Ecology and Religion: Ecology and Indigenous Traditions

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In anthropology the term indigenous refers to small-scale societies with distinct languages, mythic narratives, sacred places, ceremonies, and kinship systems. Over 500 million people are considered indigenous; they live on every continent (except Antarctica) as well as in the Pacific Rim. They are known as First Nations (Canada), Adivasi (India), Orang Asli (Malaysia), Igorot (Philippines) and Indians or Native Americans (the Americas). Unfortunately these native societies are often marginalized within the larger culture; their existence is also threatened by the exploitation of corporations and extractive industries (such as fossil fuels and mining). Any discussion of indigenous traditions and ecology must necessarily involve political issues of cultural and biodiversity survival. Each indigenous society is unique, and a study of one regional community cannot be extrapolated to represent others. Each society has its own cosmological understanding of nature and its own regional, cultural, and historical issues with which to contend as it struggles to survive the challenges of a global economy.

The complete history of ecology and indigenous traditions is too complex and diverse to explore here, but three overview perspectives are useful. First, before and after contact with the civilizations of Asia, Europe, and Africa, indigenous cultures certainly interacted with one another, sharing forms of traditional environmental knowledge (TEK) as well as a mode of historical consciousness often embedded in myth. The transmission of knowledge of manioc cultivation in the Pacific region and yucca extraction from problematic tubers in South America are two examples of widespread sharing of technologies. Both of these food production techniques demonstrate widespread adaptation to local symbol systems and explanatory cosmologies. Quite often, historical notice of such a technological change was embedded in an ancient myth that would be narrated in a slightly different manner to mark the historical event. This first overview perspective can be identified with the ancient forms of traditional environmental knowledge found among specific indigenous peoples that also shows evidence of having become hybridized knowledge in other cultures. The spread of tobacco similarly illustrates the features of ancient sharing and adaptation. Tobacco became central to the socioreligious life of many indigenous peoples of the Americas holding its spiritual intentions intact to the present.

Second, with the advent of dominant and oppressive cultures that subverted indigenous ways of knowing, these small-scale cultures experienced massive deaths largely due to disease pathogens for which these native peoples had little or no immune resistance. These times of intense cultural fragmentation and despair have varied in world history, continuing to the present for some indigenous peoples. This has resulted in a tremendous loss of elders who would transmit traditional environmental knowledge as well as the cessation of the accompanying rituals that accompany that knowledge. Thus, indigenous peoples continue to experience the diminishment and loss of the actual ecological diversity itself that stimulates their deepest cultural religiosity. Certainly, not all traditional knowledge is lost, nor is the biodiversity of indigenous homelands extinguished, but in this overview perspective the religious sensibilities resulting from these profound losses among indigenous people often assumes prophetic forms that announce the end of a cosmological cycle before renewal reoccurs.

A final overview perspective has emerged more forcefully in the contemporary period that can be identified as resistance and regeneration. This is not exclusively a recent development as indigenous peoples have resisted the oppression and loss of the colonial period from its inception, but this historical perspective serves to emphasize the global activities of indigenous peoples who now often act in concert to make dominant cultures aware of their plight, to argue for their sovereignty in the larger arena of nation-states, and to articulate their contributions to human thought and their insights into contemporary challenges. A striking example occurred with the Zapatistas uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, in January 1994. This well-coordinated struggle linked labor issues with cultural survival, loss of homeland with growth of computer networks. Not only did this movement resist the age-old forms of oppression by the Mexican state, but it has also been a regenerative site for offering new thought on current issues. Increasingly, global forums of indigenous peoples and local communities critique international agreements on environmental or cultural issues that do not recognize the existence or contributions of indigenous peoples. These indigenous forums explore such issues as biopiracy, biocolonialism, and environmental racism, and propose traditional ideas and practices to counter the market-driven plans offered by developed nations. No one organization speaks for indigenous peoples, but some significant groups are the Columbia Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples Organizations of the Amazon Basin, International Alliance of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of the Tropical Forests (Nepal), Amazon Alliance (Ecuador), Pacific Concerns Resource Centre (Fiji), International Research Institute for Maori and Indigenous Education, Ethnic Minority and Indigenous Rights Organizations of Africa (Nigeria), African Indigenous Women Organization, and the Inter-Mountain peoples Education and Culture in Thailand Association as well as the ongoing work of Cultural Survival and International Survival.

Traditional indigenous societies view all existence as interdependent, including interactions with nature and the technology of their subsistence practices. The term lifeway is used here to indicate this integration of thought, production, and distribution. This ecologically integrated knowledge has often been misconceived as animism or "failed epistemologies" too limited for consideration by modern societies. However, indigenous knowledge traditionsbased on a relational knowing of their worldscan contend as robust alternatives to modern worldviews that tend to objectify and distance the natural world from the human. Three significant political and social undercurrents must be considered in the study of indigenous religions and ecology.

