Indigenous Knowledge: A Roadmap to Belonging Again

What can we learn from Indigenous cultures about being better stewards to the natural world? After all, Indigenous Peoples were the original caretakers of the land thriving in complex societies long before the arrival of European settlers.

As a Canadian citizen, my country along with the rest of the world, has been slowly learning about the violence inflicted on Indigenous Peoples and the horrors of the residential school system. As we collectively come to terms with our past, I think it is important to look at the insights and lessons from Indigenous cultures. Looking at Indigenous ways of being can inform a shift towards healthier and more sustainable modern societies.

The core tenant of Indigenous knowledge systems is the need to cultivate a sense of kinship with others and the environment. Relationships are the core aspect of existence. We are shaped and molded through our connections to our family, friends and place. Humans are not viewed separate or isolated individuals but intertwined in a vast array of different living systems. Thus, we are just one component of the greater whole.  As the Indigenous academic of the Apalech clan in Australia Tyson Yunkaporta writes,

Nothing exists outside of relationships to something else. There are no isolated variables…. The relationships between the knower and the other knowers, places and senior knowledge keepers is paramount. It facilitates shared memory and sustainable knowledge systems.

Tyson Yunkaporta, Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World

Traditions serve to bind us to a collective identity and unite us to something larger than ourselves. They aim to answer the most fundamental questions of existence, namely who am I and how should I live my life? For Indigenous Peoples, as well as other cultures, the answers can be found in cultural stories.

Various Indigenous Peoples in North America carved totem poles to capture their ancestry, identity and beliefs. The duty of each generation is pass on their unique cultural knowledge and wisdom to enable those who come after us to live a good life. Our obligation is not only to respect the insights of our ancestors, but to ensure that we take care of the environment so we can offer a sustainable future. Narcissism and egocentrism is contrary to this spirit. This ethos is reflected in the ancient philosophy of the Iroquos’ seventh generation principle which states that decisions made today should take into account its impact seven generations into the future.

The aim isn’t to forego one’s individuality in service of the collective. Rather it is to value the important role each person plays in enhancing the greater good of the whole. As Tyson Yunkaporta notes,

There is a balance between self-determination and group identity. These two are not contradictory but entwined, and there are names for all the roles you occupy as an agent of complexity in Aboriginal society….Our languages are expressions of land-based networks and facilitate communication across all of these individual nodes and collectives of nodes within and between systems.

Tyson Yunkaporta, Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World

What resonates with me when I reflect on Indigenous ways of being in the world is the yearning for a sense of belonging.  I am indeed grateful for the benefits and comforts of modern society. However, the excesses of individualism and its tendency towards atomization push one to the emptiness of self-gratification.

What Indigenous cultures understood is that the importance of a developing a sense of reverence for the gifts provided by nature.  Indigenous Peoples aim to maintain a sense of balance and harmony with the natural world.  Natural resources and other species are not to be exploited but respected and carefully preserved. For instance, Indigenous hunting practices carefully observe health of other species by restricting overconsumption through setting limits on how much wild game can be caught and controlling what lands can be accessed. The goal is to establish a healthy and reciprocal relationship between us humans and the world around us.  

We are part of the environment and therefore our wellbeing is directly correlated with the health of other living systems.

The way we see the world shapes the way we treat it. If a mountain is a deity, not a pile of ore; if a river is one of the veins of the land, not potential irrigation water; if a forest is a sacred grove, not timber; if other species are biological kin, not resources; or if the planet is our mother, not an opportunity — then we will treat each other with greater respect. Thus is the challenge, to look at the world from a different perspective

David Suzuki

As I walk through the forest on a vibrant fall afternoon, I am enthralled by the kaleidoscope of bright colours of leaves gently gliding to the ground. The beauty of the world never ceases to astonish me. There is so much more to life than the narrow demands of my own selfish ego.

What matters to me now is being a good steward and preserving the gifts and beauty of the earth for others and for our future ancestors.

I continue my hike forward and earnestly try to follow the wisdom that Indigenous Peoples offer as a roadmap to a healthier more sustainable life.


