Valuing traditional ecological knowledge and indigenous wisdom
“Let us put our minds together and see what kind of life we can make for our children.”
— Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake — ‘Sitting Bull’ (1831–1890)
To overcome — once and for all — the false separation between nature and culture requires us to acknowledge that learning from human ingenuity and long-term adaptations to particular environments is also learning from nature. Among indigenous peoples there is a long tradition of solving human problems by learning from other species and from the wider natural processes in which we participate.
Taking a long-term perspective, humanity has only managed to survive by doing exactly that. For most of our history we have carefully adapted to the sources of materials and energy that we could harvest in a renewable and non-depleting way from within the local and regional ecosystems we inhabited. One reason why we spent a good part of our history living nomadically is that our ancestors met their basic needs by following the migration routes of other animals and seasonally available food that could be gathered along the way.
For tens of thousands of years we have lived within the limits of our local bioregions, carefully learning — by trial and error — how best to meet the needs of our nomadic or resident population by drawing on local and regional energy and material flows.
Culture is an epiphenomenon of nature and traditional place-based cultures are (or were) the result of the careful co-evolution of human settlements with the ecosystems they inhabit. Co-evolution means that the environment shaped human culture while humans shaped their environment.
I do not want to support an idyllic image that indigenous cultures have never overstepped ecological boundaries with negative effects on their local ecosystems. They certainly have (e.g. Easter Islands, Babylon). Yet, there are many more cases of indigenous practices helping to increase the productivity and vitality of the ecosystems they co- evolved with. Humans are capable of being a beneficial keystone species in an ecosystem, rather than an ecological disaster agent!
Indigenous cultures began to shape their environment as long as 50,000 years ago. By paying attention to our species’ past we can learn lessons for ecosystems restoration. The oldest written document of humanity, the Epic of Gilgamesh, tells the story of Mesopotamia drying and salting up after the king killed the god of the forest, Humbaba, and cut down the cedar forests of Lebanon. Modern ecologists would call this ‘down-wind desertification’.
Most ecosystems today have been altered and degraded by human impact. Used Planet: A global history shows that many of the world’s ecosystems underwent major ecological changes due to the interference of relatively small numbers of human inhabitants as long as 3,000 years ago. These changes have not always been negative, more often they increased bioproductivity (Erle et al., 2012).
In recent years, research into terra preta — the human-facilitated black soil cultures enriched through the burial of charcoal, compost and beneficial fungal mycelia — is beginning to show that even the supposedly virgin rainforests of Amazonia, West Africa and Borneo are ecosystems affected by the forest-gardening practices of their human inhabitants. Similarly the great plains of North America, the ‘wild’ moorlands of England or the Highlands of Scotland are all examples of ecosystems that have been reshaped by human presence through repeated burning, deforestation and grazing (Pearce, 2013).
One way to rediscover the practices that helped Homo sapiens survive for over 200,000 years is to pay more attention to indigenous wisdom and traditional place-based knowledge (where it has not already been completely lost). Indigenous human cultures are an expression of generations of co-evolution of humans within the ecosystems they inhabited.
Cultures that have managed to survive for millennia within their bioregions have a lot to teach us. Over the last few hundred years we have developed the unfortunate habit of dismissing such knowledge as antiquated and calling such cultures ‘primitive’. Hypnotized by the apparent benefits of scientific and technological progress we made the mistake of dismissing traditional ecological knowledge that underpinned human survival for most of prehistory.
[This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]
To re-evaluate the wisdom of traditional and indigenous cultures does not mean returning to some supposed ‘golden age’ when humanity lived in perfect harmony with the rest of nature. It simply means acknowledging that these cultures have managed to sustain themselves and evolve in intimate adaptation to the uniqueness of place for many more millennia.
By comparison, the few centuries of modern industrialized civilization have brought us many great achievements but have also created some of the most pressing global problems we now face. We have to learn from both the successes and failures of modern technologies, and we have to pay more attention to the indigenous wisdom of local culture adapted to place.
Indigenous worldviews around the planet share a common perspective: the world is alive and meaningful and our relationship with the rest of life is one of participation, communion and co-creation. Creating regenerative cultures is also about finding creative responses to the questions:
Q How can we combine the best of modern technology, science and cultural expression with the guiding wisdom of traditional, indigenous cultures?
Q How can we innovate and transform our culture with one eye on the past (learning from traditional wisdom and practice), and the other on the future (social, ecological, economic and technological innovation)?
Individually and collectively we have lost our way. The poem ‘Lost’ by David Wagoner gives the kind of advice that a native elder would offer a young member of the tribe to find their way through the dark, tall forests of the Pacific North West. Stop and listen more deeply when you are lost. This is pertinent advice for humanity as a whole. Confronted with the sensory and information overload of modern life we have lost our ability to really listen to our own intuition, to consider the wisdom of others and to appreciate the insights we can gather by paying attention to life’s 3.8 billion years of experience in not just surviving, but thriving, transforming and evolving. Humanity has lost its path!
The trees ahead and bushes beside you are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
and you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. — Listen. — It answers,
I have made this place around you,
if you leave it you may come back again, saying Here. No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
you are surely lost.
Stand still. — The forest knows where you are.
You must let it find you.
I deeply believe that if we really want to create regenerative cultures of fairness and inclusion based on nurturing relationships with the community of life, one of the first things we have to learn to do is to listen more deeply. We have to learn to listen from our heart and our mind and trust our own inner wisdom, the wisdom of our community, the wisdom of indigenous cultures and the wisdom of the rest of nature. We should ask ourselves:
Q How can we learn to listen more deeply to our own inner wisdom and guidance that will speak to us if we quieten our mind or seek solitude in nature?