First, despite mounting economic and political pressures indigenous communities have demonstrated remarkable resistance and regeneration. This has been evident through five centuries of contact with European culture and continues with the twenty-first-century struggle against complete absorption into dominant cultures. Cosmology (a society's view of the natural world and universe) and ecology play significant roles in this struggle, as well as in the adaptation of indigenous societies to contemporary culture and tech-nology.

Second, what is known of indigenous lifeways, their integration of culture into local ecosystems, and their environmental knowledge has come from indigenous peoples themselves. Elders and teachers have been the source of knowledge about, and decision makers for, religious and environmental activities.

The third sociopolitical consideration is an ideology called indigenism, the promotion, defense, and/or politicization of native cultures. Romantic perspectives view indigenous lifeways as rigid, unchanging, and opposed to even appropriate development. At the other extreme, national governments sometimes devalue and demean the sustainable interactions that native peoples maintain with local bioregions to claim exclusive prerogatives over the use of indigenous lands. Both views are potentially misleading.

Indigenous Voices

Too frequently indigenous voices are not heard on ecological issues. Native American lawyer Vine Deloria, Jr., calls for the recognition of native peoples as national entities with sacred lands exempt from the arbitrary decisions of state and federal governments; this, he says would constitute a move from "greening" to "maturing." Deloria connects religion and ecology not simply with academic or conservationist concerns but with the struggle for legal and political rights to conserve traditional lifeways.

Indigenous logic is strikingly different from the linear, analytical, mechanistic, and concept-driven rhetoric of dominant modern societies. Traditional cultures often connect their regard for the protective power of spirits with concepts of cosmology and ecology. Spirits are differently understood, but these numinous beings are markedly place-based, relational, and felt presences. Affective, emotional ways of knowing are often cultivated in rituals by means of deprivation and body- or mind-altering substances, enabling indigenous leaders to address situations of community need through spirit-inspired messages.

Indigenous leaders know that environmental knowledge has long been operative in their communities and that, of late, nonnative peoples have been interested in this knowledge. They wonder, however, if this new interest is genuine or simply another type of exploitation.

Themes in the Study of Indigenous Religions and Ecology

Several prominent themes can be identified; this list is not exhaustive but represents efforts to understand the intricate and varied ways that indigenous peoples live in relation to their ecosystems.

Balance and conservation

Many indigenous lifeways recognize the balance that pervades both the ecosystem and the cosmos. Ruptures in this balance are addressed by ritual procedures intended to restore personal, social, ecological, and cosmological harmonies. Even hunting and fishing are believed to foster the balance of life. Thus, the Yup'ik Eskimo of Alaska view hunter and prey as part of a cycle of reciprocity in which animals visit the human world to be hunted, treated respectfully, and sent back to return the following season. Animals and plants are seen as spirit beings that willingly give themselves for human sustenance. Hunting and other activities are part of a cycle of reciprocity based on privilege and responsibility to a slain animal. These complex systems of limits on hunting, dietary prohibitions, and gender and kin rules regarding distribution of game and other foods constitute indigenous conservation ethics.

Religious ritual in the ecology of the Tsembaga horticultural peoples of highland New Guinea was described in 1968 by Roy Rappaport in Pigs for the Ancestors. This study provided important insight into indigenous concerns for cosmological and ecological balance. Previously, cultural ecology taught that indigenous religions had been formed passively by interactions with local environments. Rappaport suggested instead that ritual acted as a regulatory system whereby the Tsembaga maintained their environment, limited hostility, controlled population growth, promoted trade, and facilitated the distribution of protein. In short, Tsembaga religion had ecological implications as well as connections to political, social, and subsistence practices.

Richard Nelson's 1983 study of the Koyukon peoples of Alaska, Make Prayers to the Raven advanced this understanding of indigenous religions and ecology by showing how extensive Koyukon oral narratives of the Distant Time (Kk'adonts'idnee ) contained detailed environmental knowledge of the boreal forest. Moreover, these narratives pre-sented particular examples of Koyukon regard for plants and animals. Nelson explored ways in which these ecological insights linked a complex Koyukon ethical system (hutlanee ) with cosmological narratives of the Distant Time and subsistence practices. Most importantly, Nelson's work described an indigenous conservation ethic flowing from the mutual interactions of lifeway and ecosystem.

Narrative and place

The Maori of New Zealand speak of themselves as tangata whenua, people of the land. By grounding their identity as a people in stories of their homeland, the Maori are not simply expressing a nationalistic patriotism. Rather, whenua means both land and placenta; this evokes the Earth-mother herself, Papatuanuku, and makes land the connection both to larger cosmic forces and the source of personal life. Myths describe how the Sky-father, Ranginui, was separated from the Earth-mother by the efforts of their children, who eventually differentiate all of creation. Thus, the mythic offspring bring about the primordial separation that introduces into creation disparate, yet interconnected, forces such as yearning, ambiguity, and fecundity.

