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Indigenous Wisdom and Geopolitics

Winter 2011 Features

Indigenous Wisdom and Geopolitics

featurenaturespiritualityWhy some of the world’s major challenges may require advice from some of its most ancient peoples

How ironic, after centuries of concerted efforts by the ‘civilized societies’ of the Earth to extirpate, dispossess, disperse and assimilate indigenous peoples, that the survival of those very societies – perhaps even the survival of the planet and of humanity itself – might depend on the very indigenous knowledge that has been under attack.

Exploring such a hypothesis may not be very high on formal political or academic agendas anywhere in the world. Are indigenous peoples still to be considered leftover dregs of human society – quaint souvenirs from a primitive past; the quarry of anthropologists, rather than of political or strategic analysts – or a distillation, in some sense, of the essence of human society? Are they sometimes stigmatized – other times folklorized – stubborn remnants of a past gone forever, or, even with their various blemishes, the carriers of complex wisdom, worldviews and practices that can be revitalized and applied now and into the future, such that both the planet and humanity can continue in good health? Are they to be converted or proselytized to established religions and socio-political systems, or ought they to be recognized as offering an alternative, spiritual approach to relationships, politics, the environment and peace? And if they do indeed have something important to offer, is there anyone willing to listen?

Nature, spirituality and politics, while often seen in modern secular or Western public cultures as ‘separable’ or (analytically) discrete domains, are typically seen by indigenous peoples in Canada and in many other parts of the world as indistinguishable parts of an organic whole manifested in ‘daily life,’ as it were. Indigenous wisdom holds that humans are related to every part of nature – not in abstract terms, but very personally: the Moon is our grandmother, because she is the leader of female life; the Earth is our Mother, because she provides for her children – which is why all of the creatures that rely upon the Earth as their Mother are our Brothers and Sisters. Everything in the Creation – deep interdependence oblige – is seen as having ‘spirit’ or life-force. Humans are known to contribute least to the Creation – a recognition that leads indigenous peoples to great humility, sincere respect and a genuine thankfulness for all of the aspects of nature that make it possible for life to continue, day after day.

Nature is also an integral part of indigenous politics. In many indigenous cultures, traditional councils are opened with lengthy thanksgiving prayers to set the context for the ensuing deliberations. As in nature, indigenous political philosophy holds that every person has a particular role to play, and each person is respected for his or her diversity and differences. Annual races are run to assist the sun to regain its strength after winter: there is no competition, strictly speaking – only each runner, from older men and women to young children, carrying a baton forward, with emphasis placed on individual contribution to the collective.

This ethic sits in stark contrast with today’s dominant, highly competitive global intellectual and political cultures, in which abstraction from the natural world (in the way it is seen, imagined and treated) conduces to ‘presentism’ and myopia that displace humankind’s forward-looking obligations. Forests, for example, rather than being seen as a wonderful home that is essential for the survival – today and tomorrow – of the very life of the planet, become ‘natural resources,’ ‘products,’ the source of ‘employment and economic growth,’ and goods to meet the demands of the market. Even ecologists seem to see forests, swamps, bogs, shorelines, meadows and streams through the ‘biosphere’ construct, where obscene destruction becomes the object of ‘ecological restoration,’ and where ‘sustainable development’ must be balanced against ‘economic benefits.’

Foreign vernacular is superimposed on concepts that are largely alien to indigenous mentalities and morality. Indigenous voices, speaking of relatives in the Creation – of a general interest in cooperating with nature, rather than controlling or taming it, or of responsibilities to future generations – cannot therefore anchor themselves in modern secular debates about ‘environment.’ This is why, so often, the only available venues or means for discussion of what is technically called ‘holistic ecosystem management’ exist in the context of highly contentious claims for traditional territories, demands for self-government and litigation to stop planned exploitation of resources that indigenous peoples consider to be contrary to their spiritual beliefs.

