Indigenous Introduction

Religions of the World and Ecology Series

Indigenous Traditions and Ecology Volume

John Grim, ed.


John A. Grim


The ethical code of my own Anishinabeg community of the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota keeps communities and individuals in line with natural law. “Minobimaatisiiwin”—it means both the “good life” and “continuous rebirth”—is central to our value system. In minobimaatisiiwin, we honor women as the givers of lives, we honor our Chi Anishinabeg, our old people and ancestors who hold the knowledge. We honor our children as the continuity from generations, and we honor ourselves as a part of creation. Implicit in minobimaatisiiwin is a continuous habitation of place, an intimate understanding of the relationship between humans and the ecosystem and of the need to maintain this balance.1

While no one person can possibly speak for the diversity of peoples and traditions signified by the term “indigenous,” still, the quote above from the Anishinabe leader, Winona LaDuke, provides an entry into many of the issues discussed in this volume. Her statement also foreshadows several of the problems raised by any study of indigenous religious traditions and contemporary ecological concerns. Foremost among the values indicated in her remarks, and echoed by the contributors to this volume, is the description by different indigenous peoples, in remarkably diverse ways, of a central, seamless, organizing orientation, or “lifeway.” Winona LaDuke’s observation brings the social, ecological, and spiritual frames into alignment in a way that distinguishes but does not separate indigenous human communities, the natural world, and the realms of the holy beings.

Minobimaatisiiwin introduces an Anishinabe discourse that gathers together ethical concerns of social justice, political insights regarding gender, ecological knowledge of local place, and religious awareness of a relational balance that pervades the constantly changing world. As a coherent and central conversation, minobimaatisiiwin does not emphasize rational development for humans exclusively. Nor does it posit a transcendental self that autonomously gathers objective sense data so as to know the world. Nor does it present a transcendent realm of the sacred beyond the circle of human-animal-earth habitations. At the heart of this statement, and, indeed, a primary agenda in this volume, is the effort to express the coherence of diverse indigenous discourses about lifeways and ecologies. Each particular lifeway is an ongoing creative practice that is simultaneously rational, affective, intentional, and ethical.

The statement by Winona LaDuke also gives us an introduction to this volume on indigenous traditions and ecology, in which a complex mix of political, economic, ecological, and spiritual features are explored by native and non-native contributors. The multiplicity of perspectives corresponds to the thematic approaches used to organize the essays in this volume, suggesting that, of course, there is no one “indigenous” view on religion and ecology. Moreover, inseparable from considerations of indigenous religions and contemporary environmental issues are the current crises of survival for these peoples. Thus, these articles explore spiritual relationships established between native peoples and their homelands. Yet, they also question any study of indigenous religions that ignores such issues as the grinding poverty leading to environmental deterioration, or the degrading marginality from vital economic exchanges, or the disempowering loss of political control in community affairs.

Challenges to the Lifeway Concept
Two problematic perspectives need to be addressed in opening with an emphasis on the lifeway concept that draws attention to the seamless cosmology-cum-economy character of indigenous societies. First, the stress on the interrelatedness of diverse aspects of individual, community, and natural life suggests that the “balance” or harmony of an indigenous lifeway is a homeostatic condition. Several early studies of indigenous traditions and ecology, such as Roy Rappaport’s insightful account of ritual pig killing among the Tsembaga Maring in Papua New Guinea, described that religious system as a type of feedback mechanism assuring human adaptation to a changing environment.2 Though well beyond earlier studies, in which evolutionary theory was used to interpret this perceived lifeway equilibrium of indigenous peoples as an “inferior” or “primitive” development, these foundational studies in cultural ecology suggested a closed system accommodating internal and external pressures as the religious ideal. The essays in this volume modify and expand that approach, emphasizing contestations and negotiations within indigenous communities especially in relation to modernization. They pointedly address the compelling questions of how indigenous communities, within the theoretical frames of their traditional lifeways, manage local lands under intense development pressures from global and national development schemes. This first challenge embedded within the lifeway concept, then, is the need to understand the roles of indigenous religions in their efforts to maintain a spiritual balance with larger cosmological forces while creatively accommodating current environmental, social, economic, and political changes. The Andean activist Eduardo Grillo Fernandez described this challenging road leading through both development and decolonization, saying:

… in the Andean culture the nurturing of harmony is not the responsibility of a human community that arrogates to itself the universal representation to take decisions and implement them. Harmony in the Andes can only emerge from the communion of the human community with the community of the sallqa [nature’s flora] and with the community of huacas [deities]. And even then, it is not a matter of a decision taken by an assembly with opinions of the member communities. Harmony, in order to be constantly nurtured, must be revealed starting from the specific circumstances because it must not correspond to the will of the collectivity of the living world but to its physiology. The form of the harmony to be nurtured is not in the surface of the appearance but hidden inside the living world. It is as the sculptor in stone of Cajamarca said when someone asked him for the models that inspired his works: “In the insides of the stone is the form.” 3

In this quest for nurturance of indigenous Andean cultural life, Grillo points toward deeper realms than the “collectivity” or institutional realms often associated with “religion.” Rather than “beyond,” however, he motions toward the within of things. Grillo calls for attention to a traditional form of perception that balances inner and outer cosmological realities. Through the insights of elders and the revelations of dreamers and visionaries, these small-scale native communities manage acceptable forms of modernization, mount resistance to development schemes in which they have no voice, and successfully transmit ethnic identity despite centuries, in some cases, of continuing oppression. This is an imaginative act no less daunting than that looming ahead of Western industrial societies as they confront the termination of the petroleum era.

A second observation is that as an analytical concept lifeways may make an “other” of native religions, leading to stereotypes, an orientalism of expectations, and an exploitative romanticism. This point requires some consideration of indigenous ways of knowing. A synecdochic mode of knowing operative in indigenous traditions may affirm the use of one material item, such as the feathers of certain birds, or one way of ritual action, such as dancing, to make present the whole of the lifeway. A Western linear, rational analysis of these articles and actions may interpret them as holistic symbols that represent the holy. This interpretation overlooks the lifeway context of an interactive community of beings in the world. Hence, an outsider wishing to appropriate the experience of the holy within indigenous religions seizes on a ritual article or action, as well as excerpted and often misunderstood explanations of native practitioners. This romantic exploitation of indigenous religions typically accentuates a perceived native ecological wisdom as having been genetically transmitted. However, even a brief example, such as that from the Gitksan peoples of central British Columbia, reveals complex human-earth-spirit linkages needed to access traditional indigenous environmental knowledge.

Each Gitksan house is the proud heir and owner of an adáox. This is a body of orally transmitted songs and stories that act as the house’s sacred archives and as its living, millennia- long memory of important events of the past. This irreplaceable verbal repository of knowledge consists in part of sacred songs believed to have arisen literally from the breaths of the ancestors. Far more than musical representations of history, these songs serve as vital time- traversing vehicles. They can transport members across the immense reaches of space and time into the dim mythic past of Gitksan creation by the very quality of their music and the emotions they convey.

Taken together, these sacred possessions-the stories, the crests, the songs-provide a solid foundation for each Gitksan house and for the larger clan of which it is a part. According to living Gitksan elders, each house’s holdings confirm its ancient title to its territory and the legitimacy of its authority over it.

In fact, so vital is the relationship between each house and the lands allotted to it for fishing, hunting, and food-gathering that the daxgyet, or spirit power, of each house and the land that sustains it are one.4

Rather than conceptually reducing cultural life among indigenous peoples to a social construction, the term lifeway seeks to bridge its own inherent depersonalizing distance as an analytical term. The second challenge in the lifeway concept, then, is to open interpretive possibilities for understanding an integrated environmental vision that transmits spiritual states of knowing and moral ways of being in the world.

