All Our Relations: Four Indigenous Lessons on Mindfulness

There’s healing in acknowledging our interconnectedness. Four Indigenous wisdom keepers share how their practice helps them remember.

Painting by Jordan Bennett

Mindfulness, like the air itself, crosses boundaries of place and time, culture and community. In the intersection of mindfulness and four indigenous lessons from tribal people there is connection to nature and to land, to relationships and community, and to the present and the past. There are the four elements of earth, water, fire, and air. There are elders and ancestors. And there are deep wounds from colonization and racism. There is displacement. There is trauma. And there is healing. There is homecoming.

In the following stories you will meet four people—Jeanne Corrigal is a Canadian Métis; Jeff Haozous, a member of the Fort Sill Apache tribe; Brenda Salgado, a first-generation Nicaraguan American; Michael Yellow Bird, a citizen of the Three Affiliated Tribes (the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara nations)—who practice, work, and live in this complex intersection.

Come Back Inside Your Own Heart

four Indigenous lesson

Jeanne Corrigal

Guiding Teacher at Saskatoon Insight Meditation Community, Métis

At the heart of Jeanne Corrigal’s practice and her sense of purpose as a meditation teacher lies a sacred story. It is the tale of a little boy, lost in the Canadian bush, and the Cree elder who found him.

Corrigal, who is Métis, a Canadian of mixed Swampy Cree and Scottish ancestry, is the guiding teacher for the Saskatoon Insight Meditation Community. There she leads a weekly sit, and teaches a variety of classes, including “Indigenous Presence” and “Unwinding Whiteness,” a course that offers white students an opportunity to recognize and understand racialized conditioning.

Practicing since 1999, she trained at Spirit Rock and Mindful Schools and recently graduated from a four-year teacher training program with the Insight Meditation Society (IMS). Last year, she and three other practitioners led the first Indigenous Peoples Retreat offered at IMS.

“When I first encountered mindfulness, I thought, ‘This is our teaching, our Indigenous teaching of how to be in the world, how to be in connection with the world,’” she says. The daughter of a park warden, Corrigal grew up in Saskatchewan’s Prince Albert National Park. From her father, she learned lessons about nature and listening. “We would just sit at the edge of the meadow or sit by the spruce tree, not saying anything. In the early days, I wished he would talk. But in the bush, he was completely connected to everything around him. Fortunately, I eventually realized there was communication happening, without talking.”

When I first encountered mindfulness, I thought, “This is our teaching, our Indigenous teaching of how to be in the world, how to be in connection with the world.”

Jeanne Corrigal

When he did talk, Andy Corrigal told his daughter stories about Jim Settee, Cree elder, social activist, and tracker. The two men, both wardens, worked together in the park. They and other First Nation and Métis people knew well the land they had been displaced from, and their generosity and compassion showed in their willingness to assist in search and rescue when a visitor was lost in the bush. On one occasion, when a little boy went missing, Settee, considered the best tracker in the region, was off duty. Corrigal’s father assembled a search party and they fanned out, but at nightfall, the boy remained lost. Desperation intensified. The next day’s search ended without success. Finally, Settee, who lived in the Fishing Lake Métis Settlement, which he had founded for displaced Indigenous people, was asked if he would join the search.

On the third day of the search, on ground trampled by the search team, on the edge of Kingsmere Lake, where the boy had last been seen, Settee stood. He was silent. Those around him grew silent too. Several minutes passed in stillness before Settee took off at a fast clip. For two hours and across miles of muskeg and bush, he tracked the boy. Settee found him, alive. No one, not even the other trackers, knew how he had done this.

“I grew up on that mystery,” Corrigal says. “Hearing that story, I imagined myself lost and Jim finding me.” Years later, then a young adult and filmmaker, Corrigal met and became friends with Settee, who had last seen her when she was an infant. And with his friendship, he helped her find her own way home.

In Settee, Corrigal saw a quality of loving presence that belonged to both the Indigenous culture she had inherited and the meditation practice she would embrace: unconditional care and love for all beings.

“He was so mindful and so kind. He lived that completely,” Corrigal says.

In that first conversation, Corrigal asked Settee how he had found the boy. “What he told me has become a lifelong teaching for me—the teaching that brought me to meditation and the teaching I sit with, every time I sit on the cushion: ‘When I look for a lost person, I put myself into that person’s mind. Then I can pick up their trail more easily.’” The way he phrased this connected Corrigal to mindfulness, even as it touched on distinct Indigenous ways of knowing.

“When you found that boy,” she asked, “what did you do?”

