Imagining ancestral justice

What happens to a people when they lose their ways?

Well, one thing we do know is that they lose their medicines.

They forget the names of plants and other beings in their world that can help them restore their balance. They forget the rituals that are able to activate the natural healing mechanisms of their nervous systems. They forget that their bodies are nourished when it is witnessed through touch.

I’m grateful that I’m living in a time where these ways are being recovered and validated by our new ways of science.

But what if there was much more than medicine that we have forgotten, much longer ago, so there are very little ways to recover it through ordinary learning?

What if I told you that cycles and cycles before we lost our ancestral ways of repairing our individual bodies, we lost our ancestral ways of repairing our communities?

Most of the conversations in social justice right now are set up for learning new things. You learn to categorize ideas, diagnose them for problems, and aggressively attack their symptoms.

I’m afraid that we are at a tipping point where this kind of approach is becoming obsolete very fast.

Case in point.

On the weekend of August 3rd 2019, two mass shooters, one in El Paso and another in Dayton, went on a killing spree. The El Paso shooter you could diagnose as a white nationalist. They wrote a manifesto that basically laid out a path for a socialist white ethnostate.

The Dayton shooter on the other hand, who was also white, had his pronouns on their Twitter, hated ICE, condemned Nazis, would vote for Bernie and Elizabeth Warren, and so on.

Didn’t this mean he was supposed to be one of us?

It is impossible to understand the connection between the El Paso shooter and Dayton shooter from an ideological diagnosis. Yet, their actual expressed behavior and its results are very similar.

So what do we need to understand?

First, I think we need to face the fundamental misnomer that keeps our perception stuck.

Justice isn’t something to be learned. Justice is something to be remembered. And we have by in large atrophied that capacity to remember.

Let me paint you a picture.

Imagine a world that the people who knew the ways of whole medicine, who knew the names of plants, who knew the power of ritual, who knew the healing effect of touch, held leading roles in their communities. Imagine that these people, our ancestors, saw that the wisdom of their medicines, is the same wisdom by which they may oversee the maintenance and repair of their communities.

Now come back to the present and look at the way we organize ourselves in social justice communities. What do you see?

If you see what I see, you see a lack of understanding of the true nature of human suffering: how trauma is not restricted to our lifetimes, but can reach thousands of years back, and still have a complete stranglehold on our entire cultural body.

Once you see this, it is easy to understand the most critical connection between the El Paso and Dayton shooters. Their connection is neurological, not ideological. What they share is an ancestral past filled with hardened grief that results in a complete inability of being able to imagine a future that is joyful enough to make their lives worthwhile.

Let’s be real. The despair that drove these two white men also lives in all of us who have been touched empire.

And so it is at our peril to keep shoveling ideological solutions on top of problems that are rooted far deeper in the ancestral memories of our collective nervous systems.

This is why our future will require us to radically shift how we self-organize direct action, community education, restorative justice, and so on. To do that we will need to start with the basics.

Sit with our ancestors.

Ask them how we can breathe, eat, walk, and sleep in revolutionary ways.

Ask them how we can be in relationship with one another through both play and conflict.

Ancestral justice, or bust, I say.


Are you a therapist, facilitator, organizer or healer called to a deeper exploration of subjects discussed in this post?

I provide coaching and consulting services for individual practitioners, enterprises, and organizations that are committed to intersectional cultural healing. You can find more information here.


Inspirations and affinities

Hollow Water 
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Description: This documentary profiles the tiny Ojibway community of Hollow Water on the shores of Lake Winnipeg as they deal with an epidemic of sexual abuse in their midst. The offenders have left a legacy of denial and pain, addiction and suicide. The Manitoba justice system was unsuccessful in ending the cycle of abuse, so the community of Hollow Water took matters into their own hands. The offenders were brought home to face justice in a community healing and sentencing circle. Based on traditional practices, this unique model of justice reunites families and heals both victims and offenders. The film is a powerful tribute to one community’s ability to heal and create change.

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