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The Great Illusion of Separation

In modern industrialized societies it is easy to forget about our inherent connection to the natural world. Our finite attention is drawn towards our devices as media companies compete for our screen time. The online world has become ever more pervasive in our daily life as we have come to focus more and more on the images on our online profiles than the direct experience to the world around us.

 Further, the dense cities, crammed highways and large skyscrapers separate us from the awe-inspiring beauty of nature.  

Since the Age of the Enlightenment, humanity became convinced the it was the masters and conquerors of nature.  Nature wasn’t something that ought to be venerated, but rather used as a resource for our personal gain. We learned that we can use our brilliant technologies to increase our influence and control over the planet.

Separation

The writer and activist Charles Eisenstein notes that our view towards the natural world, and to others around us is influenced by ‘The Story of Separation.’ In modern societies, we don’t view ourselves as beings immersed in a multitude of interdependent complex systems. We see ourselves rather as separate individuals absorbed in a game in which we are competing for finite resources.

Economics theory tells us that we are rational utility maximizers who each seek to increase our material possessions in the search for everlasting happiness. The creed of individualism convinces us that we ought to adopt a competitive mindset in our personal and professional lives. We hear the echo’s of the mantra ‘Greed is Good’ – what is more for you is less for me.  

The more power we influence over natural process the more powerless we become before it. In a matter of months, we can cut down a rain forest that took ten thousand years to grow, but we are helpless in repulsing the dessert that takes its place.

James P Carse – Finite and Infinite Games
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Interbeing and Connection

What this modern narrative misses however is the complexity, connectedness and interdependence of the world.  This is something that is deeply ingrained in the worldview of some Indigenous cultures and religions such as Buddhism.

Indigenous peoples have a reciprocal and spiritual relationship to the earth. They understand that the health of the planet is directly correlated to our wellbeing. This attitude towards the world enables them to practice humility, reverence and reciprocity for all living things. Resources are used in a way which respects the natural environment consumed as something that is sacred. Likewise, there is an awareness of the necessity and responsibility towards future generations.

Similarly, the tradition of Buddhism recognizes the interconnectedness of all existence, rejecting the notion of an independent self. That is to say that the world is fundamentally molded and shaped by a myriad of relationships and connections.  

The Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh talks talks about this idea in his term ‘interbeing’. We are immersed in the systems and networks, and shaped by the qualities and characteristics inherited from our ancient ancestors.   

Our body is a community, and the trillions of non-human cells in our body are even more numerous than the human cells. Without them, we could not be here in this moment. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to think, to feel, or to speak….. The whole planet is one giant, living, breathing cell, with all its working parts linked in symbiosis.

Thích Nhất Hạnh

A helpful example to expand on Thích Nhất Hạnh’s idea can be seen in the important role bees play in maintaining our ecosystem. These little creatures pollinate approximately 70% of our crop species which feed about 90% of the world. What this implies is that their decline will have a domino affect in impacting food for the animal species who rely on those plants, and eventually inhibiting our own food supply.

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If we understand this idea on a personal level we begin to realize that our wellbeing is directly linked to the quality of relationships that we have with not only other humans, but other living beings as well as nature itself.

Our egos can begin to breakdown at the realization that the world we inhabit is composed of sophisticated systems and networks relying on the functioning of each organism and unit to function properly in harmony.

 A Shift in Values  

With the number of issues that we face in the 21st century, it feels like we are drifting further and further towards this ‘winner take all’ and ‘us against them mentality’.

However, we are in an era when our economic, political and social systems are becoming more interconnected .This becomes increasingly obvious to us in a global recession, war or in time of pandemic. 

So the key question I think that must be addressed in the 21st century is:

How can we shift from zero-sum (winner/loser) to positive-sum (winner/winner) relationships and build systems that encourage co-operation rather than fuel division?  [1]

Of course, this seems like a daunting question, but the answer begins with a shift in values from selfishness and greed to co-operation, from individual identify to empathy and community.

The responsibility falls on each and every one of us.

What kind of world do we want to create?

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[1] Of note, this question comes the writer/researcher/activist  Daniel Schmachtenberger who explores existential risk and the future of civilization in his research.  More information on his ideas can be found on his website: http://civilizationemerging.com/


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