Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Book Review: Learning Native Wisdom

In honor of Thanksgiving, I wanted to offer up these bits of wisdom from our Native American and other First Nations about how to live well on the land we borrow from our children.



Holthaus, Gary (2008) Learning Native Wisdom: What traditional cultures teach us about subsistence, sustainability and spirituality. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.

We are so steeped in Western Culture that we can’t easily tell what is human nature and what is an artifact of our worldview. So it can be helpful to investigate other cultures. This book, Learning Native Wisdom, summarizes what we might learn from First Peoples. It is of course important not to romanticize these tribal cultures. But many survived for centuries within the constraints and rhythms of nature. Here are some of the most important points I found in the text.

Warmongering: “Contrary to popular perceptions of ‘primitive savagery and tribal warfare and violence, there has never been a long-lasting culture based on war, violence, repression or slavery for the majority.” (p.27)

Story telling: “…there have been cultures that persisted for thousands of years without literacy, but there has never been a sustainable culture without health stories.” (p.28) The author uses as an example of ‘crippling stories’ our agriculture: “Their story has been that chemicals will work miracles, that bigger is better, that good farming business is to get rich rather than a way of living on the land.”

Individual vs the collective: “There has never been a sustained culture in which the individual exceeded the community in value.” (p.28)

We are a subsistence culture, whether we know it or not: We in the Western world see subsistence as a way that ‘primitive’ peoples eek out an existence through hunting or gathering, an economic system of providing for their needs. Instead it’s a way of life, including their stories, rituals, and world view. And we all should see ourselves as subsistence peoples. “The white man’s preoccupation with economics and determination to quantify everything are irrelevant to the life under discussion. It’s possible that we could have, in the future, the largest populations of moose and bear, caribou and salmon, that Alaska has ever known….But we can have abundant game and have no subsistence culture left. …What is critical for all of us is to know ourselves—regardless of the culture we belong to—to be subsistence people, to acknowledge the subsistence character of the culture, and to practice a life that protects both the land and the culture through its beliefs, rituals even when hunger gnaws and dogs our families.” (p.73)

On Education: We all sense that our education system, based on the Industrial Revolution, is broken. But what is to replace it? One of many things that are lacking is a sense of self-discipline. Tribal cultures knew if they ate the last salmon, there would be no more. But in our culture, if you have the money to buy (fill in the blank), why not do it? We are constantly told by advertising and social pressures that we are not enough, we need to buy something to make us happy, that what matters is our own personal self-gratification and self-actualization.  But this is counter to a sustainable culture. “A sustainable culture without self-discipline is an oxymoron. What is the role of education in creating a sustainable culture? What is the role of education in creating a self-cultivating, disciplined citizen who sees his or her role in the culture as serving family, community, nation and the great world of ten thousand things? How do we create citizens who are willing to place limitations on themselves, their power, and their acquisitions so that ther might be enough for everyone and for those other creatures whose lives humans depend on though we may not recognize it?” (p.99)

Defining sustainable culture: The author posits that we cannot address this piecemeal, with sustainable farming practices and renewable energy. “for at the heart of our present systems, our own human selves are the real issue. To create a sustainable culture that will support a sustainable agriculture and healthy soil, sustainable yields of fish or logs, sustainable water supplies or energy or clean air, to establish social justice in our own small towns and big cities so that the economy is viable for all and so that prejudice no longer figures in our reckonings about whom to include and whom to exclude from social intercourse, we have to work on ourselves. Everything goes back to that.” (p.117)

To help us unpack worldviews, the author turns to Gary Snyder’s “three lineages”:
·      Children of Abraham (Jews Muslims and Christians; believers in religious texts)
·      Descendants of Primates (believers in science, rationality)
·      Sons and Daughters of the Bear Mother (tribal societies, Hindus, Daoists, Buddhists, etc.) (p.50)

The core question: “…sustainability is not a state we achieve once and for all. It is a process of working toward, forever, being aware of the desired characteristics and alter to the implications of our choices every day. Does this story, song, idea, plan, policy or poem move us toward sustainability?” (p.121)

In the chapter, Defining Sustainability (p122-129); interesting this comes so late in the book), the author suggests we should “want to recognize rather than define sustainability.” In the chapter, he highlights:

·      Recognizing relationships, respect for others; careful observation
·      Protecting biological diversity and ethnic diversity.
·      Socially and economically just
·      Reciprocity and returning a portion of what is taken
·      Healthy intellectual and spiritual life
·      Self-cultivation (not self-fulfillment; “not for the sake of the self but so there is something in us for others.”)
·      Reverence for life

Language: The author talks a lot about language, including how we like to separate humans from Nature. “if, as the rhetoric of sustainability insists, the health of humans is utterly dependent upon the health of the earth, so, too, the health of creatures of every kind, and landscapes everywhere, now hinges upon the health of our spiritual life. I have been trying to show that the real roots of a healthy spirituality lie in two arenas.. one is our language, rather than any scripture, creed, or institutionally transmitted belief. The other is in our self-cultivation toward humaneness.” (p.217)

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