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Indigenous Introduction - Part 2

The Nahua scholar Javier Galicia Silva demonstrates how rural indigenous agricultural life has actually been an ongoing field of resistance to dominant colonial exploitative practices. Maize agriculture, especially, continues to transmit core worldview values of the ancient Mesoamerican indigenous civilizations. Silva describes the techniques of Nahuatl agriculture and the living cosmovision in which mythic narratives, gardens, and mountains interact to fructify those practices.

Continuing the Mesoamerican focus, María Elena Bernal-García presents a close reading of the significance of the sacred mountain to indigenous peoples of the region according to sixteenth- century myths and histories. Recognizing the relationships between mythic metonyms, such as “mountain-plain” in the Popol Vuh, and the spatial metaphors in the indigenous landscape, Bernal-García lays out her reading of the sequence of transformations with which native Mesoamerican cultures related to the earth as the sacred mountain of bountiful reality.

Next, Angel García Zambrano discusses the historical process by which specific flora, specifically the famous calabash gourd, and cacti figured in the rituals of settlement performed by indigenous peoples as recorded in colonial Mexico. His work underscores the formal and functional relationships between native peoples and regions that focused on certain plants known from the ancient myths as the embodiment of their ethnic identity.

The final essay in this section, by Werner Wilbert, focuses on Warao spiritual ecology. He provides a detailed study of the ethnography and geography of the Warao peoples of the Orinoco River Delta. Wilbert’s work describes the types of soil, plant, and animal knowledge that has enabled these peoples to live in relative equilibrium within their riverine delta homeland. Given recent archaeological evidence, he conjectures that the Warao have lived in this manner from an undetermined period well before the historic period. Most importantly, Wilbert endeavors to present Warao taxonomies and ecological concepts so that the reader might understand how the Warao interpret their environment. His perspicacious and empathetic presentation enables a reader to understand the basis on which Warao make judgments about what levels of pollution and loss of bioregional life are acceptable in the struggle for economic gain and political sovereignty.

The fourth section, titled “Resistance and Regeneration,” presents articles that detail the clashes, compromises, and modes of reinventing indigenous communities and their worldviews in the era of increased market and media globalization. There is a decided circumpolar focus on North America in the opening essay, but reference should also be made to Eurasian Saami and Tungusic peoples, as well as to other North American Inuit and Athapaskan peoples, such as the Gwich’in. These peoples have all drawn on their worldview values to mount significant environmental resistance to development projects they have judged harmful to themselves and their homelands. Several crucial issues in this section are hydroelectric damming, co-opting tradition, and indigenous agricultural knowledge.

In his overview of the James Bay Cree resistance to hydroelectric damming by the Quebec provincial power company, HydroQuebec, Harvey Feit details the ways in which Cree leaders have skillfully translated indigenous cosmological concepts and subsistence practices into mainstream metaphors, such as the image of the “garden.” Juxtaposing such diverse ideas and customs as Western property ownership and Cree stewardship of hunting territories, he explores their differences and brings the reader into the ways that the Cree have understood and echoed those differences to educate non-Cree about their way of life. Feit shows how Cree elders have for some time been deeply involved in the conversations involving conceptual analyses and political activities in international debate about indigenous resistance to outsider development schemes.

Smithu Kothari’s article deepens this analysis from the standpoint of indigenous swaraj, self-rule, in light of the national development policies of the overtly Hindu governing party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Kothari also identifies four central elements that stand at the core of South Asian indigenous traditions, namely, the centrality of forests, the primacy of the collective, the regeneration of language, and the need for political and economic autonomy. Threaded through these issues, Kothari maintains, are adivasi, or indigenous, self- awakening and regeneration. Though challenged to define their relations to the modern world, indigenous peoples, according to Kothari, seek to modernize in ways that are distinctive-neither simply imitative of the democratic, individualizing nation-state nor marred by the self-loathing of traditional wisdom too often inculcated by successive dominating states.

Opening her work with a strong emphasis on ethnographic difference in Australia, Diane Bell presents a historical analysis of what happened to the land after European settlement in Australia and why. Following the legal implications of the principle of terra nullius in Euro- Australian relations with Aboriginal peoples, she also turns a reflexive eye on her own anthropological community. From her own field experiences she brings a sharper awareness of the mutual meanings of kin and country for Australian indigenous peoples. Her discussions of gender knowledge and confidentiality in Aboriginal women’s struggles for voice in the political and legal maze of Australian justice have striking implications for the study of religion and ecology.

