By Doreen Barrie
The following analysis might sound like a sweeping denunciation of Western culture and values. However, that is not my intention and I hope it will not be taken as such.
My primary intent was to explore Indigenous ways of knowing and living and to compare them with those in Europe when Settlers arrived. I don’t have to catalogue Western ideas and achievements that have transformed the world in a positive way as they are already well-known. However, the trajectory we are on, certainly since World War II, is destroying the planet. The orgy of consumption, starting in North America, has drawn down resources that took millennia to accumulate. This trend accelerated when Europeans adopted a North American lifestyle and it finally spread to developing countries as well. An “I Shop Therefore I Am” mentality has developed and has been encouraged by governments dependent on a prosperous economy.
Not everyone has succumbed to mindless consumerism: there is a slice of the population that has resisted its worst excesses. It is also true that there is a growing slice of the population that shares the views of Indigenous people with respect to the environment. Perhaps they will now be interested in learning more about a group that has much to teach us.
Anthropologists use the term “culture shock” to describe their reaction on field trips which exposed them to cultures that were radically different from their own. Displacement from a familiar environment was disorienting and often produced feelings of frustration, confusion, insecurity and worse. When colonists arrived in Canada they encountered Indigenous groups who looked different, dressed and behaved in ways that baffled them. In addition, it was difficult to communicate with them because they spoke different languages.
For Indigenous groups, the newcomers were equally baffling. Never had they encountered people who were so pale, who conducted themselves in strange ways and of course, spoke a strange language. They were curious and initially, helped these newcomers adjust to this new continent.
One could argue, that culture shock manifested itself in both camps because of the profound differences that separated them.
Western World Views
To understand how Settlers who came to North America regarded Indigenous people, it is important to explore the worldview that prevailed in their home countries at that time. Europe had emerged from the Dark Ages by the time of European colonization of North America. The continent had gone through the Reformation and the Renaissance both of which represented a major shift in the way they saw the world.
The Reformation in the 16th century led to the disintegration of the Holy Roman Empire and the fracturing of Christianity. What followed was a century of religious wars as, in country after country, there was a struggle between Catholics and rebels who were labelled Protestants. In addition, there was strife among rival groups of Protestants which provoked further conflict and bloodshed. It would be difficult to exaggerate the degree of control exercised by religious authorities in that era. Whether it was painting, music or sculpture, the Church was the patron and major consumer, making it the engine of cultural, economic and social activity.
The dominance of the church in all aspects of life until then was finally loosened, unleashing forces that were helped by Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. Martin Luther might have spawned the Reformation when he nailed his critique, the Ninety-Six Theses, to a church door, but he had to thank Gutenberg for its dissemination across Germany and beyond.
For the first time, bibles, secular books and printed music became accessible to many more people, leading to a questioning of fundamental truths. It would not be an exaggeration to draw parallels between the vistas opened up by the printed word and 21st century changes in communications technology.
A logical consequence of these developments was the Renaissance. It is credited with a flowering of the arts, a scientific revolution and secularism – in other words, the dawning of the modern era. Modernity meant discarding traditions, customs and superstitions that had prevailed and the embrace of science and reason to guide human endeavors. The emphasis on science and reason also resulted in a demotion of the credibility of traditional knowledge. The population did not reject religion totally. However, whereas it used to be the core of people’s lives, it was now largely relegated to its margins. Humanism, which is grounded in the belief that we can live ethical lives without a benevolent or vengeful God, began to attract adherents, further reducing the centrality of religion.
It was against this cultural backdrop that European settlers arrived in what is now Canada, placing them on a collision course with Indigenous people of the “New World”. Like their European counterparts, settlers from France and Britain subscribed to the belief that humans had dominion over the earth, superior to all of creation. These views would have set the stage for a clash of civilizations had the two groups been evenly matched, but they were not. The newcomers were primed to regard Indigenous people as a throwback to their ancestors, in need of a serious makeover.
Indigenous/Aboriginal World Views
It should be pointed out that the values and beliefs described below relate to Indigenous people prior to colonization. Nevertheless, they continue to provide the building blocks of their belief systems despite the serious disruption of their lifeways following contact with Europeans.
Another point that must be made is that Indigenous groups are not homogeneous – their stories and histories differ. There are differences in their practices which are intimately connected with the land that is their home. Nevertheless, there are similarities and they do share key values and beliefs with Indigenous groups in other parts of North America and the world. When Europeans washed up on these shores, they encountered the original inhabitants who had lived and thrived here for millennia. Their lifestyle and mindset were very different from those of the Settlers.
Indigenous people believe that they are part of a web of life, and are no more important than animals, plants or land forms. In their view, humans and the rest of nature are inter-connected and inter-related, not just metaphorically, but literally. Consequently, they treat water, plants and the soil with respect, utilizing what they need without exhausting supplies. The notion that these are resources placed on the planet exclusively for their use is an alien concept.
Not surprisingly, this affects their attitude towards ownership of land, which will be discussed more fully below. Land is something that cannot be possessed any more than you can own another human being. Aboriginal peoples see themselves merely as caretakers whose responsibility is to preserve land, water and life on the planet. They are careful stewards of all that nurtures them so they can pass these gifts on to future generations. Nowhere are these views more evident than in attitudes towards water.