Lifeway and Terms in the Study of Religion
If the lifeway concept provides us with a helpful theory of cosmological totalities operative in indigenous traditions, it is not without its totalizing ambiguities. That is, the terminology available for discussing indigenous religious traditions and ecology is fraught with tensions and contradictions. Who are “indigenous” peoples? In a straightforward manner indigenous means anything produced, growing, or living naturally in a particular region or environment. Yet, there are semantic and political difficulties involved in determining who is “indigenous.” To a large extent these issues are beyond the scope of this discussion, but it is significant to note that the United Nations continues to grapple with these issues. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, prepared for approval by the separate nation-states during the Decade of Indigenous Peoples (1994–2004), has posed this question largely within international law and human rights contexts.5 In these international forums, “indigenous” refers to ethnic groups with clear cultural, linguistic, and kinship bonds who have been so marginalized by modern nation-states that their inherent dignity and coherence as societies are in danger of being lost.

One objection to such definitions from India, for example, is that mainstream peoples of the nation-state of India have been in that region for millennia. Hence, they are also “native” or “indigenous.” In this argument, to make such distinctions as calling minority groups “indigenous” is unnecessary, irrelevant, and harmful to national sovereignty. Two points might be emphasized, namely, nation-state sovereignty and the fear of secession by indigenous groups underlies much of the political rhetoric in the debate about who is “indigenous.” Second, anxieties to create a national consciousness have engendered a drive to “normalize” local native lifeways and bring them into the mainstream culture. Criticisms of these normalizing and civilizing processes are given by several authors in this volume. Along with “indigenous,” there are other problematic terms, such as “religion,” “tradition,” and “ecology,” to name just a few.

Is the term “religion” so hopelessly caught up in sacred and profane dichotomies and Western institutional histories that it is meaningless in discussing indigenous lifeways? The sacred-secular split is largely absent in indigenous lifeways, or, if present, operates in a different ontological setting in which numinous realities may emerge suddenly from ordinary reality. The term “tradition” also seems to mirror some of the homeostatic, changeless presumptions discussed above. Furthermore, “ecology” as a science studying the interrelationships of organisms in biosystems is quite different from the use of the term ecology as a broad conceptual referent for human-earth interactions. There are novel and distinctive responses to these questions about terms, and they are tied to larger issues of discourse analysis and its subsequent critique of Enlightenment rationality. Rather than jettison these terms, as well as Western rationality and science as the embodiment of a colonial epistemology, the following essays explore ways of re- reasoning, and re-imaging, the natural world that have been present and are emerging in indigenous settings. In that sense, many analytical terms are contested in these essays, but they are also used as limited concepts that can guide our thinking about indigenous traditions. In thinking about indigenous religions it is appropriate to acknowledge that they provide alternative epistemologies to Western classical, medieval, enlightenment, and postmodern modes of rational analysis. Contemporary indigenous lifeways and ecological cultures are not “pure” thought systems; rather, they are distinct hybrids creatively influenced by the regional, national, and global regimes they have encountered and resisted.

The Mix of Perspectives on Indigenous Religions and Ecology
It is helpful to step back a bit and briefly consider some of the approaches found in these essays. From comparative religions has come some understanding of the shared characteristics of many indigenous myths, rituals, symbol systems, and concern for and deep love of local places. The power and beauty of these cultural insights into the fecund mystery of nature have impressed non-native observers since first encounters. For some time now the history of religions has investigated changes over time in indigenous lifeways regarding mythic narrations, ritual practices, and sacred symbols and sites. This diachronic analysis corrected, to some extent, the synchronic tendencies to see indigenous traditions as static and unchanging. Anthropology especially refocused the study of indigenous traditions on particular cultural sources of meaning and worldview values that inform other aspects of small-scale society life.

