3rd Alternative Notes

Despite apparent differences, all Western attitudes towards nature come from the same European philosophical roots, which assume that humans are autonomous from, and in control of, the natural world. As described in the writings of philosophers as different as Aristotle, Descartes, and Kant, humans are creatures apart from the rest of life. People across the political spectrum view the natural world as consisting of "resources", which carries the implicit assumption that all of nature can be exploited, regardless of whether it is for economic or aesthetic purposes.

This quote from Lakota activist Russel Means makes the point that despite the tradition of treating Capitalist and Marxist approaches as being philosophical opposites both traditions emerge from the Western mindset of humans as separate from and in charge of nature. 

Over the last 100 years there has been considerable debate over the appropriate way in which Americans, and other peoples, should treat the natural world. Some advocate a pro-development extractive approach, in which natural resources are perceived largely in terms of their economic value to humans. This perspective dominated attitudes towards environmental issues and resource management until the 1960's (Dunlap 1988) and is currently exemplified by the "wise-use" movement. This viewpoint has been identified with the political right, however, exploitative approaches may come from all shades of the political spectrum.

There also exist opposing models, which argue that nature and non-human animals must be protected from human interference, and that true conservation means setting aside tracts of land from which human settlements, and even humans themselves, may be excluded (Brinkerhoff Jackson 1994; Owens 1998). For example, the U.S. Wilderness Act of 1964 defines wilderness as space forever untrammeled by man (Owens 1998). This viewpoint has been identified with the political left (Wilson 1992; Smith 1996), but as with pro-development forces, "conservationists" are represented throughout the political spectrum.

This extractive approach has attained new currency in the politics of neoconservative politicians and businessmen who wield considerable influence in modern political circles. This viewpoint has generally been identified with the political right; however, exploitative approaches may come from all shades of the political spectrum, including the supposedly liberal. In the latter case, concerns about jobs and economic development are usually touted as a justification, even when there are severe impacts on environments and ecosystems.

There is also  a set of opposing models, stemming from the romantic philosophical tradition, which argue that nature and nonhuman animals must be protected from human interference.

To people following this approach true conservation means setting aside tracts of land from which human settlements and even humans themselves may be excluded, e.g. the U.S. Wilderness Act of 1964 defines wilderness as space forever untrammeled by man, Another definition is "a place where man himself is a visitor who does not remain". This preservationist approach is set up as if it were in complete opposition to the extractive, economic driven approach, but advocates of preservation capitulate on many key issues. As an example, they often tout ecotourism as a means of economic development over other supposedly more extractive forms, whereas ecotourism can be very destructive to local habitats.

One major recent issue the emphasizes this issue is that Western conservationists as seen in this group picture (Pictured are Steve Zack, Kent Redford, Joel Berger, Jodi Hilty, and Steve Sanderson, the (white) faces of opposition to Indigenous Peoples), insist on having indigenous peoples removed from areas that they want to "protect". This is the basis of a lot of the poaching in Africa, where indigenous people feel resentment towards being removed and kill wildlife in response and also as a way of generating economic support to make up for the lifestyles that have been destroyed by "conservation".

A good example that illustrates this approach can be found in The Old Way by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, where Indigenous people were removed from Etosha National Par, which had a profound change on the behavior of lions.

To see an entire presentation on this issue look at this location in our course on Environmental Justice Conservation Refugees

Another example can be seen in the "17 Mile Drive" along the coast of the Monterey Peninsula in California, where a population of sea otters, Enhydra lutris, lives. When California governor Ronald Reagan and his chief of California Fish and Game, Ray Arnett, were threatening to cave in to abalone fishermen who wanted sea otters controlled, people started a petition drive to prevent interference with the recovery of the endangered otters and went to Del Monte Country Club during the annual midwinter pro-am golf tournament and were able to obtain signatures from a large number of corporate CEOs and other major players in the California economy. The signatures on this petition were helpful in causing Governor Reagan to change his position. A decade later when students were assessing the impact of the otters on kelp forests in the same area, one of the Pebble Beach golf course members asked who the divers were and what they were doing. Country club staff told them that the divers were just "underwater gardeners, who took care of the kelp forest," which satisfied the club membership. It was a standing joke, albeit with serious overtones, that the reason sea otters were allowed to recover was because they were "cute" and had the good sense to live alongside some of the most expensive real estate in North America.