Tom and Ellen Trevorrow, active in the Ngarrindjeri Lands and Progress Association and principal organizers of the Camp Coorong Race Relations Cultural Education Centre, give first- person accounts of the government inquiry conducted by the Hindmarsh Island Royal Commission. Their perspective reorients the placename of the inquiry to Kumarangk, namely, the Ngarrindjeri women’s name for this island to which a bridge has been proposed by outside developers. Their discussions accentuate the poignant injustice that indigenous people face when legal experts use “tradition” itself as a criteria with which to subvert the claims of a people battered by centuries of colonial and governmental oppression.

The indigenous Andean agronomist Julio Valladolid withdrew from his academic post to work more closely with Quechua and Aymara peasant farmers. He and anthropologist Frédérique Apffel-Marglin describe the work of the indigenous agricultural organization PRATEC in fostering indigenous agricultural ritual knowledge and techniques based on ancient ways of “seeing” and “feeling.” Apffel-Marglin’s essay critiques the intellectual position that indigenous techniques based on mythic cosmologies lack adequate objectivity by affirming their collective data gathering and concerns for bioregional health. Valladolid extends this analysis by critiquing the individualizing, objectivizing, and homogenizing tendencies of modern agriculture. He points out the concerns for diversity and variability in indigenous, community-oriented agriculture as well as its intellectual foundation in the “impenetrable” character of all life as unique beings in the process of change.

Tirso Gonzales and Melissa Nelson extend this discussion of environmental issues in North America, or Turtle Island as many indigenous nations call the continent, by giving an overview of legacies of “internal colonialism” on Native North American reservations. Stressing that “land is everything” for native peoples, they relate various innovative ways in which indigenous individuals, communities, and organizations are involved in environmental issues. They describe an active Internet organization, the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), and its efforts to link up with other grassroots indigenous groups, especially through its annual “Protecting Mother Earth” conferences. They also discuss two case studies, namely, the Mescalero Apache struggle over locating a nuclear waste depository on their New Mexico reservation, and the proposed location of a low-level radioactive waste dump on a sacred site of five local California Indian tribes, collectively called the Quechan peoples, in Ward Valley. The striking differences in these two case studies stress the underlying political economic and cultural realities on American Indian reservations, as well as the ways in which the marginalization of indigenous peoples from both local and national markets shadows both of these case studies. This marginalization results in degraded reservation environments in which “sovereignty from above” subverts indigenous efforts to reestablish ecological equilibrium. The authors emphasize re-indigenizing activism in which de-colonizing becomes a spiritual, emotional, physical, linguistic, and social act.

The final section, titled “Liberative Ecologies,” presents articles describing environmental pedagogies flowing from indigenous thought that have implications for dominant societies. These contributors offer insights that may help dominant societies unlearn some things and become open to other ways of knowing the world. Ann Fienup-Riordan’s paper on the Yup’ik peoples of Alaska presents striking narratives of the resentment engendered among these Inuit peoples by wildlife management policies in which they have little or no voice. Her work explores Yup’ik cosmological concerns for the effects of personal thought on the community-both human and nonhuman. The Yup’ik affirm the value of hunting as the human act which initiates the return of even larger flocks of geese from year to year. Such a traditional value conflicts with the material, empirical, and individual concerns of science-based conservation research. Thus, scientific wildlife management assumptions about over-hunting collide directly with Yup’ik views that geese intentionally return in response to respectful hunting. Moreover, Yup’ik peoples avoid the types of direct human-animal contact that occur in wildlife management tagging, saying that it diminishes the flocks of geese. Her descriptions of emerging co-management practices suggest that some insertion of Yup’ik spiritual concerns into ecological policies is possible. Perhaps more importantly, these collaborative exchanges may also enable the Yup’ik to learn more about science and “Fish and Game” biologists to appreciate the human dimensions of traditional values and the need for indigenous participants to have significant local control in game management.

In addressing the pressures on indigenous, or adivasi, peoples of South Asia, Pramod Parajuli develops the concept of “ecological ethnicities” in terms of their communities and their flourishing cosmological visions, intellectual thought, and political activism. Parajuli presents a historical model in which indigenous peoples are seen as becoming more resistant to national development programs and global economic schemes. He proposes that in several geographical settings in South Asia the ethnosemiotics of oppressed indigenous peoples stand as viable alternative development models for social action against the dominant semiotics of market- based capital.

