Learning Wisdom and Knowhow from Indigenous and Aboriginal Peoples
Recently, the UN celebrated the Day For Indigenous Peoples. Western history’s coverage of our relationships with Aboriginal/ndigenous peoples has mostly been reporting on western cases of killing and cultural annihilation. I’ve come to believe that we have much to learn from Indigenous peoples. Historian Ken Burns said, in his Stanford University 2016 commencement speech,
“Each generation rediscovers and reexamines that part of its past that gives its present new meaning, new possibility and new power. The question becomes for us now — for you especially — what will we choose as our inspiration? Which distant events and long dead figures will provide us with the greatest help, the most coherent context and the wisdom to go forward?”
Perhaps we have to go back to the study of people’s who still live like humans lived for 99% of their existence, to find that help and wisdom. Fortunately, Dr. Darcia Narvaez has organized a conference, Sustainable Wisdom: Integrating Indigenous Knowhow for Global Flourishing (Sept 11–15. 2016) The conference is to be held at the University of Notre Dame in the ancestral lands of the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi.
Portion of illustration for the Conference. Painting title: Placing Stars
(image by Anthony Chee Emerson) License
Darcia: The short answer: The conference was organized in response to the ill-being of the planet and its creatures. How could humans become the only species that destroys its habitat? Humans have not always been so destructive. There have been many indigenous peoples who lived sustainably within their landscape (e.g., archaeological studies show that Australian Aborigines have been around for over 60,000 years and the !Kung of Southern Africa for over 40,000 years). Can our culture return to the mindsets and responsible actions of such sustainable cultures? The focus of the conference is on such questions: How can we integrate the best of modern technology and capacities with the wisdom of first nations? The conference presents the mindsets, practices, and wisdom of first nation peoples across multiple disciplines. The goals of the conference are to: “ Increase understanding of “first ways.” “ Demonstrate how indigenous cultures foster wisdom, morality, and flourishing. “ Find commonalities among different indigenous societies in fostering these outcomes. “ Develop synergistic approaches to shifting human imagination towards “first ways.” The conference will help us envision ways to move toward integrating helpful modern advances with “first ways” into a new encompassing viewpoint, where the greater community of life (diverse human and other-than-human entities) are included in conceptions of well-being and practices that lead to flourishing. Darcia: The long answer: What has become clear not only over recent centuries, but especially over the course of the 20th century and into the 21st, is that the dominant culture of the earth, largely driven by economically-advanced nations in the northern hemisphere, is putting at risk all life on the planet. The dominant worldview has emphasized economic wealth at the expense of social and environmental health. Although the 21st century has seen the growth of a staggering amount of economic wealth around the world, inequality is increasing, and signs of wellbeing among ecosystems, biodiversity, plant and animal life are deteriorating. Even human health in advanced nations like the USA is worsening despite overall vast economic wealth. Western science and scholarship laments ill health (mental and physical) and environmental destruction (“tragedy of the commons”) but all too often considers them “the human condition.” Others point to blind and destructive “Western progress” as the cause, as stated, for example, in the 2015 papal encyclical letter, Laudato Si, “in various parts of the world, pressure is being put on [indigenous communities] to abandon their homelands to make room for agricultural or mining projects which are undertaken without regard for the degradation of nature and culture. Authentic development includes efforts to bring about an integral improvement in the quality of human life, and this entails considering the setting in which people live their lives”
The displacement of people and alteration of “settings in which people live their lives” is the story of civilization since its beginnings, a story, until recently, of continued progress, but one which masked its real underlying costs. As physical anthropologist Clark Spencer Larsen stated: “Although agriculture provided the economic basis for the rise of states and development of civilizations, the change in diet and acquisition of food resulted in a decline in quality of life for most human populations in the last 10,000 years.” It has also resulted in unsustainable ways of living, in great contrast to non-civilizational cultures which thrived for thousands of years before being displaced. What accounts for the differences between dominant global modern culture and the cultures of successful, sustainable indigenous communities that existed for tens of thousands of years? First, there appear to be opposing worldviews: indigenous communities typically display a philosophy of the earth, an orientation to respectful, reciprocal, co-existence, whereas dominant global modern culture promotes a philosophy of escape from the earth. It is a philosophy that is homo centric and easily casts off the existence of other life forms as collateral damage to the pursuit of wealth through the trope of “substitutes” used in its most revered episteme of justification — economics. In the last centuries the dominant Western culture has assumed human separation from and superiority to Nature, removed “personhood” from all but humans, and taken up attitudes of commodifying nature for human interests. Second, from their growth beginning in the 16th century, Western science, technology, and economics have led to extreme abstracting. They have advocated detachment from the earth, breaking the bonds of relational responsibility to nonhumans, and studied them as objects. At the same