Despite their different perspectives on the natural world, shaman and wise scientist seem to be issuing strikingly similar messages about the underlying interconnectedness of all life and warnings about the deteriorating state of natural systems. Our book, Wisdom of the Elders, is an exploration of a few of these shared ecological themes. It represents a search for points of intellectual, emotional, and poetic resonance between some of the most profound truths of modern life sciences–particularly evolutionary biology, genetics, and ecology–and those of the time-tested nature-wisdom of First Peoples around the world, ranging from American, Andean, and Amazonian Indians of the New World to indigenous peoples of Africa, Southeast Asia, Australia, and beyond. -Ed
Native Visions of Nature
Shamans and scientists for centuries have asked very different kinds of questions of the cosmos.
How different are the “answers” each has elicited? One way to distill the differences between Native and scientific knowledge about nature is simply to list some of the fundamental qualities of Native ecological perspectives and contrast them with conventional scientific ones. By listing them, we do not mean to imply that all these characteristics will necessarily be found in every indigenous belief system. Nor are we implying that no scientist subscribes in any way to any of the Native viewpoints and values that we are suggesting. Nor do we believe our list to be exhaustive.
First, traditional Native knowledge about the natural world tends to view all–or at least vast regions–of nature, often including the Earth itself, as inherently holy rather than profane, savage, wild, or wasteland. The landscape itself, or certain regions of it, is seen as sacred and quivering with life. It is inscribed with meaning regarding the origins and unity of all life, rather than seen as mere property to be partitioned legally into commercial real estate holdings.The Native Mind is imbued with a deep sense of reverence for nature. It does not operate from an impulse to exercise human dominion over it.
Native wisdom sees spirit, however one defines that term, as dispersed throughout the cosmos or embodied in an inclusive, cosmos-sanctifying divine being.
Native wisdom tends to assign human beings enormous responsibility for sustaining harmonious relations within the whole natural world rather than granting them unbridled license to follow personal or economic whim. It regards the human obligation to maintain the balance and health of the natural world as a solemn spiritual duty that an individual must perform daily–not simply as admirable, abstract ethical imperatives that can be ignored as one chooses.
The Native Mind emphasizes the need for reciprocity–for humans to express gratitude and make sacrifices routinely–to the natural world in return for the benefits they derive from it–rather than to extract whatever they desire unilaterally. Nature’s bounty is considered to be precious gifts that remain intimately and inextricably embedded in its living web rather than as “natural resources” passively awaiting human exploitation.
Human beings are to honor nature routinely (through daily spiritual practice, for example, or personal prayer) rather than only intermittently when it happens to be convenient (on Earth Day, for example, or following a particularly moving speech or television documentary, or in the throes of personal despair over a pressing local environmental crisis). And human violations of the natural world have serious immediate (as well as long-term) consequences rather than comfortingly vague, ever “scientifically uncertain”, long-term ones.
The Native Mind tends to view wisdom and environmental ethics as discernible in the very structure and organization of the natural world rather than as the lofty product of human reason far removed from nature.
The Native Mind tends to view the universe as the dynamic interplay of elusive and ever-changing natural forces, not as a vast array of static physical objects.
It tends to see the entire natural world as somehow alive and animated by a single, unifying life force, whatever its local Native name. It does not reduce the universe to progressively smaller conceptual bits and pieces.
It tends to view time as circular (or as a coil-like fusion of circle and line), as characterized by natural cycles that sustain all life, and as facing humankind with recurrent moral crises–rather than as an unwavering linear escalator of “human progress”.
It tends to accept without undue anxiety the probability that nature will always possess unfathomablemysteries. It does not presume that the cosmos is completely decipherable to the rational human mind.
It tends to view human thought, feelings, and communication as inextricably intertwined with events and processes in the universe rather than as apart from them. Indeed, words themselves are considered spiritually potent, generative, and somehow engaged in the continuum of the cosmos, not neutral and disengaged from it. The vocabulary of Native knowledge is inherently gentle and accommodating toward nature rather than aggressive and manipulative.
The Native Mind tends to emphasize celebration of and participation in the orderly designs of nature instead of rationally “dissecting” the world.
It tends to honor as its most esteemed elders those individuals who have experienced a profound and compassionate reconciliation of outer- and inner-directed knowledge, rather than virtually anyone who has made material achievement or simply survived to chronological old age.
It tends to reveal a profound sense of empathy and kinship with other forms of life, rather than a sense of separateness from them or superiority over them. Each species is seen as richly endowed with its own singular array of gifts and powers, rather than as somehow pathetically limited compared with human beings.
Finally, it tends to view the proper human relationship with nature as a continuous dialogue (that is, a two-way, horizontal communication between Homo sapiens and other elements of the cosmos) rather than as a monologue (a one-way, vertical imperative).
This unfinished litany of Native ecological themes suggests that there is a fundamental division between Native and Western ecological perspectives. Within Native worldviews, the parts and processes of the universe are, to varying degrees, holy; to science, they can only be secular. Thus, this ancient, culturally diverse aboriginal consensus on the ecological order and the integrity of nature might justifiably be described as a “sacred ecology” in the most expansive, rather than in the scientifically restrictive, sense of the word “ecology”. For it looks upon the totality of patterns and relationships at play in the universe as utterly precious, irreplaceable, and worthy of the most profound human veneration. To indigenous peoples around the world, the sacred is, and always has been, waiting to be witnessed everywhere–diffusely scattered to the four directions of the winds–and “everywhen” (a term coined by Australian Aboriginal scholar W. E. H. Stanner)–continuously, throughout all time.
