Today is not just the third Monday of my postings for National Indigenous History Month, it’s also National Indigenous Peoples Day. It’s a day for celebrating Indigenous knowledge and culture, and Indigenous contributions to our planet. [You can find some wonderful pictures of powwows and community celebrations that take place on this day in non-COVID times at my last year’s post: Celebrating National Indigenous Peoples Day in Canada.]
In recognition of this special Day, I’d like to focus on lessons non-Indigenous people would be well advised to take from the teachings, traditions, and beliefs of Indigenous Peoples in Canada and indeed Indigenous Peoples around the world since time immemorial.
Lesson 1: Sustainability.
From the Assembly of First Nations (AFN):
For countless generations, the First Nations and Inuit people have had unique, respectful and sacred ties to the land that sustained them. They do not claim ownership of the Earth, but rather, declare a sense of stewardship towards the land and all of its creatures. …
Indigenous peoples consider themselves to be caretakers of Mother Earth and respect her gifts of water and air. First Nations peoples feel a special relationship with the earth and all living things, based on a profound spiritual connection to Mother Earth that has guided indigenous peoples to practice reverence, humility and reciprocity through the millennia. Everything is meant to be taken and used with the understanding of only taking what is needed, and with great care and awareness of how and how much is taken, so that future generations will not be put in peril.
This may sound like just so many words to non-Indigenous people who did not grow up with this view of where humans fit into the world of nature. It may just sound like just so many words the same way our global leaders’ commitments to addressing climate change over the past several years have been just so many words. But that’s not the case. There is a fundamental difference between how Indigenous cultures view the natural world and how non-indigenous cultures have seen it.
The Indigenous worldview is that human beings are a part of the natural world. That we’re sharing our planet with the plants and animals, with the forests, the prairies, the seas, lakes, and rivers, and that it’s our responsibility to ensure sustainability. Take what we need to survive, and survive as well as we can, but never take, take, take just because it’s there for the taking.
The non-Indigenous worldview (certainly the Eurocentric worldview of the past 5-600 years) has been that there’s the natural world and then there are these special animals called human beings, who reign supreme over the natural world (at least the White ones do). We’re apart from the natural world. The story goes that God put the air, water, (non-human) animals, plants and trees there for our use. Oh yes, and all the minerals, metals, coal, and oil. It’s our dominion and it’s all ours for the taking. And the selling. And making lots of money, especially for a few people. This model has worked pretty well for a few hundred years – out of the 100,000 years or so that humans have been around – and many, many people have had vastly improved living conditions, especially a very few of them. But, folks, look what we’ve done to Mother Earth in that tiny sliver of human history, we’ve brought it to the brink. Sorry, but that did not have to be the case.
Obviously we’re not all going back to being hunter-gatherers, nor could we. There are far too many of us, and as well we’ve depleted so much of what we had. In our greed we’ve neglected to even pretend to work at sustainability. But sustainability is at the heart of Indigenous tradition and practice; that’s how to show respect for Mother Earth.
Lesson 2: How to live a good life.
Respect is one of the Teachings of the Seven Grandfathers (sometimes called the Seven Sacred Teachings), core tenets of living a good life as taught throughout much of Indigenous North America. You can read about these Teachings in some detail in a previous post of Robby’s called How do we determine what makes a good life? Just ask the Seven Grandfathers. To summarize here, the Seven Teachings are Wisdom, Truth, Humility, Courage, Honesty, Respect, and Love. A key component is that each of the seven teachings is equally important; they are meant be used in concert. You can’t have Wisdom without Love, Respect, Bravery, Honesty, Humility, Courage, and Truth. You can’t be Honest if you are only using one of the other teachings. To leave out one teaching would be following the opposite path from what the teaching means. This holistic approach to leading a good life has merit for us all.
Lesson 3. Living without an abundance of material goods but within a respectful, egalitarian society is a recipe for a happy life.
It turns out that we have much to gain from learning more about the beliefs and values that have guided Indigenous societies ever since man first walked on Mother Earth so very long ago. Aside from the critical belief in a sustainable – and respectful – approach to using earth’s resources, and the wisdom of the Teachings of the Seven Grandfathers, research shows that Indigenous Peoples right around the world share life lessons and values that the rest of us would do well to consider when seeking true happiness in life. An article by Survival International reporting on lessons from modern-day Indigenous societies are very similar to those I learned from the book Affluence without Abundance, based on experiences with the Bushmen of the Kalahari.
From the Survival International article, Five Lessons for our Selfish Society:
When Indigenous peoples have secure rights to their land and the ability to choose how they live [i.e., self-determination], they tend to be among the fairest, happiest and most equal societies on the planet.
The five simple observations in being happier with less are:
- Money isn’t the key to happiness. A group of Maasai people from east Africa were found to have a similar life satisfaction rating to those on the Forbes 400 richest Americans list.
- Spend less time working and more time with family and friends.
- Grow strong relationships with your community.
- Give what you can spare to others who are in need.
- Prioritize peace and equality.
Surely these are good lessons for us all. It’s our loss that non-Indigenous people didn’t pay more attention long ago to lessons the world’s Indigenous Peoples could have shared with the rest of us. There’s much wisdom to be found there. Perhaps we’d be happier; our planet certainly would be. These enduring values can enrich all of our lives far more meaningfully than just being able to buy the next cool thing.
Image credits: The two river paintings are by New Brunswick’s Natalie Sappier. The second one, “Teaching Along the River”, is the mural located at UNB’s Mi’kmaq-Wolastoqey Centre. It was created by Wolastoqi Indigenous artist Samaqani Cocahq-Natalie Sappier, The Water Spirit, artist-in-residence at the UNB Art Centre in 2019. The middle image of a woman in nature is an illustration from Yale’s Native knowledge, what ecologists are learning from Indigenous people.
Other June posts in recognition of National Indigenous History Month, and in the wake of the horrific findings of the remains of 215 Indigenous children at a former Residential School in Kamloops:
– Map Monday: Indigenous history around the world pre- and post-colonization
– Canada’s day of reckoning is here: we have the Truth, let’s get serious about the Reconciliation
– Indigenous History Month: what do baby steps in reconciliation look like