Leny Mendoza Strobel: Finding belonging and remembering how to dwell in place (ep320)
“You can use all the deconstructive theories, post-colonial, postmodern theorizing. But then there comes a time when your body begins to speak. What is your body saying? For me, that is when decolonization evolved into something that’s no longer metaphorical—something more real and material. ” — DR. LENY STROBEL
How might we think and act differently if we recognized ourselves in our “Long Body”—seeing our continually transforming identities beyond our physical bodies into the past and the future? In the midst of an increasing loneliness epidemic, where so many feel disoriented, disassociated, and uprooted, how do we begin to regain a deep sense of belonging in place?
In this episode, we welcome Dr. Leny Mendoza Strobel (Facebook; Instagram), who is a Kapampangan from Central Luzon in the Philippines. She is currently a settler on Wappo, Pomo, and Coast Miwok lands.
Tita Leny is a Founding Elder at the Center for Babaylan Studies and a Professor Emerita in American Multicultural Studies at Sonoma State University.
The musical offering in this episode is I’m Not a Mountain by Sarah Kinsley.
Note: *The values and opinions of our diverse guests do not necessarily reflect those of Green Dreamer. Our episodes are minimally edited, and we encourage further inquiry, seeing our dialogues as invitations to dive deeper into each topic and perspective. This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Kamea Chayne: A core theme that you center your work on is a sense of belonging. And this is something that, as proven by our increasing loneliness epidemic, many people may be yearning to find or might not even recognize that is missing.Could you share how you came to find your place and sense of belonging, especially through becoming conscious of the role that the colonial system and mindset played in shaping your perspectives and identity?
Dr. Leny Strobel: I'll answer that question by sharing my story of how I came to settle in the US, or on Turtle Island. I came here almost 40 years ago, by way of interracial marriage. When I came here, I wasn't yet aware of what racialization meant, what colonial mentality meant. But I soon began to question my own sense of not belonging, alienation, feeling marginalized in this culture, because of the way that people looked at me and asked me questions.
I came from the Philippines and had a good colonial education. I was familiar with American history, American textbooks, American popular culture. I expected that I would fit in easily. It was a surprise to me.
I thought, “wow, I had always identified with America, but America did not identify with me.” That was the beginning of my decolonization journey.
I went to school to try to understand myself and this lack of a sense of belonging. I ended up doing a doctorate in international and multicultural education. But what really resonated with me throughout this graduate program was my discovery of Filipino Indigenous psychology as a counter-narrative to the colonial narrative that I had been educated and conditioned by.
Kamea Chayne: I'm curious to hear your experience trying to decolonize your psyche within the setting of formal institutions, because that sounds like that's where you got to unravel and identify your sense of belonging and place.
Dr. Leny Strobel: The first book that really spoke to me was America Is in the Heart, by Carlos Bulosan. He talked about the history of the modern generation, the earlier generation of Filipinos that came to the US in the 1930s as laborers. And there were other books that really opened my eyes and gave me the language to articulate this lack of sense of belonging and why it was the way it was, one of which was Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed. And then I was introduced to the work of Gloria Anzaldúa in Borderlands, bell hooks, Cornel West, Fanon, and other post-colonial theorists of that time.
Having the cognitive or intellectual foundation for critiquing and naming my own experiences as a post-colonial subject really was very liberating for me.
My prior understanding of who we are as Filipinos was defined by foreign anthropologists and philosophers and missionaries that came to the Philippines throughout the colonial era.
The process of decolonization for me led to another question: What do you do after you decolonize?
As I was reflecting and asking myself this question, I began to be attracted to Indigenous authors, poets and novelists, and so on. I began to read Indigenous literature: Vine Deloria, Linda Hogan, Gerald Vizenor, Leslie Marmon Silko... I resonated with the worldview that they were presenting and with their ideas. I realized then that I was being called to rediscover my own Indigenous roots as a Filipino. This is a very complicated, complex process, because even when I trace my ancestry three or four generations back, there's no such thing as purity.
