Relevance of the Indigenous Woirldview

Some may question the relevance of the Indigenous Worldview to our present Earth crisis, or to the advanced civilization that is responsible for myriad impending–and now manifesting–ecological breakdowns. That was then and this is now, say the skeptics. The very idea of a noble savage living in harmony with Nature must certainly be a romanticized myth—the baseless invention of Jean Jacques Rousseau. And it is true that the Indigenous Worldview was much more appropriate to a world still fully intact and functional than to our nearly ruined world overrun by humans. But when you start asking the question, why; why have we civilized people overrun the planet and nearly ruined it, while other humans have lived here on quite different terms, it requires you to start digging deeper and exploring beneath the surface of events, to ascertain the likely drivers and causes.

It is true that not all indigenous people lived a single lifeway. There were immediate return hunter-gatherers and delayed return hunter gatherers, who were mostly nomadic, just as there were a few easy living populations along certain salmon rivers of the Northwest Coast, and agriculturalists along certain large inland rivers. But despite some small differences, born out of different experiences, it remains true that all these people shared a perspective on the world that can fairly be called the Indigenous Worldview.

According to the Indigenous Worldview, Mother Earth is sacred, and always to be treated with reverence and respect; She is alive, and possesses the qualities of intelligence, sentience, selfhood, and volition, as well as unknowable mystery. When native peoples speak of all our relations they are acknowledging that all living beings are kin to the human, and that we are all integral to the Community of Life, and live together on this sacred Earth in a condition of mutual interdependence.

Living in the hands of the gods is living in the Gift of Nature’s generosity; it is living within the annual solar budget, and off the interest of Nature’s bounty. This is in contrast to living in the Theft, which is living off the interest of Nature’s bounty while also living off the principal. All mining is Theft, whether that mining is using renewable resources at a pace that exceeds the rate of renewal (drawdown), or mining non-renewable resources for one-time use until all such resources are exhausted (or become uneconomical to extract).

Living in the Theft is how we are living now, and how we have been living since the dawn of agriculture. It began with the theft of other creatures’ habitat for the exclusive use of humans, by turning forests into bare-dirt landscapes where topsoil was eroded and eventually poisoned by the salts brought in with stolen irrigation water. Theft also began with the domestication and enslavement of wild animals, stealing their freedom to be themselves and live out their own natural destiny. Jim Mason, in An Unnatural Order: Uncovering the Roots of our Domination of Nature and Each Other, suggests that the brutal act of domestication had a brutalizing effect on those who treated their relatives with such disrespect, even while the process of domestication ended up domesticating the domesticator.

These early Neolithic Revolutionaries necessarily came out of a culture which held the traditional Indigenous Worldview; thus, their cognitive dissonance must have been extreme in those early days. Stealing the habitat of fellow Earthlings for agriculture, and stealing the freedom of their fellow beings for slave work and convenient meat, very much went against the belief in the sacredness of all life. Likewise, the newly instituted institution of private property must have been difficult to rationalize when not that long before Mother Earth was regarded as sacred. How could you “own” your own Mother? The very concept must have caused migraines of consternation.

Thus, something had to be done; and something was done. It was time to break out the Big Lie. The Big Lie declares that the human being is not an integral part of Nature and the Community of Life, as formerly believed, but separate; an entity unto itself, and not only independent of Nature, but superior to Nature. All of her former sacredness was torn from her and flung out to the distant heavens. The Earth and all its creatures were ours to take, at our own pleasure. Nothing on Earth was of any importance except in how it might serve the human being. And thus was born the narcissistic anthropocentrism that has defined the civilized human throughout our history, and continues to characterize us today.

Living in the Theft and living the Big Lie has brought us to where we are today: poised at the edge of ruin. In the face of environmental and social dis-integration, some of us are coming to see that, no, we are not above Nature, nor are we separate from Nature. The Lie of separation has permitted us to live in the Theft, spending down Nature’s capital to the point of near exhaustion—a lifeway with a near-term expiration date. And this brings me to the relevance of the Indigenous Worldview.

I am not suggesting that seven billion of us can all become hunter-gatherers on this severely damaged planet. It is doubtful that fifty million of us could live that way sustainably, even now, and conditions are worsening at an ever accelerating rate. Evidently, we cannot cease living in the Theft at the present moment. We are locked in to this mal-adaptive behavior, and have little recourse but to continue, until something happens to stop us. But we can, at least, come to the recognition that living in the Gift—within the annual solar budget and off the interest of Nature’s bounty– IS a viable lifeway, and (it now seems self-evident) the only lifeway with long-term staying power. That would be a start.

But what of the worldview on which this lifeway is based? Isn’t it as passé and outmoded as any philosophy of life could be? Well, actually, no. Many of its salient tenets are as true today as they ever were. The human being IS an integral part of the Community of Life. And it is quite accurate to characterize our living, and life-supporting, planet as Mother Earth, just as it is appropriate to treat her with the reverence and respect due to such a being: one who clearly displays intelligence, sentience, interiority, volition– and mystery aplenty.

Since the Scientific Revolution, in the time of Bacon and Newton, the world has been reduced to inert, “dead” matter, a product of random chance, functioning like a machine, in an indifferent or hostile Universe. No meaning; no purpose; just happenstance. That has been the scientific worldview for four centuries now, and many still hold that view today. But it is looking to me like this is a scientific paradigm that is just about to be overturned and made a laughing stock—very much as we think of the flat Earthers today.

Within the realm of philosophy, there is a small outpost of ontology that calls itself panpsychism, and this panpsychism corresponds in many ways to the animism of our wild ancestors. The fundamental question panpshchism ask is: what is matter, really? And its answer is that all matter, all the way up and all the way down, displays characteristics that we identify as intelligence, sentience, subjectivity, and volition—the very qualities we find in ourselves. And when you think about it, it pretty much has to be this way, because, otherwise, where do these characteristics come from? You can’t get something out of nothing, and no scientific materialist has yet given a good explanation of how you can.

Ten years ago, even five years ago, panpsychism seemed very fringy, and certainly was not to be taken seriously by educated minds. But things have changed, just recently, and now there is a veritable flood of books and articles on this once esoteric subject. Let me name a few: Radical Nature: the Soul of Matter, by Christian De Quincey (2010); The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature (2012); For Love of Matter: a Contemporary Panpsychism (2003); Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm: Beyond the Doors of Perception into the Dreaming of Earth (2014); Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (2013); The Systems View of Life: a Unifying Vision (2014); Science Set Free: Ten Paths to New Discovery (2012); Darwin’s Unfinished Business: the Self-Organizing Intelligence of Nature (2012).

Each one of these books seeks to upend the old scientific paradigm and replace it with a new, more accurate, and more meaningful paradigm. And when that happens, we will see the world in a very different way—a way that must inevitably change our behavior. If the world and everything in it is (in some form and some measure) alive and meaning-seeking, how can we possibly treat it as an industrial wasteland and toxic dump site? Surely, there would be too much cognitive dissonance to go on this way. So, here we come to the relevance of the indigenous Worldview. With its deep insights, and a new scientific paradigm to bolster it, maybe we could start acting again like we actually belonged here. And then maybe we might.