My father’s mother was born into the Abenaki Nation in Peru, New York. There are precious few stories about her: she lived a life behind the scenes, and what memories I do have of her are often painful. Over the years, I’ve been on a quest to deepen my awareness and appreciation for my indigenous roots. In many ways, I’ve tried to honor my grandmother through my work at the Stone Soup Leadership Institute.  

My grandmother was a walker: she would walk miles from her home to downtown Montpelier, Vermont to buy groceries. In the summers both sides of my family would gather at their camp on Nelson Pond in Calais, Vermont. People remember my grandmother as a fun-loving, caring person, who stayed mostly in the kitchen. The only photo of us together is of me as a 2-year-old “helping” her with the dishes.

As a 12-year-old, growing up in an all-white community in Massachusetts, I was very curious to know about my family’s roots. My father had fastidiously documented his father’s family tree. He was proud of all the genealogy books filled with colorful stories connected with our family name. However, when my grandmother tried to share stories about her past, my father would hush her. Even at that early age, I saw how my grandmother’s voice was being silenced.

Then when she was 60 years old, she moved from Vermont to live with our large, and growing, family – north of Boston. It was then that I got to know her a little bit, as a person, as an elder.  From her, I learned to love the land, and how to work with my hands. She loved to work in our family’s gardens.  She quietly taught me how to care for seedlings, how to thoughtfully companion-plant, when to water and when to weed. I helped her by carrying the weeds out to the compost pile. She taught me the joy of seeing a job well done.

The harvesting of the tiny cucumbers was especially fun. She taught me how to make pickles, so we could eat them during the long winter months.  They reminded me of the warmth of summer and working in the garden with her. Coming home from school to the smell of her freshly baked bread was warm and welcoming. On Saturdays she taught me how to sew. She showed me how to adjust a pattern so that the fabric would fit well. Initially, when I was in a hurry, the thread would get tangled. She would calmly and carefully get it unstuck so I could finish a new dress in time for Saturday night. I took great pride in being able to make my own clothes.

I first learned about sustainability from my grandmother.  She had lived through war, and through severe poverty, so she saved everything. She reused everything, at least once. One of my favorite memories of her is of one Christmas morning when eight of us children were feverishly unwrapping our gifts — and with eight little puppies running around the room. Amongst all this chaos, she quietly collected all of the wrapping paper and ribbons – and saved it for the next year’s events.

In her younger years, she had experienced racism and abuse, and suffered a head injury, which led in her later years to her brain tumor and her epileptic attacks.  As a child, it was very scary to see her this way. She’d had two major surgeries that changed her personality and left her often feeling agitated. The noise we kids made when we were playing really bothered her.

Throughout my life I’ve been blessed with opportunities to learn about the mysterious ways of indigenous peoples.  It was an honor to be invited to serve on the medicine team for the Lakota Sundance at the D-Q University (on the UC Davis campus) near Sacramento, California.  As a 25 year old herbalist, gardener and health educator, I was living on a farm in nearby Clarksburg. The Sundance leader Dennis Banks had been granted political asylum by former Governor Jerry Brown.  From this great leader, I first learned the history of the First Nations, including the history of the American Indian Movement as well as the occupation of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota.

By organizing this transformative religious ceremony, Dennis Banks hoped to rekindle traditional ways like the ancestral sweat lodge and the healing power of herbs, especially among the younger generation.  He was a powerful teacher, initiating us in how to be respectful of indigenous customs – from the proper attitude, appropriate etiquette, to the heart-felt prayers for our loved ones.  We were taught to ask permission before entering the lodge, and to pay our respects to our ancestors after sharing our truth with the phrase: Mitakuye Oyasin (“All My Relations”). Dennis was famously known for his hot sweats, which he believed strengthened one’s prayers, for our ancestors and for the world.  I was the only non-Native American who lasted through all four rounds of the sweat for the medicine team.  It was an intense, life-changing experience. I only wish I could have shared this story with my grandmother to hopefully inspire her to share more of her own indigenous journey.

It was there that I met the Hopi elder, Thomas Banyacya. This gentle man had been named by the elders as one of the four chosen to reveal the Hopi traditional wisdom and teachings, including the Hopi prophecies for the future, after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. After the Sundance, it was an honor to have him bless our farm and healing center, and even join us for a sauna.