In my lineage, there's some Chinese, Spanish, probably Malay, maybe even some Sufi connection. And to recover an Indigenous mind, or an Indigenous identity, I also then had to see my own people as settlers who themselves displaced the Aeta, who were the Indigenous peoples of that part of the Philippines.
I began to then look for answers in the definition of the word itself, and I began to understand that if you are going to claim to be Indigenous, then you have to understand your relationship to the land. It led me to want to learn how to dwell in place.
That has meant learning where my body has lived—on Guapo Pomo and Coast Miwok lands.
Kamea Chayne: I think that our inability to live in reciprocity with our unique bioregional landscapes stems from a lot of our lack of relationship to a place, which is what you've been speaking to. And much of that is the result of colonialism and the displacement, erasure, and marginalization of Indigenous communities that have had the place-based knowledge and relationships.
But this sense of dwelling being rooted in knowing the land and the historical context can feel abstract, especially when we're often told to define home and comfort in more materialistic and tangible ways.
So my question is, what are the signs to you that our ways of understanding belonging within the colonial system have often been reductive and limiting—in ways that haven't really brought about the true grounding and deeper fulfillment that we're yearning for?
Dr. Leny Strobel: When I started thinking about this sense of belonging from an Indigenous lens, I realized then that as a colonial subject, because the Philippines was under four hundred years of Spanish and American colonization, I was not really taught how to dwell in place.
We were not taught how to love the land, how to be in relationship with the land. Colonialism was the beginning of us becoming "modernized", "civilized", "educated". So all of our desires were shaped by that kind of narrative, and that shaped our sense of belonging.
When I finally came here, I said, "Okay, I've finally come to live in the master's house. So how come I'm still not happy?"
I realized that the sense of home that was missing could be found in internalizing and appreciating who I am as a Filipino, from the perspective of Filipino Indigenous psychology and Filipino Indigenous spirituality. I realized home is not something that's abstract: It is always place-based. And part of that is about learning who you live with, learning who has lived here before settlers came. If I am allowed to claim to be part of this landscape now, that gives me a sense of grounding, that sense of belonging.
Kamea Chayne: A lot of people think about dwelling as the physical comforts, as decorating your house in a certain way that makes you feel good. But this can happen while building relationships to place, building relationships to the communities that have ancestral ties to these landscapes, and also building relationships directly to these landscapes. These are often overlooked when people think about dwelling.
Dr. Leny Strobel: I learned the concept of dwelling from Keith Basso, who wrote Wisdom Sits in Places. And in this book, he talked about how in the Apache territory, every rock, every tree, every mountain, every landmark has a story. And it's those stories that give people their identity. And when I understood that concept in that way, it made me want to think of dwelling as a relationship.
The other writer who helped me understand that concept is Martín Prechtel, a shaman living in New Mexico.
Martín was writing about building a house of origins, saying that when you build a home, you have to make sure that everything in your house carries stories that you would like to pass on to your children.
And what are those stories? So I took that seriously, and I started creating my altars in my home: an ancestral altar, pictures of our families and objects that I brought back from the Philippines, my husband's objects that he brought in from eastern Montana, where he came from. They became the bearers of stories. This makes dwelling very meaningful for me.
Kamea Chayne: I also wonder if this is why people have become so unfulfilled by the constant accumulation of stuff, because a lot of the stuff that we're accumulating don't have meaning or stories attached to them—people are purely looking at them for their material value rather than the deeper stories of the histories of these objects, who made them, and where they came from.
I wonder if we could all become less consumptive if we were to cherish each item more and to see them as not just purely physical objects, but things that embody stories of their own that could actually enrich our lives in this deeper way.
Dr. Leny Strobel: And if we want to be philosophical about it, when did Americans learn to define happiness in terms of material accumulation? When did philosophers begin to think in terms of utilitarianism?