A major part of indigenous spirituality is a privileging of the future over the present. (Note Article 13(1) of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: “Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures, and to designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons.” Or Article 25, which reads: “Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinctive spiritual relationship with their traditionally owned or otherwise occupied and used lands, territories, waters and coastal seas and other resources and to uphold their responsibilities to future generations in this regard.”) A basic instruction in indigenous culture is that the youth must listen to the experienced voices of those in the same generation as that of their grandparents and great-grandparents. Children must be able to be heard in debates. Great respect must be shown to diverse opinions, and a way must be found to incorporate these views into decisions.

The superior democracy of consensus prevails over that of majority-versus-minority. Women have particular responsibilities in naming leaders, maintaining peace, and in intergenerational transmission of cultural knowledge. These are all political imperatives derived from spiritual understandings; and yet they are all somewhat antithetical to most secular governance regimes and cultures internationally.

Indigenous cultures tend to be highly inclusive. A high priority is placed on compromise, consensus-building, unity and accommodation as key means of building better relationships for the future. (There are, to be sure, mechanisms to resolve internal conflict if it arises, and to use the occasion as an opportunity to strengthen unity.) Inclusiveness is also enhanced by relating to all people as family: “my brother, my grandmother, my cousin.” Conflict takes on a different tone when parties to the conflict see each other as family, with distinct responsibilities toward one another. Indeed, even when there are cases or incidents of criminal behaviour within indigenous communities, contrary to the Western legal approach of establishing guilt and exacting punishment, indigenous conflict resolution concentrates on reincorporating offenders into the community, remedying the loss of the victims, and restoring peace and harmony.

These same indigenous principles are applicable in an ‘inter-tribal’ or international context. Unbeknownst to today’s political actors, many indigenous political values greatly influenced the early development of concepts of democracy in the US. While the rebels in the Thirteen Colonies were opposed to the policies and actions of the British King, they had little experience in democratic practice. Thus, they met in Albany, New York, with leaders of the Iroquois Confederacy (originally the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca Nations, but expanded over time to include dozens of other nations) to hear about such foreign concepts as a leader being the servant of the people, and of the right of the voices of the people to be heard in decision-making. Some concepts of ordinary Iroquois practice took centuries until they were finally adopted in modern statecraft: the full participation of women in decision-making, for instance, or, more recently, the adoption of the said concept of the rights of children. Other indigenous concepts await the superior political maturity of future generations: while the Iroquois use of a bicameral legislature was adopted by the US Constitution (the ‘Older Brothers’ and ‘Younger Brothers’ ‘houses’ became the Senate and House of Representatives, respectively), and the idea of joint committees incorporated into practice, reaching decisions by consensus rather than the blunt force of votes is still today considered impractical, and otherwise contrary to the general (growing) imperative of administrative speed and efficiency. (Iroquois society to this day uses consensus-based decision-making, rather than voting, for the selection of leaders.) Another example still awaiting future consideration: in many indigenous societies, it is women who are the owners of the family home and have exclusive decision-making in certain key areas, including the issuance of declarations of war.

In the case of Canada, the noted intellectual, John Ralston Saul, in his acclaimed book, A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada, notes how heavily Canada has been influenced and shaped by the values of the indigenous population, which not only welcomed the European settlers, but indeed showed to them how a free people could organize a democratic society (indeed, on a rugged continent) – something that was not to be found in Europe at that time. He lists egalitarianism, an appropriate balance between individual and group, and a “penchant for negotiation over violence.”

Just as planners of democracy were able to embrace indigenous contributions three centuries ago because these contributions were relevant to their needs, today’s and tomorrow’s societies will find other indigenous contributions relevant to their own times. Case in point: on December 26th, 2004, the devastating tsunami in Southeast Asia killed more than 200,000 people. Report after report emerged, however, about indigenous groups that had escaped with very little loss. Their traditional knowledge, applied in contemporary circumstances, had prepared them to anticipate the ocean’s behaviour, and they went to higher ground before the waves hit. Anthropologists studied this phenomenon, and reported that in communities where Western encroachments had destroyed traditional life, the indigenous groups suffered the same losses as did the general population.

