Transfiguration: Why Indigeneity is the Future

words by ruth H. hopkins

photograph by Tyana Arviso

As parts of the world begin to emerge from the chrysalis of quarantine, Ruth H. Hopkins reflects on the paradigm shifts the pandemic has brought—and why decolonization is critical for the evolution of our species.

It’s been nearly a year and a half since the pandemic began. Little did we realize, in January 2020, just how much the novel coronavirus would change our world in every manner imaginable, from minuscule to life-altering—individual to systemic.


Globally, more than 3 million souls have perished from it. In the United States, nearly 600,000 were lost, and it’s not over yet. Some communities were more impacted than others. As a Reservation Native, COVID-19 rocked my world. We lost countless elders, fluent language speakers, community leaders and loved ones. My father was one of them. I became the primary caregiver for my mother, who is also an elder and vulnerable to the virus.


Fighting the pandemic day-to-day shook me to my very core. It broke my pride. It showed me, up close and personal, what’s really important and everything that I had been taking for granted for so long. It shuffled my priorities, and it shifted my point of view. Perhaps I am like the seed that only opens after it’s been scorched by fire, because like so many others, I am not the same person I was before the plague began. It hurt, but in the breaking, I shed my armor and was reborn.


To say that we live in perilous times is an understatement, and I’m not just talking about the pandemic. Humanity is at war with itself. As I type these words, there are multiple genocides happening across continents. We are in the midst of a self-inflicted climate emergency that threatens to destroy all life on planet Earth. Our capitalistic economy, which is built to ultimately implode, is failing. Every five seconds, a child dies from preventable causes that are attributable to living in poverty. And perhaps above all, we face a crisis of spirit.


Precipices, however, are more than danger zones. They present us with an opportunity to make different choices. We can choose to fall from grace or face our fears and forge a new path.


In times like these, cycles are broken. Unhealthy cords can be severed, and toxic patterns can be destroyed in favor of forming more effective, better ones. Going back to “normal” is not the answer. Like Sitting Bull once said, it is time to pick up the good, and leave behind the bad.


To some, widespread systemic change seems like an impossible undertaking and paradigm shifts seem unfathomable. But it’s already happening.

Perhaps I am like the seed that only opens after it’s been scorched by fire, because like so many others, I am not the same person I was before the plague began. It hurt, but in the breaking, I shed my armor and was reborn.

There’s a new book out, called Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, by Dr. Suzanne Simard. You may have read her recent feature in Atmos. Dr. Simard has a PhD in forestry sciences and is a professor of forest ecology. Her groundbreaking research first came to prominence in 1997, when her paper entitled “The Wood-Wide Web” was published in the well-respected science journal Nature.


Within, she uncovered the secret world of mycorrhiza, which is the symbiotic relationship that fungi and plants share. You see, unbeknownst to settlers, forests function as large systems. The roots of trees are joined together by fungal networks. These dense connections relay nutrients, hormones, and messages between different trees. The most connected trees are the oldest ones, which is why Simard has given them the moniker “Mother Trees.”


How vast are these underground networks? Their complexity is said to rival that of the human brain, and the largest living organism in the world is mycelium that covers 3.8 km under the state of Oregon.


Amazing, right? Dr. Simard is not without her detractors, though. Her work is considered controversial in some circles because it’s oppositional to Darwinism and requires a cognitive shift away from the idea that nature is little more than resources present for patriarchal, colonial capitalists to exploit.


Her work reveals a different side of nature that isn’t violent or “savage” at all. It’s cooperative, altruistic, generous, and downright loving.  When Mother Trees die, they give their carbon away to other trees, so they might grow stronger. Through these subterranean systems, trees will also warn other organisms about the approach of predatory insects, or the onset of disease.


Inside of these symbiotic systems, energy is preserved so nothing is lost.


There are folks who don’t consider Simard’s work innovative—Indigenous people. She readily admits this and rightly credits them for the scientific knowledge they’ve carried and protected for millennia about the ecosystems they inhabit.


“It is science!” Simard has said of Indigenous ways of knowing. “Closely observed science, way more mature, we’re not even close. The [current] scientific method is a narrow way of seeing things.”


Simard has also developed a keen understanding of the importance of connectedness, and how that sense of relatedness to all things, like trees in the forest, can help us save them from extinction. As Indigenous peoples have long held, our relationship to other living things is key to their survival, as well as our own.


As a Native woman who is also a university-educated biologist, I’m happy to see scientists like Simard embrace Indigenous teachings with humility and expand their knowledge base. It’s been obstructed by racism, classism, sexism, and colonialism for centuries—all of which is blocking our evolution as a species.


She found the truth by observing nature with an open heart and daring to view it without having her vision obscured by the orthodox dogma that still tends to prevail in academia.


Don’t get me wrong. Western scientists have made many “discoveries” that were known by Indigenous peoples hundreds or even thousands of years ago. What sets Dr. Simard apart is her acknowledgment of Indigenous science and its significance, and her ability to explain how colonialism and capitalism undermine scientific progress and further development of the human intellect.


Colonialism kills. It commodifies everything under the sun as capital and nothing more, exploiting it until it is dead. The mighty, ancient forests that Dr. Simard studies are at risk of being wiped out forever because we refuse to protect them. We allow self-anointed gods of avarice, in the name of profit and convenience, to cut down what took thousands of years to grow and has nurtured and given life to so many.


Meanwhile, here in the Americas, our elders were sacrificed on the altar of wall street so the machine wouldn’t miss a beat as governments refused to issue mask mandates and lockdowns that would have safeguarded our most vulnerable from COVID-19 exposure and saved thousands of lives.


Decolonization is key to curing everything that ails us, from the pandemic to climate change. Simard’s work is just one instance that proves that people who come from colonial society can transform themselves and thereby their fields of expertise and assist in decolonizing the system from within. It is a spiritual journey, but one anybody is capable of embarking upon. The future, should we see it, will be Indigenized.

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