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Indigenous Philosophies

Miguel van der Velden invites us to consider the philosophical ideas of the world’s many Indigenous communities.

One of the main goals of philosophy is to ask why we have this life and how we’re meant to live it. As such, it has been the backbone of many cultures throughout the world and history, has influenced entire nations, and has shaped the present. One could argue that in everything we do there is a philosophy underlying the action. This raises a great concern: if this is true, and philosophy plays such a fundamental role in society, then what great flaw in the philosophy of the modern world is causing us to destroy the environment, turn a blind eye to oppression, and subject ourselves to a political-economic system that for many of us simply doesn’t fit?

Recent times have seen the rising popularity in the West of Eastern philosophies and texts such as the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Dao De Ching, and other greats. A dichotomy has bubbled up between Western and Eastern philosophy, and many continue to argue about how these two relate to each other. But neither tradition has been able to stop wars or the rampant destruction of our ecosystem. So either philosophy doesn’t play as large a role in our society as it might or we are missing something fundamental, a philosophy that brings it all together, including the contradictions between the East and the West.

Different Philosophies

Historically, though these are necessarily generalizations, Western and Eastern philosophies have seen trends in their way of thinking. For example, there is a trend in Western philosophies to place God (insofar as the concept is accepted at all) outside of the world, that is, as ‘transcendent’. Likewise, there is a trend in Eastern philosophies to place God (insofar as the concept is accepted at all) inside the world, that is, as ‘immanent’. Indigenous philosophies tend to run along a third line of thinking, which does not place God within or without the world, but rather says that the world is God. That approach may remind you of Baruch Spinoza, but is much more of a lived attitude affecting many areas of culture and society.

Can we talk more generally of an Indigenous philosophy? It would be more fitting to talk of it in the plural – Indigenous philosophies. After all, Indigenous communities represent most of the world’s cultural diversity. There are over three hundred million Indigenous people worldwide, belonging to vastly different cultures with vastly different languages, customs and beliefs. One may argue that communities living on opposite sides of the globe who have been separated by tens of thousands of years of history cannot share a worldview, and to an extent that is certainly right. However, there do seem to be shared characteristics between the outlooks of Native Americans, Aboriginal Australians, Arctic peoples and so on, as expressed in their art, songs, stories and traditional wisdom. Perhaps this is not surprising, considering that their lifestyles are as similar as they are different. Driven by a physical dependence on nature, all of these peoples traditionally share a deeply spiritual connection to their land not found in mainstream Western or Eastern societies.

Many Indigenous people are scared that speaking of Indigeneity as a global phenomenon connecting very different cultures will lead to a homogenization of our many nations and communities across the world. Even within continents, most Indigenous people prefer to identify by the specific tribe or nation to which they belong rather than by their so-called ‘ethnicity’. These broader ethnic terms, such as ‘Native American’ or ‘Aboriginal Australian’, are generally only used either when addressing issues shared across various Indigenous nations and communities, or when speaking to someone who has no knowledge of the many different nations. We should indeed be proud of our distinct individual cultures, but coming together and acknowledging our similarities does not harm our individuality. An English person is both Western and English, yet classifying them as the former, and acknowledging their similarities with other Western cultures, does not make him or her any less of the latter, nor does it take away the uniqueness of the English culture compared to other Western cultures. The Indigenous situation is the same, only it’s a more sensitive area, just because so many of our cultures are on the brink of extinction.

Returning to my original question, are there any such things as Indigenous ‘philosophies’ at all? What makes them philosophies and not just ‘myths’ or ‘religions’? People unfamiliar with Indigenous communities may consider the stories they tell to be of no more philosophical importance than the Roman and Greek myths. But there is a lot of philosophizing to be found in Homer, and a lot too in even the simplest statements made by Indigenous communities. Take for example the widespread assertion that the world is our mother. This idea emphasizes the role of women in creating and sustaining life, acknowledges that the world plays a very similar role in creating and sustaining the life of animals and plants, and furthermore, proposes that we are not distinct from our planet; that we are the world’s children, to learn from it and be raised by it.