time, detachment from relational commitment to the wellbeing of the natural world has led to sophisticated technologies, some helpful and some destructive. The technologies that emerged from this type of detached science, in part because of its philosophy of separation and control, have led to great comforts for a minority. Western expansionism and global control of most areas of the earth have impaired capacities to perceive alternatives to the current pathway of increased control of nature and of cultures that do not conform to the dominant system. Yet, most societies in the history of the world consider individual “self-interest,” assumed to be normal human nature in most of the West, to be a sign of insanity and profoundly destructive. The misunderstandings of history extend to the Americas. In the last half millennium, the dominant Western view (still propagated by mainstream media today) was that the Americas were a wilderness brought under proper control by European settlers. Through a selective re-telling of history, it came to be believed that those who lived in the Americas before European settlement either were savage (and evil), spiritually “primitive,” or undeserving of the land because they did not control Nature in the proper, European, way (control and enslavement of nonhumans for human ends.) At the same time, US history books tend to discuss first nations as relics or extinct (“firsting and lasting”), “wiped out” by the progressive wave from European expansion. However, in fact North America was not a wilderness but an inhabited, nourished and enhanced by small-scale ingenious innovations with a limited but partially cultivated landscape. Many North American first nation peoples still exist (and flourish) today continuing longstanding relations in the environments they have inhabited for thousands of years. In fact, much of Western scholarship has ignored the vast numbers of societies and perspectives that fall outside of dominant Western notions of human life, societies that lived sustainably for thousands if not tens of thousands of years. Non-industrialized, first-nation, indigenous societies around the world have very different worldviews from common Western assumptions about human superiority and separation from Nature.
These societies display a whole different awareness of humanity’s place walking with the earth, not simply on it, and walking in its relational grasp. Many first nations peoples around the world come from cultures that lived sustainably and relatively peacefully for tens of thousands of years. What accounts for both the sustainability and flourishing of first nations societies? The epigenetic and developmental neurobiological causes of this different way of being are being delineated by scholars. It may have to do with the processes of childrearing and social support which appear to foster greater wisdom, morality and flourishing. For example, several scholars have noted the power of early life experience on neurobiological and social capacities as well as worldview.
Most recently, I’ve suggested that the missing evolved developmental niche plays a large role in undermining sense and sensibility in adulthood including cultural assumptions about the natural world. In many Western societies, there has been a divorce between adult behavior and the development of wellbeing in children — with a blindness about the immaturity of humans at full-term birth, humans as dynamic systems who require the evolved developmental niche to foster species-typical development, and lengthy, intensive support to reach maturity. When this species-typical niche or nest is missing, individuals are mis-developed in the ways widespread in advanced nations — restless and unattached to the local nonhumans and landscape, focused on economic self-interest at the expense of future generations OBJECTIVES AND NEED Detachment from close connection (parents to children, family to family member; human to non-humans) is now built into USA institutions and systems. The received view is that it is just human nature to be competitive and selfish with collateral destruction. But nature is cooperative “all the way down” (e.g., to cell function, microbiome within every human body) with competition a minor component (e.g., most is conserved generation to generation.)
Dominant Western beliefs in individualism, human superiority and separation from nature and their resulting practices are odd, rare and even aberrant when considered from the perspective of the whole of human cultures. As noted, Western economics and other dominant Western paradigms have been built on shutting out responsible relations with the natural world. The type of Western culture that dominates influential institutions (business, industry, military, education, politics, religion) continues to show the attitudes of objectified Nature and hegemonic destruction of biocultural diversity around the world. Globalized culture often seems unable to perceive an alternative to the current pathway of increased control and domination of nature and cultures that do not conform to the globalized format.
Societies that live like 99% of human genus history provide evidence for an alternative course for human development and humanity’s relationship with the rest of Nature. Many first-nations peoples of the earth have lived well and kindly with the earth for generations. Their companionship orientation — to raising children, to living with humans and nonhumans — fosters enduring wisdom, morality and flourishing. In contrast, the rise of the modern world, rooted in domination of Nature and technological progress, has increasingly revealed its shortcomings and unsustainability through human-caused cultural, ecological and biodiversity destruction. In order to save the human species and many others with it, this needs to change. Though the modern outlook, through science, has been coming around to better appreciate the sustainable outlooks of “first ways” in terms of sustainable practices better rooted in an ecological mindset and the importance of landscape and cultural diversity, there remains a disconnect when it comes to the possibilities of sustainable wisdom.