Despite superficial apparent differences, all Western European attitudes toward nature come from the same European philosophical roots¾Descartes, Bacon, Locke, and the Enlightenment. These traditions assume that humans are autonomous from, as well as in control of, the natural world. As described in the writings of philosophers ranging from Aristotle and Descartes to Kant, humans are considered to be creatures apart from the rest of life. For my purposes, I assume the viewpoints we describe to be characteristic of the dominant cultures in most of the world where philosophical values derived from Western European intellectual traditions dominate economic and cultural thinking. In Europe, North America, and Japan, the vast majority of citizens live in industrialized societies where nature is viewed as separate and "under control".  Individual humans from across the political spectrum in these societies view the natural world as consisting of "resources," which carries the implicit assumption that all of nature can be exploited, regardless of whether it is for economic or aesthetic purposes.

Some conservationists have contended that the approach they use is in the spirit of Native American or Indigenous traditions (see this link The Concept of Community). Such associations are based upon false assumptions about the true nature of Indigenous belief systems, because unlike Western philosophy, TEK assumes that humans are, and always will be, connected to the natural world and that there is no such thing as nature that exists independent of humans and their activities. Image is from Disneys animated film Pochahantas, which illustrates this attitude very well. Instructors might find it useful to have a class discussion on this issue of how non-indigenous people try to assume or co-opt Indigenous perceptions and how these perceptions differ in reality. 

TEK is based on respectful extraction. For example, animals or plants may be taken for food or for the manufacture of clothing or shelter, combined with recognition of the inherent value and good of nonhuman lives. TEK is based on the premise that humans should not view themselves as responsible for nature. We are not stewards of the natural world but instead are a part of that world, no greater than any other part (e.g. Luther Standing Bear Land of the Spotted Eagle, 1978). TEK deals primarily with motivating humans to show respect for nonhumans. The respect for the nonhuman inherent in TEK constrains natural human tendencies toward overexploitation, because nonhumans are incorporated into the ritual representation of the community and are considered as members of the community

One major difference between Indigenous peoples of North America and Western European immigrants to North America is that people of Western European ancestry tend to look backward and forward in time to get a sense of their place in history. The moral instructions are in written form and at least in theory invariant, such as the Bible or the Quran. Despite repeated translations and attempts at reinterpretation, these instructions are a minimum of a thousand years old, which means that despite their relevance when they were written, they have not been changed to accommodate the massive social and technological changes of the intervening period of time. This leads to an odd sort of conjunction, although Western religious beliefs and Western science are often considered to be oppositional, both assume that once a principle is laid out, it is set in stone and applicable to all cultures.

                  In contrast, Indigenous peoples look to the physical spaces in which they live to get a sense of their place in history and there is little discussion of the future in Indigenous thought (To explore this topic look at this link Two Worlds or One?). The stories they tell are related to specific locations in the immediate landscape, which allows those hearing the stories to identify readily with history. The idea of human history existing independent of local places and the natural world is foreign to the Indigenous peoples of North America, because for them their history cannot be separated from the entire geography, biology, and environment to which they belong.

"In the traditional [way of knowing], there is no such thing as isolation from the rest of creation" (Vine Deloria, Jr.). Image George Morrison, Sun and River

One clear example of the process of thinking spatially can be seen in the Indigenous tradition of invoking the four horizontal directions (east, south, west, and north), as well as to the sky and the earth. People making such prayers are acknowledging the space in which they live, and their understanding that the creative forces that shape their lives exist in the natural world that literally surrounds them in all of these directions. If efforts are made to restore and preserve traditional knowledge and philosophy, TEK can serve as an intellectual foundation not simply for Indigenous science, but also for an Indigenous theory and practice of politics and ethics centered on natural places and connection to the natural world. These traditions are capable of generating a conservation ethic on the part of those who follow its principles.