In considering several indigenous ecological perspectives in Papua New Guinea, Mary MacDonald emphasizes place, relationships, and work. Walking with an old friend from the Kewa peoples of the Southern Highlands, MacDonald notes the substantial spatial modes of memory active in their conversation. Linking this “tastescape” and spatial memory with a “give- and-take” ethic, she highlights the attentiveness of indigenous peoples to subtle memories of interaction with place. The sense knowledge encoded in this ecological patterning is further developed by the ritual work connected with gardens. Each of these indigenous realities-place, relationships, and work-is now undergoing profound changes in which resource extraction, the introduction of monetary economies, and the allure of modernization are creating crises in the transmission of traditional knowledge.

Gregory Cajete’s overview article on North America provides the reader with a personal narrative from his own Puebloan perspective. His focus on orientation to place highlights the central purposes of indigenous education as an experiential quest to know “that place that Indian peoples talk about.” Emphasizing art, hunting, and planting as the source of mythic tribal expressions, Cajete explores the indigenous ecological education embedded in Puebloan lifeways.

While the plurality of cultural systems and the diversity of environmental knowledge within and between cultures mark this volume, a Western philosophical reflection on the relation of the many (read: multicultural perspectives) to the one (read: universal, rational, globality) is not the central issue posed here. The sovereignty of indigenous peoples and the conservation of endangered bioregions with their animals and plant habitats-the survival of life-are more prominent issues. These concerns cannot be reduced to a question of theoretical models in which formalist rational patterns are used to interpret religious activities or in which highly specialized sociolinguistic ethnographies are used to describe peoples as types to be catalogued. Along with those methods as perspectives for interpretation of indigenous life, the imaginative act has been highlighted as a significant cognitive arena. Here, questions regarding the indigenous understandings of place, knowledge, and sovereignty vie with the conceptual subtleties and power relations posed by the contemporary intellectual scene. Indeed, the relationship of such different cognitive acts as dreams to sensory and sonic ways of knowing in these diverse traditions challenges scholarly understanding. This is so because traditional environmental knowledge relates to animal-plant-mineral life in ways that even contemporary “co-management” strategies cannot easily comprehend.

The relationship between the act of imaging oneself, understanding reality, and surviving development pressures found recent poignant expression in the deaths of three environmental activists in Colombia. Between 25 February and 4 March 1999, three activists, Lahe’ena’e Gay, Terence Freitas, and Ingrid Washinawatok, were killed by guerrilla soldiers of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). While these guerillas killed the activists to make a statement, they had no idea of the international reactions to their brutal act, nor did they have a clear sense of indigenous rights. It was said of the three murdered activists that “All of them were defending human rights. They [were] environmentalists, activists who [were] working on the international level.”9 Ingrid Washinawatok herself spoke of her understanding of indigenous rights, saying:

Since the time that human beings offered thanks for the first sunrise, sovereignty has been an integral part of indigenous people’s daily existence. With the original instructions from the Creator, we realize our responsibilities, and those are the laws that lay the foundation for our society. These responsibilities are manifested through our ceremonies. These ceremonies are not just motions we go through. It is a process that reaffirms our connection to the Creator and all of creation. Sacred is not separate from responsibility and daily existence. From the mundane to the momentous, sovereignty is an integral part of the foundation that anchors our culture, society and organizational structures.10

By recalling the words of this heroic woman, and by remembering her companions, an effort is made here to draw attention to the imaginative act constellated in “responsibility,” “ceremony,” and “creation.” Such a vision of religion and ecology is what Thomas Berry has called a shared dream experience. He writes:

. . . only out of imaginative power does any grand creative work take shape. Since imagination functions most freely in dream vision, we tend to associate creativity also with dream experience. The dream comes about precisely through uninhibited spontaneities. In this context we might say: In the beginning was the dream. Through the dream all things were made, and without the dream nothing was made that has been made.

While all things share in this dream, as humans we share in this dream in a special manner. This is the entrancement, the magic of the world about us, its mystery, its ineffable quality. What primordial source could, with no model for guidance, imagine such a fantastic world as that in which we live-the shape of the orchid, the coloring of the fish in the sea, the winds and the rain, the variety of sounds that flow over the earth, the resonant croaking of the bullfrogs, the songs of the crickets, and the pure joy of the predawn singing of the mockingbird?

. . . All of these derive from the visionary power that is experienced most profoundly when we are immersed in the depths of our own being and of the cosmic order itself in the dreamworld that unfolds within us in our sleep, or in those visionary moments that seize upon us in our waking hours.

