When Gandhi visited England and was asked by a reporter what he thought about Western Civilization, he quipped “I think it would be a good idea.” (snare drum/cymbal here!)
But in retrospect, given the crisis the world faces now, the better answer is: “It was a terrible mistake.” Of course, those of us reading this blog post and enjoying the flush toilet, the cultivated wine, the bicycle, the washing machine, a library of books, shelves of recordings, etc. etc. and yet again, etc. are indeed grateful for the products of civilizations past and present. But when it comes to climate crisis, we would have been so much better off hunting and gathering in small villages, with perhaps small garden plots and modest farming.
Amidst all the talk of diversity and identity and groups that seem opposed to each other, I hear very little conversation about the yawning gap between indigenous people and those in “modern civilizations.” Again, the descendants of an extraordinarily diverse pool of indigenous people are also enjoying the benefits (and more) listed above and giving their talks celebrating their ancestors on Zoom, flying to conferences, publishing books. How could it be otherwise? And yet the traditions they represent might still have much to teach us, things to re-imagine in a modern context.
What strikes me about these primary cultures we’ve named indigenous is at once the extraordinary diversity of the groups—indeed, as many and more as there are distinct bioregions in which their culture has grown and flourished. From the Inuit in the North to the Maori in the South, the Celts in the West, the Ainu’s in the East and hundreds and thousands of other groups past and present, the details of the culture are unique and distinct, according to the land, the language, the particular histories. Which makes it all the more astounding to consider that such groups separated by thousands of miles, bioregions as diverse as Artic tundra, North African desert, South American rainforest, languages with no common base, all agree on some basic things without ever having met each other. Things that civilization whitewashed, neglected, abandoned, purposefully—and violently— shut down— and we civilized descendants suffer from the loss. Six things come to mind:
1. Initiation: The conscious and collective bringing over of the children into adulthood, charging them with the cultural values to be embodied, preserved and brought further down the road.
2. Oral Culture: Knowledge stored and passed on in the body through dance, in speech through proverbs, poetry and storytelling, in the imagination through art and music.
3. Eldership: As carriers of such knowledge, the elders are revered and valued and felt as caretakers of the community.
4. Continuity: Honoring and maintaining tradition is more important than constant innovation. Innovation in response to changing conditions is necessary and welcomed, but generally small and slow.
5. Connection with the natural world/ gratitude and permission: Understanding one’s connection and debt to the natural world that sustains you with food and shelter. Asking permission to cut the tree and thanking the animals killed.
6. Co-existence with the ancestors: The personal and collective ancestors are not seen as in the past, but as co-participants in the present, brought into the community and community decision-making through ritual, dance, music and more.
7. Community: Freedom is always bound with relationship within the community, attending to what serves the well-being, health and happiness of the community.
Again—the details of the above differ from group to group, but these qualities tend to be shared by all of them. Rather than see this is a mere anthropological insight, the question remains: “What does all of this have to teach us now in our moment of crisis? Can we learn something from these groups that we have ignored, dismissed, eradicated? What would these life-sustaining qualities look like within the framework of contemporary culture?"
Stay tuned for Part 2.