The Indigenous Way
EARTHDANCE: Living Systems in Evolution [Abridged]
Elisabet Sahtouris
Go to:  Interview | Redefining God | Proceedings of UN Policy

In Chapter 17, we observed that industrial humanity is still immature from an evolutionary perspective. We also expressed hope that it will mature by learning from the organization of ecosystems and from some of the non-technological -- indigenous and traditional -- cultures that have survived the colonial process and the more recent impetus to modernization. In this chapter we will explore the worldviews and knowledge of indigenous peoples to see why cooperation between indigenous and industrial humanity is so important at this critical time in our evolution as the body of humanity.

Indigenous cultures are generally held to be non-industrial cultures with ancient roots in their land, though some have been migratory and others forcibly displaced. They range from very simple material lifestyles to extensive historical urban/rural systems such as Inka and Aztec. For all their great diversity, we will see that they do hold some common elements of worldview and values that unite them with each other and distinguish them from modern or post-modern industrial cultures, which are also diverse, yet united by their basic worldview and values. In today's world, there are very few even relatively intact indigenous cultures.  Yet we do have indigenous people to whom traditional knowledge and ways have been passed on and who live by this knowledge. This knowledge represents a relationship with the rest of our living planet that has been essentially rejected by industrial culture, yet is very relevant to our healthy future.

Let us begin with the historical perspectives of two indigenous cultures that have ancient teachings concerning their relationship with industrial cultures: The Hopi Indians of North America have an ancient prophecy predicting our present and future, reported, among other places, in Rudolf Kaiser's book Voice of the Great Spirit. Part of this prophecy tells the history of the Red and White Brothers, sons of the Earth Mother and the Great Spirit who gave them different missions. The Red Brother was to stay at home and keep the land in sacred trust while the White Brother went abroad to record things and make inventions. One day the White Brother was to return and share his inventions in a spirit of respect for the wisdom his Red Brother had gained. It was told that his inventions would include cobwebs through which people could speak to each other from house to house across mountains, even with all doors and windows closed. There would be carriages crossing the sky on invisible roads, and eventually a gourd of ashes that when dropped would scorch the earth, burning everything, even the fishes in the sea. If the White Brother's ego grew so large in making these inventions that he would not listen to the wisdom of the Red Brother, he would bring this world to an end in the Great Purification of nature. Only a few would survive to bring forth the next world in which there would again be abundance and harmony. 
(It should be mentioned that not all Hopi approve of having any part of this prophecy in print; the author apologizes to anyone who may be offended by this citation of other written sources.)

The Kogi Indians of South America, have a similar historical scenario in their creation story, told as part of theBBC film made by Alan Ereira and called Message from the Heart of the World: the Elder Brother's Warning. According to the Kogi, the Great Mother Aluna is the primeval waters and the source of all creation. Even before creating worlds, she lived through all possibilities for all worlds and all times through great mental anguish. For this she is known as Memory and Possibility. The eight worlds she created previous to this one were not peopled, but in this ninth world she put humans, including Elder and Younger Brothers. From the beginning, Younger Brother caused so much trouble that eventually he was given knowledge of technology and sent far, far away across the waters. Five hundred years ago, the Kogi say, he found his way back across the waters and he has been causing trouble ever since. If he does not listen to the Kogi, who see themselves as Elder Brother, and stop destroying the Mother, stop digging out her heart with his mining and cutting up her liver with his deforestation, he will bring this world to an end.

From the Hopi and Kogi perspectives, we see that present human existence is dominated by the "white brother" or "younger brother" of their ancient stories. He is industrial man as we have seen him in earlier chapters, creating a technological society founded on a mechanical worldview and scientific discovery. We have seen that his technological way of life, for all its benefits, has brought us to the brink of disaster. In this chapter we will see that it stands in sharp contrast to many indigenous and traditional peoples' worldviews, value systems and lifestyles which are only now beginning to be recognized as valid in their own right and possibly critical for our very survival as a species.

