When it grows quiet, the clean musk of sage
soothes the arriving evening. The mesa casts its longing shadow
as the sun sinks between the juniper’s arcing trunks,
stops to hover above the warm blossoms of immortelle.
The horizon unspools endless in each direction, and you
feel the desert’s vastness, for a moment, in yourself.
The sky lights up with a fire all its own.
— Matthew Kosinski
Each month we delve into a new story inspired by our scent of the month. This month, in honor of the spiritual glow of Canyons, we’re considering how Indigenous wisdom, long ignored and even endangered by Western frameworks, points the way toward a healthier future for people and the planet.
In a nondescript conference room in Sachs Harbour, 10 or 15 of the tiny Canadian town’s primarily Inuvialuit residents sit on plastic chairs. At the head of the room, Neil Ford of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) explains why he’s gathered everyone here today: “We’d like to work with this community over the next year to learn from you the kinds of things you’re seeing.” One man immediately pipes up: “There are a lot more flies now.” Another reports it takes longer for the ocean to freeze in the winter. A third man, dressed in a leather jacket and casually holding a styrofoam cup, chimes in: “When I used to work at the airport up here, and I first reported a thunderstorm, they told me: You guys can’t get thunderstorms. It’s too cold.” He cracks a bemused smile; others around him chuckle lightly. The scene comes from Inuit Observations on Climate Change, a short documentary about a group of IISD scientists looking to better understand climate change by gathering firsthand observations from the Inuvialuit people, an Indigenous population in the western Canadian Arctic region.
The village of Sachs Harbour; Source: Wikipedia
The leather-jacketed man’s anecdote is funny, but it’s also a particularly egregious example of a deeply damaging pattern: the dismissal of Indigenous knowledge by Western authorities, even when that knowledge is a mere statement of objective fact acquired through direct experience of the world.
As the IISD scientists rightfully recognized, Western scientific methods alone can’t tell us everything we need to know about the world and how to live in it. By opening our societal frameworks up to Indigenous ways of thinking, we can get a richer understanding of our environment — and give a platform to some potent ideas about how to make the world more just, more abundant, and healthier for all.
Indigenous Ways of Knowing
As we covered in our January 2020 Ignite Story, the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries birthed Western science as we currently understand it. Under this paradigm, objective knowledge is obtained only through dispassionate study of the physical world. Humans are considered observers of, rather than participants in, their environments, and the universe we occupy is perceived as a set of discrete units rather than a holistic system. This compartmentalized view of the world helped us deepen our understanding of systems as diverse as cell metabolism and black holes, but it is not without its flaws. Without complementary philosophies to broaden our scope of thinking, a purely scientistic view of the world can lead us to perceive nature as something cold, mechanical, and exploitable.
Bryce Canyons; Source: Unsplash
As the West rose to global power, it exported its ways of thinking to peoples outside of Europe as part of a concerted effort to legitimize colonial rule. To establish Western science as the dominant form of knowledge, agents of Western authority went to great lengths to deplatform, outlaw, or actively eradicate the Indigenous systems of living, thinking, and learning that preceded it.1
But Western science is not the only valid means of obtaining knowledge or perceiving the world. Our ways of knowing — and even the very definition of knowledge itself — are culturally informed.2
The development of Western science shows us as much.
The phrase “Indigenous ways of knowing” refers, essentially, to both the collective body of knowledge developed by Indigenous peoples and the culturally specific methods Indigenous people use to investigate, reflect upon, and draw conclusions about the world.3 It’s important to stress that Indigenous peoples do not comprise a single monolithic culture. The Inuvialuit people of the Western Canadian Arctic are not the Māori people of New Zealand, nor are they the Navajo Nation of the American Southwest. Each culture has its own traditions, mythologies, customs, and unique ways of knowing. However, scholars agree there are some cross-cultural commonalities among the many distinct Indigenous ways of knowing.4
“Instead of sorting the physical, spiritual, and social into distinct categories, many Indigenous cultures consider these inextricably linked aspects of a unified system.”
In particular, Indigenous ways of knowing tend to be more personal and experiential than Western science. Many Indigenous cultures recognize that knowledge is influenced by the person who holds it, and that a multiplicity of voices paints a fuller picture than a single authoritative figure could. Direct experiences, such as the scientifically inexplicable thunderstorms in Sachs Harbor, are just as valid a way of producing knowledge as a lab-controlled experiment. Indigenous ways of knowing are often holistic, too. Instead of sorting the physical, spiritual, and social into distinct categories (and giving almost total primacy to the physical), many Indigenous cultures consider these inextricably linked aspects of a unified system.5
How might our world be different if trees, and the koalas that live in them, were treated as equal, living, loving members of our global community? Source: Unsplash
No one story can capture the full extent to which Indigneous knowing differs from Western science, nor can a single example illustrate how these different modes of knowledge encourage different ways of being and behaving in the world. However, an anecdote from Jakelin Troy, director of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research at the University of Sydney, offers a useful look at how an Indigenous knowledge framework might cultivate a more ecocentric way of relating to the planet:
“The last time I went back to my Country in the Snowy Mountains, I noticed tree after tree felled, chopped down seemingly without thought. For me, it was unfathomable. First Peoples worldwide have fundamentally and always understood trees to be community members for us — they are not entities that exist in some biological separateness, given a Linnaean taxonomy and classed with other non-sentient beings. Trees are part of our mob, part of our human world and active members of our communities, with lives, loves and feelings.”6
While Indigenous and Western epistemologies may follow different routes to draw conclusions about the world we inhabit, it’s for that very reason that they complement one another so well when used in tandem. More and more scientists — like the IISD team — are seeing the tremendous benefits of integrating holistic Indigenous knowledge with traditional Western scientific methods. Indeed, as Western science increasingly recognizes how deeply interlaced every facet of the universe really is — from the climate to the quantum level — it’s beginning to look remarkably like the Indigenous ways of knowing it have long, and wrongfully, been scorned.7
But there’s still a long way to go. If we want to heal some of the social and environmental wounds we’ve wrought, we’d do well to pay even closer attention to Indigenous wisdom, especially its ethical mandates.