With the growing attention to ecological concerns from the 1970s, the study of indigenous religions could no longer ignore the overt marginalization of indigenous societies within and from mainstream cultures. Foremost among the observations that emerged was a Marxian analysis associated with political economy. In this perspective the power of production of colonial systems was understood as having been used to marginalize and exploit indigenous peoples and lands, as well as to impose its own rational analytical scientific knowledge systems over native ways of knowing. Ironically, the indigenous regard for the inherent spiritual connections of the life community was dismissed as superstitious, mythic, or false logic by both Marxist and colonial capitalist systems. Centuries-old forms of traditional environmental knowledge were largely ignored by dominating outsiders. Where possible, indigenous peoples adapted traditional ways of knowing into the new modes of productive life available to them as peasants, laborers, and outcast peoples.

Prior to any academic recognition of the coherence of indigenous lifeways or indigenous technical knowledge systems, native peoples themselves allowed outsiders access to those insights. Often those privileges were given because indigenous activists mounted resistance to the hegemonic intrusions of mainstream cultures, and they sought the support of those outsiders. Indeed, responsible intellectuals in mainstream cultures who have been interested in indigenous lifeways have been drawn to those positions as much by the depth of resistance and capacities of articulation by indigenous peoples as by academic presentations of ideas, ethics, or religious practices. Certainly, creative exchange has occurred among both indigenous and non-native intellectuals, but the former have seldom received recognition or credit. In this volume the contributors draw attention to that unique mix in indigenous lifeways in which the cultural production of knowledge, especially in the forms labeled “religion,” not only opens questions about the deeper motivations of indigenous economics, but also affirms conversations in indigenous settings regarding the moral context of bioregional relations between humans and other-than-humans.

With the increasing globalization of capitalist economics in the late twentieth century, indigenous peoples have come under another wave of intense pressures to assimilate into mainstream cultures and to open their homelands for resource exploitation. The insidious character of this most recent assault on indigenous homelands lies in the argument from the multinational corporations, seconded by nation-states, that rampant development is simply normative rational planning. The counter-arguments raised in this volume indicate that indigenous peoples have alternative development models that value homelands differently than capitalist sustainability models can adequately present. Even as native peoples use those lands and living beings for food, habitat, and trade, they embody alternative models of sustainable life.

The effort to subvert indigenous lifeways by development agendas has been the subject of a broad-based analysis called political ecology. The dynamics of this perspective have been much more receptive to considering indigenous religions and other cultural knowledge systems as contributing more to production than earlier Marxist-oriented political economy analyses conceded. Political ecology has shown interest in the ambiguity of knowledge-based terms without necessarily rejecting them. This mode of exploration has given close attention to understanding the social fabrication of society and nature, along with the ways in which images of nature also construct self and society.

This focus on the imaginative act in all societies, whereby local environments become central to ethnic identity, connects directly to considerations of indigenous religions. In their study entitled Liberation Ecologies, Richard Peet and Michael Watts expressed their understanding of these issues in this manner:

Each society carries what we refer to as an “environmental imaginary,” a way of Imaging nature, including visions of those forms of social and individual practice which are ethically proper and morally right with regard to nature… . this imaginary is typically expressed and developed through regional discursive formations, which take as central themes the history of social relations to a particular natural environment. Environmental imaginaries are frequently, indeed usually, expressed in abstract, mystical, and spiritual lexicons. However, they contain some degree of the reasoned approaches which display or “work out” the consequences of environmental actions referred to earlier as “prior knowledges.” Liberation ecology proposes studying the processes by which environmental imaginaries are formed, contested, and practiced in the course of specific trajectories of political-economic exchange… . perhaps most importantly, through the concept of environmental imaginary, liberation ecology sees nature, environment, and place as sources of thinking, reasoning, and imagining: the social is, in this quite specific sense, naturally constructed.6

This volume, and the series, Religions of the World and Ecology, can be said to be sympathetic with this call for the study of “liberation ecologies.” Many of the essays here explore environmental imaginaries in ways that expand this concept to include interior spiritual perceptions of the natural world actively shaping indigenous thought and personhood in different regional traditions.