Beset with fear, the boy could neither walk nor talk. “I just sat with him for half an hour,” he told Corrigal, “until he could come back inside himself.”

“When I get lost in the activity of my mind, when I get wound tighter and tighter and tighter,” Corrigal says, “if I can remember Jim and put myself in my own mind, I can pick up my trail more easily. If I can sit with mindfulness and kindness, until I can come back inside my experience, come back inside my heart. Then in that moment, I’m home.”

Hear the Call of the Land

four Indigenous lesson

Jeff Haozous

Meditation Teacher, Writer, Member, Fort Sill Apache

During his 16-year tenure as chair of the Fort Sill Apache, in Oklahoma, Jeff Haozous kept strict boundaries between tribal matters and his meditation practice.

One time, however, during a particularly tense council meeting, the resolve softened, and he tried to introduce a moment of mindfulness. “OK, everybody, just take a deep breath,” Haozous advised. “Take a deep breath and relax.”

A young man in the room pounded his fist on the table. “I will not relax!”

“Well, I won’t try that again,” Haozous said to himself.

But there were ample opportunities for his own practice: During another contentious meeting, when a member screamed in his face, the only skillful response was no response: “I would breathe in and breathe out and feel their words, like a river flowing over me, while I remained centered,” he says. Another time, deeply worried about the tribe’s casino, which provides monthly revenue for members, Haozous turned to a pared-down practice of loving-kindness. “I remember driving to the tribal office, repeating ‘Safe, happy, healthy, ease, safe, happy, healthy, ease’ over and over and over again. It was the only thing that calmed me.”

His days are calmer now.

There’s a new chair. Haozous stepped down in 2018 and has moved from a public life in politics to a public life of loving-kindness practice, leaning fully into his training at California’s Spirit Rock and into his deepening role as a meditation teacher and retreat leader. During the pandemic, he and three other practitioners (including Jeanne Corrigal) led the first Indigenous Peoples Retreat at IMS, in Massachusetts. And now, after 20 years in Oklahoma, Haozous is bound for the Southwest. There, in the Cochise Stronghold in Arizona, Haozous has purchased a home, where he will connect with his ancestors and the present moment while he teaches, leads retreats, and offers—in person and online—meditation to the broader Indigenous community. “Mindfulness can bring to light and help heal the intergenerational trauma that Natives carry from the process of colonization,” he says. “Some teachers call this decolonizing the mind. I also use the term developing personal sovereignty.”

Mindfulness can bring to light and help heal the intergenerational trauma that Natives carry from the process of colonization.

Jeff Haozous

He is, in a sense, hearing—and answering—the long, silent call of his ancestors and of the land: His Chiricahua Apache forebears occupied the territory known now as southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. When Geronimo surrendered to the federal government in 1886, the Chiricahua were removed from the Southwest and subjected to 28 years of prisoner-of-war status in military installations in Florida, Alabama, and finally Oklahoma, where they arrived in 1894. In 1914, the 80 who remained in Fort Sill were released, prevented from returning to their homeland, and given modest land allotments instead. The Fort Sill Apache became an officially recognized tribe when the federal government approved their constitution in 1976.

Back then, Haozous was a teenager in Arkansas, more disconnected from than connected
to his tribal identity. His father, in college, had changed his surname to Houser, an Anglicized version of the Apache word “haozous,” which means to pull up, as if by the roots. At home, Haozous absorbed a tone of atheism and a culture of science. Ties to his Apache relatives were only sparsely renewed. Decades later, after a career in direct-mail and internet marketing, Haozous left San Francisco for southwest Oklahoma—intending only a short hiatus from his business career, curious about his Apache lineage, and concerned about the small tribe’s business dealings. He felt out of place. There were shifts from the corporate culture to the tribal culture, from internet time to Indian time, from urban life to small-town, rural living. To his fellow Apache, he worried that a legal name change would look as if he were trying too hard. To the casual observer, he didn’t look the part, too white to be an Apache citizen, let alone a tribal chair.

The days are calmer now. The land speaks. The ancestors murmur. The nights reassure.

“To be in a place where Cochise lived and Geronimo and my great-great-grandfather, Mangas Coloradas, visited, is such a depth of connection,” Haozous says of his relocation to Arizona. “At night, you can see the Milky Way or you can see the beautiful granite cliffs, glistening in the moonlight. You can hear the silence. That was how our people lived. They woke before sunrise, preparing for their day and maybe praying or meditating with the morning star.”

