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 tenet 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.
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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