The Hopi, with the help of many friends, made forty-five years of effort trying to tell their prophecy orally in the United Nations, succeeding at last in 1993, at the beginning of the UN Year of Indigenous Peoples. Their prophecy does not suggest we would be better off without industrial society. It does suggest that the wisdom and knowledge of indigenous peoples must provide the context in which we make, use and dispose of industrial goods if we are to survive. This view of things from their perspective is consistent with our own growing understanding of the need for ecologically sustainable development, as discussed in the next chapter.

It is important to understand why the UN resisted Hopi efforts to give their message for so long.
One reason is that the European White/Younger Brother had seized the lands of the Hopi, the Kogi and most other indigenous cultures around the world on grounds dating back to a Papal Bull of 1493 stating that infidels had no land rights, while Christians did. Indigenous peoples' territories have thus been reduced to enclaves within the boundaries of United Nations' member nations which do not recognize them as the nations they still claim, in many cases, to be. Jerry Mander's In the Absence of the Sacred and Oren Lyons, et al's Exiled in the Land of the Free have documented this history for U.S. Indians. Only if they are granted sovereignty and recognized as nations will they have UN member status. In the meantime, the UN struggles to define their status and rights.

The other reason is rooted in the colonialist identification of indigenous peoples as part of the "brute nature" the Europeans were to conquer and subdue. Since this colonial process began, the Euro-American culture has perpetuated the dogma that indigenous people are backward, ignorant and impoverished without the white man's intervention. Historically, most human cultures, as we have seen, considered themselves superior to other human cultures. Technological culture defines itself as progressive and non-technological cultures by contrast as backward and ignorant, thus taking the stance: What advice could they possibly give us? Only now, when we begin to understand how essential diversity is to the very survival of living systems, do we open ourselves to respect for different worldviews and the choice of different lifestyles.

The Hopi and the Kogi are only two among many indigenous cultures that have ancient prophecies of man's destruction of nature as well as present evaluations of our global crisis. These two in particular foretold not only nature's destruction at this time, but specifically identified, as we saw above, the inventive, technological branch of humanity as responsible because it fails to heed the sacred Earth knowledge and wisdom so vital to indigenous peoples. Yet neither the Hopi nor the Kogi tell us that technology is bad in itself, that we should abandon it and "go back to nature" living as they do. Both Hopi and Kogi validate technology as an important aspect of humanity, simply warning us that it must be brought into harmony with the sacred natural world.

How did these indigenous peoples know the crisis technology would bring on? Why is it that the science on which our technological world is based--the science which so prides itself on its ability to predict--failed to predict its own consequences while indigenous cultures saw where it would lead?
The failure of industrial society's scientists to predict the consequences of the technology they spawned is directly related to their mechanical/materialist worldview, so fundamentally different from the organic worldviews of indigenous peoples. In the worldview shared by indigenous peoples everywhere, despite many differences in its formulation, the universe, nature, is alive and sacred, all beings in it are related and interdependent: the stars, the rocks, the waters, the winds, the creatures, the people, the spirits and so on. The human role within nature is to hold it sacred and to live in a balanced way within it, to give back as much as is taken while pursuing social and spiritual development. There is no concept of waste and no waste accumulation...

In sharp contrast, the mechanical scientific worldview, as we have seen, has held, at least until now, that the universe is fundamentally lifeless, that life happened by accident on the surface of this planet, that everything in nature including humans and their societies can be understood as "natural mechanisms" composed of mechanical parts. In this view which we have deeply explored, the role of science is to study nature objectively--as though from outside--and reduce its machinery to basic parts in order to understand it. The purpose of this science is to gain control over nature, to exploit it for human purposes by converting it to food production and the manufacture of goods to improve life. Development is thus focused on material production.

In one worldview nature is fundamentally alive and sacred, often represented by the symbol of a circle: the unbroken sacred hoop of life. In this worldview the basic laws of nature were formulated in accordance with what we now call sustainability: laws of balance, harmony, mutual sustenance, of returning in equal measure for whatever you take. By contrast, in the mechanical worldview, one of the basic laws of nature is the law of entropy discussed in Chapter 14, a law stating that everything in nature is running down, a law of unsustainability. We will look at this contrast again in the next chapter.

