issue 186 - August 1988
Lessons from native people
Most indigenous people live on the fringe of the dominant society which
surrounds them. Whether in Brazil, Canada or Burma contact between outsiders
and native people is usually glancing and superficial. That is unfortunate
because tribal peoples have a huge amount of accumulated wisdom and
knowledge to teach us. And the lessons could help change the world.
|This illustration is by Blake Debassige, an Ojibwe artist from West Bay Reserve on Manitoulin Island in Ontario. The image stresses the love and respect aboriginal peoples have for their land. The connecting lines show the interdependency of humans, plants and animals. Birds represent the great spirit which exists in all living things. The muskrat and bear represent the culture and tradition of Indian peoples. The circle represents native peoples standing up and speaking for their rights. Feet rooted in the ground show the close relationship with the land and the struggle over land claims. The knife symbolizes the determination of native peoples to defend themselves.|
Honour the spirit
WHITE invaders saw native people as godless unfortunates, ripe for conversion to Christianity. In fact, spirituality in most native cultures was highly-developed. Indigenous people created complex mythologies which attempted to situate their lives in the scheme of creation. Animals, insects, trees and even the landforms were all infused with the power of the 'Great Spirit'.
The physical world was an emanation of the Spirit. Harmony in the former depended on understanding and respecting the spirits whose intervention in daily life was common.1
Some observers speculate that an intense native spirituality both attracted and enraged white colonizers whose Christian faith had become lifeless and diluted. In any case Europeans were keen to replace native beliefs with Christianity. They did so with some success but in most cases indigenous people just added Christian beliefs and practices to their own.
Native spirituality stands in stark contrast to the crass materialism of modern consumer society. For the most part native people have not let a passion for possessions undermine their relationship with the divine. Where traditional spirituality still survives it gives meaning to native lives and provides a barrier to the corrosive influence of materialist culture.
Love the Land
ACCORDING to native lore the land is a gift from the creator which we hold in trust for future generations. Indigenous people see themselves as part of a continuum stretching from the time of creation. No one, they say, has the right to deprive future generations of their birthright.2 For most indigenous people private ownership of land is a completely foreign concept.
In industrial society the value of land is measured crudely in dollars and cents. Short-term greed has turned vast areas of once fertile farmland into arid desert. Profit-hungry corporations continue to fight pollution controls, dumping deadly chemicals into our lakes and rivers, poisoning the air and scarring the land - all in the name of economic development.
Chief Seattle summed up the American Indian attitude in 1854: 'Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons and daughters of earth. If we spit upon the earth, we spit on ourselves.'4
TRADITIONAL native societies depended on animal and plant life for survival - people were both producers and consumers. Life was difficult with daily survival the primary preoccupation. But the environment was neither strange nor menacing - whether it was the Amazonian rainforests, the Australian desert or the Arctic permafrost.
Today most native people still see themselves as integrated into the natural world. In many ways they are the original ecologists: they've lived a harmonious, sustainable relationship with their environment for thousands of years. In industrial societies we tend to treat natural resources as infinitely renewable. There is no thought of tomorrow: the idea is to mine the minerals, cut the trees, catch the fish and damn the consequences. Nature is a chaotic force to be subdued and exploited.
Nomadic Indians did not tax the land or its resources. Nothing was wasted: everything was eaten or used for clothing or tools. Compare that to the casual, throw-away style of industrial society where waste is built-in to the economy and sportsmen slaughter animals for the sheer thrill of the kill.
Over the centuries, indigenous cultures have amassed a tremendous storehouse of knowledge about the natural world. People like the Lawa in northern Thailand grow at least 75 food crops and over 20 medicinal plants.4 Many modern wonder drugs have been extracted from rare plants widely-used by Indian tribes. What was once glibly dismissed as 'folk medicine' is now studied by scientists and researchers.
NATIVE people were initially welcoming to foreign invaders: they believed the land was big enough for everyone. But it wasn't long before friendship turned to hostility as Europeans enslaved natives, stole their land and looted their treasures. The Indians did not give up without a fight. When the first group of colonizers deposited by Christopher Columbus attacked Indian villages in search of gold the Indians fought back, killing all the white invaders.5 That was the beginning of four centuries of warfare between Europeans and Indians in the Americas.
Today native people are organizing nationally and internationally to win their rights. In countries like Guatemala, Brazil, Bangladesh, and West Papua (Indonesia) tribal people under siege are forced to organize militarily to defend themselves.
Elsewhere, the Filipino Cordillera Native Peoples Alliance effectively fought off the Chico Dam project which threatened to flood the land of thousands of Kalinga and Bontoc people. Maoris from Aotearoa and Cree from northern Quebec have taken their fight to the UN. And the World Council of Indigenous People (WCIP) has made tremendous strides to bring together indigenous peoples from around the world.
Visible minorities, community groups, women's organizations and others in Western countries who suffer from racism or discrimination can learn a great deal from this powerful determination to survive. In the Third World - especially in Latin America - the long resistance of native people to assimilation could be a rallying point for peasants and the urban poor in their battle for work and decent living conditions.
NATIVE culture is under fire everywhere. Indigenous values are being destroyed by imported consumer culture, imposed education and alcohol. But despite this onslaught, native people cling stubbornly to their traditional values: in so doing they show us the need for cultural roots. Old people are highly revered for their knowledge and experience and are held in great esteem. In industrial society the aged are largely forgotten and dismissed as boring relics of a bygone era. The cult of youth reigns supreme.
Despite the cultural trauma they experience native people know who they are. Their traditional values reinforce their will to survive as strong independent peoples.
And native people are flexible. They never hesitated to borrow from industrial society, to use new methods to carry out traditional activities. Industrial society looks to the future; tradition is dismissed as antiquated and inefficient. Whatever is new is good.
Claim Your Rights
NATIVE people the world over have seen treaties broken, communities destroyed and their lands and resources stolen. Now they are demanding basic rights: some native groups use the term self-determination, others self-government. But it amounts to the same thing - the right of indigenous people to control their land and resources in their own way, according to their own needs and aspirations.
Where tribal peoples are still ruled by colonial regimes (as in New Caledonia or West Papua) they are seeking complete independence. But in most cases indigenous people accept their futures are linked to the dominant society around them. And they are beginning to build alliances with other like-minded groups. They want equality, political autonomy and a recognition of past sins. In concrete terms that may mean compensation for land lost; it may also mean a share of income derived from the extraction of natural resources on alienated homelands.
But in the majority of cases it means a secure land base where they have complete economic control and the political space to develop as distinct societies. This struggle hits at the central question of power and the need for a new political vision based on decentralized, democratic control over the use of land and resources. This is a lesson for all of us in an age when national governments and multinational corporations run roughshod over local community interests and regional needs.
1. Beyond Geography: The Western Spirit Against the Wilderness, F Turner, Rutgers Univ Press 1963;
2. Traditional Territories of the Earth, Hayden Burgess, World Council 0f Indigenous People;
3. Report from the Frontier, J Burger, Zed Books. 1987;
4. Tribal Minorities in Asia: The Indigenous Peoples of the Chotanagpur Plateau, J Burger, CIDSE, 1986;
5. Turner, 1983, op. cit.