I don’t know about you, but when I sparingly read the news about a certain presidential candidate, the climate crisis, and leaders hellbent on waging war, I feel a power of fear and hopelessness creeping in that makes me numb.

Yet, after being in presence with Diné Nation scholar, artist, poet and musician Lyla June March 22, who spoke and performed as a guest of Sno-Isle Libraries Foundation Trudy Sundberg Lecture Series, I was reminded of another outlook, the only one really worth putting our energy toward. Click on this link to watch the presentation.

Christina Kourteva, executive director of Sno-Isle Libraries Foundation introduces Lyla June Johnston, an indigenous heritage scholar, poet and musician.
Lily James Olds, Director, TED Fellows, and Trudy J. Sundberg’s granddaughter. Lilly recalled how her grandmother introduced her to serious reading at a very young age and instilled a lifelong love of learning.
Deborah Parker, CEO, National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, and a member of the Tulalip Tribes of Washington, spoke of the legacy of loss following enforced boarding schools for our nation’s indigenous people. After she spoke, Deborah hugs Lyla June, a Diné scholar, ecologist, artist, musician and poet. Lyla June published ‘Lifting Hearts off the Ground,” in 2017, which provides a prescription for reconciliation. Proceeds from her book sales March 22 went toward the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition

Lyla June’s message has the power to hold audiences rapt, given the thunderous standing ovation she received at the end of her lecture March 22. Watch her many speeches, and the same response follows her delivery. Her words and her music provide a much-needed compass for the turbulent waters we navigate today.

Addressing a full-house at WICA (Whidbey Island Center for the Arts) and its overflow audience in adjacent Zech Hall, Lyla June spoke of the success of age-old land practices our country’s first people used to maintain harmony with the Earth.

“Our people were not ‘hunter gatherers,’ nor victims of their circumstance, Lyla June explained early in her talk. “They were gardeners who cultivated a predictable source of food.”

Dressed in traditional Diné regalia, Dr. Lyla June said her obsession is ‘indigenous food and land stewardship.’

Throughout her talk, Lyla June showed via images on a screen examples of where our country’s first people successfully tended their land for thousands of years.

We learned of the early cultivators of American Chestnut trees—known as the ‘Redwoods of the East,’ for their quality of material, height and girth—which proliferated along the United States’ eastern coast. For centuries, Cherokee, Iroquois, and Mohican people selectively burned areas around chestnut trees to ensure fertility of the soil, and manage the spread of competing plants.

The early people’s attention to careful cultivation guaranteed the health of the trees, and fed people and animals alike. With the arrival of colonists, decimation by disease of the indigenous people followed. The once prolific chestnut trees spread indiscriminately without their mindful first farmers. Introduction of exotic chestnut species brought a deadly fungus in the early 1900s, and an ensuing blight nearly wiped the native giant trees out.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, we learned of similar land and sea-tending techniques, such as planting kelp forests to encourage habitat for young salmon.

Another is placing cedar and hemlock boughs in shallow waters of the Salish Sea which collect herring eggs. Besides feeding the people, the eggs also provided food for bear, salmon and eagles. Lyla June was given the ‘cavier’ to taste on one of her visits to the Pacific Northwest.

Behind the scenes with textile artist Doe Stahr’s art honoring Lyla June’s heritage. Doe lives on Whidbey Island and was invited by the Sno-Isle Libraries Foundation to create art for Lyla June’s lecture March 22.

“I’m a desert Indian, so it’s an acquired taste,” Lyla June told the audience.

We learned of the importance of using selective fires to prevent wildfire devastation due to overgrowth and mismanagement.

In closing, Lyla June said, “We were chosen by our Creator to take care of the Earth. Every native nation says this. A universal truth is we are meant to be warriors for the Earth. Hey, man, our hands can create magic.”

She believes our young people get the message of taking steps now to heal ourselves and our planet. “Our children are aware,” Lyla June added. “I can’t wait for them to grow up and get into office.”

After her lecture, the audience heard Lyla June’s music, and, from observing the energy around the room, her music seemed a portal which embraced our collective connection.

From her hiphop song: ‘As One,’ “pray for those who injure and who are injured…”

She teared up, thanking her grandmother, who was forced into boarding school, accepting the ways of Christian teaching, and keeping her Diné traditions secretly alive inside.

To soft sad guitar notes played as background, Lyla June recalled the Diné people’s enforced Long Walk in the mid 1800s from their native land, in which many died of starvation and cold, only to be coerced into sending their children to boarding schools—a practice which lasted until the 1970s—in exchange for return to their homeland. Her song, All Nations Rise, honors her ancestors and implores us all to wake up. “We are the ones Grandma was prayin’ for,” she sang, of what she and others stand for now.

From her song, ‘All Nations Rise’–‘we don’t have to hide, cuz now’s the time.’

Honoring the Scottish and Irish indigenous people who suffered persecution from her white father’s heritage, Lyla June sung, Mamwlad, Motherland.

What this young woman’s messages contain are genuine tools for healing ourselves and our Earth. Lyla June is grounded in the reality of what poverty and addiction can do to a person and a culture. And how to find a way out.

Pamela Seamonster feels the power of Lyla June’s song ‘All Nations Rise’

Lyla June has risen from addiction to drugs and alcohol starting in her tweens to becoming a woman who attended Stanford, later earning a PhD in Fairbanks, Alaska, on the first people’s role as Architects of Abundance. She is an international speaker on ecology, a musician, a woman who honors her ancestors, and a true Earth Bard.

From her 2021 video, 1000 Ancestors, she writes: “This song is to honor our ancestors both Indigenous to Turtle Island (aka America) and beyond. Those who fought to hand down prayerful ways that uphold all life. It was through this prayer and ceremony that many of us were able to save our own lives, get sober, get out of bad situations, and remember who we are. May this song help all remember that Creator and the Ancestors are only a prayer away 🙂 Some say when our grandparents pass they come back as our animal relatives: sheep, horses, goats and other animals. Thus, we treat them the same way we would our own grandparents.

“This song was also written for the Native American Community Academy DSIA project to help prevent substance abuse and youth suicide. I started doing drugs when I was 11 years old. I experienced gender violence since I was very young, which led to self-blame, and self-hatred. Through prayer, I was able to find people who could help me understand that what happened to me was not my fault. That there was a planet worth living for, worth fighting for and worth being sober for. I celebrate 9 years of complete sobriety [since 2012]  this year. May all who need that support find it and may we live strong for those who didn’t make it through the onslaught of colonization.

“All proceeds from my bandcamp (lylajune.bandcamp.com) are routed to www.7genfund.org, a non-profit supporting Indigenous grassroots community projects. Buy this song now and you could support their programs: Community Vitality, Land Defenders & Water Protectors, Thriving Women, Tradition Bearers Fellowship, and Flicker Fund! :)”

Conclusion of Lyla June’s lecture and songs at WICA March 22. Lyla June was invited as a guest by the Sno-Isle Libraries Foundation Trudy Sundberg lecture series

To learn more visit: Lyla June’s website.

Community members interested in supporting the Trudy Sundberg Lecture Series, can make a donation here.

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