In my teaching, one of the frameworks that I used was called the ethnoautobiography, which is a way of helping us heal from the discontents of modernity through the Indigenous lens. I used to ask students to bring an artifact from their family history, something meaningful to them, something that carried the story of their lineage, and the story of how they came to this country. Students would bring jewelry, rosaries, even a rifle and pieces of clothing. They had to tell their stories, and we would put all these artifacts in the middle of the room. And I would say, see how all of your artifacts are connected to each other, and that they would start to build community in the classroom as the students began to see how their artifacts and their stories are connected to each other and see how their small stories connected to the bigger stories.
When we talk about the personal story, the family story, the stories of settlement, slave-owning, immigration… we realize how our small stories are embedded within the bigger stories: the meta-narrative of nation-building, the narrative of capitalism, globalization, or white supremacy.
You begin to understand these big stories. And when you begin to do your own ancestral research, when you begin to understand how your history of settlement has impacted your own sense of identity or sense of belonging, then you begin to connect the dots and make sense of who you are.
And when I say who you are, I'm usually referring to a "long body".
Stanley Krippner, a psychologist, defines our identities as a "long body", which means you're not just your physical self—you're also the past, the ancient past of who you've been, who your ancestors are and who you are into the future.
So we have this "long body", which means that our identity continues; it's not limited by our physical body.
And let me backtrack. When I began to study Indigenous worldviews, I began to understand that the future could be Indigenous. We have been on the path of self-destruction because of this capitalist system and what it's doing to the environment and to people, but how is it that Indigenous peoples have survived generation after generation of genocide? Why are they still here? What is it that makes them survive?
I realized that they have a sense of seven generations into the future and more than seven generations from the past. Living in that sense of time is very different from our modern mindsets.
Kamea Chayne: You often speak to decolonization as a way to transform the consciousness of the colonized. And there's a phrase that's been shared a lot: "Decolonization is not a metaphor". The original text came from Dr. Yang and Tuck. It speaks to this subject in expansive ways. I don't think that your idea of decolonizing the psyche is what they're speaking to, but I do think that many people, when sharing this idea that it's not a metaphor, are hoping to see structural and material changes to how society is organized. And so decolonizing the mind, or as you also include, decolonizing memories, feelings, attitudes, values, knowledge, doubts and fear, can be overlooked.
Could you expand upon what you mean by decolonizing the psyche and also share your thoughts on how we're conditioned to intellectually belittle the transformative potentials of shifting minds and relationships, which may not be as tangible and can therefore be perceived as metaphorical?
Dr. Leny Strobel: Decolonization, to me, is like a lifelong process. In the beginning, as people begin to approach or understand decolonization, they may see it as a metaphor, or something that is merely symbolic. But it's an entry point.
When we're doing this work, the point is healing the psyche, because the splitting of the psyche is what we're trying to heal—the separation of our body and our mind and our spirit. You can do this work intellectually in the academe.
You can use all the deconstructive theories, post-colonial, postmodern theorizing. But then there comes a time when your body begins to speak. What is your body saying?
For me, that is when decolonization evolved into something that's no longer metaphorical, something more real and material. It is hard work. It is very contentious, because what we're doing when we're decolonizing is to begin to learn the kind of conditioning that we've had as modern folks. How do we begin to disidentify, for example, with the US as a superpower?
I have begun to identify with those kinds of narratives. And sometimes when you do this, you begin to get called out. I've been called names, in my community, because I am critical of the US as empire, as colonizer.
It's taboo because under colonization we fell in love with our colonizers. So part of decolonization is seeing how that kind of ideology has worked itself so deep into our psyche that we could not untangle ourselves from it, even when we try.
For me, doing this at the personal level has been difficult, but also very healing.
Kamea Chayne: I don't want to get too much into religion, nor am I asking you to, depending on how you're feeling, but you did say something in passing before that I found interesting, stemming from the Animist background of your culture.
And to preface this, just generally speaking, beliefs and our worldviews very much shape how we relate to the world—whether they're belief systems like Animism that see sacredness as being tied to specific landscapes and have relationships to place, or more centralized belief systems that aren't necessarily rooted in place.
