What can be learned from Indigenous Peoples and their values?

It's very well known that humans are responsible for Climate Change and harming the environment in so many ways.

Really? What about indigenous peoples and thousands of years in the past when sustainable living was the human norm? Has our modern, non-indigenous, industrial civilization changed everything for the worse over a mere couple of hundred years? ("Non-Indigenous Culture": Implications of a Historical Anomaly has some good answers.) Indigenous peoples may only be about 5% of the world's population but they use about a quarter of the world's land surface and maintain more than three quarters of the planet's biodiversity. Ecologists are waking up to the deeper knowledge traditional people have of the natural world.

World Conference on Indigenous Peoples
UN World Conference on Indigenous
Peoples 2014
Indigenous values can help in addressing today's social and ecological issues.The UN accepts that the cultural practices and traditions of indigenous peoples can play an important role.The balance between humankind and nature has become badly upset but indigenous traditions respect the strong bonds that connect people with the Earth and all life. Biodiversity and natural resources are protected on the basis of ancestral knowledge and indigenous peoples can adopt the 'perspective' of other living things, even rocks, water and clouds. Non-indigenous people believe they can own land whereas the indigenous believe that they belong to the land.

What we can we learn from indigenous peoples? Indigenous cultures may differ but there are common threads. Some examples:

  • Lifestyle - Modern civilization in moving from local, quite isolated communities to vast international societies has lost some of the cohesive social structures respected by indigenous peoples. These are based on community and family values, traditions, customs, shared ownership, spirituality, respect for the wisdom of elders and ancestral knowledge. In contrast, many of us in modern times, tend to live as individuals. An online network serves our needs for packaged knowledge and entertainment and our songs and dances have little connection with our immediate natural environment. We tend to purchase goods anonymously rather than visiting a real market and few of us integrate with a community network located in a single place on land that we recognize as 'home'.

  • Food and Agriculture - Currently global food systems are responsible for large emissions of greenhouse gases, biodiversity loss and pollution. Evidence shows that the agricultural practices of indigenous peoples can make food systems more sustainable and resilient. Their knowledge and territorial management that follows seasonal cycles makes food available locally while preserving natural resources for future generations.

  • The Seventh Generation Principle - Climate Change is now widely acknowledged as an emergency affecting all humanity. Exactly how, where and when may be unknown but societal collapse or even human extinction may lie ahead unless significant steps are taken. Modern civilization is clearly in breach of the seventh generation principle which holds that the policies and practices of today should take into account the future well-being of seven generations. Non-indigenous peoples have already stolen from all human descendants by taking such poor care of the Earth.

Indigenous rights belong to peoples who originally occupied land that was conquered and colonized by outsiders. This includes rights over land as well as language, religion, and cultural identity. Protecting indigenous rights benefits the indigenous but as a UN forum declared, the whole world will benefit. For example, analysis shows that rainforests managed by indigenous peoples and local communities play a very significant role in reducing carbon emissions. Largely untouched forested lands store more carbon than they emit due to traditional and sustainable land management and biodiversity loss is also reduced.

A recent UN report states that ensuring the rights of indigenous peoples to lands, territories and resources addresses some of the most pressing global challenges such as climate change and environmental degradation.

Sadly, many indigenous peoples are struggling to maintain rights to their land and to the Earth resources they protect. Mining, logging, dams and deforestation for agricultural purposes are often imposed by outside interests with little or no consultation. Many indigenous activists have been subjected to violent attacks, criminalized and murdered and the threats are growing worldwide.

While indigenous knowledge and practices can be beneficial in many ways proper respect should be paid to the cultures involved. In the past, colonizers took and used whatever they liked almost regardless of how this could affect indigenous people themselves who were seen as culturally primitive and backward. Cultural appropriation is disrespectful. Even now images, artefacts and traditional practices are taken out of context for entertainment or commercial purposes with no understanding of their significance to the people of the indigenous cultures involved.

So what approach should be taken to the knowledge of indigenous peoples and their values? Indigenous knowledge is best discovered by building mutually beneficial and genuinely supportive relationships with indigenous communities. As an example, integrating some traditional medical practices with modern medicine may be just as beneficial for modern societies as judicious use of modern medicine may be in protecting indigenous communities. It is unrealistic and inappropriate to view all indigenous practices or traditions as somehow saintly and ripe for emulation. However, there are certainly aspects concerning climate change, the environment and sustainable lifestyles that have obvious relevance for modern life and should not be overlooked.

Language Translation

United Nations Climate Change Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform Web Portal
"Indigenous peoples must be part of the solution to climate change. This is because you have the traditional knowledge of your ancestors. The important value of that knowledge simply cannot - and must not - be understated. You are also essential in finding solutions today and in the future...."

3000-year-old solutions to modern problems

Very impressive TEDx presentation by indigenous Dine musician Lyla June, scholar and cultural historian. She outlines a series of timeless human success stories focusing on Native American food and land management techniques and strategies.

Smohalla was a medicine man of the Wanapum tribe who led a resistance movement in the 19th century.

"You ask me to plow the ground! Shall I take a knife and tear my mother's breast? Then when I die she will not take me to her bosom to rest.

You ask me to dig for stone! Shall I dig under her skin for her bones? Then when I die I cannot enter her body to be born again.

You ask me to cut the grass and make hay and sell it and be rich like white men! But how dare I cut off my mother's hair?"

Yale Climate Connections - New book says Indigenous knowledge is key to fighting climate change.

See also Portal Room 8: Indigenous Values, Traditions, Rights.

Unsorted links.