“If we want to heal some of the social and environmental wounds we’ve wrought, we’d do well to pay even closer attention to Indigenous wisdom, especially its ethical mandates.”
An ecocentric perspective roots our existence in relationship to the ecology of the planet — both past, present and future; Source: Unsplash
Healing the World Starts With Healing Ourselves
One of Western science’s less savory legacies is a cold, empirical economy built on the dominance and exploitation of the natural world. As we covered in the March 2020 Ignite Story, Westerners have largely come to see themselves as separate and distinct from the earth. This is reflected most acutely in Western economic model’s limited concept of value: If it can be bought and sold, it has value. By that logic, a public forest is virtually worthless while a felled tree has financial value. That makes it all too easy for us to treat the planet as little more than a means to an end.
As Dr. Anita Sanchez, author of the Four Sacred Gifts: Indigenous Wisdom for Modern Times, writes, “Our ‘I am separate’ mindset causes us to behave toward the natural world as if we are not connected to it — as if it is something to own, use, and dominate — resulting in unlimited resource extraction, pollution of our environment, degradation of our food and water, climate change, the extinction of species, and more.”8 Thanks to their interdependent and holistic understanding of our world, which perceives the inherent value of trees and animals through direct experience, Indigenous communities have been shown to be far better stewards of the world’s biodiversity and forests.9
The Ringed Plover is protected due to species loss and threat from oil production processes. Over 50 percent of the remaining populations lie within in Indigenous-managed lands; Source: Forestry UBC
As a remedy to this disconnected behavior, Sanchez counsels us to adopt the four sacred gifts, a set of teachings promulgated by a group of 27 Indigenous elders from North America, Tibet, Finland, and Africa in 1994. These gifts are:
- The power to forgive the unforgivable: The first step in repairing the damage we’ve done to the planet is to forgive the ones responsible for that damage, including ourselves. This forgiveness will free us from what Dr. Sanchez calls the “prison of animosity,” which allows us to refocus our energy on constructive healing work.
- The power of unity: Anything that happens to one person, place, or species affects the whole global ecosystem. We owe it to ourselves — and one another — to work together for environmental justice.
- The power of healing: Because we are a part of the earth, healing the planet starts with healing ourselves. As Dr. Sanchez puts it, “When we are good medicine to ourselves and each other, honoring the spirit that resides within us, the healing that results will be reflected in our external world.”
- The power of hope: Put simply, we cannot avert the threat of environmental catastrophe if we do not believe a better world is possible.
For her part, Dr. Sanchez helps put these gifts into action as a board member at Pachamama Alliance, an organization that works with Indigenous communities to protect the Amazon rainforest from predatory extraction while spreading the word about Indigenous ways of knowing to a broader audience in the West.
Pachamama Alliance works with Indigenous peoples in the Amazon, like the Kichwa people of Sarayaku, to beat back the incursion of oil companies upon their land; Source: Pachamama
This Land Is Its Own Land
The Western understanding of the environment deeply influences our understanding of property as well. Because we see natural resources as items to be instrumentalized for our own gain, we see the very land we live on as something that can be, and perhaps should be, privately owned.
In contrast, Indigenous ways of knowing consider the earth a communal resource and a home that sustains us all. In light of this view, Idigenous wisdom exhorts us to respect the earth, care for it, and share its yields with our communities. That’s why the Whanganui Māori of New Zealand fought a 140-year battle to see the Whanganui river granted legal personhood — a battle the Māori won in 2017. Now, New Zealand law treats harm done to the Whanganui river the same way it treats harm done to a person.10
As Gerrard Albert, lead negotiator for the Whanganui Māori, put it: “Rather than us being masters of the natural world, we are part of it. We want to live like that as our starting point. And that is not an anti-development, or anti-economic use of the river but to begin with the view that it is a living being, and then consider its future from that central belief.”11 Enshrining Indigenous principles in law points to another successful way that Indigenous ways of knowing can be used in concert with Western methods to create better outcomes.
The Whanganui river; Source: Wikipedia
Artificial Scarcity or Actual Abundance?
