Lyla June Johnston Is Determined to Become An “Indigenous Eco-Tubman”

By Ilgin Beygo Yorulmaz

Whether she’s speaking to 5,000 people, giving safety and laughter to a single child, or comforting a community with rocketing youth suicide rates, Lyla June Johnston stays true to the principles guiding her life.  

The poet, musician and activist of Navajo and Cheyenne lineages values “the path of service” and wherever it may take her.  Sometimes, the journey leads her to environmental causes like the ongoing Standing Rock protests. Her spiritual rap song, which was released in 2016 in support of the protests, has been seen by thousands of people on YouTube.

In other times, her path crosses with young people trying to find their purpose and lead spiritually fulfilling lives as in the case of the Regeneration Festival, a celebration of children and young people that she co-hosts in Taos, New Mexico, and in 13 countries around the world.

Johnston says:

“…Change doesn’t come cheap and working on our hands and knees through the years to squeeze even just a drop of beauty from the sea is the only thing worth doing in my eyes.”

Her passion for revitalizing spiritual relationships between human beings and Mother Earth led to an honors degree in Environmental Anthropology from Stanford University, where she wrote award-winning papers on the destruction of the precious relationship between human beings and nature; becoming the lead organizer of the Black Hill Unity Concert, a prayer gathering of native and non-native musicians for Black Hills in the Lakota, Nakota and Dakota nations; and Auburn’s 2017 Lives of Commitment Award, among others.    

She believes her true inspirations are the ones who work for the people and serve because they know the generations of the future are worth it.

“I was told it does not matter where I am, but why I am there,” she says. “…that if my actions are righteously propelled–not for fame, not for money, but for the people–then I can relieve the suffering.”

Johnston is no stranger to suffering on a personal level.

Like many Native American youth before her who saw their heritage relegated to the shadows and felt like outcastes in their own land, she went through dark times of drug addiction, self-hatred, and fear. She credits the study and celebration of different cultures and spiritualities — from the paths taught by Lakota and Diné (Navajo) philosophies to Buddhism, Islam, and countless others — to show her how to pray when there seemed no way out. She says:

“I am one who believes there are many paths to the mountain top, and they are all good. I give myself the luxury of letting them all transform me into a better woman.”

“I could never tell you that I know who and what God is. I was told that is arrogance. But I can tell you I have a feeling in my body when I pray and I feel it when I lie in the forest. I feel it when I look up to the stars and I feel it when I hold my grandmother in my arms. Some call it love. I know this is the force that creates and recreates and it alone remains.”

Spirituality for Johnston is knowing that this Creator has not abandoned the world to mayhem, but that “certain created beings like you and I use our free will to harm others, but this is not the wish of the Creator.” That was the reason behind her 1,000-mile prayer walk through Diné Tah (the Navajo ancestral homeland which spans what is now called New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Arizona) to expose the exploitation of Diné land and people by uranium, coal, oil, and gas industries.  

“I have been asked by the elders to not tear down but to build up,” she says, referring to the wisdom of elders in her culture who retain spiritual and ecological knowledge. “People think that by planting endangered seeds and showing the world a different way to live, we are not doing ‘enough’ to change the world. But if we create the world we want to see, instead of trying to tear down a system that is already destined to collapse, we will be better prepared for the Great Change,” she says. The commitment to nonviolence, another guiding principle in Johnston’s life, has also led to her work as a co-founder of The Taos Peace and Reconciliation Council, trying to heal intergenerational trauma and ethnic division in the northern New Mexico.

On a normal day, you can find Johnston planting corn or beans in her plot in Diné land in New Mexico. In all her endeavors to create a just and compassionate world, Johnston believes in leading from below, never presiding from above. Embodied in Christ’s teaching of humility by washing the feet of the disciples, “a true leader is humble enough and committed enough to get on her knees and wash the feet of her people,” she says.  As a member of a sustainable culture like Diné, which emphasizes women’s leadership and Mother Nature, she measures her success by how many other leaders she supports and inspires. She says:

[easy-tweet tweet=”‘The earth as well is a great leader.'” via=”no” hashtags=”#LylaJuneJohnston”]

“If we follow her rhythms instead of forcing her to follow the rhythms of our greed, we will know peace. We will know true wealth. We will know beauty.”

“I am determined to become an indigenous eco-Tubman, and create an underground railroad for all those enslaved to the system, dependent on the 1% for everything they have. It is time to free the slaves by building inroads to new worlds and ways of living.”

Lyla June Johnston is a 2017 recipient of Auburn’s Lives of Commitment Award. Auburn’s Lives of Commitment Awards Benefit Breakfast will take place on April 27, 2017 at Cipriani 42nd Street at 7:00 am. You may reserve your seat by clicking here.     

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