Groundswell: Rabbi Dev Noily on Following Indigenous Leadership

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Rabbi Dev Noily addressing a gathering of Jews on Ohlone Land

Dev Noily is the Senior Rabbi at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Oakland, California, and a cofounder of Jews on Ohlone Land, a group that advocates for Jews living in traditional Chochenyo and Karkin Ohlone territory to pay a voluntary tax on non-indigenous people.

What do you see as your role in confronting the climate crisis?

I helped cofound Jews On Ohlone Land (JOOL), which works in solidarity with indigenous people here, specifically the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, to support what they call “rematriating the land.” When I think about climate change, I think that the way forward is to follow indigenous leadership. Indigenous communities have long histories of understanding how to live in balanced, respectful, loving relationship with the earth and with the water. Many of the sectors that are paying attention to the climate crisis are very embedded in capitalism and Western ways of thinking, and try to use those ways of thinking to solve the problems that those systems created. I’m not very hopeful that those kinds of solutions will work long-term.

Right now the core of our project is to invite Jews here in the East Bay to support the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust through paying what’s called the Shuumi Land Tax, which is a voluntary tax that non-indigenous people can pay, as residents on this indigenous land, to support that process of rematriation. Rematriation projects include reclaiming stolen land, growing medicine gardens, building Himmetkas (emergency response hubs), distributing fresh food to elders, and revitalizing Indigenous languages, cultures and practices in the East Bay Area.

What’s one way that the climate emergency has directly impacted your life?

The smoke and fires here in California impact me every time they happen. The sky becomes brown and opaque. The first summer like that was particularly bad. There was this feeling like, will the sky ever be blue again? It’s a very unpleasant feeling of doom. This past summer, every day that the sky was blue, I was happy.

Where have you found community, allies, and connection in your work?

JOOL is in an accountability relationship with the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust and with Corrina Gould, who’s the spokesperson for the Confederated Villages of Lisjan. She has a long view of history and time, and traces her relationship to this place back thousands of years.

Also, recently the Run4Salmon happened, which is an annual event that’s led by the Winnemem Wintu people. The Run4Salmon traces the whole route of the salmon from their spawning ground in the McCloud River to the Pacific ocean near San Francisco Bay.

Since the Shasta Dam was built 75 years ago, the salmon have been unable to return to their home waters near Mt. Shasta, California. Now, the only remaining genetic descendants of these salmon are living in New Zealand, where the Winnemem Wintu have been creating a plan to bring them back to their home waters. The run is a ceremonial way of bringing salmon home, who have traditionally been the keepers of the water, and whose jobs are essential to keeping our waterways healthy.

The act of walking and kayaking and rowing that path to prepare the way for the salmon to return, and with them, to restore health and balance to the waters for all living beings, was a beautiful and powerful practice of love and reciprocity, a model for right relationship with the earth and its living beings. We were able to support the Run4Salmon in a small way by hosting some of the participants when they reached the Bay.

What tools or practices for processing the enormity of the climate crisis have you found within the Jewish tradition? 

I came across a really cool teaching when I was learning about Shmita. There is a medieval teaching that says the seven year cycle of the Shmita and the cycle of seven-year cycles that leads to the Yovel, or Jubilee, is hinting at a series of 7,000 year cycles; and that there are seven 7,000 year cycles in the life of creation, and that in the 50,000th year, everything is destroyed and goes back to Tohu va-Vohu, like the pre-creation. This was a really interesting thread to me, to kind of think about cycles of time, as opposed to linearity of time.

What other traditions and lineages do you draw upon?

One is the work of Joanna Macy, a Buddhist, and what she called the Work that Reconnects. She frames how to be an activist in a way that’s not attached to the outcome. So if I’m engaged in climate activism, it’s not because I need something to change in my lifetime. It’s not because I have to win that fight. I’m doing it because it feels important to do.

Leading up to COP26, what were you thinking, feeling, or doing?

The global governmental policy negotiation place isn’t the place where I’m engaging. Joanna Macy talks about three different ways to engage in this work: One is what she calls “holding actions,” such as  organizing and policy-making, to keep things from getting worse. Then there’s envisioning and building something new. I think about that as the new skin that’s growing under the scab—if one thing stops, something new is going to have to emerge. And then the third thing is about spiritual practice, the inner work that needs to be done to realign with the life force. None of us can do all three of those things, but as long as we’re engaged in one, we’re in the work.

I’m mostly engaged in the second two: building spiritual community, engaging in my own spiritual practice and engaging in these new ways of being that are less extractive and exploitive and more compassionate.

What aspects of the climate emergency do you think deserve more urgent attention?

Line 3 is a tar sands oil pipeline that runs through Northern Minnesota on Anishinaabe land and threatens the wild rice and the indigenous people there. Tar sands oil is particularly dirty oil, with a high carbon footprint. The struggle there is being led by local indigenous people. For seven years, they have been putting their bodies on the line to stop that pipeline. The new sections of pipeline have multiple underwater crossings on the headwaters of the Mississippi River. I was there— It’s going through wetlands and places where if there’s a spill, it’ll destroy vast swaths of pristine land that have provided sustenance to indigenous people for generations. And it’s treaty land, which means the land was ceded to the U.S. government from indigenous people with provisions that guaranteed their access as a way to sustain themselves through hunting and fishing and rice harvesting and gathering and ceremony. And so whole huge sections of the pipeline are in violation of those treaties.

Where do you find hope and meaning in your work as you engage?

In the present. Attuning to what’s happening locally in space and time. Like with Line 3, it was important for me to go there. And it was an incredible experience to see the way that many, many different people from many different activist backgrounds came together following indigenous leadership, including lots of people from Minneapolis who had been activated and schooled in the protests after the murder of George Floyd—different communities coming together to back this struggle in incredible harmony and, actually, with a lot of fun, a lot of love, a lot of laughter and a lot of enjoyment.

That was one of the things that Indigenous leaders said every time they talked to us: Look, you’re here at the headwaters in Mississippi, have you been swimming yet? Go swimming! You know, get in the river. That was a model for me of being present to the joy that’s available in the moment and in doing what we can do.

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