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Neurodecolonization with Indigenous Incarcerated Youth with Michael James Yellow Bird

Updated: Mar 27

In this episode, Michael Yellow Bird speaks with cohost Fleet Maull on his experiences working with indigenous youth, and his research focused on "Neurodecolonization".

  • The systemic impacts of Colonization and abolishing indigenous sacred meditative practices

  • “Neurodecolonization” The conceptual mindfulness framework and healing trauma in incarcerated, indigenous groups

  • Building cognitive resilience in indigenous youth

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Michael Yellow Bird, IMTA CMT-P, MSW, PhD, is Dean of the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Manitoba. He is a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation in North Dakota, USA. He is a member of the International Mindfulness Teachers Association and is a certified mindfulness facilitator/teacher – professional. He has been involved in meditation and Indigenous contemplative practices for more than 45 years. His research focuses on mindful decolonization and neurodecolonization. He has implemented meditation programs and conducted mindfulness research in Indigenous communities in the US. He is the author of numerous scholarly articles and the co-editor and co-author of several books that focus on decolonization, social work, mindfulness, and Indigenous Peoples. He is the creator of Siíŝu' tooxuuciitu'ooxIt (Mind beautiful all calm): An Arikara Mindfulness Curriculum for Youth. His mindfulness and neurodecolonization works are featured on several mindfulness podcasts. His most recent press article can be found at:

Podcast Transcript

Fleet Maull: 

Hi! Welcome to another session on the Prison Mindfulness Summit. I'm thrilled to be here today with my friend and colleague, Michael Yellowbird. Welcome, Michael. 

Michael Yellow Bird: 

Thank you. I'm really happy to be here. 

Fleet Maull: 

Well, it's really great to have you. I really appreciate you giving me the time to do this. And it's been great having you involved in our community with the Engaged Mindfulness Institute and Prison Mindfulness Institute. And so, I'm looking forward to this conversation. I'm going to start by sharing a bit of your background with our audience to familiarize them with you and your work, and then we'll jump right into the conversation. Sound good? 

Michael Yellow Bird: 

Sounds great. 

Fleet Maull: 

Great. So, Michael Yellowbird, IMTA CMT-P, which is your certified mindfulness teacher professional, which you earned through our Engaged Mindfulness Institute program. And then, MSW, Ph.D. is Dean of the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Manitoba. He is a member of the—correct me if I don't pronounce this right—Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation. Do you want to say those for me? 

Michael Yellow Bird: 

Yeah, pretty close. Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara. 

Fleet Maull: 

Arikara, yeah. So, Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation in North Dakota. He is a member of the International Mindfulness Teachers Association and is a certified professional mindfulness facilitator and teacher. He has been involved in meditation, mindfulness, and Indigenous contemplative practices for more than 45 years. His research focuses on mindful decolonization and neuro-decolonization. 

He has implemented meditation programs and conducted mindfulness research in Indigenous communities in the US. He is the author of numerous scholarly articles and the co-editor and co-author of several books that focus on decolonization in social work and mindfulness with Indigenous Peoples. He is the creator of the—now, you're really going to. I'm going to say it in English. The Mind Beautiful All Calm curriculum. Would you give us your Indigenous name for that? 

Michael Yellow Bird: 

Sure, I'll say it slowly because it's a long name. It's [02:21 sushi do hokido hu] 

Fleet Maull: 

Thank you. Which translates into English, probably roughly as Mind Beautiful, All Calm? 

Michael Yellow Bird: 


Fleet Maull: 

It's an Arikara Mindfulness Curriculum for youth. His mindfulness in neuro-decolonization works is featured on several mindfulness podcasts. Well, we're going to put one of your recent articles. It'll be there on the website when people are looking at this now. You'll be able to see that link there. Before we finish it, I'm going to ask you to direct people to where they can find out more about your work. I know you have a website you can direct people to. 

So, let's jump into the conversation. So, Michael, you have worked with and developed a mindfulness-based curriculum for Indigenous youth. In terms of connecting with our conversation today with the broader summit topic of prison mindfulness, which includes offering mindfulness-based programming, emotional intelligence programming, and contemplative-spiritual programming with both youth and adults who have been placed at risk, who are incarcerated, who are returning to the community. I would imagine that all Indigenous youth can be considered among youth placed at risk just by nature of being Indigenous youth in the US and Canada. 

And due to the impact of intergenerational trauma, as well as the ongoing and current marginalization and oppression of native people and Indigenous Peoples in North America. So, I'm wondering if some of the youth you have worked with have also been court-involved or system involved. Why don't you tell us a little bit about the youth you have worked with? 

Michael Yellow Bird: 

Yeah. Maybe it's just kind of important, I think, just to kind of start where mindfulness is with his youth that I work with. It's really important for folks to know that for most Indigenous People, mindfulness meditation was an ever-present daily ceremonial part of their life, and quiet meditations are sacred during the ceremony of fasting throughout these deep meditative states that all incorporated with prayer and dancing, a mindfulness prayer, contemplation fast were all requirements for almost anyone from any tribal nation that wish to become a traditional doctor or healer. 

