Indigenous Wisdom


"When I was a youth, the country was very beautiful...  [He then describes trees and rivers, shrubs and the many kinds of flowers]  I could see the trails of many animals and hear the cheerful songs of many kinds of birds......  But now the face of all the land is changed and sad. I see the land desolate and I suffer an unspeakable sadness. Sometimes I wake in the night, and I feel as though I would suffocate from the pressure of this awful feeling of loneliness."  — an old Omaha Indian in the1800's, in Peter Nabokov, Native American Testimony


Photos courtesy of "Portraits from North American Indian Life" by Edward S. Curtis (1800's) - Collage by Janet Boyd


Out in the desert where the wind never stops

 A few simple people try to grow a few crops

Northwestern University Library
Apache Elder, Edward S. Curtis

 Trying to maintain a life and a home

 On land that was theirs before the Romans thought of Rome

 A few dozen survivors, ragged but proud

 With a few woolly sheep, under gathering cloud

 It's never been easy, or free from strife

 But the pulse of the land is the pulse of their life

 You thought it was over but it's just like before

 Will there never be an end to the Indian wars?

— Bruce Cockburn, Indian Wars



The Lakota knew that man's heart, away from nature, becomes hard; he knew that lack of respect for growing, living things soon led to lack of respect for humans, too.  — Luther Standing Bear

Landscape informs the shape of our minds, hearts and spirits, more so than any other influence in our lives.  — Joy Harjo




Like the shadow, the repressed aspect of the Western psyche, indigenous peoples have been ignored, suppressed, and ridiculed. They have also been tortured, dispossessed, and massacred by Western civilization and its subjects.  Yet, at the same time, white people have been fascinated with the ways of indigenous peoples—with their wisdom, their embodied vitality, their resilient spirit, their warriorship, their intimacy with their land, their art, their rituals and ceremonies.  We seem to sense that they have what we’ve lost, and so we seek from them a way to regain our souls, which industrialization has done a good job of repressing, subverting, and perverting.

In the Dharmagaian view, indigenous peoples are our elders, from whom we have much to learn, for they are the original Dharmagaians.  Some of the remaining primal peoples have preserved the animistic sensibility, the sense of sacred connection and reciprocity with all that lives, which we have lost.  Animism and soul have the same root -- anima, meaning psyche or soul, and breath. It is the enlivening factor in Latin. We all have at least a remnant trace of animism within ourselves, which may account for our attraction to indigenous cultures.  That remnant trace of animistic sensibility—which has been called the “ecological unconscious”—can be nurtured and honored by paying attention to it, tuning into it, and learning from it, which various schools of shamanism, wilderness rites of passage, and ecopsychology are attempting to help us younger brothers and sisters to do.

A few “first nations” have preserved their cultures, and their sustainable relationship with their piece of the Earth, over tens of thousands of years, a feat that is almost unimaginable in the industrialized world.  Our civilization goes back only about five thousand years.   The Penan tribe of Borneo, the Aborigines of Australia, the Bushmen of South Africa, the Pygmies of central Africa—ancient tribal peoples—all have an intimate ecological understanding of their environments that Western science can't begin to approximate. Much less can Euro-Americans approximate their spiritual relationship with the land, which depends on the experiences of many generations.  And these ancient traditions are all hanging by a thread, fighting the onslaught of greedy corporations and racist states and settlers, and suffering ongoing violence to their persons, villages, lands, and ways of life and livelihood.  

Sioux Invocations by Edward S.  Curtis

In the Dharmagaian view indigenous peoples are not less than we are, as our culture has deemed them to be; they have great value to the Earth and to us.  Therefore, cultural diversity, and the preservation of these cultures, is as important as biological diversity.  Cultural and biological diversity are inextricable.  The mono-cultural homogenization imposed by economic globalization is the greatest threat to both, which is the reason that environmentalists have taken up the causes of indigenous peoples.  Fortunately, elders from many nations have seen the wisdom and necessity of working with people from the industrialized world—to teach us and to exchange information and assistance with us; for we really are all in this together.

Reciprocity is one of the most important things that native people have to teach those of us from the dominant culture: reciprocity with the land, with animals and plants, and with people.  It is the attitude of reciprocity with the land and other forms of life that enabled indigenous cultures to maintain biodiversity and sustain themselves for long periods of time.  That attitude of reciprocity is expressed as appreciation, gratitude, and respect — acknowledging the exchange of matter, energy, and information with the larger living system that humans are part of and depend upon.  This is an orientation and way of life that industrialized humans need to re-learn, and are re-learning, as we seek to establish sustainable communities.

And there is another important lesson that indigenous people teach us: how to persist, how to survive in the midst of loss, oppression, and deprivation.  They have demonstrated that it is possible to survive and hold on to our deepest values, those that sustain our souls and spirits, and our dignity, in spite of calamity.  As we face this century of declines in energy and resources, and disruptions in our way of life, we can look to the natives for the wisdom of survival in the midst of wrenching change.  They truly are our elders.

The voices of both native peoples and their non-native admirers are represented on the Indigenous Links page.  See also The Animistic Soul Re-Emerges and its links.


The Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers


Despair is a luxury. If I despair I can drive a Yukon and watch bad television. Despair makes no demand upon us; hope demands everything. For people around the world, in places like Burma and Chiapas, giving up means accepting hideous conditions of life, or death. Despair is cheap for us, expensive for them. — Rebecca Solnit


The way, and the only way, to stop the evil is for all Red People to unite in claiming a common and equal right in the land, as it was at first, and should be yet; for it was never divided, but belongs to all for the use of each. —Tecumsch ( Shawnee Chief, 1768)


"Civilization" has been thrust upon me since the days of the reservations, and it has not added one whit to my sense of justice, to my reverence for the rights of life, to my love for truth, honesty, and generosity. — Luther Standing Bear


The hunting-gathering peoples of the world—Australian aborigines, African Bushman, and similar groups—represent not only the oldest but also perhaps the most successfully adapted human beings. — Chris Maser,  “Relearning what we’ve forgotten”


Photos courtesy of "Portraits from North American Indian Life" by Edward S. Curtis (1800's) - Collage by Janet Boyd



© 2009 Suzanne Duarte