So I'm curious to hear: What were some of the thought processes that you personally have gone through from looking at religion, Indigenous beliefs and cultures, and relationships or belonging with the land?
Dr. Leny Strobel: That's the first thing I had to look at in this process of decolonization, because I grew up as a Methodist in a Catholic Animistic shamanic culture, which the Philippines is.
Underneath the veneer of Catholicism is a very strong subterranean Indigenous spirituality—Animist and shamanic in character. Part of the path of decolonization for me was to see the role of Christianity and missionary work and colonialism, and how all of those are married.
Even in the U.S., evangelical Protestant Christianity is married to the capitalist system. Part of the work of decolonizing then, for me, is to see how religious institutions or theology or doctrine—like the doctrine of discovery—were used as tools of colonial subjugation.
We can say now that white supremacy is really the child of a white theology.
Kamea Chayne: What especially stood out to me was when you pointed out that belief systems like Animism see sacredness within the landscape, whereas a lot of more centralized belief systems have maybe a sacred text that people are conceptualizing divinity off of.
Dr. Leny Strobel: I think that is beginning to change. Part of the paradigm shift that I'm seeing in terms of religion or spirituality is we're shifting from the view of the divine or God as something that's transcendent, something that's out there, up in the heavens, to the view that God is imminent, which means that God is everywhere, God is here.
That tends to coincide more with Animist beliefs that say everything is sacred, everything has divinity, everything is infused with divinity, we are divine, and we are all in sacred relationship to each other.
In fact, the Filipino core value of Kapwa is exactly that. It acknowledges the divinity within each of us and the divinity of our connection to the land and the non-human beings and to the cosmos. And in that way, for me, Filipino Indigenous spirituality is so much more inclusive and deep.
Kamea Chayne: I would love to explore what it means that we've politicized Indigeneity. So there's the nuance that decolonization goes along with re-indigenization, part of which, as we discussed today, is rebuilding relationships with place, with Indigenous communities, and with the history of place as a way of healing.
And this trauma processing is what Indigenous communities need to go through, it's what Indigenous persons displaced from their ancestral lands and communities need to go through, and it's also something that people not categorized as Indigenous today, who also have lost their sense of deep belonging to place, need to go through. This feels like universal work that everyone needs to engage with in their own ways.
Yet at the same time, the political designation of Indigenous rightfully is exclusive because they have important implications in advancing the rights of Native communities that historically have been harmed. So I'm curious to hear your thoughts on how we can best navigate this nuance to support everyone's own journeys to finding and making dwelling.
Dr. Leny Strobel: As a Kapampangan, I am not Indigenous in the Philippines, because we are one of the major ethnic groups in the Philippines. In the United States, on Turtle Island, I can say I am in the process of recovering my Indigenous mind. I am not Indigenous. And by saying that I am honoring and prioritizing those who have the right to call themselves Indigenous.
When I started doing this work, I invited a cohort of people to start looking at healing and reconciliation with Indigenous communities. One of the things that we begin with is the question of how do you understand what it means to be a settler? How did you come to settle here? How does the history of genocide impact your sense of place and sense of belonging? We only took in the people who were willing to look at those questions. And it was hard at the beginning because a lot of white folks do not know how to begin to do the ancestral work and research needed to take on this kind of journey.
We are now at the point where we are looking at the land back movement, land transition, healing and repair, and maybe having a land tax, which the Ohlone people have done with the Shuumi Land Tax. So we are aligning ourselves with those kinds of movements as settlers.
In the United States, I am encouraged by young people—I think they call themselves the Resource Generation who are beginning to want to affiliate themselves with the land back movement, who want their resources to go to these kinds of movements in order to correct or to heal historical trauma. So there are some real things that are happening that are led by young people. They know how to make structural changes, to change the policy, to navigate the systems necessary to make these kinds of changes, so that the change that we want to make does not remain at the level of desire, or of symbolism, or of metaphor.