We need to remember that this process whereby we invent ourselves in these cultural modes is guided by visionary experiences that come to us in some transrational process from the inner shaping tendencies that we carry within us, often in revelatory dream experience. Such dream experiences are so universal and so important in the psychic life of the individual and of the community that techniques of dreaming are taught in some societies.11

Indigenous peoples are among the last cultural groups to teach techniques of dreams and visions and ways to activate an ecological imagination. Our shared experiences are not simply culturally differentiated dreams, but common cosmological concerns. Coursing through these essays are underlying cosmological visions that have been identified here as lifeways.

The study of these lifeways does not elevate precapitalist models as panaceas for today’s complex problems, which are rooted in global demographies, widespread environmental crises, and increasing economic inequalities. Yet, studies of indigenous traditions do remind us of alternative visions and possibilities that exist among peoples who have imagined themselves more intimately into their worlds. Many within mainstream societies feel the allure of this cosmological act of dreaming. An aspect of their journey is the deeper moralization of issues until now understood simply as political, economic, or religious. By “deeper moralization” is meant a creative behavior that not only responds to the concerns of place, knowledge, and sovereignty of indigenous peoples, but also collaboratively explores visions of flourishing life. While it is possible to agree that “creativity begins with the familiar,”12 it is also evident that creativity flows forth in the dream of the earth.

The deaths of the three activists model the depth of their commitments to a dream they shared with the U’wa people, namely, that these people might move beyond military oppression by guerilla or national militaries, and beyond material exploitation of oil in their homelands by petroleum multinationals. It is a modeling that bears on the issue of the “indigenous.” We are all indigenous to the planet. In this volume we have chosen to construe the term so that certain small-scale societies might be emphasized. That emphasis can easily be misread as ethnocentrism, or an assertion of what one scholar calls the “ecological indian.” Just as the activists shared a dream across their ethnic identities, so the concern for indigenous homelands crosses beyond simply political, environmental, or social justice issues. The articles in this volume speak to the tensions and ambiguities within indigenous societies as they encounter, adopt, resist, accommodate, and transform global forces. What cannot be so readily communicated is the attitudinal change emerging from these shared dreams.



1 Winona LaDuke, “Minobimaatisiiwin: The Good Life,” Cultural Survival Quarterly 16, no. 4 (winter 1992): 69–71. See also Winona LaDuke, All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life (Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 1994) 4, 132.
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2 Roy Rappaport, Pigs for the Ancestors (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1967).
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3 Eduardo Grillo Fernandez, “Development or Decolonization in the Andes?” in The Spirit of Regeneration: Andean Culture Confronting Western Notions of Development, ed. Frédérique Apffel-Marglin with PRATEC (London: Zed Books, 1998) 229.
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4 Gisday Wa and Delgam Uukw, The Spirit of the Land: The Opening Statement of the Gitksan and Wets’uwetén Hereditary Chiefs in the Supreme Court of British Columbia (Gabrola, B.C.: Reflections, 1987) 7, 26, quoted from David Suzuki and Peter Knudtson, Wisdom of the Elders: Sacred Native Stories of Nature (New York and Toronto: Bantam Books, 1992) 158.
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5 “Report of the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities on its Forty-Sixth Session,” Geneva, 1–26 August 1994, Draft United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
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6 Richard Peet and Michael Watts, Liberation Ecologies: Environment, Development, Social Movements (London: Routledge, 1996) 263.
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7 See Lee Irwin, Dream Seekers: Native American Visionary Traditions of the Great Plains (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994).
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8 For a vision that initiated the movement of the proto- Crow/Absaroke peoples, see Joseph Medicine Crow, From the Heart of Crow Country, The Crow Indian’s Own Stories (New York: Orion, 1992); and for Tsistsistas views of their Massaum ceremony, see Karl Schlesier, The Wolves of Heaven: Cheyenne Shamanism, Ceremonies, and Prehistoric Origins (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma, 1987).
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9 Tim Johnson, Miami Herald, 6 March 1999, quoted in Jeff Wollock, “Eclipse Over Colombia,” Native Americas 16, no. 2 (summer 1999): 10–31.
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10 Kert Lebsock, “She Was So Much: Remembering Ingrid,” Native Americas 16, no. 2 (summer 1999): 42.
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11 Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco, Calif.: Sierra Club Books, 1988) 197, 201.
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12 Peet and Watts, Liberation Ecologies, 267.
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    Copyright © 2001 Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard Divinity School.
Reprinted with permission.