Decolonize Your Work Ethic

I once heard someone say “there’s no such thing as an Indigenous activist with free time.” Most people who do not spend a lot of time with Indigenous professionals or advocates look at my schedule and are visibly concerned for my well-being. But one of the hard truths in Indian Country is that there is so much work to be done and not nearly enough people to do it all. When you combine that with the low-overall presence of Indigenous people in academia, that amount of work to be done becomes even more intimidating. We all have dreams for our people and our nations that we are working toward and to do that takes a lot of heart, a lot of time, an incredible amount of self-discipline and flexibility, and a seemingly never-ending supply of energy. Half-joking theories abound about some of the best known Indigenous advocates—one prolific scholar is thought by his students to compose articles with a tape recorder in his sleep.

For many of us, this work is a huge part of making the constant onslaught of bad news bearable. News about melting permafrost and rising numbers of diabetes in our communities and invasive species in our forests are a lot easier to deal with if we get up every day knowing that we’re working against those problems. Even for tribal college students who aren’t working in their fields yet, they often have to balance rigorous coursework, jobs that pay the bills, the daily maintenance of their home lives, raising families, and any number of other personal hurdles. Somewhere in all of this madness, we’re also trying to vouchsafe our cultural life, make sure we’re all eating right, exercise, sort the recycling, and get in a social life too. It’s a lot. But we do it because whenever we come home and look into the faces of our children, our parents, our siblings, we remember why we do it and know that we cannot quit.

In my previous blog post, I alluded to the need to consider sustainability not just from the global and community perspective, but from the personal one as well. My life before my current one involved working in an industry made up of people who took a very standard American approach to work: you’re expected to work hard, constantly, and your physical exhaustion is the only true proof of your worth. One of my best friends—an extremely healthy, fit young man in his mid-twenties—blew out his knee working 14-hour days on concrete floors. Coming from this world, it was a surprise to enter into the Indigenous-centered professional world, where all of my mentors were constantly checking in to make sure I was taking care of myself and advising me to slow down from time to time. “Even the earth needs a season to rest” one told me.

Decolonizing my relationship with my work and education has been difficult, but I am slowly starting to see the wisdom of their words. Every day, I try to take a walk down the learning path behind the College of Menominee Nation, which meanders through a patch of dense forest. On the weekends, I make it a point to spend at least an hour beside the Wolf River, the subject of my first environmental justice lesson as a toddler. On the best days, time there seems to stop. More often than not, so does any lingering anxiety about what still needs to be done. I come back feeling refreshed, ready to go back to work for my people.

Jasmine Neosh (Menominee) is a student at College of Menominee Nation.

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