“I think I’ve been told by my ancestors and by the land that I need to go there—for my own healing, for the healing of my people, and for the healing of the land. I’m drawn there.”

Haozous. To pull up, as if by the roots.

“I don’t know what it’s going to be, but I can see a little green sprout coming up.”

Honor Your Ancestors

four Indigenous lesson

Brenda Salgado

Teacher, Writer, First-Generation Nicaraguan American

One year, when Brenda Salgado marked her birthday, she did so by honoring her ancestors. In her home, the first-generation Nicaraguan American arranged a small altar where she displayed, on posterboards, photographs of her biological ancestors, her spiritual ancestors, and her friends. And for seven days she observed a practice she’d found in a book by Thich Nhat Hanh: “In gratitude,” the Five Earth Touchings practice begins, “I bow to all generations of ancestors in my blood family.”

Gone were the days when, shopping with her mother at the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store in San Francisco, the young Catholic girl had hastened to the book section, in search of Bible stories. Although grateful for her Catholic upbringing and education, she had chafed at its limits. “The Church,” she says, “did not have room for all the ways I experienced God—or for female leadership.” It did not—it could not—hold the powerful spiritual tug that drew the contemplative Salgado past confines of institution, time, and place—drew her to the trees, to the land, to nature, and, ultimately, to her ancestors.

Learning mindfulness in a more secular context and then going into what was culturally appropriate for my lineage—what had been lost and what is being reclaimed—feels full circle for me, in a beautiful way.

Brenda Salgado

In a sense, that birthday celebration—in honor of her ancestors—launched Salgado on a path of homecoming, opening new and resonant spiritual corridors of communication. Her maternal grandmother, who had lived and died in Nicaragua, and whom Salgado had met only a few times, began to appear to Salgado in dreams and meditations. Nudged by this ancestral voice, Salgado probed her mother and her Aunt Lydia for stories, learning that her grandmother had practiced traditional medicine, at times healing family members when Western medicine and doctors in Managua could not. “I knew, on some level, that there was medicine in my lineage,” Salgado says. “I assumed it was lost much further back, because of colonization and the loss of our language and culture. I had no idea this was something my grandmother, of Indigenous Chorotega lineage, had done.”

Over time, Salgado followed—and gradually integrated—strands of mindfulness and of traditional medicine. Having for several years attended daylong retreats at the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland and with a background in nonprofit management, she became the organization’s first director. When she left EBMC, Salgado then edited the book Real World Mindfulness for Beginners, a 2016 collection of guidance and practices from next-generation mindfulness teachers around the country. After extensive work with Central American elders who taught her about traditional and plant medicine, Salgado studied the Toltec lineage, a pre-Columbian Mesoamerican culture, with its healing breath and energy work. Mindfulness, she says, prepared her for the healing work she now does full-time: “Learning mindfulness in a more secular context and then going into what was culturally appropriate for my lineage—what had been lost and what is being reclaimed—feels full circle for me, in a beautiful way.”

Now, as founder and director of Nepantla Consulting, she offers Indigenous practices, many of which restore the disconnections with land, with one another, with ancestors, with universal energies. In healing, she notes, the reach extends beyond the needs of the individual and to the collective. “We want to gift a different future to the next seven generations,” she says. “That requires us to do some healing work around the trauma of our lineage, so that we’re free and future generations are free from that.”

As for her grandmother? She is still here. Salgado dedicated Real World Mindfulness for Beginners to her—to Maria Paula Guevara Galan. “She shows up everywhere. When I attend ceremony and see an elder, they say, ‘There’s a woman standing behind you, a small woman.’ And I say, ‘That’s my grandma.’”

Help Others Remember How to Heal

Michael Yellow Bird

Teacher, Social Worker, Citizen of the Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara)

Often, at the end of presentations—and there are many, given his various roles as university administrator, scholar, social worker, practitioner and teacher of mindfulness—Michael Yellow Bird displays a favorite slide: an image of the brain. Specifically, the slide highlights the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. For there, behind and above the eye sockets, is the site of cognitive resilience, the locus of emotional regulation, the place where stress and fear are processed—and the focus of Yellow Bird’s work to reverse effects of chronic stress on Indigenous people and restore resilience.

At the University of Manitoba, he serves as dean and professor of the Faculty of Social Work. He is also developing a Centre for Mindful Decolonization and Reconciliation at the university. Yellow Bird is a certified mindfulness teacher and has long researched and written about the damages of colonization, the mechanisms for decolonization, and the role of mindfulness in the well-being of Indigenous people.

