Indigenous Peoples' Perspectives

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The term indigenous is used to refer to the original inhabitants in a region. With regard to human populations, this term can be politically ambiguous, but the concept is still helpful in referring to small-scale societies with distinct languages, mythic narratives, sacred places, and kinship systems. Located on all the major continents (except Antarctica) as well as the Pacific Ocean areas, more than 500 million peoples are considered indigenous. In many contemporary settings these native societies are so marginalized within their nation-state settings and so subject to the extractive exploitation of multinational corporations that their existence is threatened. In these traditional societies the distinctive activities of understanding nature, the technology of subsistence, and an ethics of balance are not separate from one another. Rather, in diverse ways in these different native settings, the interactive relationships of knowing, producing, and thinking about behavior constitute coherent social wholes that can be called worldviews. Indigenous worldviews change over time, yet they also manifest symbols shared with the larger human community in rituals and myths that bind the quest for personal identity, the spirit of community, and ways of knowing the cosmos.

The term lifeway is used here to indicate this cultural integration of thought, production, and distribution among indigenous societies. These diverse and integrated perspectives of native peoples have often been dismissed as animism, or failed epistemologies, that posited a vitality or life force within the world that entered into all technological activities and ethical considerations. From a social science perspective, no such life force could be measured or consistently observed, and, thus, the worldviews, ethics, and technologies of native peoples were seen as too limited for attention by modern urban societies. However in the early-twenty-first century, the philosophical subtlety and social creativity evident in such native technologies as astronomical and ethnobotanical knowledge, healing therapies, cosmological narratives, and aesthetics of performance evident in ritual performances and rock art petroglyphs (rock incisions) and pictographs (applied paint) are being reassessed.

Approaches to Indigenous Peoples

Early encounters by Western Europeans with indigenous peoples were generally interpreted in the context of the Bible. When indigenous peoples manifested empirical knowledge, productive technology, or disciplined behavior, observers judged the achievements to be God-given and their genesis related to Western scriptures. Thus a naïve view of native peoples as prelapsarian, or living in the original innocence of the edenic paradise, gave rise to a romantic view of indigenous peoples as noble savages. From a similar but negative biblical perspective, indigenous peoples, their arts, and their activities were seen as spawned by the devil and deprived of the divine grace of the Western civilized arts. Thus any striking architecture, such as the mounds of the river valleys of Ohio or the Mesoamerican pyramids, was attributed to lost biblical tribes, or prehistoric Caucasian influences from Viking navigators or Irish monks. Lacking a coherent social science, early encounter-period European views dismissed as childlike the petroglyphs and pictographs of indigenous peoples. Thus the lyrical hunting scenes in the cave art of Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa, or the numinous presences manifest in the cave art of Australian indigenous peoples was largely interpreted as psychological projection, sympathetic hunting magic, or primitive aesthetic. For indigenous peoples, however, these varied forms of symbolic expression symbolically made present their commitments to place, the numinous forces in local regions, and often their knowledge base regarding animals, plants, land, and weather.

Beginning with the sixteenth-century early modern period, new intellectual perspectives in Western Europe associated with critical, skeptical thought allowed for innovative views of indigenous lifeways. Influenced by the Jesuit Relations (1632–1673) as well as limited exchanges with Brazilian native peoples, Michel Montaigne (1533–1592) rejected the idea of native peoples as morally depraved and favorably compared the reported cannibalism of indigenous peoples with the savage brutality of the religious wars of Europe of his day. Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (1689–1755) in The Spirit of the Laws (1748) proposed that the spirit of native societies also resulted in laws, political structures, and social decorum.

By the early-twentieth century, the philosopher Lucien Levy-Bruhl (1857–1939) proposed that indigenous worldviews emerged from a prelogical mentality, intellectually different than the rational, logical Western mind, characterized by mystical participation in a pervasive life force (Levy-Bruhl 1923, 1985). His thesis is sharply questioned for projecting a universal mindset on very different peoples, but his emphasis on a cultural logic brought to descriptions of the world is now widely accepted. For native peoples, their perception, knowledge, and explanation of the world relates to their immediate technological-environmental circumstances as well as their linguistic and ideological heritage.

Franz Boas (1858–1942) emphasized cultural relativity and oriented a new generation of anthropologists to investigate the knowledge, technologies, and ethics of indigenous peoples as whole systems, or cultures. The anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss (b. 1908), in The Savage Mind (1962), observed that the science and technology of native peoples follows from a mental structure evident in mythologies in which perception and attention to the natural world gradually lead to a cultural world. From a religious perspective, Mircea Eliade (1907–1986) proposed in the 1950s that indigenous peoples embodied technologies and ways of living that were based on seasonal and cosmological cycles rather than linear, historical understandings of reality.

Faced with the description of native North American peoples as the first ecologists, scientists in the 1980s questioned the roles of indigenous peoples in the extinction of large mammals, which occurred when native peoples were believed to have migrated to the American hemisphere (Martin and Klein 1984). The scientific understanding of indigenous knowledge continues into the present often including the voices of indigenous elders, artists, and intellectuals who seriously challenge the extinction theory. Acknowledging the roles of native hunters in mammoth and mastodon die-off evident in Clovis and Folsom spear-point technologies, they propose broader considerations of both anthropogenic and natural causes such as climatic change, disease pathogens, and fire (Deloria 1995, Wong 2001).