So, it's really important, I think, to kind of start with that in the sense that beyond colonialism, there was another world that existed. For Indigenous People, a pure mind engaged in deep contemplative states using periods of fasting are all requirements to be able to kind of do these things that were important to the healing and delivery of traditional medicines to the people. And, of course, when people have this kind of impeccable life, they earn respect and confidence from the people, the ancestors, and the spirits that aided them in the doctrine. 

During this colonization of Indigenous People, many of the sacred meditative practices were destroyed and outlawed by American colonizers and leaving many tribal groups without the sacred ways they had used for millennia to heal and restore their well-being. The consequences are, like we talked about, this disproportionality of Indigenous People being incarcerated, right? So, the consequences while these disruptions are evidence, you know, today with all the serious health disparities, low life expectancy, depression, anxiety disorders, diabetes, obesity, all these violence, homicides, and assaults, which kind of gets people into these circumstances of incarceration. 

I have worked with Indigenous youth. I know that Indigenous youth who have written about this before are disproportionally incarcerated in juvenile detention facilities. I've even looked at statistics to see how they're treated. I know that when they are incarcerated Indigenous youth are among the most abused, mistreated, and discriminated against while they're incarcerated. So, the trauma that they experienced growing up, like the adverse childhood experiences they have, like the violence, the poverty, the racism, the hate crimes, neglect, and being kicked out of school, are all compounded when they're incarcerated. 

When I think about that, I think about how prior to colonization, there were no delinquents. There were no homeless youth. There were no unloved or neglected, used, or abandoned youth. This set of laws really kind of singled out Indigenous People for first simulation and colonial society, customs, cultural practices, languages, beliefs, all this collectivist lifestyle was banned. And spiritual leaders were actually imprisoned for practicing traditional contemplative practices. It'd be like today, Fleet if someone did say we're going to look at Fleet Maull because he's teaching mindfulness, right? And this is what was happening with Indigenous People. 

Any ceremonies, any healing rituals were all banned. Probably the most egregious thing was the abduction of Indigenous children by settler governments and Christian religious organizations that forced these kids and took them from their parents to attend boarding schools and residential schools. But the children really suffered horrible abuse, beatings for speaking their language, starvation, diets, sexual abuse, and being incarcerated on school grounds. When you look at some of these boarding schools, they actually have lockup facilities in the schools where they lock these children, like in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and other places. They were forced to have their hair cut. Hair is a very sacred part of the child for many tribes. Having their traditional clothing burned. 

One of my friends, I remember when I was a professor at the University of British Columbia back in 1992 to 1934, one of my friends I met in Vancouver actually attended a residential school. He talked about how Indigenous children in the schools, when they were caught speaking their language, were beaten and they were incarcerated, and they were put into these lockups. But they even had darning needles pushed through the middle of their tongues as punishment, if you can imagine that kind of torture happening to kids. 

And so, even today, in the US and Canada, the bodies of Indigenous children that were killed and murdered or died at these boarding schools and residential schools are still being discovered on school grounds and other places. When I have all that context, and I think about, you know, yes, I've worked with incarcerated youth. And when I was a social work professor at Cal Poly Humboldt, which was formerly Humboldt State University in Northern California, I used to go over to Eureka, California. There was a juvenile detention facility there. One of my graduate students asked me to come over and teach mindfulness to the youth. It was very moving because the kids still loved their culture and still respected their elders, but they were in this place, you know, where they were confined. 

When I would come over there, of course, I was an elder at that point anyway. And, you know, they had so much respect for me when I came in. And I began teaching them about mindfulness and how it's such an important part of who they are, whatever tribes they were. Whether they were Kupa, they were Wiyot, and they were Yurok, different tribes, they were all incarcerated. Not northern tribes but the tribes from across the state of California. And so, I would go, and I would do practices with them. Slowly and surely, they started to talk about how they remembered their grandparents, their mothers and fathers, their uncles and aunties talking about meditative practices when they were engaged in the ceremony. 

To them, it felt like it came very naturally, which I was very happy about because they seemed to really take to it. They really seem to engage in it. And they really got deeply into it. The first thing is, like, we're not strangers to this. This is part of who we are. So, it was really humbling, but it was also very fulfilling. And I realized as I heard their stories everything, I talked about was pretty much part of their context. And, of course, that had come down from generations. I mean, Northern California was the killing field, one of the last places, the killing fields in the United States, where genocide was happening to complete villages of Indigenous People. And so, they lived through that experience. And so here they are now, today, with their culture taken away, their religions banned and marginalized, and they're incarcerated. So, they have all these different levels of trauma that we have to be aware of. This is work that I've done with Indigenous youth who are incarcerated. 

Fleet Maull: 

And so, I had another question here, which was asked because I know you use the term Indigenous mindfulness. I think you've kind of answered that already, but I don't know if you want to elaborate on that term. From what you said, I get that what we call mindfulness today, various forms of self-awareness and connectedness with oneself with the natural world that was simply part of Indigenous culture. The culture was imbued with this. It was a way of living. And so, when we use the term Indigenous mindfulness today, what are you specifically referencing? 