Understanding the world as a single, interconnected and interdependent living system, the Hopi and Kogi knew that the consequences of the White or Younger Brother's destructive ways would necessarily be disastrous. Within the linear (cause/effect) worldview, you take resources from your environment, produce things and throw away wastes. You do not notice the circularity of nature: that the wastes actually close the loop, becoming part of your environment, poisoning it if the wastes are poisonous. In the "sacred hoop" view, there is no concept of waste and whatever is put back into the environment is useful to other species--an excellent life insurance policy for any species; one followed by the species of mature ecosystems. No wonder indigenous people noticed the White Brother's failure to restore what he destroyed, and were able to predict the consequences thereof.

Indigenous people tend to be humble about their place in nature, while industrial society was founded on the conviction that European man was master of all nature and would bring about a Golden Age by conquering, subduing and transforming material nature to his own ends. Its founding philosopher John Locke clearly stated "the negation of nature is the road to happiness" and indigenous people were negated like the rest of nature. Only now, when we are in danger of our own species' extinction, do we look back to understand the history of the White/Younger Brother's destruction of indigenous cultures as well as whole ecosystems to build his technological world--a world in which nature has been seen only as a supply base and a dumping ground, a polluted world which testifies to the White Brother's failure to respect the Red Brother's sacred Earth wisdom. A world we now recognize as unsustainable.

Will the White Brother listen in time?

The image of indigenous peoples as backward and ignorant stands in the way. Their philosophies are largely ignored, though there are signs of change, such as the Rockefeller Family's reevaluation of their philanthropy a few years ago, during which the president of the Rockefeller Foundation repeatedly cited Iroquois philosophy for its guiding principles to a better world.

Unfortunately, indigenous histories are generally known not through their peoples' own telling, but by anthropological reports. It has been widely assumed that non-technological peoples, many of whom have no written language, do not know their own histories and were not smart enough to develop technologies. A case in point is that even the "relatively advanced" Mayans, Aztecs and Inkas were seen as backward on the grounds that they did not even invent the wheel. In fact these cultures did understand the possibilities of wheels and used them on children's toys, though never for transport. Perhaps burdened slaves were seen as more appropriate to the task of transport. Perhaps the sacred hoop of life was forbidden as a mundane technology. It is instructive to recall that ancient Greeks, even when inventing technology under duress, as in the case of Archimedes' war machines, did not write down the plans. Technology, based as it is on geometry, was considered to be God's sacred art and was forbidden to man, though the Greeks obviously exempted the wheel.

It is difficult for people born into technological culture to imagine anyone preferring a simple, non-technologically developed lifestyle in a natural setting, with few possessions. Yet, most indigenous people, from the stone age, as Marshall Sahlins points out in Stone Age Economics, to now, work very few hours for a living. To prefer the leisure time granted by choosing not to be a consumption oriented society is seen by our own consumer society as laziness; to do without material wealth is seen as deprivation...

Such a lifestyle was truly rewarding as long as its natural simplicity was an integral part of a spiritually rich culture. For most remaining indigenous communities, the old values and communal lifestyles are no longer intact and the allure of modern culture pulls strongly, especially to the young. The conflicts within indigenous communities over this issue are heated as efforts to revive traditional lifestyles compete with the trend to assimilation and modernization. One can only hope the traditional values will be incorporated into whatever lifestyles result.

After colonialism disrupted and often destroyed the indigenous cultures of Africa, the Americas, Australia, Asia and the Arctic, their remnants were judged as though they represented the original cultures. This has led to much misunderstanding. When communities are broken up and/or dislocated, their social integrity, traditions, ecological practices and health are disrupted as well.

In North America, as in other parts of the world, the indigenous survivors of colonial policies were forced onto reservations and deprived of their natural economic bases. In Canada, some Indians could get title to their lands, but only if they "improved" it by stripping it of trees. In the United States, bulldozers ripped out the pinion trees that provided the sustenance of the Shoshone and the animals of Dine'h (Navajo) shepherds are destroyed even today in efforts at forced relocation of people in order to mine their lands. Native peoples' religious practices were outlawed until 1978 in a country founded on religious freedom; their traditional governments were dismantled, outlawed and replaced by Tribal Councils designed by the U.S. government. In consequence, many native nations are divided by conflicts between such councils and traditional, if "illegitimate," leadership.