Kamea Chayne: I think all of this speaks to perhaps the importance of the preceding work of decolonizing people's memories and identities and psyches, because without that being done, people do not have a felt sense or felt understanding of the need to be aligned with land back, and why returning lands to the first caretakers of land is actually hugely beneficial to our collective and our planetary healing.
So I do think that even though a lot of people may see the work of decolonizing the mind as being metaphorical because it's not tangible, it's a precondition that needs to be met before we can actually enact the tangible and structural changes, for people to be aligned with that politic, and have the relational and worldview shifts that will then manifest in the tangible changes.
Dr. Leny Strobel: Indigenous folks always present to us a challenge when they ask us, "Who are you?" When they ask that question, they're not asking for your personal identification. They're asking you to tell your story of who your people are, who you belong to, the story of your long body, which many of us would probably not be able to answer unless we've done the work. There is some movement now with white folks doing that work: Some of that is good, some of it political, and some of it dangerous, because there are folks that will hold on to the way things used to be.
But there are people who are ready to move on, to change the paradigm because they can see it.
It's important that we can find common memory of where we came from and figure out what needs to happen next.
Kamea Chayne: And in terms of our next steps, what are some of your words of guidance for people making home of places that we don't have ancestral relationships with, to support people to reconnect with and embody lands where we are settlers or visitors to, especially when a lot of us are aware that a lot of these places hold painful memories of violence, exploitation, and being taken away from their first caretakers?
Dr. Leny Strobel: I think when you first begin to do this work, what comes up are the shadows—the historical shadow material. Where are those places in the culture or in a society where people can work with that historical shadow material and have a container for the grief and the mourning that is necessary to do this work to heal?
When something is dying and something else is being born, we need to find a way of creating a container for grief within our communities.
Where are those ceremonies? Where are the Elders? Where are the guides? Where are the stories that will help us hold it together in our communities? Because we cannot heal individually. We cannot heal without each other.
And there are people like Resmaa Menakem, for example... who's talking about creating bodies of culture. How are white people creating bodies of culture that will help them grieve and heal the trauma of white supremacy?
There are many teachers now who are offering those containers. But I'm also aware that in a capitalist society, it's very easy to commodify everything. So be discerning when you look for spaces where you want to be in community and where you want to be doing this work together.
I think what we're doing collectively right now and programs like yours, Kamea, are creating a container for not only dialogue, not only intellectual engagement, but also a community of seekers, and maybe even simulate a sense of belonging to a village, belonging to a beloved community.
*** CLOSING ***
Kamea Chayne: What's an uplifting social media account or publication you follow or a book that's been really profound for you?
Dr. Leny Strobel: I am currently reading Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta. And I've just finished reading Leanne Betasamosake Simpson's As We Have Always Done.
Kamea Chayne: What do you tell yourself to stay motivated and inspired?
Dr. Leny Strobel: All I have to do is go outside and stare at this redwood tree outside my deck and commune with the tree and stand in my Qigong position, hugging the tree.
Sometimes I just sit under the apple tree or under the apricot tree in my garden. Sometimes I just walk around smelling the flowers and talking to my grandmother. These always ground me and bring me home. Because when I do these things, I know that I am not alone.
I think part of the sickness that we inherit in this modern framework is that we are alone... And I am not. Even when I feel the wind blowing in my face, I know I'm not alone.
Kamea Chayne: What makes you most hopeful for our planet and world at the moment?
Dr. Leny Strobel: Young people make me hopeful. The ones who know how to do critical analysis, historical analysis, those who know how to connect the dots, those who are out on the streets. I am thinking right now of a Black and Filipino activist in Nashville, Tennessee, a young man who has been leading the BLM protests since last year and is now facing criminal charges because the governor of that state has criminalized protest, to make it illegal. So they're using him as a warning. So he's in my mind very much these days. These are the kinds of kids that I have faith in and I can trust and I can hope with.
Kamea Chayne: Tita Leny, thank you so much for this deeply nourishing and enriching discussion. I really appreciated having you here. What final words of wisdom do you have for us as green dreamers?
Dr. Leny Strobel: Get to know your long body.