Or consider the application of the indigenous wisdom of ensuring that decision-making is sustainable. Many North American indigenous peoples have historically kept their minds focussed on the ‘seventh generation’ – the great-grandchildren of this generation’s great-grandchildren. Often, certain individuals or clans have been appointed to participate in discussions by consciously advocating for the interests of this ‘seventh generation.’ Decision-makers have been required to demonstrate that they had taken the ‘seventh generation’ into account. By thinking in terms of family relationships that embrace the future as well as the present, a discussion on sustainable development takes on a very different tone.

Or take the diplomacy of the Cree Nation: the Cree famously speak of a leader whose encampment was very close to another encampment of people (Blackfoot) with whom there had been sharp disputes. In fact, the leader’s father had been killed in one such dispute. There was great fear that the proximity of the two groups would result in renewed hostilities. The leader asked for a meeting. When the Blackfoot officials arrived in his tipi, among them was the man accused of killing the leader’s father. After a ceremonial beginning, the leader began to weep. ‘My father is dead. I am without a father. Bring me four of my finest horses. Bring my best saddle. I want them to be a gift to that man (indicating the man who had killed his father), and I ask him: “Will you be my father? I give you these gifts.”’ The gifts were accepted, and the two nations – Cree and Blackfoot – have lived in peace since that time. The lesson here is that future-focussed diplomacy is based on using strength constructively, and on rebuilding relationships and restoring peace, rather than control or retribution.

Let us consider another example: in the said Iroquois Confederacy, which was established nearly a thousand years ago, there was one powerful person reputed to be the source of great evil, the cause of war. Those who sought peace went to him with a vision of a confederation in which many nations would live in peace. They asked this evil person whether he would be the head of this confederation; that is, to have the confederation hosted in his nation, where he would open all the meetings. Today, a thousand years later, a person bearing his title is still performing those responsibilities. Again, the lessons are: holistic thinking; seeking inclusion rather than exclusion; healing a troubled relationship, rather than vanquishing a troublesome opponent; and thinking for the long-term, rather than for the moment.

If indigenous people have so much to offer, why are they not out there actively and publicly advocating for their age-old knowledge and instinct for the synthesis of spirituality, nature and politics – and indeed advising the world and its new-century leaders? Answer: in the indigenous world, generally, and in Canada specifically, indigenous people are so focussed on their struggle for survival as peoples that they are distracted from thinking about how to make a better world. They dedicate much energy to decolonization – including, as it were, to decolonizing their own minds. Their ability to pass down their cultural values and practices is severely compromised. Their languages are threatened by extinction. An unacceptable percentage of their children are being raised outside of their culture by foster parents. Those children who remain with their parents and communities are too often educated by another culture’s curriculum – administered according to another culture’s values. Too many of their youth are incarcerated in numbers that far exceed their share of the population. (In Canada, too many of the parents are still unhealed from the intergenerational effects of boarding schools, and are unable to demonstrate to their children how to be parents.) Too many of their people die before the ripeness of age because of health issues.

The new, globalized century will require the peaceful embrace of diversity and systems of governance that are oriented toward coexistence, rather than the conquest of other peoples and the exploitation of nature. There is little doubt that indigenous culture and wisdom and political philosophy can be instructive in fashioning these new-century paradigms, drawing from the fact that indigenous cultures and governance were, over the course of indigenous history, able to incorporate wide diversity into strong unity, and to show great appreciation for individuality in the context of enhancing the collective.

The UN is having a major World Conference on Indigenous Peoples in 2014. It may well prove a historic opportunity for an exploration of the contribution that indigenous nature, spirituality and politics can make to tomorrow’s world.


Roberta Jamieson is the President and CEO of the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation in Toronto, Ontario. She was previously Ombudsman of Ontario for 10 years, as well as Vice-President of the International Ombudsman Institute.

(Illustration: Jose Ortega)

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