The Study of Religion and Environmental Imagination
While leaving specific case studies and examples to the essays below, it is helpful to isolate ways in which the study of indigenous religions activates environmental imagination both in those communities and increasingly in mainstream societies. First, indigenous religions as lifeways that have strong ethnic identity attractors in the local ecology continue to resist intruding ways of life that seek to colonize and erase them. Whether considering the historical “Cargo Cults” of the Pacific region, the “Ghost Dance” phenomenon of the North American plains, or the “Mau- Mau” uprisings of East Africa, each of these social movements manifested strong religious expressions whose inner dynamics connected deeply into the local ecology. The sharp critique by native spokespeople and scholars to the appropriation of indigenous religions is directly related to this role of “religion” as at the core of indigenous cultural identity. In the long history of colonial and neocolonial theft of material and cultural life, indigenous lifeways have remained the source of deepest resistance to dominance by outsiders.

Second, indigenous religions continue in many settings to be the primary source of numinous experiences that initiate creative life in indigenous communities. This continues apart from, and often in relation to, resistance-oriented agendas of community and self-preservation. This heightened intimacy with the world is variously expressed in the following essays, sometimes in the language of spirits as “persons,” or in seeing the world as “vital,” or in describing the lifeway as “animist.” It is this deepened connection with the natural world that is described as the cosmological perspective of particular lifeways.

Third, study of environmental imaginaries among indigenous religions opens contemporary dialogues between indigenous traditions and contemporary intellectual currents in ways that may be mutually beneficial. Intellectual currents, such as postcolonialism, poststructuralism, legal and literary theories, gender studies, critical theories of science, environmental history, political economy and political ecology, have been fortuitously linked to indigenous movements. In several essays below, the roles of indigenous intellectuals and activists detail how ideas and conceptual systems were integrated into indigenous resistance. Finally, it is crucial that these interpretive discourses not be simplistically used to make native epistemologies palatable for non-indigenous readers. Indigenous peoples are not well served if a term such as “environmental imaginaries” becomes a language-oriented reinscription that writes over their authentically lived and experienced world.

Fourth, the interdependent effects of traditional governance systems, economic markets, and social movements often find overt expression in the organizational and institutional expressions of religions. Thus, the study of indigenous religious organizations and institutions provides extraordinary insights into the ways in which traditional environmental knowledge has been encoded, negotiated, and contested. Directly challenging views that see traditional knowledge as static or unchanging, this view emphasizes the dynamic character of indigenous lifeways as individuals and communities image themselves in relation to local bioregions.

One classic example of this type of revisioning that both affirmed traditional knowledge and challenged it with new insights is the North American Plains Indians affirmation of the dream or vision quest.7 Sent alone to a place often acknowledged as sacred to tribal, familial, or personal memory, an individual fasts for a vision according to traditional canons. In reporting a vision, an individual follows time-honored procedures, and the visionary is, in turn, subject to the authenticating critique of traditional symbols and patterns of visions. These interactions often involve topographic features, such as sacred sites, and possibly animals and plants experienced as “persons.” The traditional frames for understanding provide stability for the visionary, yet new insights and experiences are common. The vision accommodates transmitted views of visionary exchange, but it also provokes creative symbolic thought and novel ways of interpretation. In the historical and mythical narrations of native peoples, some visions initiated migrations to new lands, or legitimated a people’s movement into a region.8

Finally, it is evident that several of the essays in this work do not overtly address “religion.” To some extent this is a function of the manner in which the conference from which these essays derive was organized. This volume emerged from a November 1997 conference at Harvard University’s Center for the Study of World Religions. Unlike the nine other conferences that focused on one particular intercultural religion, the “Indigenous Traditions and Ecology” conference involved indigenous participants from every continent. The intention was to assemble a diverse group of indigenous and non-native scholars and environmental activists sensitive to indigenous issues who could speak insightfully about the environmental implications of indigenous peoples’ religions. It was also hoped that some of the participants would actually give voice to indigenous environmental perspectives rather than presume scientific ecology was the only paradigm for discussing human-earth interactions. The organizers presumed that any discussion of homelands by indigenous peoples would involve questions of sovereignty, political economy, and political ecology. They also assumed that neither the conference nor the volume of essays would be exhaustive but that both would be suggestive of further work to be done.