Q How can we learn to listen more deeply to the wisdom of the tribe, to the gifts that our community holds, and act wisely based on collective intelligence?
Q How can we listen more deeply and learn from the ingenuity of our animal and plant relations?
Another common characteristic of indigenous cultures everywhere is that they tend to have modes of communication that involve respectful listening and sharing from the heart in a council circle. In my own experience of working and communicating in this way, when we sit in council and offer the gift of attention and heart-full listening to each other, we are given the opportunity to directly live and experience the reality of interbeing.
Together we enact the vast potential that unfolds by accessing collective intelligence and wisdom; we can experience the deeply healing effects of opening our hearts to the compassion we are able to feel for each other and the world because we never have been separated — only in our minds.
A third mental model or belief system that indigenous cultures the world over share is that the rest of the natural world is in continuous communication with us if we only learn to listen. We are capable of learning from plants, bacteria, fungi and animals with whom we share this experience of being life on Earth.
Deep listening lies at the heart of creating a regenerative culture. We have lost the path that nurtures all of life. We need to listen deeply in order to find it again: listen to each other and to the rest of the community of life. This is a wisdom we can recover by learning from indigenous cultures.
In 2010, while helping Marcello Palazzi and the Progressio Foundation to host the first European Bioneers conference in the Netherlands, I had the good fortune to meet Dennis Martinez, a native American elder who has been instrumental in establishing the ‘Indigenous Peoples’ Restoration Network’ (IPRN).
Dennis is widely recognized for creating a bridge between ‘traditional ecological knowledge’ (TEK) and Western science. His passion is ‘eco-cultural restoration’. The preservation of ecosystems and biodiversity is critically linked with the preservation of the indigenous cultures that have co-evolved with these habitats. TEK can help us to tap into a long history of careful observation of the long-term cycles in a particular place that is held within the collective memory of the remaining indigenous cultures.
“While Western science is a powerful and successful methodology within its proper sphere — quantitative analysis — other valid epistemologies such as TEK offer complementary approaches to understanding the natural world and our relationship to that world with which we have co-evolved since time out of mind. TEK is a place based knowledge-belief-practice complex of ancient lineage. […] The World Conservation Union estimates that tribal peoples occupy over 80% of the world’s biological ‘hotspots’. Locally adapted cultural diversity goes hand in hand with biological diversity. Together they constitute ecocultural diversity. […] What we are really restoring is our relationship with the places we live in and depend on as we learn, once again, how to be native to these places: to be caregivers to the land; to participate with our elder brothers and sisters, the plants and animals, in the spiritual and physical renewal of the earth and of ourselves.” — Dennis Martinez (IPRN, 2015)
Creating regenerative cultures is a process of re-indigenization, of becoming deeply rooted in the unique condition of particular places again, of restoring and caring for a particular place over the long term. Now that humanity is globally interconnected and bound to a common fate, our challenge is to collaborate globally in the process of becoming carefully adapted to our localities again.
Gregory Cajete (1999), a native Pueblo science educator, emphasizes that traditional knowledge is a knowledge system that does not need external validation, just like Western science. The fact that TEK guided the sustainable and resilient co-existence of indigenous people with the wider community of life in their native ecosystem for many more centuries than Western science has existed is a proof of the validity and importance of this knowledge system. “Traditional knowledge is a fragile living library of oral knowledge passed down from generation to generation. It has always been adaptable and resilient. Because of its adaptive nature it cannot be preserved in libraries. Its survival depends on the survival of indigenous culture” (Martinez, 2010).
If we lose the oral traditions of the world’s indigenous cultures we are wiping humanity’s collective long-term memory of what it means to live in a regenerative way as nature (see Nelson, 2008). The preservation of indigenous languages is closely linked to the preservation of traditional knowledge. There are approximately 6,000 languages still spoken on Earth (most of them indigenous languages spoken by relatively small populations). “Each indigenous nation, tribe, band, community and clan will have different processes of ‘coming to know’ ourselves, each other, and the world. These metaphysical and epistemological processes of learning, knowing and being are not just abstract concepts but are embodied and animated in daily practices of survival and living” (Nelson, 2011).
Preserving and learning from traditional knowledge, culture and language is humanity’s common heritage and a vital contribution to a restorative culture. We can learn from traditional, place-based knowledge everywhere, also in Western culture. Transformative innovation for a regenerative culture is also about asking ourselves:
Q How do we re-indigenize and carefully adapt to place (home), while maintaining planetary awareness and global collaboration among all of humanity?
Even in the so-called ‘developed world’ much of the traditional knowledge of how to meet needs within the limits of biologically regenerative resources of the region was still predominant only 150 years ago. That is only a few generations! If we re-value what that knowledge and indigenous wisdom holds for us, we can recover much of it and blend indigenous wisdom in creative ways with the best of modern technology and science.
In The Time of the Black Jaguar, Arkan Lushwala (2012) offers a deeply insightful indigenous perspective on the great transformation under way: the healing of our cultural pathologies. The ‘medicine of the Black Jaguar’ (transformation) is a rite of passage bringing the death of what no longer serves and rebirth of a new and ancient communion with life.
“I see Pachamama becoming once again the fertile ground of growth of healthy human communities. […] All humans have the right to return home and become indigenous to this Earth, to become real human beings living their full potential as caretakers of life, to become people with big hearts living in cooperation with each other and with other forms of life. […] At these times of renewal of life on Earth, new designs, new life, and new tribes are being animated. […] It is the essence of life that is seeking to continue living and multiplying itself through us, the human race.” — Arkan Lushwala (2012: 171–173)
[This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]