For Indigenous people, water is a sacred giver of life which has to be shared respectfully, it is revered. Users of water have a collective responsibility to ensure that future generations have access to this precious substance. These beliefs are shared by Indigenous people in the United States, Australia, South America and beyond.
At the 2003 World Water forum in Japan, Indigenous groups summed up their relationship with water in a Declaration that included the following:
“We, the Indigenous Peoples from all parts of the world assembled here, reaffirm our relationship to Mother Earth and responsibility to future generations to raise our voices in solidarity to speak for the protection of water. We were placed in a sacred manner on this earth, each in our own sacred and traditional lands and territories to care for all of creation and to care for water.”
These sentiments were echoed in the Declaration of Water adopted that same year, by the Hopi in Arizona, which included the statement: “What we do to water, we do to ourselves.”
Regardless where Indigenous groups live, they are united in their understanding of the importance of water and their obligations to it. It is interesting that emphasis is always on obligations to water rather than rights to it.
Given the divergent worldviews of Settlers and Aboriginal groups, it is not surprising that the relationship evolved in the way it did. Settlers had shaken off many of the shackles of religion and experienced a blossoming of secular culture. They had mostly turned their backs on myths, embracing reason, modernity and science.
Indigenous groups, in their eyes, were backward and in need of help to “catch up”. The absence of physical infrastructure probably surprised the newcomers: Where were the cathedrals, universities and castles? The trappings of life in Europe were certainly lacking. The gulf between the two perspectives was particularly stark in the area of education, private property and time horizons.
Prior to contact with Europeans, Indigenous children received a traditional education in keeping with the oral tradition. Unlike the formal education Settlers would have been exposed to, there were no classrooms, teachers or exams for Indigenous children; their teachers were parents and extended family, elders and the rest of the community. They participated in cultural and spiritual rituals, learned practical skills and acquired the knowledge they needed through example, stories, songs and dances. They learned the values important to support not only their own way of life, but also that of future generations.
As mentioned above, traditional knowledge had been devalued in Settler societies. Formal education had been a feature of European societies for centuries although it was far from universal; in fact, serfs were expressly forbidden to send their children to school. In the Middle Ages, children bound for religious life received an education in monasteries and some went to craft schools. Universities had existed for hundreds of years although limited to those with means.
Settlers had broken out of the narrow confines of lives lived locally and minds constrained by ignorance of a wider world. The Renaissance changed that, opening up vistas and possibilities unknown to previous generations. Given their own experiences, it is probable that Settlers believed that education, especially literacy, was essential if Aboriginal people were to communicate with Settlers and broaden their horizons. While the atrocities committed in residential schools are inexcusable, the impulse to educate Aboriginal groups was perhaps, based on good intentions. Had the education been conducted without draconian measures to “kill the Indian in the child” and erase every vestige of their culture, the tragic history of those institutions might have been avoided.
A major casualty of the focus on a western education was the wealth of traditional knowledge and experience on the environment which Indigenous people possessed. I will return to this later.
Perhaps the greatest gulf between Indigenous and Settler thinking relates to private property. The proposition that a piece of land can be owned by individuals is incomprehensible to Indigenous people who believe the land and everything on it, is owned collectively. They have a spiritual and reciprocal relationship with the land and are inseparable from it; it is a part of them as they are a part of it. The land owns them and while they use its bounty, no one has exclusive rights to it as it is part of their cultural heritage. It is a collective benefit that is shared with others in the community and they have obligations to ensure its health. It is treated with respect.
These beliefs did not preclude conflict over land. Prior to the arrival of Europeans on the continent in the late 15th century, warfare was frequent among Indigenous groups over territory. Regardless of the fact that it was collectively-owned, it was fiercely defended from invaders by its inhabitants. Perhaps the battles were more ferocious precisely because the land defined its people and was considered a part of them.
Many Aboriginal people now live off reserve. They have adapted to Settler society and its economy, they live a conventional Settler life which includes private ownership of property. However, groups that live on reserves are fiercely protective when their territory is threatened e.g. opposition to the Trans-Mountain pipeline in Canada and the Dakota Access Pipeline in the United States. Hundreds of Indigenous groups in the US and around the world, not to mention numerous celebrities, have come out in support of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in their battle to preserve the quality of their land and water.
Settlers had and still have, a more pragmatic attitude towards ownership of land, regarding property as a commodity to be bought and sold by individuals or groups – a passive entity accorded no special treatment or respect. When real estate is sold, buyers have a “freehold interest” in the property, and apart from abiding by government regulations, they are free to use it or dispose of it as they wish. No one has the right to question decisions they make about their property unless they violate laws and regulations.
The fundamental philosophical difference between the two parties to treaties meant that while Settlers understood what owning land entailed, Indigenous people did not.
