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Giving Back To The Land: Decolonizing Forest Therapy

Updated: Jul 8

Having Honest Conversations about Settler Colonialism, Healing, and the Wellness Industry

I am a settler: What is Settler Colonialism?

Hi, my name is Summer. I am introducing myself as a White 4th generation settler of European descent.

I am naming & honoring the stolen ancestral land where I have collected these stories I wrote: the Tonkawa, Lipan Apache, Yaqui, Dine, Tigua Pueblo, Tulum, Ogala Lakota, Comanche, Kiowa, Wichita, Chickasaw, and Waco peoples.

It is awkward for me to pronounce my heritage as a settler at the beginning of this article because it’s a reminder of the tragic history of my European ancestors stealing land from the original protectors of the land, however, this is one of the ways I can practice decolonizing settler colonialism.

So what is settler colonialism and why should we practice decolonizing? Why am I doing this? What is the intention behind getting into this uncomfortable and messy process?

Settler colonialism is not only the physical process of stealing land, but the impact of it on the American society/culture. Decolonization is unraveling this process, including the rematriation of Indigenous land and resources.

I am exploring these questions because it is the only way I can be honest with myself and my communities on this path of healing (or being a professional in the field of “wellness”). Often we say Forest Bathing and Nature is for everyone- but in our modern society, healing & therapy is not accessible for all. While we stand among a sea of white faces who call ourselves “healers,' not realizing we are awash in environmental racism. While we sit with good intentions in our Sharing (or Harvest) Circles, Indigenous people are not only displaced from their ancestral homelands, but many are still without clean water, fighting the cold winters, dealing with the trauma of cultural genocide, alcoholism, suicide, pain, etc. We speak of diversity and inclusion, but our programs aren’t a reflection of that diversity. Often when I guide, I mention land acknowledgment and speak of peoples of the land we occupy, but I was trained to not go in detail- this has always bothered me. So, this is my opportunity to open up and share this part of my unpacking and decolonizing what “healing” truly means.

“Settler colonialism is the root of many of the health challenges that people face today- Indigenous or not- and that understanding this will help people heal.”- from The Seven Circles, Indigenous Teachings for Living Well.

So, understanding settler colonialism and its impact on our healing is the goal of this article series.

Just as more of us are becoming educated on the painful truth of the history behind Thanksgiving and having conversations about being ethical with Halloween costumes and avoiding any cultural appropriation, some of us are also unpacking and unlearning through the process of decolonization, especially in the wellness industry.

In conversations I’ve had with various Indigenous healers, elders, as well as people from other historically marginalized ethnic groups and my colleagues who are consciously navigating the same path of unraveling this difficult but important process, many of us agree that everyone needs healing. But the question is, what does healing look like? How do we make sure our tools of “healing” do not strip anyone of access or reinforce the colonizer's tools? We begin with educating ourselves with the problems of settler colonialism.

Problem with Binary Thinking: Learning from the Elders

Settler colonialism is based on a binary understanding of the universe that divides the mind from the body, the material from the sacred, the human from nature. For Indigenous Peoples, the sacred has always been reflected in the interconnection of human beings and Mother Earth. Indigenous ways of knowing are inherently holistic, grounded in reciprocal relationships between land and people with a strong emphasis on local knowledge. -Mother Earth: Decolonize

The “binary understanding” that Nature is apart (separate) from us humans, that wilderness is “out there”, is one example of a “colonialist” perspective that we have to take into account because we are very much part of Nature, woven in Nature’s web. As Forest Therapists, we being the “doors” could perpetuate the fact that there are indeed separate worlds in which we bring humans into Nature- rather than discovering the Nature that is already in ourselves. When we acknowledge and work on figuring out how we can dismantle this illusion that we are separate, this is a good start on decolonizing ourselves and our practices.

I had heard stories of Ogala Lakota elder, Basil Braveheart and had been following his pivotal work on Forgiveness and Reparations, where he discusses the idea that we must realize that we all are one, and that we must learn the act of forgiveness. On my cross-country trip last year, I was hoping to visit Basil. Through one of our connections, and with much praying and gratitude, Basil and his family openly received me.

Shortly after my arrival, I was led into a ceremonial house up on the hill on his land. He set up a ceremony setting and gave me tobacco wrapped in a red cloth, a traditional Lakota way of asking for teachings, with respect/honor. “So, Summer” he spoke to me through an interpreter. “I’m hearing all these things about “Forest bathing”… could you please tell me more about it?”