For the Maori, interactions with the environment bring humans into contact with mana and maori, powers inherent in all of reality. A thing's existence carries within it mana, or the inherent right to be where it is. Maori myths explore predator and prey relations throughout existence in concepts of hard mana competition and aggressionas well as soft mana compassion and cooperation. All creatures also possess a personal life force, maori, suggesting that reality has intrinsic intention and value.

A Maori proverb presents a glimpse of this dynamic, interactive kinship with the Earth: "The blood (toto ) of humans (tangata ) comes from food (kai); our welfare (oranga ) comes from land (whenua )." This links blood with the food that comes from the death of one's nonhuman kin, namely animals and plants. In addition to mana and maori, all beings-as-food carry individual tapu, or sacredness. Human subsistence practices may be harmful to the mana of those eaten, but recognition of tapu respects maori. Inner life, or blood, is thought to depend on correct spiritual relations with other creatures, including ritual treatment of their tapu. Welfare, or material prosperity, for the maori flows from ethical relations with the differentiated forces of life in creation.

According to the Maori, humans are people of the land when they maintain right relationships with the mana, maori, and tapu of creatures. These knowledge-based processes establish the maori of the human community, which can only be generated by acting responsibly. The Maori claim to be people of the land in Aoteroa New Zealand proceeds from a cosmology that establishes all creatures, not simply humans, in a web of kinship. Their ancestral prerogatives entail responsible, ethical interactions with both creatures and the land.

Person and power

In many indigenous cultures both male and female shamans cultivate intense, intimate, and transforming relationships with local lands and life forms. Shamans are persons of spiritual power whose symbolic practices mirror the understandings and interactions of their small-scale societies, with local environments as the source of efficacious power. Their exceptional ecological imagination makes shamans capable of interacting and identifying with local environments in innovative and creative ways.

A shaman's knowledge of plants, animals, terrain, and weather patterns is not merely empirical learning, but clearly has a religious perspective as well. Shamanistic views of the environment are relational and reflect personal and community identities and values. The shamans' healing and divining arts present a range of unique individual expressions of culturally specific religious ecologies.

Shamans transform the external environment of mountains, rivers, and biodiversity into inner experiential landscapes that resonate with the surrounding animate world, weaving together the outer environment of all beings with the shaman's inner psychic world, thus generating empathy and commitment from the people. As is evident in the following case study, this cosmology is presented as both the actual homeland and symbolic representations of it.

Arkadii Anisimov's study of the fishing and reindeer-herding Evenk peoples of the central Siberian plateau describes the shaman's tent and ritual as a "fencing" designed to protect the people from attacks by both harmful underworld spirits and neighboring shamans. Evenk cosmology envisions a tripartite world, and the ritual configures zones of symbolic activities that manifest this view. The shaman's tent is in the middle region, or human world, with an eastern gallery as the celestial realm and a western gallery as the underworld. The cosmological symbolism of the realms is evident to the Evenk. Thus, the eastern gallery has living green-leafed larch trees that are turned upside down with their roots on top as if anchored in the celestial world. Wooden plaques depicting spirit images of reindeer and pike symbolically swimming in the Milky Way are planted in the ground as guardians of this celestial region. Dead larch trees in the western gallery have their roots pointing down to the netherworld with wooden images of spirit birds and ancestral figures guarding the path to the departed. This western gallery, moreover, has multiple images of animals, fish, and larch trees with birds on topall arranged in the form of a fish weir to capture any dangerous wolf spirits sent by neighboring shamans to attack during the ritual.

The shaman's tent, set on the human/earth level, has a central larch tree, a fire at its base, and a raft-seat for the shaman with wooden plaque images of salmon flanked by attending representations of knives, spears, and fish other than pike. In this symbolic setting the shaman becomes an animal and undertakes therapeutic journeys to heal members of the community who are ill. Along with healing symbolism, the shaman marshals considerable military might in the form of spirit-animal legions to oppose dangerous intruders. Should the shaman die, anxiety reigns until a new shaman can reestablish this protective spiritual fencing. The power-knowledge of the Evenk shaman, therefore, draws on a complex religious ecology that connects animal symbolism, military preparedness, and healing journeys to protect the people in their bioregion.


Indigenous lifeways do not foster individual, subjective beliefs, conceptualizations, or representations, nor do they divide a this-world reality from an other-world, transcendent reality. Rather, they live in a relational universe, striving to nurture and create a world that nurtures and creates them. Indigenous peoples undertake conversations with mountains, rivers, stars, animals, and plants that are not merely metaphorical or symbolic communication, but reciprocal conversations.