Indigenous Examples

What, then, characterizes Indigenous philosophies? Because they are so culturally diverse, no beliefs can be said to be held by all Indigenous peoples. However, there are some ideas that are particularly popular among Indigenous societies. This makes a lot of sense when you consider the nature of those societies. Primarily, of course, to be Indigenous means to be the ‘first’ peoples of a colonized land. However, Indigenous nations and communities often aren’t the very first inhabitants of a land. Many of the Native American nations of the Great Plains were not there first, but were pushed onto the plains by the conquerors in the East (and in doing so pushed other nations off the plains). Similarly, most of the current Indigenous communities of the Caribbean islands drove away previous inhabitants. My own people, the Wayuu, have some stories of how they arrived on their territory (in Columbia and Venezuela) after a ‘long walk’ and had to fight off other nations on their journey. Being Indigenous, then, is about more than just being ‘first’. It is about a connection to the land. Without that connection we would have left our territories long ago, but many of our ancestors consciously stayed and fought their colonizers. In other words, our very identities as Indigenous Peoples depend on the thoughts and ideas that drive our stubborn devotion to our land. If this is a spiritual connection, that still does not exclude the underlying ideas from being philosophical.

Another philosophical question where most Indigenous cultures appear to share a general approach concerns the ultimate nature of reality. Monistic thought, most common in Eastern philosophy, asserts that there are no dualities: that all things are one and the same. Dualistic thought, common in both Western and Eastern philosophy, asserts not only that the mind and the body are distinct and separate, but also that good and bad are distinct and separate; that in fact, there are many things and concepts in our universe that oppose each other, requiring a balance between the two opposites to be found. However, while dualism creates, for instance, the problem of ‘us and them’ – generating disagreements, prejudices, even wars – monism is hard to reconcile with the fact that we can see, hear and feel that there are distinct things that are separate from each other. For example, in every moment we experience a distinction between ourselves and the things that are not ourselves. How, then, could we say that we are all one and the same?

Indigenous philosophy overcomes these problems by embracing complexity. It is, in some ways, monist, especially in the recurring belief that all things stem from the same source and are physically, mentally and spiritually related as components of a greater whole. However, it also celebrates and respects individuality and, furthermore, chooses to learn from individuality, rather than stress a belief that we should try to blend in and lose our ‘ego’ to be fulfilled. Indigenous philosophy considers most things as existing on a spectrum, rather than being made up of absolute wholes. It also allows for the apparent ‘irrationality’ that everything can be separate and distinct and yet be One at the same time. (Of course, this is not a thought sustained by all Indigenous communities.)

Other philosophical thoughts shared by Indigenous societies include those surrounding forgiveness. Forgiveness, perhaps due to its role in Christianity, has become a very influential and celebrated virtue in modern society. But many Indigenous societies don’t acknowledge the role of forgiveness at all, as an inward process of ‘letting go’. This does not mean that Indigenous societies do not have a concept of reconciliation but, to take the Wayuu as an example, reconciliation and forgivenness are implicit in the processes and ceremony that follow a harmful act. When an individual acts wrongly, there is a certain process of making amends afterward, led by an influential leader of the community, in which forgiveness is implicit. This process involves not only the individuals who have harmed and are harmed, but their families and communities as well. Other Indigenous cultures seem to have similar concepts of reconciliation through ceremony.

The Wedding
The Wedding (detail) © Venantius J. Pinto 2016. To see more art, please visit flickr.com/photos/venantius/albums

Why Should We Study Indigenous Ideas?

One need not dig very deep to pick up on some of the philosophical underpinnings of Indigenous beliefs. How much philosophizing must have preceded the development of complex concepts such as the Great Spirit or Great Mystery in some Native American cultures? To deny the great philosophies of Indigenous nations a place next to prevalent Western and Eastern philosophies, and to regard them as nothing but amusing myths and stories, is no more than a form of cultural colonialism.

I’m not suggesting that you throw away your books on Western, or indeed Eastern, philosophy to make room for texts on Indigenous philosophies. Philosophy often discusses topics that admit no final answer but where understanding can be gained from a variety of perspectives. Therefore, my proposal is not that Indigenous philosophies be put on a pedestal above Western and Eastern philosophies, but rather, that they be accepted alongside Western and Eastern philosophy for the enrichment of philosophical thinking worldwide.