Michael Yellow Bird: 

Well, I have really come to believe that Indigenous mindfulness is really concerned with the sacred and understanding our place as human beings in the great circle of life, all this interconnectedness that exists. It's really about Indigenous People. I've heard these many times from many Indigenous People throughout the world. It's about the responsibilities that we have to ourselves to one another and to all forms of life, the respect, and the acknowledgment that we give all life. 

In my language, we use the word [Indigenous Language 12:12], which means holy or sacred, to express the sacredness of all life. The term sacred means special, revered, to be with spirit, life-giving, and life-restoring, you know, just like the breath is life-giving and life-restoring. A breath is sacred. And since time immemorial, Indigenous People around the world are considering the world, the lands, the waters, all creatures, and even the cosmos to be sacred and part of what I said was the great circle of life. 

I believe that as I've looked at Indigenous People in their contemplative practices around the world, Indigenous mindfulness is really about engaging and kind of like Jon Kabat Zinn talks about in that definition, in this purposeful Act, to develop the steep awareness, to our connections to the sacred. And when we engage in meditation, we do it on purpose, with purpose, to become enlightened, enlightened especially about our responsibilities and our place in the world, why we are here. 

And so, the sacred and Indigenous mindfulness is really about, you know, besides all these other phenomena, it's about our own history as human beings, the special songs, the dances, the stories, the memories, the ceremonies, seasonal and sort of celestial events, even things that are unexplainable. We meditate on those as human beings, and Indigenous People have continued to do that throughout the world. I think of Indigenous Mindfulness, and that kind of thing is, yes, it's about us, but it's really, we're just a small part of that connection, and how do we fit? I think that's really hard to understand it. 

Fleet Maull: 

Well, I love that definition/description. The Pali word for Mindfulness Sati is sometimes translated simply as remembering. In this age, it can be remembering the sacred. It seems like we moderns need to relearn how to connect with the sacredness of life, and maybe because of the impact of colonization, even some Indigenous youth need to be reminded. But you know that sense of the sacred when we are kind of aware of that or tune into that we're naturally awake, we pay attention because this is sacred, right? If something is sacred, you give it attention. You give it your whole attention, right? And you feel that sense of connection. 

The way in modern life that we've lost that sense of the sacred and, you know, it's all about me and the world. It's this inanimate thing that I get stuff from, and then we leave these very distracted lives, and we've lost touch with our place in the world and with how incredibly powerful, magical, sacred, mysterious, amazing life in the world is. And so, you know, it seems like mindfulness is really a process of remembering that and then being able to tune into that, but when we really get that sense of the sacred, you're talking about, in some sense, awareness can become self-sustaining almost. 

Michael Yellow Bird: 

Yeah, it really is, I think. And when a person engages in, like, to me, Indigenous mindfulness on the land, for example, the more you do it, the more often you do it, the longer you do it. You have, of course, changes in the cortical structure of the brain and also changes in your genetic profile. But also, I think the thing that really kind of over the years has kind of shown me the path is that it's kind of when I get into what sports people call the zone when I am doing meditation on the land, for example, or doing it by the river, or wherever I'm at, you know, I get into the zone, and then I'm able to really bring that focus in and begin to kind of hone in. And at that point, I got into what psychologists call the flow. And then, the flow then begins to make sense where there's a connection to those things, and you begin to understand your really deep and important connection to those things. 

I'm so glad, being an Indigenous person that there are so many stories, so many prayers, so many songs, so many ceremonies that help us connect to that sacred. Right? To get us to be in the zone and then to get into the flow with that. And so, a song, while you're meditating, a song that got a sacred song as you've seen as you mindfully run, or you mindfully eat, or you mindfully sit upon the land. These are all things that sort of get us into that flow into the zone so that the flow can take place that we actually are feeling and understanding and sensing and viewing all these words or these activities in a really alive sense. 

Fleet Maull: 

And then the natural world is such a tremendous support for that. I mean, we can wake up to the sacred in the middle of New York City. But being out of the natural world is a tremendous sport. And in my own core spiritual tradition, which is Tibetan Buddhism, there's a word called drala, which generally references the manifest sacred in the world. It's that quality of recognizing the sacred that literally sometimes is translated as beyond the enemy, which really means kind of beyond duality, beyond differentiation. So, it's that quality of direct connection. 

I remember and, you know, working with various practices to cultivate that awareness, being up at places like a retreat center in the mountains of Colorado, where we did a lot of programs, and in some of those places, once you had been kind of reminded of that, being in some of those environments, it was just so obvious. So tremendous support for getting out in the natural world. The mind tends to quiet down a bit when you're out in the natural world, maybe a little more easily than when we're in the midst of all of our urban affairs or suburban affairs and so forth. That one thing about traditional Indigenous culture is it's completely not separate from the natural world. Right? 

