“Rights and responsibilities cannot be separated. Every right that we stand upon must be balanced by a set of corresponding responsibilities. We cannot legitimately make a demand unless we are willing to take responsibility for creating a world where that demand can be met.”
Sherri Mitchell Weh’na Ha’mu Kwasset is the daughter of two First Nations, the Penobscot and the Passamaquoddy tribes, whose sovereign territories are found within the borders of the state of Maine. Both nations are members of the Wabanaki Confederacy, which also includes the Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, and Abenaki peoples, and the Indigenous Algonquian language group. But it is in clear, powerful English that Sherri delivers the message of our interconnected and shared histories and our inextricable reliance on the vast and beautiful web of life.
Raised on the Penobscot Indian Island Reservation, Mitchell inherited tradition, culture, and a deep sense of responsibility to her people. Her Passamaquoddy grandmothers spoke their Indigenous language fluently. Sherri spent time with them preparing materials for basket making, harvesting and preparing traditional foods, learning about kindness and charity, and hearing the stories of her people’s history and connection to place. Her grandfathers were tribal leaders who drew from an historical relationship to the land to envision a path forward for the Penobscot people. Two of her great grandfathers held the office of chief of the Penobscot Nation. Her maternal grandfather, Ted Mitchell, with whom she was especially close, spent three decades working to establish a path for Indigenous students to enter higher education. He founded the Native American Studies Program and the Wabanaki Center, a “gathering place for indigenous scholars,” at the University of Maine.
From her elders, Mitchell gained an understanding that the Earth doesn’t need us, but that we need the Earth. The Earth, she was taught, is not a resource for us to take but is instead the source of our survival. This concept is at the core of everything she does. As an Indigenous rights lawyer, she does not presume that we are the stewards of the Earth; rather, our job is to be stewards of a way of life that fosters harmony and balance among all living things.
Mitchell teaches that everyone has been hurt by our shared history; the oppressed, the oppressors and even the witnesses have suffered. To heal our spiritual and psychological well being, Mitchell says that we need to stop arguing over who is the bigger victim and make space to sit together with our painful histories in order to discover a unified way forward. The Western European model of the “supremacy of the individual,” says Mitchell, “is completely separate from the Indigenous way of life and a sure path to suicide for the entire species. We have to rebuild community, share resources, grow food, protect water sources and create our own energy. We have to be willing to take action, individually and collectively. We have no authority to make a demand if we are unwilling to create a world where that demand can be met. If we want to legitimately claim our rights, we have to be willing to stand up to our responsibilities.” In other words, we will survive and prosper together or not at all.
Sherri graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maine, and received her J.D. and a certificate in Indigenous People’s Law and Policy from the University of Arizona’s James E. Rogers College of Law. She has participated in both the American Indian Ambassador Program and the Udall Native American Congressional Internship Program. In 2010, she received the Mahoney Dunn International Human Rights and Humanitarian Award, for research into human rights violations against Indigenous peoples, and she is the 2015 recipient of the Spirit of Maine Award for commitment and excellence in the field of international human rights. Mitchell was a longtime advisor to the American Indian Institute’s Healing the Future Program and served as an advisor to the Indigenous Elders and Medicine People’s Council of North and South America. Her writing has appeared in journals, anthologies and other publications, and she speaks and teaches on issues of Indigenous rights, environmental justice, peace building, strategic nonviolence and spiritual activism throughout the United States and Canada. Her broad base of knowledge allows her to synthesize these many subjects into a cohesive whole, weaving together the legal, political, and spiritual aspects surrounding a multitude of complex issues.
Mitchell has a private law practice in the State of Maine and is the Founding Director of the Land Peace Foundation, an organization dedicated to the global protection of Indigenous rights and the preservation of the Indigenous way of life. She is the cohost of Love (and revolution) Radio, a radio program that highlights heart-based activism and revolutionary spiritual change around the world, and she is author of Sacred Instructions: Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change. (2018).
Key to this revolutionary spiritual change, believes Mitchell, will be our ability to leave behind the idea that to conquer is noble and to destroy what we oppose is heroic. She believes that it is not really in our nature as human beings to destroy. Instead, she argues, the killing and destruction that we participate in, directly or indirectly, separates all of us from the deep shared knowledge that all life is sacred.
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