on the natural world, shaman and wise scientist seem to be issuing
similar messages about the underlying interconnectedness of all life
warnings about the deteriorating state of natural systems.Our book, Wisdom
of the Elders, is an exploration of a few of these shared
themes. It represents a search for points of intellectual, emotional,
poetic resonance between some of the most profound truths of modern
sciences–particularly evolutionary biology, genetics, and ecology–and
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.
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
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
in every indigenous belief system. Nor are we implying that no
scientist subscribes in any way to any of the Native viewpoints and
that we are suggesting. Nor do we believe our list to be exhaustive.
traditional Native knowledge about the natural world tends to
all–or at least vast regions–of nature, often including the Earth
as inherently holy rather than profane, savage, wild, or wasteland. The
landscape itself, or certain regions of it, is seen as sacred
quivering with life. It is inscribed with meaning regarding the origins
and unity of all life, rather than seen as mere property to be
legally into commercial real estate holdings.The Native Mind is imbued
with a deep sense of reverence for nature. It does not operate
an impulse to exercise human dominion over it.
Native wisdom sees spirit, however
that term, as dispersed throughout the cosmos or
in an inclusive, cosmos-sanctifying divine being. Spirit is not
in a single monotheistic Supreme Being.
Native wisdom tends to assign human beings
for sustaining harmonious relations within the whole natural world
than granting them unbridled license to follow personal or economic
regards the human obligation to maintain the balance and health of the
natural world as a solemn spiritual duty that an individual must
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
world in return for the benefits they derive from it–rather than to
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
Human beings are to honor nature
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
or in the throes of personal despair over a pressing local
crisis). And human violations of the natural world have serious
(as well as long-term) consequences rather than comfortingly vague,
"scientifically uncertain", long-term ones.
The Native Mind tends to view wisdom
ethics as discernible in the very structure and organization of the
natural world rather than as the lofty product of human reason far
The Native Mind tends to view the universe
as the dynamic
interplay of elusive and ever-changing natural forces, not as a
array of static physical objects.
It tends to see the entire natural world as
and animated by a single, unifying life force, whatever its local
name. It does not reduce the universe to progressively smaller
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
than as an unwavering linear escalator of "human progress".
It tends to accept without undue anxiety
that nature will always possess unfathomable mysteries.
It does not presume that the cosmos is completely decipherable to the
It tends to view
feelings, and communication as inextricably intertwined with
and processes in the universe rather than as apart from them. Indeed,
words themselves are considered spiritually potent, generative, and
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
and participation in the orderly designs of nature instead
"dissecting" the world.
It tends to honor as its most esteemed
elders those individuals
who have experienced a profound and compassionate reconciliation of
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
of empathy and kinship with other forms of life, rather than a
of separateness from them or superiority over them. Each species
is seen as richly endowed with its own singular array of gifts and
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
of the cosmos) rather than as a monologue (a one-way, vertical
This unfinished litany of Native ecological
is a fundamental division between Native and Western ecological
Native worldviews, the parts and processes of the universe are, to
degrees, holy; to science, they can only be secular. Thus, this
culturally diverse aboriginal consensus on the ecological order and the
integrity of nature might justifiably be described as a "sacred
in the most expansive, rather than in the scientifically restrictive,
of the word "ecology". For it looks upon the totality of patterns and
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
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
suggests that the narrow Western term
incapable of enfolding Native notions of a vast, spiritually charged
which human society, biosphere, and the whole universe are seamlessly
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
in American Indian thinking. Indians value highly life on Earth, and
religion supports their existence in the world.1
According to Alfonso Ortiz, a Tewa Indian
anthropologist: Indian tribes put nothing above nature. Their gods are
a part of nature, on the level of nature, not supra-anything.
there’s nothing that is religious, versus something else that is
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
in reality, in keen personal observation, interaction, and thought,
by the daily rigors of uncertain survival. Its validity rests
upon the authority of hard-won personal experience–upon concrete
with game animals and arduous treks across the actual physical contours
of local landscapes, enriched by night dreams, contemplations, and
visions. The junction between knowledge and experience is tight,
and dynamic, giving rise to "truths" that are likely to be
intelligent, fluid, and vibrantly "alive".
basis of knowledge,explains
Canadian anthropologist Robin Ridington, who has spent years studying
Columbia’s subarctic Beaver Indians, or Dunne-za, allows for a
that is negotiated in the same way that people negotiate social
with one another. This does not mean that aboriginal people are
and spiritual but somehow not really connected to the real world in
we now live, he continues. They are real. They are translators. They
We forget or ignore what they know at our peril.
To be sure, Native attitudes toward the
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
Native knowledge embodies an ethos for mitigating this universal
but it cannot be expected always to do so in perfect harmony.
suggest that Native peoples, too, have on occasion committed
"sins"–through wasteful hunting and trapping practices, for example, or
the gradual depletion of agricultural soils. But the worst of these
were generally of relatively recent vintage and occurred under the
of powerful, imposed, non-Native economic incentives and value systems.
The earlier, pre-contact ecological infractions that took place
were done without the terrible technological leverage of modern Western
Modern science looks out upon the same
a very different lens. Through an often laborious process of debate and
discussion, the community of scientists itself agrees for a
upon an interpretation of some aspect of the world–a new, more
satisfying paradigm, or model, of reality, the latest in a long,
succession of ever-provisional scientific "truths".
Despite this gulf
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
statements issued by some of our wisest and most respected elder
of science. They speak knowingly of the genetic and evolutionary
of all species and of our fundamental dependency upon the systems of
They describe the intricate, lifelike homeostatic processes that
the chemical balance of the Earth’s oceans, soils, and atmosphere. And
they plead for a new global environmental ethos based on this
documented unity–one that might grant all forms of life an inherent
and right to exist and burden human beings with a greater sense of
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
to many global efforts to deal with ongoing environmental crises.
pleads for the prompt-restoration
of traditional land and resource rights to the world’s remaining
and tribal peoples, and it calls for a renewed respect for their
These communities are the repositories of
of traditional knowledge and experience that links humanity with its
origins. It is a terrible irony that as formal development reaches more
deeply into rainforests, deserts, and other isolated environments, it
to destroy the only cultures that have proved able to thrive in these
concur with the
Brundtland Report’s stand on the
of protecting Native rights, lands, and knowledge. Native
and ecological knowledge has intrinsic value and worth,
its resonances with or "confirmation" by modern Western scientific
As most Native authorities would be quick to point out, it is quite
of existing on its own merits and adapting itself over time to meet
needs. For it is, after all, a proud, perceptive, and extraordinarily
spiritual tradition, every bit as precious, irreplaceable, and worthy
respect as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and other great
traditions. In our view, respect for Native
and the nature-wisdom embedded within it is inseparable from
for the dignity, human rights, and legitimate land claims of all Native
Seen in this light,
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
encoding the hidden design of their respective universes; mirrors to
individual and collective identities; and ancient and irreplaceable
suggesting possible paths to inner as well as ecological equilibrium
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
Common Future (Oxford University Press, 1987).
From Wisdom of the Elders: Honoring
of Nature by David Suzuki and Peter Knudtson. © 1992 by David
Suzuki and Peter Knudtson. Used by permission of Bantam Books, a
of Bantam Doubleday Publishing Group, Inc.