Michael Yellow Bird: 

Right. That's right. No, there's a connection. And when you go back to the genesis stories of most Indigenous People, you'll find that that's the centerpiece. It's not about some deity. It's about the relationship a person has with all these different aspects of life that we know. Like, I said, the land, the waters, the mountains, the forests, the jungles, the streams, the cosmos, and all other forms of life and animals. I mean, with Indigenous People back from my part of the world, where I come from, we have such a strong connection to animals, the different kinds of animals that our last names are traditional names or names of horses, or names of birds, or names of landforms, that we have. 

My last name, Yellowbird, is connected to that kind of understanding. And so, there are people with, you know, all those kinds of names that, of course, that's part of your identity. So, it's reinforced not only through what you see, but you're given these as a child. We have a naming ceremony for our people to enhance their identity. My grandfather pressed into me the knowledge of the people as he gave me my name. Pressed the knowledge into my head, into my face, into my lips, into my chest, into my ears and eyes as he said these sacred words. And, of course, one of the things he said is that, you know, the rocks are witnessing whatever is happening. The river is witnessing what's happening. All the winds and everything is witnessing that you're getting this name and that you have these responsibilities. That's the kind of connection and identity that we get as young people when we're named in a traditional way. 

Fleet Maull: 

I want to move on and talk about your research and work around mindfulness and neuro-decolonization, but just on kind of where we are right now, in Buddhist culture where a lot of the roots of mainstream mindfulness come from today, and also those similar references and current psychology and neuroscience, but when they talk about the sense fields, in the Buddhist traditions of mindfulness, they talked about there's the sense organ, the actual physical eye, there's a sense field. It's kind of like the overall psychological, energetic aspect of that sense. And then there are the objects of the sense. 

They say through meditation practice and mindfulness practices, and they call those sense fields the [da-ya-ta-nus 20:51]. And so, they say what's happening when you're practicing mindfulness and awareness. You're purifying the [da-ya-ta-nus 20:59]. They're becoming unobstructed. And therefore, you start to experience the natural world in all its vividness and sacredness. So many people have had an experience where they've sat, you know, an intensive meditation or mindfulness retreat, maybe for several days of all day sitting, and they come out on a tea break outside, and suddenly the world jumps out, and they've never seen color so bright, so vivid. They've never felt so connected. 

What that's understood is actually our sense perception has been purified, such that we actually can experience the sacred, and when you were describing that naming ceremony, it sounds like many traditions, various rites of passage are about purifying the senses or blessing the senses so we can awaken to sacredness through the five senses. 

Michael Yellow Bird: 

Yeah, completely. And there are a lot of ceremonies that Indigenous People do. And that's why when I think about mindfulness and meditation, it's sitting and walking, and eating, and those kinds of things, but also, ceremony and ritual are really critical pieces in order to help bring alive that sense experience. A lot of times, people are really deep into fasting, I mean, ritual fasting. I fast every day. Every day, I fast. But, you know, long periods of fasting, as I mentioned earlier, are really important to become a healer, to become a traditional doctor, to become a seer, to become one with the senses that are open to these things. 

And so, when you read about Indigenous People, you'll see time after time, after time, where people go, and they do this isolated event, where they do by themselves, or they may have helpers, and they stay there for days, sometimes without food or water, and then they stay in this deep meditative state. They move their bodies in their places to where they can be that long without food or water. I've done it myself personally for many days. I know what kind of intensity it takes. But you know, as you say, a sense is you come alive, and you do experience this kind of greater sort of awareness. A very, very kind of clear awareness. 

Fleet Maull: 

You were describing before some of the atrocities that have happened to Indigenous People around the world, and in particular here in North America, with all history of the conquest and colonization, and the genocide of Indigenous People in North America, and then the whole process of forces civilization and the residential schools. We've all heard a lot more about that in the news of late, and with the atrocities coming to light and the remains being discovered and all of this. It's just horrific. 

We know a lot more about intergenerational trauma today. We know not only what gets passed on to the relationship of parents to a child but also epigenetically. We know that these things can be passed on. And so, clearly, there's all of this intense trauma impact of the history of colonization and still the presence of the mindset of colonization. 

So, before we talk about mindful decolonization or neuro-decolonization, I wonder if you could talk about colonization kind of at the psychological level or the mindset level, which is still very much present and has impacted all of us. I think from what I understand of your work and others who I've looked at that it's not only for the people who were colonized to go through some process of decolonization but the colonizers as well. We all need to decolonize in some way, is my understanding, if I have it correctly. 

And then it's about psychology, conditioning, the mindset, which is even we know today from neuroscience that conditioning is actually in our neurobiology. So, we literally need to change our brains, which I think maybe points in the direction of what you're talking about with neuro-decolonization. Before we talk about the solution if you could talk more about the problem of colonization? Its impact and its conditioning on people. 

Michael Yellow Bird: 

Sure. Sure. I've developed a model around colonization decolonization. Of course, before we talk about decolonization, it's important to understand the context of colonization. It's really just in simple terms. It's the invasion and subjugation of one group by another. And really, colonization is really perpetuated after the initial control over Indigenous People that is achieved through this invasion and subjugation. It's really important for folks to know that colonization is not just an event. It's an ongoing process that continues to happen. Right? 