A few years later, when I moved to Marin County, I was invited to attend the Indigenous Peoples Sunrise Ceremonies on Alcatraz Island.  Called the “Unthanksgiving”, the Alcatraz ceremonies commemorate the protest event of 1969 where the Alcatraz-Red Power Movement (ARPM) occupied the island.  It was there that my friend Trude and I met the medicine man Bedeaux Wesaw from Pine Ridge.  It was an honor to be invited to join his regular sweat lodge ceremonies in nearby Sebastopol.  From Bedeaux, I continued learning about First Nation people’s history, and their respect for their traditions and cultures.

Then in 1996, my dear friend, Oakland Captain Ray Gatchalian, nominated Nane Alejandrez from Barrios Unidos to be in my book, Stone Soup for the World: Life-Changing Stories of Everyday Heroes.  Nane is a Lakota Sioux/Mexican who shares his traditional indigenous teachings with young people in practical ways.  Over the years, we developed a long-lasting friendship. It was an honor to be invited to his sweat lodge in the Santa Cruz Mountains.  Nane became a founding board member of the Stone Soup Leadership Institute, and has been an elder of the Institute’s emerging leaders around the world.

From the Institute’s first Summit on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, Nane has joined us in blessing our young people, and encouraging them to share their voices, and aspire to become leaders of their communities. He has been an invaluable guide to me on my journey to work alongside indigenous people, and other people of color. On Vieques he led a feather ceremony to initiate a youth leader, at the site of a 4,000-year-old medicine man.  We learned about their Taino traditions as we created the Cultural Arts and Entrepreneurship Initiative. There, Vieques youth like Kassandra Castillo learned indigenous designs to make handicrafts using local seeds and calabash.

Before the Institute’s Sustainability Summits on Martha’s Vineyard, Nane would pay his respects to the First Nation Wampanoag chief and then go fishing and sharing stories with Wampanoag legend Captain Buddy Vanderhoop. At these  intensive, week-long summits, we encouraged our indigenous youth leaders to share their stories.  Everyone was impressed with our Hawaiian youth delegates shared how their cultural renaissance had led to a renewal of their language, their traditional dance, and their cultural traditions.

While working in Hawaii, I was studied with my Hawaiian kupuna, Keala Ching to learn the Hawaiian language and cultural protocols.  It was also an honor to work with my dear friend Kaiulani Pono and her students at the Kanu o ka Aina Learning Ohana. There I developed a deep respect for the Hawaiian values, traditions, and sustainable practices that were the foundation for their intensive immersion program. Their self-sufficient campus and gardens are a beautiful manifestation of the Hawaiian concept of mālama—caring for the ‘aina, the land.

In 2011, our first Hawaiian youth delegate and I were invited to speak at the Asian Pacific Economic Council (APEC) Summit with Native Hawaiian navigator Nainoa Thompson, Polynesian Voyaging Society.  When he announced his three-year journey around the world with the Hōkūleʻa, we invited him to join us for our Sustainability Summit on Martha’s Vineyard.  It was an honor when two years later, our indigenous youth delegates from Hawaii and Martha’s Vineyard were the first to welcome the Hōkūleʻa  crew with handmade leis made by our youth.

Respect for indigenous peoples is woven into all aspects of the Institute’s programs.  We encourage young people to embrace their indigenous traditions, share their voices, and develop the tools they need to become leaders who can help build healthier communities and a more socially just world.

In my new book, Stone Soup for a Sustainable World: Life-Changing Stories of Young Heroes, I’m honored to spotlight indigenous youth leaders like Evon Peters (of the Alaskan Gwich’in Nation, and the Indigenous Leadership Institute); Autumn Peltier, of the Anishinabek Nation, Canada; Trevor Tanaka, from Hawaii; Jessa Garibay, from the Philippines; and Lucia Ixchíu, of Guatemala’s K’iche’ Maya people.  With our social media campaign we shine the light on these brave young indigenous leaders, who are carrying on the legacies of their elders, working hard to undo the damage that has been done to our planet—and build a more sustainable future for us all.

My grandmother’s early teachings of caring for the land have been carefully woven into my life and the Institute’s work with empowering young people to become leaders. I only wish that she could have lived long enough to see how we’ve honored these indigenous people to share their rich traditions, their wisdom, their values. Now more than ever we need their wisdom, their knowledge, their traditional values, so together we can build a more sustainable world.