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“Indigenous Knowledge” Helping Mend the Nature-Culture Divide

By Melissa K.  Nelson


An extraordinary global solidarity movement is happening today, providing a place for all to contribute. The movement represents a confluence of the indigenous and environmental movements (the “red” and the “green”). Joining forces, they are addressing the dire ecological issues humanity faces – food and water scarcity, climate disruption, droughts and flooding, species extinction, increased toxicity and health problems, and social division, to name a few.

A Hopi basket weaver – Photo: Philip Klasky, Cultural Conversancy

A Hopi basket weaver – Photo: Philip Klasky, Cultural Conversancy

Add to this the blossoming of the women’s rights and interfaith movements, and we see a beautiful kaleidoscope of hope crystalizing. Many of these movements are looking to the wisdom of indigenous cultures to find more holistic models. We are beginning to see the first signs of a re-unification of nature and culture, a profound contemporary re-alignment of the historical moment known as Cartesian dualism that began fragmenting our world in the 17th century; something indigenous peoples have been calling for since the first waves of colonialism.

Seeing the immense, interwoven, and unpredictable nature of trying to solve our global problems, environmentalists and Western scientists have been shifting over the past two decades to incorporate more cultural understandings about the human-nature relationship. They realize that concerns about rivers, forests, or particular species cannot be adequately addressed without looking at local human livelihood, health, and values. Thanks to the environmental justice movement, social and economic concerns are now being considered as integral parts of environmental and conservation problem solving. Environmentalists and scientists alike are beginning to talk about the importance of human values including spirituality and the concept of sacred places.  

A Web of Connecting Organizations and Native Peoples

Likewise, those most concerned with social and cultural issues are seeing the critical importance of understanding human’s sense of place and integral role in the web of life. This is a positive and important trend that is gaining momentum and must be nurtured by all. It is being led by Native organizations such as the Cultural Conservancy and the Indigenous Environmental Network, and with ally organizations such as the Indigenous Knowledge program of Bioneers, Pachamama Alliance, and many others.

All of us are promoting the notion that to address any ecological issue anywhere, one must realize that historically, those lands, waters, and resources have traditional caretakers going back thousands of years. These are the world’s approximately 370 indigenous peoples living in about 90 countries who take care of 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity. Their knowledge, practices, and lifeways co-evolved with those landscapes, watersheds and places for generations. Today’s Native communities are deeply interested in restoring access to their sacred places and traditional lands. According to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, this access and historical justice is an indigenous and human right.  

For me, the first question to ask when thinking of restoring a creek, creating a wind farm, designating critical habitat for an endangered species, planting a new garden, building a new cultural center, or any other daily action on the land, is: “Who are the Native peoples of this land?” Related questions include, who are the original caretakers, and where are their descendants living today? What are their issues, and how are they related to this part of the Earth? These questions remind us that there are layers of cultural history and traditional knowledge embedded in the lands and stored in the memories, songs, stories and living traditions of contemporary Native peoples.

“Indigenous Knowledge”

This knowledge, often called “Indigenous Knowledge,” “Traditional Knowledge,” or “Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK),” is complex, multi-faceted, emergent, and critical to protecting and restoring the Earth. As the old saying goes, “to know where we are going, we must know where we’ve been,” and TEK helps provide the historical ecology and “original instructions” needed today to better understand people-nature relations in local places and create new stories of resilience for all of humanity.

Photo: L. Frank, Cultural Conservancy

Photo: L. Frank, Cultural Conservancy

Through the estimated 6,000 languages still spoken in the world (most of them indigenous), and the roughly 175 Native American languages still being spoken in the United States, you find indigenous knowledge systems and TEK as whole other ways of thinking and being in the world. Unfortunately, all of these languages are considered endangered today and must be preserved and revitalized. Within these diverse languages are distinct worlds of knowledge that have records of Earth changes and cultural adaptations over great time periods. These stories are incredibly important to understanding the Earth changes happening today. Even the word “knowledge” is misleading in talking about the traditional values, worldviews, practices, and psycho-spiritual consciousness of diverse native groups. It’s not just that the languages and content of this “knowledge” are different; the very way of learning and the process of knowing are significantly different.

Each indigenous nation, tribe, band, community and clan will have different processes of “coming to know” each other, the world, and ourselves. These metaphysical and epistemological processes of learning, knowing, and being are not just abstract concepts but are embodied and animated in daily practices of survival, living, and thriving.

For example, Traditional Ecological Knowledge is enacted when a Santa Clara Pueblo potter selects clay, pigment, design and colors for a beautiful cooking pot. TEK is performed when a Crow dancer selects bird feathers and seashells for regalia and orchestrates the movements he will make in his summer dance. TEK is expressed when a Pomo elder walks along the edge of the Pacific Ocean gathering sea-sage and sings gratitude songs. TEK is carried out when a Mandan farmer observes the stars and decides when to plant his flint corn along a river’s edge.

There is a very thin line between TEK and what the Eurocentric world would call “arts and sciences.” The art of living includes “scientific” observations and experimentation, and the science of survival includes creative intuitions and aesthetic decisions. So the merging of the “red and the green” movements is not only a new alliance between indigenous and environmental organizations and goals, it is a merging of the arts and sciences, the head and the heart, and short- and long-term thinking to halt the destruction of Mother Earth and to create a healthy and regenerative world for the unseen generations to come.