Restoring resilience lies at the core of Yellow Bird’s mission. There was a time, he says, when many Indigenous communities used cultural rites to build the resilience of their young people, to prepare them for the difficulties they might face in their lives. Life was not always easy or certain, and teaching young people to have greater cognitive, emotional, physical, and spiritual flexibility to meet and flow with the hardships was necessary for survival and well-being. Through their training, they learned to live with and to respect risk, fear, and uncertainty. Such traditional tribal practices—weakened, outlawed, destroyed by waves of colonization—at one time represented the heart of healing, resilience, and well-being. In their training, young people learned to exercise self-control and to make good decisions. More broadly, with dance and song, with intermittent fasts and spiritual ceremonies, Indigenous people had practices that naturally regulated mood, blunted pain, strengthened memory, and more. “How do we, as Indigenous people, find our way back to that traditional knowledge?” Yellow Bird asks. “That’s an important goal. I know how important this lifestyle was in the past. What it did for us. I witnessed what happened when it was taken away. I know what good will happen when we return to traditional practices.”

I think of mindfulness as a springboard to get us back to who we really are and to our contemplative ceremonies and to our own forms of awareness and connection.

Michael Yellow Bird

The arc of Yellow Bird’s own life, especially his youth on the Fort Berthold reservation in White Shield, North Dakota, charts what happens when a vibrant society is broken down and what can happen when tools of self-care become available. Many of his earliest memories are of violence and conflict. “I saw things little kids shouldn’t see: death, destruction, chronic stress, suffering. It was all around.” In elementary school, he recalls, teachers were intent on “civilizing” their young students, even beating them. After the Vietnam War, veterans like Yellow Bird’s brother, a special forces Marine, suffered from PTSD; their families, from secondary PTSD and compassion fatigue. The community, shorn of healing ceremonies and thin in many ways, became riddled with alcoholism, violence, and drug abuse. “We no longer had access,” Yellow Bird says of the traditional resources that might have helped. By high school, Yellow Bird was searching for change and relief from many of the psychological and emotional stressors in his life. In college, he dropped out, returned home, absorbed more trauma. But when he returned to college, a chance encounter with a book—Lawrence LeShan’s How to Meditate—set him on a lifelong path of self-care that included meditation, Tae Kwon Do, and running. “I was neurotic as hell, looking for something that would help not only discharge the trauma but also remake me. And I thought, ‘OK, now this is something that could also help other Indigenous people recover.’ Mindfulness is not new. It’s something they just have to rediscover.”

The trauma of colonization extends deeper than seizure of land and erasure of culture. “What happens when, for centuries, people are berated—told they are not worthy, they are savages, they are less than?” he asks. “They internalize it.” And the question about how such trauma is internalized led Yellow Bird to research in neuroscience and genetics and microbiology, which in turn led to the conviction that colonization shapes and compromises the brain, across generations. Along the way, Yellow Bird coined the term “neurodecolonization” to capture not only the neurological impacts of colonization but also the processes—among them Indigenous contemplative practices—that can reverse the damage.

“I think of mindfulness as a springboard,” Yellow Bird says, “to get us back to who we really are and to our contemplative ceremonies and to our own forms of awareness and connection.” In fact, the leap from contemporary mindfulness to traditional Indigenous practices is a short one. Yellow Bird recalls the children on the Yurok reservation in northern California, who, when he introduced mindfulness to them, said, “We do this all the time—when we’re in ceremony, when we’re making baskets, when we’re fishing.”

About the Artist

Jordan Bennett

Mi’kmaq, Stephenville Crossing, Ktaqmkuk (Newfoundland) BFA, MFA

Jordan Bennett is a Mi’kmaq visual artist from Stephenville Crossing, Ktaqmkuk (Newfoundland, Canada). He lives and works on his ancestral territory of Mi’kma’ki in Terence Bay, Nova Scotia, with his partner in life and art Amy Malbeuf. Jordan’s ongoing practice utilizes painting, sculpture, video, installation, and sound to explore land, language, the act of visiting, familial histories, and challenging colonial perceptions of Indigenous histories and presence with a focus on exploring Mi’kmaq and Beothuk visual culture of Ktaqmkuk. His work has been shown in the Smithsonian-National Museum of the American Indian, NYC; MAC-VAL, Paris; The Museum of Art and Design, NYC; Project Space Gallery, RMIT, Melbourne, AUS; The Power Plant, Toronto; Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, Montreal; Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, and in the 2015 Venice Biennial in Italy.

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About the author

Victoria Dawson

Victoria Dawson is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. She regularly contributes to Mindful.