Native American peoples are reinvigorating traditional practices and can provide insight into sustainable, respectful human cultures that have profound import for the contemporary world. The technological mindset of the modern world needs to integrate the wise ways and sustainable, relational lifestyles of indigenous peoples. The conference brings together an interdisciplinary set of scholars ready to disseminate first-nation wisdom in order that it might be integrated with mainstream contemporary understandings in order to move toward a flourishing planet. We take Paul Shepard’s words, in his 1998 book Coming Home to the Pleistocene, as a guide:
“A journey to our primal world may bring answers to our ecological dilemmas”White European/Americans cannot become Hopis or Kalahari Bushmen or Magdalenian bison hunters, but elements in those cultures can be recovered or re-created because they fit the heritage and predilection of the human genome everywhere, a genome tracing back to a common ancestor that Anglos share with Hopis and Bushmen and all the rest of Homo sapiens. The social, ecological, and ideological characteristics natural to our humanity are to be found in the lives of foragers. Must we build a new twenty-first-century society corresponding to a hunting/gathering culture? Of course not; humans do not consciously make cultures. What we can do is single out those many things, large and small, that characterized the social and cultural life of our ancestors — the terms under which our genome itself was shaped — and incorporate them as best we can by creating a modern life around them. We take our cues from primal cultures, the best wisdom of the deep desires of the genome. We humans are instinctive culture makers; given the pieces, the culture will reshape itself.
Wahinkpe Topa (Four Arrows), former Dean of Education at Oglala Lakota College and currently faculty with Fielding Graduate University: I see the conference as an opportunity to rekindle the legacy of our original “worldview” that remains in the DNA of all of us before we alienated ourselves from Nature. I agree with the work of Robert Redfield of the University of Chicago, one of the first social anthropologists. Redfield believes there are only two essential worldviews today, the dominant one and the primal or Indigenous one. Under each are many different cultures, religious practices, philosophies, ideologies and beliefs that for which one of the two worldviews is foundational. In spite of the “anti-Indian” literature (one of Four Arrows many books was about this topic- Unlearning the Language of Conquest: Scholars Expose Anti-Indianism in America, published by the University of Texas Press, the counter-hegemonic evidence shows healthier, more balanced, less warlike and more sustainable societies. We hope our conference speakers and opportunities for dialogue will remind participants about who we really are so we can begin to reflect on some of the different ways of being in the world that relate, for instance, to the things I write about it in my recent book, Point of Departure: Returning to Our More Authentic Worldview for Education and Survival.
Rob: Can you tell us a bit about some of the featured speakers and what they are presenting on?
Darcia: We have a rich set of speakers, topics and events that readers can find at the conference website, SustainableWisdomatND.com
For example, Robin Wall Kimmerer (Citizen Band Potawatomi) is a mother, scientist, writer and Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York and the founding Director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment whose mission is to create programs which draw on the wisdom of both indigenous and scientific knowledge for our shared goals of sustainability. She will speak on the topic, “The Fortress, the River and the Garden: New metaphors for knowledge symbiosis.” Environmental management guided by the western scientific worldview has dominated the science of sustainability and has largely ignored the contributions of indigenous environmental knowledge, creating a sort of intellectual monoculture for environmental problem solving. After centuries of marginalization, traditional ecological knowledge is increasingly recognized and sought out by policy makers and scientists as sources of models for sustainability particularly as the limitations of western scientific approaches become apparent in an era of increasing uncertainty produced by anthropogenic climate change and resource depletion.
Waziyatawin, a Dakota writer, teacher, and activist from the Pezihutazizi Otunwe (Yellow Medicine Village) in southwestern Minnesota will speak on “Regenerating the Roots of Indigeneity: Resurgence and Resilience in Troubling Times.” Recovery of Traditional Knowledge (TK) poses particular problems in the contexts of colonization and the climate catastrophes caused by industrial civilization. Not only must Indigenous people attempt to bridge the profound disconnection colonization has created between our pre-colonial ways of life and the homelands that nourished us, we must do so amidst the profound violence to Mother Earth that simultaneously threatens everyone’s long-term survival.
David Abram, cultural ecologist and geophilosopher, founder and creative director of the Alliance for Wild Ethics (AWE), author of Spell of the Sensuous, and Becoming Animal, will speak on”Orality, Literacy, and the Animate Earth.” He will discuss what all of us stand to learn, for the future, from indigenous wisdom and ethics in relation to the animate earth.
These are just three of the powerful speakers that will provide the seeds for our talking circles and synergies toward integrating indigenous wisdom so that we might aim for global flourishing of humans and other-than-humans.
Rob: The conference looks very exciting. I’m looking forward to learning a lot.
Originally published at www.opednews.com.