An Overview of the Articles
The thematic organization of the essays lays out some of the observations of these introductory remarks. The opening section, “Fragmented Communities,” draws attention to both the intense development pressures that threaten to fracture indigenous communities and the intense symbol systems that foster commitment and creativity. Articles by Darrell Posey and Tom Greaves shed light on traditional indigenous environmental knowledge and technique as intellectual property. Posey describes field experiences of shamanic initiations among the Kayapo peoples of Brazil to highlight the nonlineal and mythic character of indigenous environmental knowledge and the manner in which those ways of knowing are largely unavailable to Western categories of linear, historical analysis. Posey also explores the possibilities and inadequacies of arguments to protect indigenous knowledge from the standpoint of “intellectual property rights.” These efforts to protect indigenous communities have floundered both conceptually and legally, largely because of the individualistic and entrepreneurial orientations in copyright law, but also because of the complex and costly procedures for filing cases nationally and internationally.

Greaves draws out the struggles over indigenous lands, resources, and values by examining “five major theaters,” namely, economic rights, sovereignty, management of intellectual and cultural property, sacred meanings, and the struggle by native peoples to control their futures. The complex examples in each of these “theaters” subtly accentuate the pervasive and ambiguous presence of environmental concerns and racism in native peoples’ efforts to preserve ethnic identity, cultural heritage, and homeland.

Pradip Prabhu provides the reader with an overview of the green political storm raging around India’s “Scheduled Tribes,” as many of the indigenous peoples are designated by the Constitution of India. In his historical, cultural, and economic discussions he analyzes the contemporary realities of traditional environmental knowledge among several native peoples of India, as well as the commercialization of that knowledge evident in development schemes. Prabhu compares earlier colonial exploitative laws to the “greenwashing” national legislation, which promotes protected environmental areas while disenfranchising indigenous peoples from power and self-control in their own homelands.

Stephanie Fried examines the impact on the adat, native peoples of Kalimantan Borneo, of linked ideological, material, and political exploitation by Chinese Christian missionaries, multinational logging companies, and the politics of Suharto’s Golkar Party. She describes the often ambiguous interactions of these exploitative forces within Indonesian Borneo on the traditional Kaharingan religion of adat peoples. Embedded within her remarks is the suggestion that attentiveness to religions accompanying modernization, such as Christianity and Islam, is a significant feature of any study of indigenous traditions and ecology.

The next section, titled “Complex Cosmologies,” attempts to cut across stereotyping and romanticizing tendencies in discussions of indigenous environmental concerns to emphasize the inherent complexity of these traditions. These articles suggest the manifold approaches to reality active among diverse native societies. Jack Forbes opens this section by investigating the use of such terms as “nature” and “culture.” He provides a sampling of both Euro-American and indigenous linguistic perspectives on these terms. He presents linguistic considerations from several Native American languages as parallels to the nature-culture dualism so prominent in Cartesian rationality. In his discussion of “nature,” Forbes translates several linguistic referents with the phrase “away from people,” drawing attention to different indigenous understandings of geographical space determined by forces other than those stemming from the human. Neither wild nor undomesticated, the meditative, subsistence, and solitary implications of being “away from people” cast instructive light on the “wilderness” controversies in environmental thought. This direction of thought also provides fruitful sources for nuancing the holistic concerns of indigenous “religions” without losing the categories for distinguishing difference in the world so evident in those traditions.

The next article discusses Southeast Asian environmental concerns in Sarawak, or east Malaysian Borneo. Mention should be made of extensive efforts by indigenous peoples in other settings of this region, such as East Timor, to assert ecological and political sovereignty. In his article Peter Brosius questions the appropriateness of the use of the word “sacred” in discussing indigenous ecologies. He suggests that the term, sacred, is linked to the “grammar of conquest,” and that unexamined uses of the term, sacred, may actually be counterproductive for indigenous peoples. Concentrating on the Penan of Sarawak, Brosius investigates Penan ideas of the sacred that stand in sharp contrast to Western ideas conveniently adapted by outsiders for the exploitation of Penan homelands.