So, under colonization, I really kind of tried to fill colonization more for Indigenous People. It's a very different form of colonization than other people's minds being colonized as opposed to your whole land, your whole body. Your whole history is colonized. It's very different. Sometimes when you use the term colonization, people use it in terms of oppression or subjugation of one kind. But colonization for Indigenous People meant a whole loss of life, way of customs, the beliefs of the land, of their connection, and imprisonment. Not just imprisonment in your mind, but physical incarceration of people held on reservations or held in reserves or held in different places throughout the world. So, colonization has that kind of aspect to it. It's really about this possession of lands, territories, and resources and preventing Indigenous People from exercising their right to self-determination and development according to who they are as Indigenous People. Right? 

If that were the case, that colonization was not happening. Indigenous People would still be on large tracts of land. They would still be living and trading and doing all these different kinds of things that we did before colonization. And colonization is really a toxic, unwilling power, right? People have talked about it in that way. I'd like to quote Fanon, who is an anti-colonial psychiatrist who says that colonialism is not a thinking machine, or a body endowed with reasoning faculties. It's violent in its natural state and will only yield when it's confronted with greater violence. 

We've sort of seen some of that with George Floyd, you know, that colonization of people in their mind so that they couldn't react. And when people came out on the streets after George Floyd was murdered, they began to confront the system with all its racist images, its racist words, its homophobic attitudes, its marginalization of people of color or BIPOC people, and they started to take down these racist monuments of these southern leaders, these racist words that were taken down like the Washington Redskins ended up finally changing their name. 

That's what Fanon was talking about: colonization doesn't yield unless people come together and force it to yield as a greater, stronger body. It's really about subjugation where people, as I said, are not only confined but they're controlled and manipulated in the sense that colonization has many different forms. Classic colonization, internal colonialism, and there's predatory colonization. And even what they call settler colonialism where now we can live in a world of settler colonialism on Turtle Island in North America and different places like Australia, or El Tierra and New Zealand, where settlers still live and control the lands, and the Indigenous People's voices have been almost completely cut off. Right? 

So, in that sense, Patrick Wolf, who's written about civic colonialism, says that settlers are people who are not Indigenous, no matter who they are. Some people end up in our territories by slave trade or force. Some people come here because of war or escaping climate change, or refugees from one sort or another. But they're all settlers, right? And so, colonization is about pushing out the native person, settler colonialism, taking away their voice, taking away their history, and taking away their presence so that most people don't know about Indigenous People. 

I've been to places where people have said to me, "I didn't know there were Indigenous or Native Americans left. I thought you were all dead." But that's, you know, the history, right? That continues to happen when you watch the news, you read the papers, and you're on social media. You just don't see a lot of native people. That's another part of colonization. It's the subjugation of Indigenous People's identity and their presence in society. And ignoring all of the things that I mentioned earlier, all the violence that's been perpetuated against them, all the poverty that they live in, all of the marginalization, all of the poor health and circumstances that are very challenging that they live in. So, colonization is really that kind of invasion and subjugation. 

Fleet Maull: 

Wow. Well, I'm glad you made that very important distinction that when you're talking about colonization, you're talking about the effect and the impact that this kind of subjugation has had, in this case, on Indigenous Peoples. I guess what I was pointing to, maybe with the mindset of colonization, I guess, is the mindset of the colonizer that for those of us who weren't around back then but if we don't realize that we're still participating in the process of colonization, we could be unconsciously perpetuating it. 

I think the important thing to talk about here is your work with the young people and how you're able to help them sort of undo some of the impacts of colonization, at least for their own mindset, their own psychology, their own emotional well-being, and their own life possibilities. Maybe you could talk now about mindful decolonization and neuro-decolonization and how you would work with youth to not only help them deal with the real challenges that Native American youth are facing throughout the US and Canada, and it depends on where they are, but it can still be incredibly challenging. I've spent some time at Pine Ridge and other places in South Dakota and incredibly resourced areas with tremendous poverty that people are growing in. And so, not only dealing with that but also how to really liberate their own mindset from the impacts of colonization. 

Michael Yellow Bird: 

Yeah. Yeah. Well, yeah, that's a great question. One of the things that I've done with youth early on the first time I taught Indigenous youth any form of mindfulness practice was in 1992. That was at the University of British Columbia. I might have mentioned I did work with the youth in Eureka, and the same thing happened at the University of British Columbia. When I was a professor there, one of my students called me from the Aboriginal Friendship Center on East Hastings and said I needed to do some activities with Native youth. I'm not really sure how to do it. I'm just a White girl. I don't know what to do. So, I went down and sat down. I did some practice with these homeless youth from the streets, Aboriginal youth from Vancouver. 

One of the things we began to talk about was decolonization and colonization and how people ended up on the streets. And students talked a lot about that. They talked about their circumstances, how they ended up coming from their reserves into Vancouver, the long path there, how they ended up on the streets, and what they were doing to survive as a group on the streets. Not only did their great-grandparents and their parents, their grandparents and parents all faced colonization. But then they had to flee from it, too, from poverty. They were fleeing from the violence. They were fleeing from the place where they were incarcerated on these reserves. More or less, they came to the city, and they were trying to make a goal of it. 

