Grounded: On Indigenous Healing

Mukhtara Yusuf

Mukhtara Yusuf (they/them) is an Indigenous Yoruba from what is now known as Southwestern Nigeria. Mukhtara’s practice explores Indigenous healing at multiple scales. They hold a BA from Dartmouth College, an MA in Communications and Media from UCSD, and an MFA in Design from UT Austin and are the founder of ILE laboratory, an Ibadan based agro-centric ecological design laboratory focused on Yoruba material knowledge and healing. Mukhtara is currently a Rose Enterprise Affordable Housing Artist Fellow, a lab member of CLEAR Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research, and a Coding Resistance Fellow with Futuress.org.


I have inherited two creation stories on how human beings came to be in the world. One is of the Abrahamic faith, the Islamic creation story of how humanity came to be and how we were made. The other is of Yoruba cosmology, how the flesh and being of humanity was crafted and placed on this Earth. The two creation stories have few differences, to the disdain I am sure, of those who are committed to an opposition between Islamic and Yoruba cosmology. However, in all of their similarity, what strikes me the most is dirt, soil, clay. In both creation stories, human beings’ very materiality is made up of soil. It makes sense to me that then, our healing, our coming whole, necessitates coming into right-relation with the Earth, with soil. That perhaps more than anything, our healing, our becoming who we are meant to be, necessitates grounding ourselves as a means of coming home. 

If you look up the word “grounding” on any major search engine, no doubt your search will bring back a number of images of white body parts (specifically feet) touching soil. Other results: scientific research on the health impacts of grounding, lists of techniques and the benefits of grounding, and several grounding products such as shoes, mats, webinars, books, available for purchase. None of these will speak to the important ecological specificity of grounding. How much it matters whose historic soil we do our grounding in. None will mention the histories of ongoing colonialism, the horrors of enslavement and genocide those grounds have bore witness to and/or the ongoing practices of extractvism, striping and erasure that harm those soils. None will mention how contradictory it is that we expect to heal without acknowledging these harms, when the very traumas the land holds in it (racism, colonialism) are also the traumas we hold within us. What is at stake in decolonising the critical healing practice of grounding is the very possibility of healing itself. Without beginning to understand the land – in all its iterations – through a decolonial lens, we cannot heal.

What follows are sketches of some of my emerging thoughts on decolonising and grounding. How healing through and with Indigenous wisdom necessitates for myself as an Indigenous Yoruba, re-establishing old and creating new relations with land and soil in a literal sense. 

Indigenous Healing

Indigenous, ‘originating or occurring ‘naturally’ in a particular place’. Indigenous ‘of the land’. Indigenous from latin from Latin, indigena “sprung from the land”.

Indigenous, ‘originating or occurring ‘naturally’ in a particular place’.Indigenous ‘of the land. Indigenous from latinfrom Latin indigena “sprung from the land”.

Healing, ‘hǣla, in the sense ‘restore to sound health’, related to Dutch, heelen and German, heilen, also to whole.

Healing, ‘hǣla, in the sense restore to sound health’, related to Dutch heelen and German heilen, also to whole.

Indigenous/Healing/ restore to/sound health/the land/to whole/the land/

Indigenous Healing: restore to sound health the land to whole the land

Grieve It To The Ground

Sitting on that ground, it occurred to me, through my body first, then my thoughts, that the Earth, the land, was the key. The Earth has held everything that’s ever happened to us. And in psychology we see health indicated by our romantic or familial or work relationships, but there’s never an assessment of our relationship with place and land. It was a huge realization for me to feel that as a healing justice organizer and practitioner, I could borrow from the ground because it has always had the most capacity. And I can keep pointing our people in the direction of the ground and the land to hold what seems impossible. For Black people in the U.S., this is a complicated conversation and one I feel is critical to our collective healing. – Prentis Hemphill[1]

For the past three years I have been attempting to understand and reshape my relationship to the North American continent. I have been asking myself as an Indigenous Yoruba: what does it mean to be an Indigenous person on Indigenous land that I am not Indigenous to? As a Black person on this land, who is not the descendant of enslaved people, whose ancestors are not directly entangled into its ecology, what does it mean to be in this place? And how can I, if at all, heal while I am here?

US Route 1 is a highway that runs 80,86 miles long (130,13 kilometres) through the U.S. state of Maryland. It was built in the year 1926 on the stolen land of the Nacotchtank and Piscataway people. Its 80 miles of land, of soil, forcibly held tobacco plantations and bore witness to the enslavement of Black bodies in many forms (sharecropping, indentured servitude, prison plantations).

One mile of US Route 1 in Laurel, Maryland, USA, holds the burial sites of my favourite ancestors. My late adopted-aunt, Shakurah Abdul-Samad, my elder sister, Muhsinah Ayomide Yusuf, and my younger brother, Mohammad Ayomidipupo Yusuf.  Through this land I am trying to understand what it means to be in right-relation as an Indigenous person on land you are not Indigenous to. What it means to hold responsibility through and for the circumstances of colonialism that have tied me to lands that are not my own. What it means to inhabit land that holds my ancestors, 5,406 miles (8,699 km) away from my Indigenous home.

In September of 2021, having not visited my brother’s burial site in 16 years, I went to the soil to see what it could tell me. I visited the soil that he has laid rest in for over one and a half decades. Using technology to translate the touching of soil into sound, I held communion with my brother.

Copyright Mukhtara Yusuf

[1] These words are from the essay “How the Wonder of Nature Can Inspire Social Justice Activism” by Adrianne Maree Brown published in Yes! Magazine