed by the heat, water, medicines, and prayers. In sharing ceremony with each other, we mend broken hearts, fragile bodies, troubled minds, and wounded souls.

To transform our communities that have suffered from racial injustice, work in all four quadrants of the Medicine Wheel is important. We move around the Medicine Wheel, resisting structural injustices, reimagining the world as healed, redesigning and building structures that support our vision, and repairing the damaged relationships that keep us from seeing ourselves and all beings as a part of one community.

Patricia St. Onge is founder of Seven Generations Consulting. She provides training and consulting in community organizing, social justice advocacy, and consensus building. She lives in East Oakland with her partner and six children.


This exploration of race in our country, "Make It Right," is the theme of the Summer 2015 issue of YES! Magazine. You can subscribe to YES! Magazine here and find out more at www.yesmagazine.org.