1992, the Quincentennial Celebration year of Columbus' first voyage to the Americas and the year of the Rio Earth Summit with its worldwide meeting of indigenous peoples in addition to the world's governments and non-governmental organizations, brought indigenous issues into the public eye as never before. The systematic destruction of native people and cultures is now well documented, though not yet widely known. Precisely because it is still not common knowledge, confusion still exists about what real indigenous cultures were. It is as inappropriate to judge indigenous cultures by the worst behavior we find among their abused and impoverished survivors as it is to glamorize them, to sell their ceremonies, their portraits and their art for profit, with few exceptions giving little or no return to their creators. The point is not to romanticize indigenous people, who have been and are as human as all others, but to acknowledge and learn from their traditional best--from their deeply spiritual respect for and scientific knowledge of nature.

To be respected by the dominant culture of the White Brother, knowledge must be scientific. For this reason it is important to show that indigenous people indeed have scientific knowledge.

Science is defined by Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (10th edition, 1993) as "the state of knowing" or "a department of systematized knowledge as an object of study." This definition certainly includes indigenous knowledge. The American Heritage Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language (3rd edition, 1992) defines science as "the observation, identification, description, experimental investigation and theoretical explanation of phenomena." A bit more precise, yet a good description of what indigenous people do that is appropriately dignified with the label "science." As defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, science is "the state of knowing", or "knowledge as opposed to belief or opinion," knowledge, that is, "acquired by study." The OED continues explaining that science is "in a more restricted sense: a branch of study which is concerned either with a connected body of demonstrated truths or with observed facts systematically classified and more or less colligated by being brought under general laws, and which include trustworthy methods for the discovery of new truth within its own domain." Detailed as this definition is, there is nothing in it to exclude indigenous science.

While native scientists do not do science in laboratories, they do systematically acquire scientific knowledge through observation, experiment and theoretical explanation in a framework of natural law. Dr. Greg Cajete, a Tewa Indian from the Santa Clara Pueblo and author of Look to the Mountain: An Ecology of Indigenous Education, observes that the white man does science in a "low-context environment," isolating phenomena to study them outside their natural context, in a laboratory. The red man does science in a "high-context environment," studying phenomena within their natural context. He explains that the reason for this difference has to do with the purpose of science in the two cultures. While both do science in pursuit of knowledge based on real observation and experiment, the white man removes phenomena from their natural context to study them because he seeks knowledge enabling him to control nature for his own purposes, while the red man seeks knowledge that will permit him to integrate himself harmoniously into nature. Indigenous scientists have always known the "participatory universe," while the industrial culture's scientists only recently discovered it, now understanding that the pure objectivity considered so fundamental to doing good science is illusory. Indigenous science is thus participatory, fostering dialogue between humans and the rest of nature. It is taught to all people, not as something learned in limited years of schooling, but as a lifelong task, though its specialists, such as medicine people who are both researchers and practitioners, spend many years in formal and rigorous training...

The point of this discussion is not to show one science or cultural pattern superior to another, but to recognize that there can no more be one true science than one true religion. In Chapter 12 we discussed the impossibility of any single true worldview. Science itself is a mapping activity--its theories are testable maps to the underlying reality filtered into our minds through our limited senses. We make many different kinds of actual maps, all valid. We do not expect a pilot to fly by a road map, a driver to drive by a weather map, or a weather forecaster to predict weather from a topographical map. We make our maps for different purposes, just as indigenous and industrial scientists make their scientific descriptions of the world for different purposes.