And so, one of the things that I started working with them is some breath awareness exercises and talking about empowerment in the breath and that sort of thing. From that point, I started thinking about how important decolonization was to the mind and how mindfulness and contemplative practices could be a part of that. So I came up with this term called neuro-decolonization some years back, and it really refers to the use of contemporary and traditional contemplative practices that can be used to heal the mind from the traumas of colonization. 

And so, I developed a conceptual framework that uses mindfulness research. I took mindfulness research to facilitate an examination of the ways that the human brain that's been colonized is affected by the colonial situation. To do an exploration of Mind-Body activities that really changed the neural networks and enabled individuals to overcome these different effects of trauma and oppression that come from colonization like residential schools, like poverty, like hate crimes, like marginalization, and having your land taken away. 

And so I said about developing through my curriculum some neural mindful decolonization exercises to restore an individual's sense of well-being and sense of resilience to promote healthy behaviors, thoughts, emotions, and actions, and to transform and to teach young people that they can not only transform themselves, but they can use their healing as they heal to transform the structures of oppression that exist. A big part of that, though, as I mentioned earlier, Fleet, is on the land and kids reconnecting to the land, reconnecting to the world around them, reconnecting to their stories, their philosophies, their histories, and their ceremonies. Those things that made them resilient people in the first place that they brought along. 

It's the idea that when I'm teaching mindful decolonization practices, it's really, to me, not only an act of healing, but it's an act of resistance against colonialism. It's a revolution to me. The mind, the brain, and the spirit. I think young people can help them to extinguish the anguish and confusion that they experience living in a colonial situation. That colonialism and hate and hate crimes are too big or too abstract, or too difficult to overcome. Like their ancestors, like their teachers, like their healers, like their spiritual guides have told them that there's a path that they need to follow as a warrior. And you pick up things along the way, keep them close to you. They'll make you strong. 

And what they're talking about is the language, the ceremonies, the wisdom, and calling on your ancestors, right? These are the things that helped me in mind that decolonization helped transform colonialism. So, it's not too big. And by the way, transforming colonialism is not just something Indigenous People have to do. Settlers! Settlers, non-Indigenous People also have to be brought into the struggle to transform colonialism. 

What neuro decolonization does and mindful decolonization does is it invite non-Indigenous People to become allies with Indigenous People to engage in mutual mindful decolonization practices where they sit, or they run, or whatever they do, they mindfully do these practices together, that are the practices that are transformative, and they are able to grow through creative, healthy, decolonize ways of thinking and being and doing and the connection with others to build community. 

Once they build community, the strength of numbers, just like we saw with George Floyd. They can challenge the limitations and the stressors of the colonized thinking in the colonizer's ways of being. And so that's to me, that's kind of when I think about, you know, the early colonization. And what was more mindful decolonization is thinking about what the end product is and what we're always aiming for, right? It's in recognition, as I said, of colonization. It's not just my everyday stress or my oppression or I feel bad today. It's like the idea that there's been this colonization that's been sort of building and accumulating and gaining strength when it's not challenged or resisted, or, you know, gently sort of dismantled or lovingly dismantled, however, you want to dismantle it. 

Fleet Maull: 

Wow. So, everything you're describing is very much in alignment with trauma-informed mindfulness, with the way mindfulness is incorporated into trauma healing, in many different types of trauma work, and also the work to deconstruct racism and so forth. I'm wondering. In working with the youth, I'm sure they realize. I mean, they have some sense of their history and the history of colonization already. But is it helpful that they actually learn something about and understand that there is such a thing as intergenerational trauma and historical trauma, and even the epigenetic impact of that, and that the reason they may be struggling in life is not just their own strengths, or weaknesses, or character, or whatever, that they're actually they're in this really challenging situation? Is it helpful for them to have that context and that information? 

Michael Yellow Bird: 

Yeah, it is. I think that one of the things that I do not only with youth but I do it with elders and adults as well is to explain that at one time, people had different roles and responsibilities years and years ago, and they were good at certain kinds of things. One of the things we understand from cultural neuroscience is that culture and genes evolve together. 

Let's say, for example, we are a group of people that believe in collectivist democracy or something. So, we all have to have a say or many say before we decide on the course of action. We continue to do that, that kind of cooperation, that kind of thinking, that kind of behavior. At some point, we'll begin to help our genes express in a particular kind of way or develop genes around that to help support that democratic kind of thinking, just like an artist, for example. I believe that when people who are artists, who are poets, or musicians who are performers in the arts are people that probably have developed high levels of sensitivity towards things. They are writers, whatever. 

There's a really good bit of research that's been coming out in psychology now about orchid children and dandelion children and how these sensitivities work and people. Orchid kids are these real, sensitive, intelligent, and creative individuals, yet they're very vulnerable to stress, hardship, and oppression. They're very vulnerable. Like an orchid, they can fold very easily under that kind of tension in that kind of environment. Yet, they're very creative. And you have other kids who are like dandelion kids. My older brother, who was in the military during Vietnam. He was a special forces recon guy. Just like that, you know, I'm very different from him. He can walk through fire. I can't. 