Ritual is but one example of this conversation in which the pragmatic and the religious, the material and the spiritual are interwoven. Body/mind connections between the human and the natural world are celebrated by indigenous peoples in ritual; human senses are activated as the highly crafted logic of ritual communication enables conversations with all living things. Life in the world is not without discord and disagreementdemands and limits are acknowledged. Rather than being symbolized as ecologists, indigenous peoples stand for commitment to place in the contemporary world.


Anisimov, Arkadii F. "The Shaman's Tent of the Evenks and the Origin of the Shamanistic Rite." In Siberian Shamanism, edited by Henry Michael. Toronto, 1963.

Apffel-Marglin, Frederique, with the Andean Project on Peasant Technologies (PRATEC). The Spirit of Regeneration: Andean Culture Confronting Western Notions of Development. New York, 1998. A major study of the resistance and regeneration of traditional agricultural practices and knowledge among Aymara peoples of Peru and Bolivia.

Basso, Keith H. Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache. Albuquerque, N.M., 1996. The classic study of place-based knowledge and wisdom among the Apache peoples in southwestern North America.

Callicott, J. Baird, and Michael P. Nelson. American Indian Environmental Ethics: An Ojibwa Case Study. Upper Saddle River, N.J., 2004. By examining the worldview of these Great Lakes Anishinabe peoples, these authors derive indigenous principles that they bring to a theoretical discussion of environmental ethics.

Crocker, Jon C. Vital Souls: Bororo Cosmology, Natural Symbolism, and Shamanism. Tucson, Ariz., 1985. A major ethnography on a South American Amazonian people exploring the relationships between cosmology and religious practice.

Grim, John, ed. Indigenous Traditions and Ecology: The Interbeing of Cosmology and Community. Cambridge, Mass., 2001. Perhaps the broadest collection of articles discussing different indigenous perspectives on environmental thought and issues.

Guss, David M. To Weave and Sing: Art, Symbol, and Narrative in the South American Rainforest. Berkeley, Calif., 1989. A beautiful and intricate discussion of cosmology and technical production among an Amazonian people.

Hughes, Donald. North American Indian Ecology. El Paso, Tex., 1996. One of the earliest texts on the environmental thought and practice of Native North American peoples.

Ingold, Tim. Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. London and New York, 2000. A major statement by an anthropologist investigating the contributions of indigenous traditions to the philosophical issues of environmental theory.

Karlsson, B.G. Contested Belonging: An Indigenous People's Struggle for Forest and Identity in Sub-Himalayan Bengal. 2d ed. Richmond, U.K., 2000. A major study of South Asian indigenous peoples and the environmental challenges unique to that area.

Kickingbird, Kirke, and Karen Ducheneaux. One Hundred Million Acres. New York, 1973. A study of the relationships between loss of land and cultural deprivation in North America.

Krech, Shepard, III. The Ecological Indian: Myth and History. New York, 1999. A response to the romantic imaging of indigenous peoples in North America as the "first ecologists."

Nelson, Richard K. Make Prayers to the Raven: A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest. Chicago, 1983. Continues to be a classic in the field of traditional environmental knowledge, traditional conservation practices, and insight into the deep affectivity for the natural world among indigenous peoples.

Ramos, Alcida Rita. Indigenism: Ethnic Politics in Brazil. Madison, Wis., 1998. A study of the romanticization of Brazil's indigenous peoples in terms of the politics of that country.

Rappaport, Roy A. Pigs for the Ancestors: Ritual in the Ecology of a New Guinea People. 2d ed. Prospect Heights, Ill., 2000. Classic study of the ways in which Maring peoples of New Guinea aspire to maintain socio-ecological balance by means of ritual.

Roseman, Marina. Healing Sounds from the Malaysian Rainforest: Temiar Music and Medicine. Berkeley, Calif., 1991. An ethnomusicologist investigates the close relationships between song, healing practices, and ecology among a Malaysian people.

Suzuki, David, and Peter Knudtson. Wisdom of the Elders: Sacred Native Stories of Nature. New York, 1992. Anthology of popular insights and concerns of indigenous peoples that is helpful in the classroom and useful for generating discussion.

Vecsey, Christopher, and Robert W. Venables. American Indian Environments: Ecological Issues in Native American History. Syracuse, N.Y., 1980. Early study of ecological consciousness among Native North American peoples.

Weaver, Jace, ed. Defending Mother Earth: Native American Perspectives on Environmental Justice. Maryknoll, N.Y., 1996. Examination of Native American attitudes toward environmental perceptions and problems largely written by native academics and activists.

Wilbert, Johannes. Mystic Endowment: Religious Ethnography of the Warao Indians. Cambridge, Mass., 1993. A major study of the ways in which myth is embedded in ritual and subsistence practices so as to affirm the traditional environmental knowledge of an indigenous people.

John A. Grim (2005)

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Ecology and Religion: Ecology and Indigenous Traditions

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