But there is another reason we may want to incorporate Indigenous philosophical thinking: to empower Indigenous people themselves. They include some of the most underprivileged, disadvantaged, and oppressed of today’s citizens. Indigenous people across the world die between five and twenty years younger, on average, than non-Indigenous people. Young Indigenous Australian men have the highest suicide rate in the world. Such dismal statistics of physical wellbeing and mental health suggest that systemic racism and structural violence are a prevailing truth for Indigenous people. Despite sporadic acknowledgement of the great societies they formed and some continue to form, and the great cultural traditions of which they’re a part, Indigenous people are simultaneously expected to conform to the materialistic Western ideal of success. Many Indigenous people feel estranged within a Western culture that forces them to fit in yet does not fully accept them. Indigenous philosophy can play a large role for Indigenous peoples in finally tipping the scale in their favor.

In today’s world it’s mostly a society’s intellectual prowess that defines how much respect it earns in the global arena. While this is a very flawed way of comparing peoples and cultures, it is the stark truth of modern society. This is why hunter-gatherer societies, for example, are deemed less successful, developed, or even important, than, say, agricultural societies. But the great philosophies of nomadic Indigenous societies, for instance, can play a large role in raising their status. They show these cultures do not represent intellectual voids, but on the contrary, have a lot to offer to the world. Acknowledging this could help Indigenous people regain their pride in their cultural roots, and put their knowledge at the forefront of changing the world for the better. Indigenous youth can play an especially important role here, as they are often raised with a deep understanding of two distinct societies. This makes them uniquely placed to bridge the gap between the Indigenous and the non-Indigenous. Imagine Indigenous people worldwide banding together to condemn the widespread destruction of nature and culture. They could form a force to be reckoned with.

This brings me to yet another reason Indigenous philosophy is so important: it teaches us lessons that we must learn if we wish humanity to survive as a species. It is scientifically accepted that those animal species that are most evolutionarily successful are not necessarily the strongest; rather, they are those that manage to find their niche, that manage to find a role for themselves that does not tip their environment out of balance. It is safe to say that humanity has not found this niche, that we are not living in balance with the world. Indigenous thinking could help change that. After all, the reason most Indigenous communities are Indigenous is that they’ve managed to find a way of living in a given ecosystem which allows for the continued preservation of both themselves and the ecosystem. Their philosophy is not a philosophy of the land for no reason: the land is important because it sustains them. In other words, Indigenous knowledge can help us do away with the aspects of our dominant culture and way of living that are degrading the world and causing the worldwide suffering of nature and humanity that we see today.

Fourthly, and on a more human note, Indigenous societies traditionally place a lot of importance on culture, language, and most importantly, spirituality. This emphasis on spirituality may very well be the saving force of millennials. Millennials growing up in the West are increasingly atheistic, and feel just as estranged as did the young people of the 60s who travelled to India to experience Buddhism and Hinduism.

However, the philosophies of India and surrounding regions have proved difficult to consolidate with Western culture and politics. That is, integrating Eastern thinking into Western lifestyles has been relatively successful, as can be seen in the popularity of yoga and meditation, yet millennials continue to be as estranged as they are. Though the concept of emptiness and the practice of meditation can be beneficial to both individuals and society as a whole, and they should not be done away with, millennials still experience a spiritual lack in everyday life. Again Indigenous philosophies can help bridge the gap. Indigenous spirituality is something that is lived rather than practiced, and it requires us to look deeper into the world, rather than distance ourselves from it to reach eternal bliss. With a growing appreciation for the Earth and the beauty of nature, integrating this into our established concepts and practices could help to fill our spiritual and philosophical necessities.

In conclusion, Indigenous philosophies can help Indigenous people regain their cultural integrity, can help steer humanity off a path of destruction, and can end the spiritual estrangement that so many people feel today. But for this to happen Indigenous people, and most importantly the younger generation among them, must take the lead. It is we Indigenous millennials who must reconnect with our ancestral cultures, band together across the world, and then reach out to the wider society. We must invite that wider society to stand on the same platform as us, so that they may learn from us as we have learned from them, and so that together we can propel the world into a new era, the true post-colonial era.

© Miguel van der Velden 2018

Miguel van der Velden is a young man from Aruba who traces his roots to the Wayuu, Añú and Cuiba people of Venezuela, as well as Dutch and Spanish travelers.

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