We have these differences that existed in society, even way back when before colonization, where people come down, who have these vulnerabilities as orchid kids have these particular genetic profiles. You take those folks, you take them, and from that situation, you put them into an environment where it's even more challenging. My theory is you're going to find what you see among Native populations around the world, higher levels of self-harm, and higher levels of abuse of oneself. And so, suicide, you know, numbers. You see those numbers that are high among Indigenous children. Right. Why is that? People say, "Well, it's trauma." 

Yeah, of course, it's a trauma. But the epigenetic part of it we don't talk about, which is this person probably inherited at some point back a very high level of sensitivity, maybe several generations ago, their families are artists or poets, where they were spiritual storytellers, so they had to have that sensitivity. So they had to be very sensitive to things. You take that sensitivity, and you fast forward it down to this world now, where there's so much hate, hate crimes, poverty, you know, and marginalization, you're going to see the perfect storm where some of these children are going to be at higher risk and more vulnerable. 

So, you're right. I think we need to study epigenetics a lot more. I think you're going to see that in Indigenous collectivist populations, at least, cultural neuroscience supports that, where maybe you'll see in some populations, and of course, this is where I tell you to, maybe you inherited the gene, called the ADRA-2b gene, which makes you sensitive person to negativity. That one point, you know, thousands of years ago, as your ancestors survived because they were very sensitive to negativity. They were mistrustful. They were cautious, and so on. But they carry that gene down. 

And along with that gene, there's also what in this particular gene study is what they call emotionally enhanced vividness. Meaning that if they are exposed to trauma, that trauma, it's not like a person who doesn't have two copies of that particular gene that they're, you know, who just says, "Oh, that was quite a trauma." This other person will see it. They will smell it. They relive it. The memory, it'll be very complex and very difficult to go away. But at one time, it served them well that they needed to have that very vivid, emotionally enhanced experience so they could be storytellers. They could be artists. They could be seers. They could define the future. Right? 

So that kind of thing now exists today that we are barely even getting a handle on. So, anyone who studies trauma, I think, needs to understand that not only do these genes exist, but as you said, epigenetically, it may be even more powerful for people like Indigenous People or other people of color who are put in these circumstances, which is why you see higher levels or lower life expectancy, more disease, more isolation, more different kinds of bad outcomes, right. We're just now discovering those kinds of things. The evidence is clear. But when you look at history at one point, you know, as I said, it bears repeating those things was an advantage to us. Now, we're in this place where it's called an evolutionary mismatch. It doesn't work well in society. 

Fleet Maull: 

Wow, it's fascinating. And yeah, neuroscience and so, the depth of which we're beginning to understand these things is so important because we can make assumptions about what other people's experience is. Not only across cultures but even within cultures, it can be radically different. And, you know, there is that I liked that image of, you know, the artists, which always has that natural sensitivity versus the dandelion, right, that can grow anywhere. 

The beginning of our deeper understanding of trauma began with the adverse childhood experience studies. We saw that they said in the same situation, some children thrive, and some are really traumatized and debilitated. Right. And there's also this possibility of post-traumatic growth. And the age-old idea of the wounded healer, right? And very often, even I think, an Indigenous person, sometimes the seer, or the medicine person, or so forth, has been through some kind of illness, been through some kind of trauma. And that's not to justify trauma at all, but there's always the possibility, but it requires a lot of sensitivity and not making any assumptions about any particular individual and what they may actually be experiencing or dealing with or what their pathway to healing might look like. 

Along those lines, we're kind of near the end of our time. But one thing you mentioned before, you mentioned the culture of warriors in Native traditions. And so, for any human being, when we've really suffered a lot of traumas of whatever kinds, it can really push us into a kind of a very disempowered kind of victim mindset. And we have been victimized, so it's completely natural to feel that way. But it can lead us to identify with that in such a way that it becomes very disempowering. I'm wondering what's the pathway to realize, yes, I have been victimized, but then sign a move into healing and empowering oneself and that sense of warrior. Is that sense of warriorship more appropriate for the more, to use your analogy, the dandelion type? Or is it crossed with the artistic type as well? 

I'm just wondering how to come out in terms of fully recognizing these impacts of colonization, all kinds of victimization, and resisting it and pushing back and stopping it, but also doing the work so you can move forward in your own life in a more empowered way. I'm curious about the ethic of warriorship within native traditions and how that all might connect. 

Michael Yellow Bird: 

Yeah, so warriorship has changed over the years. It's changed a lot. There are different kinds of warriors. There are different kinds of warriors that exist within society. A lot of times, people don't realize that people back in the day before colonization, there were so many rites of passage that young people went through. And, of course, they were vetted. And they were watched and observed to find out how young people went through these rites of passage. Maybe some went through as dandelions. Maybe some went through as orchids or whatever, how they went through. 