I replied with a smile… “There's nothing that I do that you don’t do. In fact, you and your ancestors are more of an expert in this Nature connection than I am. You speak with the Buffalo, you thank the plants, you’re practicing Interbeing. If there is any human culture out there that models Nature connection, I would say it is the Indigenous peoples. What I do as a guide, is that I simply open the doors.” He smiled, and nodded- seemingly satisfied with the answer. Then went on to ask me questions about being deaf and silence.

Then it was my turn, I turned to him- with wrapped tobacco in my hand. I was nervous, hoping he wouldn’t think I was on a White Savior mission and needed his blessing/ permission to be a “healer” nor did I want to appear like I was desperately begging for forgiveness for what my ancestors did. I simply want to know as a spiritual being with a passion for Nature & Human connection, that I was on the right path.

I fumbled with words and ended up saying: “What can I learn from you, the Great Spirit, and Indigenous nations & people on how to strengthen my spiritual journey and assist in healing the Earth and its peoples?” He smiled and gave me the manual of the unpublished book “The Sacred Tree” to read, which I did for the next three days I stayed there. In it, he shared visions passed down from his grandparents and from other spiritual predecessors. His book repeatedly emphasized the message that we are all connected.

We all come from the womb of Mother Earth. We’ve gone through and continue to go through pain, war, violence, anger, depression and sadness, which are all part of life, part of divine creation, which is a union between light and shadow.

Basil mentions that our estrangement from the earth and our fixation with technology and the materialistic, corporate world, leads to more pain. For healing to happen, we have to go back to our roots. We have to feed our spirits and our souls. That is how we will heal. For healing to happen, we need to be active in our inner work, in our community work, and in our acknowledgement of the earth. Our actions that have led to destruction, theft, and exploitation must be transformed into forgiveness and healing. Basil and I shared this message to the Deaf community where he signed "connection" as a way to express Mitakuye Oyasin, the Lakota term for "we all are related."

Our time together was deep, whether we were conversing, praying, or spending time together in silence. I was beyond honored and thanked him for him giving me access to such sacred wisdom and knowledge. Right before my departure, he called Hilary, a dear friend of his, on the phone and said you both must meet.

A few months later, I met with Hilary Giovale, who identifies as a 9th generation settler of European descent. Hilary is largely involved with the decolonization process through her writing, interviews, and webinars. She also worked with Basil and several indigenous leaders supporting the process of reparations and forgiveness. We had great conversations, although difficult and painful at times, it gave me more clarity on how to work together in the process of decolonization. One thing I learned was that we do need to recognize our privilege, learn about our own ancestors, and learn how to dismantle the racism, the appropriation, and the harm we do when we borrow and use “tools” of healing. For example, she uses the term “settler” to describe her identity, which later inspired me to initiate the practice at the beginning of this article.

Through our meetings, I understood more why Basil introduced me to Hilary. Not just because we were both White people examining and deconstructing systemic racism and exploitation of Native Americans, but because we could support each other to decolonize and heal together. Hilary’s writings also led me to consider the importance of looking into my settler privileges, my ancestral trauma, listening to and supporting Indigenous leaders, and setting up a guideline for those who want to work in the field of wellness and healing.

Hilary introduced me to several readings, one of them was pivotal in helping me understand and better explain the Wellness Myth. In the next section, I share what I learned from that book, American Detox, and apply it to my own experiences and the questions I have as a Forest Therapy guide.

Decolonizing Healing: Learning about the Myth of Wellness

American Detox: The Myth of Wellness and How We Can Truly Heal uncovers the truth of American “healing” culture and how the wellness industry has become a weapon of dominant systems to distract people from the reality of corporate materialism of the self-care movement:

“Wellness is not making us well. It’s making us worse. While wellness promotes enlightenment, the circumstances of our lived reality tell a different story. The many crises we are facing - from infectious diseases to racial injustice, to extreme income inequality, to accelerating climate change. While wellness exploits our fears and vulnerabilities, it does nothing to address the systems that got us here in the first place.”

Most outdoor recreation and wilderness therapy programs are “overwhelmingly homogenous, remote, insular, expensive and exclusive.” Living in the modern United States, we navigate day in and day out the societal reinforcement of the ways that we are not enough- thus the "need" for healing, because we're not good enough, strong enough, fast enough, smart enough.