In keeping with the understanding of nature as extractive and property as privately owned, Western economies are largely driven by private profit, as we explored in January’s Ignite Story. Resources are distributed not according to human need, but according to a system of ownership and payment. In other words: A person only gets something if they can pay for it. This produces a state of artificial scarcity, in which resources that are actually abundant become effectively sparse.12 Consider, for example, the fact that 30 percent of food produced for human consumption is wasted while 690 million people go hungry.13
Or the fact that there are enough vacant homes in America to house every homeless person, yet homelessness persists.14
There’s another way to think about the resources we have, especially those produced by the planet itself: as gifts to be shared rather than commodities to monetize. As the ecologist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer, an enrolled Citizen of the Potawatomi Nation, writes in an essay for Emergence Magazine, we could trade artificial scarcity for actual abundance by adopting the logic of the gift economy, an economic system shared by many Indigenous peoples worldwide.
“Is land a source of belongings or belonging?” An indiegenous perspective vs a Western scientific perspective, from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Bioneers talk, 2014; Source: Bioneers
In such economies, “wealth” is a collective term that means having enough to share rather than hoarding more than one needs. “In fact,” Kimmerer writes, “status is determined not by how much one accumulates, but by how much one gives away. The currency in a gift economy is relationship, which is expressed as gratitude, as interdependence and the ongoing cycles of reciprocity. A gift economy nurtures the community bonds which enhance mutual well-being; the economic unit is ‘we’ rather than ‘I,’ as all flourishing is mutual.”15
Kimmerer extends the idea of the gift economy to include the natural world itself. We humans accept nature’s gifts and, in return, we care for the natural world to ensure it remains healthy enough to keep giving those gifts far into the future. Care, not profit, becomes our primary motive for interacting with our environments. And that care infuses our interpersonal relationships as well. To quote Kimmerer again: “Gratitude and reciprocity are the currency of a gift economy, and they have the remarkable property of multiplying with every exchange, their energy concentrating as they pass from hand to hand, a truly renewable resource. I accept the gift from the bush and then spread that gift with a dish of berries to my neighbor, who makes a pie to share with his friend, who feels so wealthy in food and friendship that he volunteers at the food pantry.”16
“Gratitude and reciprocity are the currency of a gift economy, and they have the remarkable property of multiplying with every exchange, their energy concentrating as they pass from hand to hand, a truly renewable resource.”
In her essay “The Serviceberry: An Economy of Abundance,” Kimmerer turns her reflections on the serviceberry (pictured above) into a broader case for the gift economy; Source: The Spruce
Beware the Cynic
Naysayers argue the gift economy is little more than a pipe dream — a nice idea that could never happen in practice. But gift economies are already coming to fruition, even outside of Indigenous communities. As Eater reports, many neighborhoods across America responded to the upheaval of the COVID-19 pandemic by forming their own ad-hoc gift economies. When toilet paper and yeast when missing from store shelves, neighbors who had enough to spare offered their excess to those without. People traded home-cooked meals and made grocery runs for their immunocompromised and laid-off neighbors.17 In cities like Philadelphia, groups like The People’s Fridge and Germantown Community Fridge established community refrigerators, public places where neighbors could take or leave food as needed.18
Of course, the pandemic produced a state of exception unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. But that just lends credence to Kimmerer’s argument in favor of the gift economy. If we could conjure abundance in the midst of crisis, imagine what we could do if we lived according to the logic of the gift economy during brighter days, too. (As Dr. Sanchez might remind us too: Don’t underestimate the power of hope and belief to create change.)
The People’s Fridge, located in West Philadelphia, offers free groceries to anyone in need; Source: The People's Fridge
In the oral tradition of the Anishinaabe people, there is a story about the seven fires prophecy, a set of spiritual and social instructions meant to help the Anishinaabe weather difficult times ahead. The oracles who delivered the prophecy foretold of a race of people who would bring danger to the Anishinaabe’s land and the many trials that would follow their arrival.19
Yet the oracles were not doomsayers. The future they foresaw did not inevitably lead to ruin. According to the prophets, the people of the world would have a choice between two roads: “One road will be green and lush, and very inviting. The other road will be black and charred, and walking it will cut their feet. The people will decide to take neither road, but instead to turn back, to remember and reclaim the wisdom of those who came before them.”
“The people will decide to take neither road, but instead to turn back, to remember and reclaim the wisdom of those who came before them.”
By embracing the wisdom of those who came before, the prophets said, the people would not simply avert disaster — they would bring about a world transformed, one in which everyone lived in the “eternal fire of peace, love, brotherhood, and sisterhood.”20
The message is clear: We don’t need to reinvent the wheel to repair the social and environmental harm inflicted upon the world by centuries of extractive and exploitative behavior. Indigenous ways of knowing already hold the keys to solving many of the most seemingly intractable calamities we face. What might we learn if we stop and listen to the people that hold that wisdom?
— The Keap Team
“If plants are our teachers, what are their lessons, and how might we become better students?” — a short talk by professor of Environmental Science and Forestry, Robin Wall Kimmerer. Source: Bioneers