And, of course, they were selected to do different kinds of things to where their strengths were most beneficial to themselves and to others so that they could have this enlightenment and realization about what their purpose was. And so, that's one of the things that we don't do these days is we don't provide that kind of healthy rites of passage for young people. We don't guide them through those hardships. We don't coach them through those challenges in their life. That's a full-time job doing that. It's not just a part-time kind of thing. 

Kids can go to school eight hours a day, and they can get none of that. To me, I look at Indigenous cultures around the world developmentally. That was critical to their survival, their well-being, and their ability to have resilience against some of the forces they couldn't control. And so, when death appeared or when hunger appeared, they used whatever was available to come to that kind of thing, to touch fear, to touch death, to touch hunger, whatever it is to understand the idea that I'm here in the here and now and that impermanence is part of the condition of human beings, and while we're here we work towards that common goal of bringing up the highest good and the greatest purpose that we have. 

At that very early age, people are coached to do that, and they're guided to do that to take on those hardships. I think that's one of the things about before eating, even getting to, you know, consider yourself to be a warrior in this training sort of mode, I guess, for different periods of time, and you're instructed, and you're taught to, and you're celebrated, you're protected, you are doctored. All these things help you move through these different stages of challenges in your life. 

Some cultures used to take, like, I think its Yupik cultures used to take the young boys from their moms at age 10, no more Mommy, you grew up with the men, and they would learn from the men about being a man how to how to give back to the village their responsibilities. They could have never, ever survived in the conditions that they lived in, in the Arctic, in such harsh conditions, if they did not have a particular kind of way to build that resilience early on. I know that from the studies that I've done about Indigenous cultures that all the things that they've done: singing, dancing, celebrating, fasting, prayer, meditation, all these different kinds of things, you know, challenging themselves through many different kinds of ways helped build up and be guided to that. It helps build cognitive resilience in the brain. 

I've seen brain scans of how cognitive resilience shows up in the prefrontal cortex and what kinds of things bring about this mild bioenergetic stress that when you challenge children to do something, to hold their focus, listen to the story, swim across this cold pool of water, or to whatever it is they do. Those kinds of things today are what Indigenous People did years ago that would produce mild bioenergetic stress in the body, challenging the cells, and the cells respond by getting stronger. We know that science now. We don't do those kinds of things now. We barely give kids any time now, today, for a play in school. They rarely get recess or time to play or explore or to do things as we did earlier, like free-range kids back in the reservation. We spent hours and hours on the land riding horses, sitting on these rivers or climbing these hills, or doing all those things that challenged us. 

And of course, when we dance, when we pray, when we participate in a ceremony, we always have elders there guiding us through those kinds of things. And we were challenged, you know, in different ways to do these kinds of things. Right. And, of course, at that time, when I was growing up, some of that stuff was being banned, or it was being lost along the way. So now, I think what we're doing is we're returning back to that time, which decolonization is all about. People are now rediscovering things like mindfulness, which is an ancient practice that will help us cope with stress. Is it going to change structural oppression? Is it going to change racism and hate crimes? I don't know. We have to do more than that to kind of prepare the person as they move to become that warrior. 

And among a lot of the Great Plains tribes being a warrior, you get one feather for bravery. You get two for this. You get three pretty soon. You see this person who is not only great, but they have very impeccable behavior. They're very kind. They're generous. They're helpful. That's what a warrior is. It's not just one feather about harming others or killing others or fighting others. It's about all these different ways that a person has learned to become a complete human being. And that's when you see someone endowed with all these feathers or all these accouterments that are sacred. 

Fleet Maull: 

Well, Michael, it's been an incredibly rich conversation. And obviously, we have a long way to go in terms of bringing back wisdom and culture into humanity altogether. And for those of us who are among the settler and European population, at least try to get out of the way of Indigenous People being able to do that for themselves. But you know, humanity altogether, I mean, there's such a need to return to a wisdom-based culture and properly bring children into that because clearly, the impacts of not doing that are becoming obviously unsustainable. 

This is really rich. And a lot of what you said, not to take away anything from the specificity of it to Indigenous culture but a lot of what you've been talking about in terms of the mindset and the work, I think really applies to prison work altogether and working with incarcerated populations and how we can transform the criminal justice system. I'm in deconstruction. I mean, the criminal justice system is just another kind of form of some kind of colonization or whatever. It's certainly oppression. 

Hence, how do we decondition ourselves and deconstruct that and help the people who are in the systems and people working in systems? We all have to find some way to liberate all this. I think that deep understanding that you've been talking about, about the conditioning and about the trauma and how to begin to undo that through mindfulness and contemplative practices, is just incredibly important and very rich. Thank you. 

Michael Yellow Bird: 

Thank you, Fleet. 

Fleet Maull: 

So, how can people find out more about your work? I know you have a website. 

Michael Yellow Bird: 

I do have a website called You can find that on the web, But also, a lot of my work you can also find on my faculty website at the University of Manitoba, Faculty of Social Work. 

Fleet Maull: 

Wonderful. Well, thank you so much. Be well and thank you for being part of our summit.


Michael Yellow Bird: 

Thank you, Fleet. 


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