The eminent Swedish historian of religion Åke Hultkrantz suggests that the narrow Western term nature seems incapable of enfolding Native notions of a vast, spiritually charged cosmic continuum, in which human society, biosphere, and the whole universe are seamlessly rolled into one. The Western religious dichotomy between a world of spiritual plenitude and a world of material imperfection, a dualism pertaining to Christian and Gnostic doctrines, he states, has no counterpart in American Indian thinking. Indians value highly life on Earth, and their religion supports their existence in the world.1
According to Alfonso Ortiz, a Tewa Indian and well-known anthropologist: Indian tribes put nothing above nature. Their gods are a part of nature, on the level of nature, not supra-anything. Conversely, there’s nothing that is religious, versus something else that is secular. Native American religion pervades, informs all life.2
At the same time, it is important to emphasize that this inherent spiritual dimension does not mean that Native nature-wisdom is somehow naively romantic, ethereal, or disconnected from ordinary life. Native knowledge about nature is firmly rooted in reality, in keen personal observation, interaction, and thought, sharpened by the daily rigors of uncertain survival. Its validity rests largely upon the authority of hard-won personal experience–upon concrete encounters with game animals and arduous treks across the actual physical contours of local landscapes, enriched by night dreams, contemplations, and waking visions. The junction between knowledge and experience is tight, continuous, and dynamic, giving rise to “truths” that are likely to be correspondingly intelligent, fluid, and vibrantly “alive”.
This experiential basis of knowledge,explains Canadian anthropologist Robin Ridington, who has spent years studying British Columbia’s subarctic Beaver Indians, or Dunne-za, allows for a “science” that is negotiated in the same way that people negotiate social relations with one another. This does not mean that aboriginal people are colorful and spiritual but somehow not really connected to the real world in which we now live, he continues. They are real. They are translators. They remember. We forget or ignore what they know at our peril.
To be sure, Native attitudes toward the natural world are not without certain tensions. After all, nature is not only sacred and beloved–it must daily be exploited, to some extent, in order to survive. Native knowledge embodies an ethos for mitigating this universal conflict, but it cannot be expected always to do so in perfect harmony. Historians suggest that Native peoples, too, have on occasion committed environmental “sins”–through wasteful hunting and trapping practices, for example, or the gradual depletion of agricultural soils. But the worst of these excesses were generally of relatively recent vintage and occurred under the influence of powerful, imposed, non-Native economic incentives and value systems. The earlier, pre-contact ecological infractions that took place certainly were done without the terrible technological leverage of modern Western infractions.
Cross Cultural Resonance
Modern science looks out upon the same universe through a very different lens. Through an often laborious process of debate and discussion, the community of scientists itself agrees for a time upon an interpretation of some aspect of the world–a new, more intellectually satisfying paradigm, or model, of reality, the latest in a long, lurching succession of ever-provisional scientific “truths”.
Despite this gulf between Native and scientific ways of knowing about nature, each tradition has much to learn from the other. A cross-cultural resonance can be felt in the ringing public statements issued by some of our wisest and most respected elder statesmen of science. They speak knowingly of the genetic and evolutionary kinship of all species and of our fundamental dependency upon the systems of nature. They describe the intricate, lifelike homeostatic processes that regulate the chemical balance of the Earth’s oceans, soils, and atmosphere. And they plead for a new global environmental ethos based on this scientifically documented unity–one that might grant all forms of life an inherent value and right to exist and burden human beings with a greater sense of responsibility for maintaining long-term ecological balances in the biosphere.
A landmark 1987 report by the World Commission on Environment and Development, popularly known as the–Brundtland Report, boldly addresses the value of indigenous ecological perspectives to many global efforts to deal with ongoing environmental crises. It pleads for the prompt–restoration of traditional land and resource rights to the world’s remaining indigenous and tribal peoples, and it calls for a renewed respect for their ecological wisdom:
These communities are the repositories of vast accumulations of traditional knowledge and experience that links humanity with its ancient origins. It is a terrible irony that as formal development reaches more deeply into rainforests, deserts, and other isolated environments, it tends to destroy the only cultures that have proved able to thrive in these environments.3
We wholeheartedly concur with the Brundtland Report’s stand on the urgency of protecting Native rights, lands, and knowledge. Native spiritual and ecological knowledge has intrinsic value and worth, regardless of its resonances with or “confirmation” by modern Western scientific values. As most Native authorities would be quick to point out, it is quite capable of existing on its own merits and adapting itself over time to meet modern needs. For it is, after all, a proud, perceptive, and extraordinarily adaptive spiritual tradition, every bit as precious, irreplaceable, and worthy of respect as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and other great spiritual traditions. In our view, respect for Native spirituality and the nature-wisdom embedded within it is inseparable from respect for the dignity, human rights, and legitimate land claims of all Native peoples.
Seen in this light, Native knowledge and spiritual values are not simply “natural resources” (in this case, intellectual ones) for non-Natives to mine, manipulate, or plunder. They are, and will always be, the precious life-sustaining property of First Peoples: sacred symbols encoding the hidden design of their respective universes; mirrors to their individual and collective identities; and ancient and irreplaceable maps suggesting possible paths to inner as well as ecological equilibrium with the wider, ever-changing world.
1. Åke Hultkrantz, Native Religions of North America (Harper and Row, 1987).
2. Alfonso Oritz, “Why Nature Hates the White Man”, interview by Jane Bosveld, Omni (March 1990).
3. World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (Oxford University Press, 1987).
From Wisdom of the Elders: Honoring Sacred Visions of Nature by David Suzuki and Peter Knudtson. © 1992 by David Suzuki and Peter Knudtson. Used by permission of Bantam Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Publishing Group, Inc.