In their decision-making processes, Aboriginal communities take into account not just the immediate impact of those decisions, but also how they will affect the Seventh Generation. In other words, their gaze is focused hundreds of years into the future when they make their choices. Whether decisions relate to water, plants, animals or the land itself, they are careful not to exploit them too extensively and exhaust supplies. They believe that each generation has an obligation to act responsibly, leaving a legacy to following generations that match what they received from their ancestors.
The defining phrase of the summer of 2021 must surely be “climate crisis”. Heat waves, forest fires and floods, are alarming enough but stories of mussels cooking in situ and salmon dying in river-water too hot for them are new to Canadians. It is as if the planet is fighting back.
Given the calamitous events taking place, it is instructive to summarize the Indigenous mindset and its relationship with the environment. An important building block of their value system is that humans are not the alpha species but are caretakers of nature. Consequently, they have been acutely aware of the carrying capacity of the land and the need to use its bounty in a sustainable fashion. They pay attention to the consequences of their actions not just in the short term, but far into the future. As pointed out earlier, such an approach is not common in in the West where decisions are often quick and “made by the market”. Activists like Greta Thunberg are imploring governments to consider the impact their decisions will have on her generation.
The climate crisis is currently getting saturation coverage but a global water crisis has been a concern for over a decade. For reasons including population increase and climate change, a UN Report in 2016 predicted that demand for fresh water will exceed supply for almost half the population by 2030. Indigenous people in Canada have long suffered from poor quality water and scarce supplies on some reserves, problems they did not experience in the pre-colonial era. Admittedly, at that time, supplies were abundant and populations were sparse, so neither quantity nor quality was an issue. However, one could argue that their cultural pre-disposition to husband resources would ensure such problems would not arise. So what role could Indigenous views on the environment play in addressing the problems we are currently experiencing?
To help answer this question, it is necessary to revisit the status of traditional knowledge. The previous discussion touched on the impact that the Renaissance and the so-called Age of Enlightenment, which elevated the status of science and demoted that of traditional knowledge. Thousands of years of observation and wisdom accumulated by groups schooled in the oral tradition were dismissed. The legacy of that attitude has been to ignore a wealth of knowledge because it has not yet been scientifically proven. For example, Aboriginals in Australia have always maintained that they have been there for over 50 thousand years. Their claims were regarded skeptically until a few years ago when scientists confirmed this to be true. Similarly, the lost Franklin ships, would have been found long ago had leaders of expeditions given credence to Inuit oral history. When the Erebus and Terror were finally found, Parks Canada depended on traditional Inuit knowledge to delineate the search area.
There are hopeful signs that the wisdom of Indigenous people with regard to forest fires, is gaining greater credibility. For millennia, they have used controlled burns to dispose of combustible material, to encourage regeneration and control pests, among other reasons. In the wake of increasingly fierce forest fires which are very difficult to suppress, tapping into traditional knowledge to prevent them is an attractive alternative.
Indigenous thinking is seeping into Western practice in another area – water. David Groenfeldt, an American anthropologist, explains that traditional water management has “a future…not only a past”. He points to the ubiquity of the spiritual/cultural view of rivers as live beings and sacred places among Indigenous societies. He also observes that it is difficult to grasp the idea of rivers as living spiritual entities because this “has no cognitive niche” in Western thought. In New Zealand, a river has been recognized as a legal person with rights. An Indigenous group, the Whanganui Iwi, have been appointed its guardian (the human face of the river) entrusted with ensuring its health. Although this recognition falls far short of how the Maori regard the river, as an extension of themselves, it is at least, a step forward that will afford some protection to it. In Quebec, the regional municipality of Minganie and the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit have granted the Magpie River nine legal rights, including the right to flow. It too, has human guardians but the Quebec government has not recognized this move.
It is probably impossible to restore depleted aquifers, “un-pollute” degraded waterways and restore salmon populations. However, going forward, it would be sensible for non-Indigenous Canadians to learn from Indigenous wisdom. For that to happen, as Dr. Dan Wildcat from the Haskell Indian Nations University, contends there has to be a “cultural climate change”. In his book, Red Alert! Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge, he argues that we must foster a non-anthropocentric worldview if we want to address physical climate change.
Although it has not been recognized officially as a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene has been widely accepted informally. Scientists believe humans have caused mass extinctions of plant and animal species in addition to polluting oceans and altering the atmosphere. If cultural climate change is to come about, we need to work shoulder-to-shoulder with Indigenous people to address the problems that all of us face. We owe it to the Seventh Generation.
About the Author
Doreen Barrie is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Political Science Department at the University of Calgary. She has taught courses in Canadian Politics, Provincial Politics, Alberta Politics, and the Politics of Water.
She authored The Other Alberta: Decoding a Political Enigma, and wrote a biography on Ralph Klein for the book Alberta Premiers of the Twentieth Century. She co-authored a Canadian Politics text, Canadian Political Today: Democracy, Diversity, and Good Government and wrote Sacred Trust or Political Football: A Citizen’s Guide to Canadian Health Care.
She has a keen interest in political literacy and has spoken to groups interested in topics from health care to equalization and water. She has organized community conferences and produced citizens’ guides on topics that include the constitution, health care and the parliamentary system. She was the first Canadian President of the Western Social Science Association in the United States.