People of color and those with marginalized identities in particular experience this on a more systematic basis, and this can lead to increased stress, chronic health conditions, and mental health concerns. Our programs are often only healing for people who represent the white, heterosexual, and cisgender dominant culture.

An example of settler colonialism practiced by the outdoor, nature connection and wellness industry is their portrayal of Native Americans as historical figures, rather than part of American society- real people who are alive today. The perpetuation of this historical portrayal erases the existence of Native participants, and further alienates anyone with Native blood- making them feel invisible. Additionally, many Americans (and other tourists) also glorify and romanticize our state and national parks, but the designation of land as national parks came as the result of indigenous displacement, a process in which many people were pushed into poverty in cities or onto reservations with depleted soil, their cultures and traditions stripped from them in the process.

Wellness is extreme materialism masquerading as spiritual practice to make us feel good while emptying our wallet. It is the commoditization of ideas like “self care” and empowerment as something you can buy. And it is a $4.5 trillion global industry that is servicing the millions of people who are desperate to be well. While wellness soars, so does inequality. -American Detox, Kelly, p.3

In addition to settler colonialism, the outdoor “healing” industry has shown signs of cultural appropriation. Today’s wellness industry and healing practices draw on many spiritual and mind-body practices that are borrowed from Indigenous cultures. While we “borrow”, we have divorced the practices from their original contexts and commodified them into our own. Embedded in many teachings and programs are “ceremonial” sharing circles, “rites of passage”, dream weaving, sweat lodges, or using buckskin drums or talking sticks in our gatherings, or South Asia traditions of using mandalas, Mala beads, etc.

For us who are new Nature and Forest Therapy guides and business owners, there is a constant process of experimenting and improvisation, and often we are unaware of the origins of these traditions and wisdom that we have borrowed. Additionally, we act as “expert nature guides”, taking people on the land that was stolen from indigenous peoples who are very much alive. When we do acknowledge the people who lived on the land where we guide, we sometimes forget that we could partner with them.

It is often a fine line between cultural sharing and cultural appropriation, but if we continue to acknowledge- like we make effort to acknowledge the land we are guiding on- asking the Forest for permission, practice and model reciprocity in our interaction with nature, plants, and the More Than Human World. Perhaps some of our earnings can be more than just donations back to Indigenous peoples or land back movements, perhaps it is offering to pay for their teachings in our programs?

In my training to become an certified guide through the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, I noticed and appreciated how the organization strongly emphasized the philosophy of interbeing, interconnectedness, and reciprocity - it helped remind us how connected we are to Nature. Although there are many white faces in this organization, important conversations are brought up. We do land acknowledgements, recognize and include trauma-informed approaches, and acknowledge and name our edges (sitting in discomfort). It is important to acknowledge the “growth” of the organization and learning and sharing, and I know that there is much more to be done. And we cannot do it alone. Without decolonization, these are simply bandaids- a superficial remedy for our white guilt and oppresses us rather than heal.

Forest and Nature therapy is intentional spiritual work. It should be. It is not an “Instagrammed” spirituality pose as I have often seen posed within my own algorithm on Instagram (Yes, I use social media to market my business and connect with others). When it becomes commercialized and/or a form of “spiritual bypassing”- then the true spirit of Nature Connection becomes inauthentic and more of a materialistic image of ownership/ settler colonialism.

We cannot continue to do “spiritual bypassing” and call ourselves healers. This “self-care” trend, the feel-good action of “healing” is very privileged only a few have access to. I want to acknowledge while it is uncomfortable to talk about ancestral trauma, it is important to decolonize and talk about this important topic. In the next article, I will be exploring what true healing can look like, based on various perspectives from the field of racial, environmental, and disability justice.

The question we, as guides or work in the field of healing, must ask ourselves and each other constantly is,

What harm are we doing borrowing ideas, traditions, and rituals from other cultures?

What would be considered cultural and/or land appropriation?

What are we doing to make reparations?

What are we contributing by being the “doors'' for others to access healing that comes from the Forest, the true therapist?

...Part 2 forthcoming to learn more about decolonizing and healing, with an emphasis on inclusion. Follow us if you want to be notified.

Consider donating to these Deaf Indigenous organizations and those who support marginalized identities:

Turtle Island Hand Talk -

Diversify Outdoors

Intersectional Environmentalist

Anchored Hope Therapy

Further Readings and Sources:

Decolonizing Pathways towards Intergrative Healing in Social Work

The Intersectional Environmentalist by Leah Thomas


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