Leslie Sponsel examines the historical ecology of Hawai’i, identifying four assumptions operating in this volume. These four positions regarding indigenous societies are: 1) significant knowledge of local ecosystems; 2) sustainable economies; 3) conservation practices; and 4) a profound spiritual ecology. Sponsel examines the backlash reaction to the promotion of an indigenous spiritual ecology and appropriately acknowledges that the romanticized stereotypes of indigenous spiritual ecology entirely miss the diversity of indigenous relationships with local bioregions. Focusing on the Hawai’ian islands, he discusses the environmental impact of both Polynesian and Euro-American settlers. His sobering assessments of the global trends toward ecological disequilibrium bring a special force to his understanding that any practical solutions of the current environmental crises must take cognizance of approaches by indigenous societies to the four assumptions mentioned above.

Manuka Henare foregrounds Mäori cosmological values that have clear ecological implications. Drawing on the nineteenth-century speech of a Mäori elder, Henare explores Mäori terminology for concepts helpful in understanding native sustainable development. He draws on the metaphor of the koru, or unfolding frond of a plant, to liken Mäori cosmology to a philosophy of vitalism. His presentation also suggests parallels and connections to process thought in his analysis of the ecological character of Mäori thought. As much as Henare amplifies the intellectual aspects of Mäori thought, he also emphasizes their pragmatics in linkages with local lands and environmental values imaged in the spiraling growth of the fern frond.

The Mayan anthropologist Victor Montejo reexamines Mayan religiosity as fostering interconnected realizations. Reaching beyond the alternating fads for interpreting Mayan religions, he argues that Mayan spirituality is a quest for a holistic perspective in which the human, environmental, and supernatural realms become interconnected. He reexamines the ecological metaphors in Mayan mythology for the deeper meanings that ground economic and political life in ethical relationships with the land.

The third section, “Embedded Worldviews,” presents articles that focus on specific traditions and the ways in which environmental values are deeply implanted in indigenous cultural life. Each of these regional studies explores dimensions of the religious, symbolic life of particular indigenous peoples. These articles bring the reader into a diversity of challenges faced by native peoples, and the ways in which their symbolic and ritual life provides resources for addressing those challenges. Ogbu Kalu draws on worldview analysis to investigate the interactions of development schemes and traditional values in West Africa. In turning toward African traditional religions, Kalu probes ethical and theological responses to the ecological crises, and the ironies that flow from inappropriate development strategies. Kalu assesses the benefits and limits of indigenous worldviews, such as that found in the Ife divination system of proverbs, for transmitting cultural identity in the struggle with modernization.

Simeon Namunu continues this analysis in terms of his home region of Misima Island in Papua New Guinea. Namunu develops the ecological implications of gut pela sindaun, a Melanesian conceptualization for the traditional knowledge of life. Likening this concept to the Western idea of “worldview,” Namunu draws out the ways in which spirits, body painting, and traditional symbols manifest an exchange relationship at the heart of his peoples’ interactions with the nonhuman world. The diminishment of this traditional system among the governing indigenous elite of Papua New Guinea figures prominently in the growth of extractive enterprises in his country. Recovery of ecological ideals evident in the Constitution of Papua New Guinea will not come from such an elite, according to the author, but by the reassertion of traditional religious and aesthetic values that provide openings both to modernization and indigenous forms of democratization.

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz continues this regional focus on environmental knowledge, writing of her Igorot peoples of Northern Luzon, Philippines. Her work explores Igorot lifeway, or Sinang-adum ay Pammati, as well as colonial religious attitudes toward those customary indigenous laws that knit together the human and natural worlds, spirit beings, and the ancestors. Focusing on rice cultivation, ritual prayers, and pest control, Tauli-Corpuz suggests that Igorot religions wove together a complex system of ecological balance, which is today breaking apart under extreme pressures.


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.