Indigenous Perspectives

Indigenous perspectives suggest that the art of knowing, or science, and the forces of production, or technology, as well as the sense of appropriate behavior, or ethics, weave together social and cosmological values. That is, knowledge of the world, tools for work, and reflection on one's behavior are properties of persons who are actively engaged with a living environment. Human persons interact with a world alive with dynamic forces that are powerful persons watchful of human behavior. Science, technology, and ethics are not transmitted in traditional thought as ways of controlling nature but primarily as modes of interaction with these other-than-human persons. Indigenous science results from maturing attention to nature as beings-in-the-world having capacities to interact with humans in person-to-person exchanges.

Technology is a way of creating the world, in relation to a task, that a person comes to gradually and internally as much as productively and externally. Ethics among indigenous peoples embodies a cultural relationship with specific places and forms of life in a local region that matures as the person ages. Through ritual and performance arts, such as rock art, basketry, canoe making, beading, and habitat construction, indigenous people express personal and social identity. These coherent, integrated activities place the human person in relation to powerful other-than-human spirit beings that inhabit the cosmos. Thus the personal subjectivity of humans, in indigenous perspectives, is brought to fruition through intersubjectivity with the world of animate forces. Paraphrasing the observations of Thomas Berry (1988), the weave of indigenous science, technology, and ethics is evident in their recognition that the universe is not a collection of objects, but a communion of subjects.

The social and cosmological basis of science, technology, and ethics within indigenous thought stands in sharp contrast to nonnative, European, Western, Marxist, capitalist, or other current globalization views. Broadly speaking, in modern standpoints technology has been identified as technical or mechanical manipulation of inert matter related to work as production. Ethics, following this paradigm, comes before action as intentional thought brought to fruition in activity. In all three acts, namely, science as knowing, technology as work, and ethics as intention, the human is central. The contemporary global ethos associated with urban, industrial societies is wholly anthropocentric. In the indigenous perspective the roles of science, technology, and ethics are integrated into the formation of persons and communities (Ingold 2000). Science, technology, and ethics are not simply anthropocentric acts that psychologically orient individuals and communities inward as the source of ultimate value. Rather indigenous perspectives foster an anthropocosmic orientation in which the living world is central, and the human seeks to balance inner identity and meaning in relation to a holistic outer world.

Indigenous intellectual knowledge exemplified in such inventions as the canoe, the bow and arrow, ritual ceremonies of seasonal renewal, and shamanistic therapies all involve complex interactions of place, spirit persons, and symbolic language. Coupled with the striking traditional environmental knowledge evident, for example, in the extraction and blending of plants to produce the ritual hallucinogen, ayahuasca, they affirm the prowess of science and technology among indigenous peoples. Rarely, however, have observers determined that material, human, and spiritual worlds are separated by the indigenous ethics implicate in those inventions. Becoming an authentic human in indigenous views involves relationship with and treatment of the natural world-asperson. Knowing and using the world implicates one's own body, social setting, and larger cosmological forces.

One Example from the Yekuana Peoples of South America

Among the Yekuana peoples of Venezuela traditional environmental knowledge gives rise to technical skills that foster an ethics, constructed in relation to mythological stories, for progressing gradually into mature personhood. Technical developments, such as the press for extracting yucca, the large circular community houses, as well as forms of social life are considered to have come from the culture hero, Wanadi; whereas all the troublesome, corruptible, dangerous aspects of nature and human life come from Odosha. The complex stories of the birth of Odosha from Wanadi's afterbirth, which was improperly buried, and the consequent yearnings and desires embedded within the natural world serve to teach Yekuana traditional environmental ethics. Each individual Yekuana participates in both the cosmic struggle of Wanadi and Odosha, as well as in the creative presence of Wanadi, for example, in the knowledge, skill, and intention of making yucca presses and especially baskets.

The Yekuana have developed a complex set of ethical teachings connecting the emergence of designs for baskets, the materials for making baskets, and limits on collecting those materials. Set within mythological stories of Wanadi and Odosha, the tense and ambiguous weave of the actual human condition is likened to those cosmological webs of relationships. Among the Yekuana the pragmatic use and location of grasses and roots for basket making are hedged with ethical warnings of the allure of those spirit beings who inhabit the grasses as well as the danger of inappropriate and unlimited use. The knowledge of these grasses, the technical skills used in weaving them into baskets, and the complex of stories associated with their presence in the region are also directly related to personal maturing and social status (Guss 1989).

These complex cosmological stories braid cognitive-intellectual and affective-emotional realms of human experience into a learned and embodied practice of restraint. In effect, the weaving of baskets among the Yekuana is considered an aesthetic and contemplative skill in which individuals mature in their self-realization of society and bioregion. Thus Yekuana ethics springs from an inherent knowledge of limits with regard to natural consumption.


Indigenous knowledge is traditional in that it informs technical means not as a separate ethical mode but as the cosmological weave of storied knowledge, natural materials, and a respect for beings-in-the-world that limits consumption. No doubt ethical teachings emerged among indigenous peoples because there were those who overstepped cultural boundaries. The examples given here are not descriptive of all individuals within any one particular native community, nor of the diverse ways of knowing, embodying technical skills, and implementing ethical teachings among indigenous peoples. Yet there are shared indigenous perspectives, or family resemblances, embodied in science, technology, and ethics as ways of living that arise from the mutual dialogues of body, society, and place in the larger cosmological whole.


SEE ALSO Development Ethics;Globalism and Globalization;Modernization.


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