What Does it Mean to be an Indigenous Spiritual Gangster?
I always get a kick out of MC's and hosts who read my speaker bio before I take the stage. They always smile and giggle a little when they read "Len is a Coast Salish Consultant, public speaker, educator, cultural practitioner and spiritual gangster". I am intentional with everything I do. I have "spiritual gangster" in my bio with set intention on letting my audience know that I am indeed a spiritual person. However, it just felt way too serious to have "spiritual guru, or spiritual guide, or spiritual practitioner" in my introduction. Speaker biographies are so serious any way and I want to reflect my work as less serious than it needs to be. I built a career on having complicated and complex conversations about culture, race, racism, discrimination, decolonization, substance use, and trauma. As terrifying as that sounds I loathe being so serious about it all. So I intentionally added "spiritual gangster" to my bio to be less serious while honouring my spiritual position in all the work I do.
First, let me explain a little about my spirituality and how I practice it. Then I will go into why I see myself as a spiritual gangster in todays day and age. In my amazing Indigenous life (so far), I grew up surrounded and rooted in Coast Salish spirituality. In that regard I consider myself culturally privileged (cultural privilege is a whole other blog post I will tell you about later). I grew up learning how to pray to the Creator instead of God. I grew up with hearing songs and watching the spiritual dances of my people in the longhouse. I learned at an early age that the passing of loved ones was a loss for us in the physical realm, but a rejoice for our ancestors in the spiritual realm who were happy and excited to welcome a new relative. Much like how we rejoice and get excited when a family member gives birth and we welcome a new baby to the family. In my youth, my elders taught me that I had a spirit within me that needed care, guidance, time, and attention. I was also taught that spirits are also around us all the time. They are in the rocks, the trees, our pets, the four legged animals, the winged relatives that fly, and our finned relatives that live in the rivers, streams, lakes, and oceans. In this regard everything is sacred and I hold these teachings at the core of my being and within my work. Spirits are also free flowing beings that come and go through songs, dreams, visions, deja vu, ideas, and feelings. In Coast Salish culture we hang cedar boughs above the door way to cleanse the spirit of people entering the doorway.
Today, I pray every day and sometimes multiple times a day. I cleanse my spiritual-self with cedar boughs, water, smudge, sweet grass, and by candle light. My greatest spiritual strength comes from praying by the water. Where I can surrender that which no longer serves me by offering negative thoughts and feelings to the water and Mother Earth. It is where I give thanks, connect to the Creator, connect to my ancestors who have done the same for countless generations before me. It is where I find my strength to do what I have to do.
Okay, now to the fun part. Why do I self-identify as a quote unquote spiritual gangster? Typically, a spiritual gangster is hip language to identify new age thinkers who combine ancient wisdom with modern day popular wellness practices like meditation and yoga (which I know are also ancient). While I also do meditate and practice yoga, this is not why I identify as a spiritual gangster. I do think through my cultural lens if feels different to be an Indigenous spiritual gangster. For one, my spirituality and the practices I use go back to the beginning of time and I practice these in the traditional lands of where they were created. My practice is intimate in the sense that I did not obtain this ancient wisdom from another part of the world. In that sense I feel it is visceral and organic. Again, this is not why I think I am so gangster about it. I think my gangsterness comes from having the courage and bravery to let my spiritual-self penetrate through a professional ego and the corporate culture that we all work in. Let's be honest, when did you ever sit in a business meeting and open up with a prayer before commencing with work? Well, if you are Indigenous and are reading this or work for an Indigenous organization then of course you do this as well. This has kind of become a new way of doing business for us Indigenous folk by opening up with prayer. But why stop there? Often when I facilitate in-services for professional development I will end the session with a reflective prayer to take care of the participants who have invited me. Not always, as it is not always a safe environment to do so. But when I sense deeply that there is a spiritual vibration in the room/Zoom call that there is receptivity to it, I will do it. I do it because I know my participants don't always have time or leadership to sit, be, and breathe, and give thanks in just a few short moments. It's how I like to take care of people with my very short span of time with them.
Ok, here's why I get a little more provocative with my gangsterness, yes I know its not a real word. So as a result of colonialism and the attempted genocide of my people and culture, our spiritual ideology has been punctured. Colonial western values have probed its way into some of our spiritual values and knowledge systems. I did not discover this until my adult life by undertaking decolonization work. I will not go into details out of respect for my elders, spiritual teachers, and fellow Indigenous spiritual practitioners - as this is our work solely. But it is there, it is real, and some harms happen within our community as a result. With this interpretation, I am cautious, curious, and critical when I sense colonial morals in Indigenous spiritual practices (of my own experience) like exclusion, hierarchy, patriarchy, holiness & evil binaries, etc. In this regard, I am a spiritual gangster in my own cultural community. At least until we arrive at a point of understanding and massive decolonial ideology. I offer these insights as my own personal perspective and for the purpose of learning with Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike. I hope that fellow Indigenous readers will resonate or at the very least feel validated reading this. It is by no means all doom and gloom in the entirety of our spiritual practices but there are certainly residues left behind in many of our spiritual practices that I can see.
Lastly, I also feel like a little bit of spiritual gangster by being brave with my spiritual identity being immersed into my professional identity and work ethic. It is part of my holistic practice in all that I do. I do nothing in life by separating my mind, body, spirit, and emotions. Spirituality does not exist inside a box, a day of the week, a scheduled time of the day. When I speak, teach, facilitate, I call deep on the holistic engagement of the people I work with. That is the beauty of holding space in a decolonial way.
Thank you for reading.