What matters is which sciences we consider when we want to achieve these varied purposes. Indigenous science will offer little to an engineer designing new communications technologies, which this book has discussed as essential for a harmonious human future. On the other hand, it may be extremely useful if we want to know how to survive as a healthy part of nature. In Chapter 21 we will see that sustainable agriculture, for example, may better be based on indigenous and traditional techniques than on costly and destructive hi-tech farming.
By the categories of our mainstream culture's science, indigenous sciences include biology, geology, astronomy, navigation, meteorology, botany, medicine/pharmacology, psychology, agricultural engineering, plant genetics, ecology, social and political sciences, all based on as much as thousands of years of observations and experiments. Such sciences have contributed enormously to modern knowledge. Jack Weatherford, in his book Indian Givers, has documented many examples of the very widespread fruits of indigenous science in our modern civilization, from aspirin and freeze-dried potatoes to the political science of our own constitutional democracy...

Because we are accustomed to equating science and technology with mechanical instruments, machinery and all the material products of our culture, it is difficult for us to grasp the enormous scientific and technological prowess of peoples who consciously and deliberately kept their material goods to a minimum in order to live in ecologically sound ways. An Amazon Indian child may learn to distinguish literally hundreds of species of bees by their appearance and behavior. A trained medicine person would have as detailed knowledge of anatomy, physiology, psychology, traumas, illnesses and medicines as any technological society doctor, though this knowledge is orally and experientially acquired and its practice does not depend on hospitals with their technological support systems.

Manuel Cordoba, a Brazilian rubber tapper kidnapped as a boy early this century, learned the medicine he practiced all his life from Amazon Indians. When all doctors failed to cure the chairman of the Medical School at the University of Lima of a terminal illness , Cordoba succeeded, using only indigenous knowledge and medicines. He was offered a professorship at the university, but declined, as reported by Bruce Lamb in Rio Tigre and Beyond.

Indigenous navigators of the Pacific Ocean have traversed its waters for thousands of years without benefit of compass. These navigators knew astronomy (navigation by stars), had sophisticated knowledge of currents, weather patterns and fish and bird migrations to guide their swift, elegant outrigger canoes over vast stretches of ocean; they were also trained to detect magnetic fields directly in their bodies to give them "compass" directions and to sense their proximity to land. The latter has been described as "standing tall in one's canoe, to see where land is." Thirty indigenous Pacific nations have recreated their traditional sea-going vessels in recent years in order to retrace ancient voyages using the same techniques.

Invisible "technology" appears magical to those not trained to use it, especially in the realm of healing. Many Amazon medicine men use the hallucinogen known as ayahuasca, made from several varieties of Banisteriopsis vine, to diagnose in detail the physiological problems of their patients. In the hands of trained practitioners, it can be used to unite minds and bodies such that detailed knowledge can be transferred directly among people and other species. U.S. physicist Fred Wolf directly experienced its power, as reported in his book, The Eagle's Quest. To the indigenous people engaging in such practices they are not magical but scientific. To Wolf, they were demonstrating what every theoretical physicist, if not every scientist, knows at least in theory: that "how we see the world is how we intend to see it, because intent is the key." We might add, that much knowledge and practice are required as well, to do it scientifically, in any science...

Much indigenous science is based on centuries and even millennia of observation passed on through time, generating laws of relationship. Hopi observations in geology and meteorology, for example, led to the understanding that underground copper deposits in the Southwest draw down lightning, bringing life-giving rains to the desert. They know that mining can change weather patterns as surely as the Kogi know that deforestation and mining are drying the climate around them so their mountains no longer have adequate snow to feed the rivers on which their crops and lives depend. Both cultures have observed the destruction while the white man saw only the copper and the gold that would bring him wealth.
The Kogi Indians, as we saw, observe the relationship between increasing deforestation and decreasing cloud cover over their mountains. Without clouds there is no rain, the rivers are not filled, the land they live on dries up. They fear their own end, and ours, is near....

This book has taken the optimistic position that it is not too late to learn from the ways of nature and the scientific Earth knowledge of indigenous peoples, with their deeply ecological wisdom. Cooperation between indigenous and industrial society, based on mutual respect, can help us identify destructive technologies and make useful technologies ecologically sound. The White Brother's inventive genius is enormous and capable of solving the greatest problems we face, if it is augmented by the Red Brother's deep knowledge and wisdom.

copyright © 1995 by Elisabet Sahtouris