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Becoming Native to Your Place (Joanna Powell Colbert)

Becoming Native to Your Place (Joanna Powell Colbert)

“For the non-Native American to become at home on this continent, he or she must be born again in this hemisphere, on this continent, properly called Turtle Island. . . Europe or Africa or Asia will then be seen as the place our ancestors came from, places we might want to know about and to visit, but not ‘home.’ Home — deeply, spiritually — must be here.” 
— Gary Snyder, Practice of the Wild 

“But can non-indigenous people really presume to become native? . . . What kind of nativeness is possible and to what extent can we become native to the land?”
— David Landis Barrett, At Home on the Earth 

Becoming Native to Your Place

The idea of becoming native to your Place is one that I have considered for many years. I first came across the idea when I was enrolled in the Kamana Naturalist Training Course back in the 1990s.  The Kamana course teaches us to “see with native eyes,” as Jon Young puts it. He emphasizes that this ability is not for Native Americans only but is a learned skill. Once introduced to the concept of “becoming native,” I seemed to find it everywhere.

Using the word native can be tricky, because of the relationship between indigenous peoples and people of European ancestry, which can be difficult at times.  There are many First Nations peoples who strongly object to any non-native person learning traditional spiritual practices.  And for many of us, out of respect and acknowledgement of the wrongs done to them by our ancestors, we have turned away from studying Native American spirituality.  Instead many of us have studied the practices of our own ancestral lines.

My studies of the Celtic goddesses and myths of my own ancestral heritage have been rich. But a problem arose for me when I realized the obvious: that I don’t live in the land of my ancestors. I live here, in North America. More specifically I live in the Pacific Northwest, the Cascadia Bioregion, on an island in the San Juan archipelago, the Salish Sea.

As I fell more and more in love with the land where I lived, I learned the stories and myths of the first peoples who lived here. At the same time I began my naturalist studies. It became very meaningful to me to compare the myths of my Celtic heritage with the myths of the Northwest, especially the stories of the plants and animals who live in both places (like the magical hawthorn tree and the salmon of wisdom).

So what was happening for me was a marriage of ancestry and place.  I studied my Celtic heritage, but also learned as much as I could about the land, and the ways that the original peoples first interacted with the land and the waters.

But there is another, more important reason for becoming native to your place: the earth needs it.  European-Americans have been incredibly destructive to the land in large part because we don’t believe we are native to the earth.  We’ve been taught to believe we transcend it.

If we each fell so deeply in love with the land where we live, we would defend it with our lives, and the whole world would be covered.


How then does each one of us become native to the Place where we live?

It has to do with listening, and connecting. Getting to know the Place where you live so intimately that you identify with it. Gary Snyder says, “…if you know what is taught by the plants and weather, you are in on the gossip and can truly feel more at home.”

So I’ve learned to be in on the gossip of my Place.

I watch as the Steller’s jays squabble over the sunflower seeds I set out for them and notice the towhees and juncos who quietly await their turn at the feeder.

I wait for the red-flowering currant to show up in bright pink and magenta on early spring days, when the landscape is otherwise still brown and grey.

I know where the chickaree (Douglas squirrel) hides her stash of seeds and nuts in the autumn, and what part of the woods holds the most luscious mushrooms.

I know the slough where the great blue heron lives and when the tree frogs will begin their chorus in the spring. 

I know where to harvest wild onions in the summer and where to find nettles in the earliest days of spring. 

I know how far north the sun sets at midsummer, and how low in the sky it rides at noon in midwinter.

This, then, is how we become native to the land: by loving her well, first of all. By observing, being aware, studying, and participating in the life cycle of the land instead of dominating it.

We do this by keeping nature journals, by learning about native plants, by gardening, by sitting so still the birds forget we’re there. By relishing meals made from the bounty of our local landscape. By creating beautiful artwork and contemplative photography that is inspired by the natural beauty all around us.

We do it by sitting under a Grandmother Cedar tree and allowing our consciousness to sink deeply into its roots. By introducing ourselves to the tree and asking “May we have a conversation?” then listening with the inner ear for a response.

We do it by holding ceremony and welcoming the powers of Air, Fire, Water, Earth, Above, Below, and Center; by calling upon the Powers and Spirits of this particular Place. By honoring the genius loci and listening to anything s/he has to say.

By going on a Praise Walk, and noticing everything there is to see, and singing or speaking or dancing our gratitude and praise.

By listening. By listening with our inner ear and our outer ear, to what the Earth has to say to us.

By opening our hearts and loving Mama Gaia in her particular incarnation in one particular Place.

Journal Prompts

  1. How might I become native to my Place?

  2. What is one way I can practice awareness of the natural world in my own backyard?

  3. How can I offer healing to the Earth and the Other-Than-Humans that live near me?


Joanna Powell Colbert runs the blog Gaian Soul. “I balance starry-­eyed spiritual mysticism with everyday, shoe-­leather practicality. I’m an artist, teacher, mentor, soul guide, and retreat host who encourages lovers of the holy earth to lead purposeful, creative, and soulful lives. I believe your stories, and your gifts, are vital to mending the web of life on this planet.” Learn more: gaiansoul.com.


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