 Image: Navajo Cosmos

TEK requires one to be native to a place and to live with nature, in contrast to the dominant Western worldview that assumes that "civilized" humans live above, separated, or in opposition to nature (To further explore this look at this link What is Traditional Ecological Knowledge?). To be native to a place is linked to the concept of Indigenous and means that it is essential to live with the geography and biology of your environment without trying to alter it solely to meet human needs. Thus, TEK is expressed in the ability to experience a sense of place while casting off the modern Western view that "space" or nature exists to be conquered.

Image: Crane Woman by Merlin Little Thunder. In this image a lone woman is seen as connected to a place and the beings that share it with her and her people.

In this series of statements. author Tim Cahill clearly intends to be complimentary; yet it is obvious that his only criteria for a successful culture are for it to have large buildings and a high density of human beings

The Maya of central Quintana Roo and nearby parts of the peninsula successfully rebelled against Mexico in the mid-19th century and remained completely independent until well into the 20th . . .fascinated with the outside world, yet determined to hold their own against it."

(From Eugene Anderson 1996)

These conflicting views reveal the naïveté in many Western views of both Indigenous peoples, and even of what civilization means. Instructors might find it useful to use this as the basis of a class discussion or assigned essay on what civilization means to their students and the possible future of humans in many cultures given today's economic issues and the depletion of nonrenewable resources.

Living with nature bears little relationship to such concepts as "love of nature," "closeness to nature," "communing with nature," or "conservation of nature."  

These are concepts from Western conservationists, often in reference to Indigenous peoples (To explore this further click this link The Concept of Community). Within a TEK-based ethical system, nature exists on its own terms, and individual nonhumans have their own reasons for existence, independent of human interpretation.

Within a TEK-based ethical system, nature exists on its own terms, and individual nonhumans have their own reasons for existence, independent of human interpretation.

The purple asters are growing in wide fields around the red rocks past Mesita clear to the Sedillo Grant. This year there has been more rain here than I have ever seen. Yesterday at Dripping Springs I saw a blue flower I had never seen before, something like an orchid, growing from a succulent leafless bulb. So many of these plants had never bloomed in my lifetime and so I had assumed that these plants did not bloom; now I find that through all the years they were simply waiting for enough rain.

  I remember the stories they used to tell us about places that were meadows full of flowers or about canyons that had wide clear streams. I remember our amazement at these stories of lush grass and running water because the places they spoke of were all changed; the places they spoke of were dry and covered with tumbleweeds and all that was left of the streams were deep arroyos. But I understand now, I will remember this September like they remembered the meadows and streams; I will talk about the yellow beeweed solid on all the hills, and maybe my grandchildren will also be amazed and wonder what has become of the fields of wild asters and all the little toads that sang in the evening. Maybe after they listen to me talking about this rainy, lush September they will walk over the sandrock at the old house at Dripping Springs trying to imagine the pools of rainwater and the pollywogs of this year (fron Leslie Marmon Silko Storyteller 1981: 170). This narrative illustrates how stories function across generations.

The instructor might want to ask members of the class to provide similar examples from their own personal histories. 

TEK represents both science and religion, in the sense that religion is the ritual representation of the community and a device for sanctioning moral and ethical codes as defined by the philosopher Emile Durkheim 1961. "The task of the tribal religion . . .is to determine the proper relationship that the people must have with other living beings" (Vine Deloria, Jr. 1992). In TEK, religion is used to teach environmental knowledge; therefore, it is not surprising that TEK is based on and has considerable insight into the workings of nature, and in many ways converges closely upon the Western science of ecology.

This is why some scholars, for example the Brown university anthropologist Shepherd Krech in his book The Ecological Indian, are wrong about assuming that Indigenous people were the equivalent of "environmentalists" or "conservationists" who draw their ideas and inspiration from the European "romantic tradition. It is very different to assume that you can control and define nature than it is to realize that nature will do what it will and that the best humans can hope for is an accommodation with forces beyond our control, or even our ability to imagine.

A major theme of TEK is that all things are connected. This is not simply a homily or a romanticized cliché. Instead this idea represents a realization that no single organism can exist without the web of other life forms that surround it and make its existence possible. This concept is closely related to the Western discipline of community ecology, it is based on observation of behavior and the assumption of social interactions between different types of nonhumans as well as between humans and nonhumans. As with the Western concept of community ecology, TEK places emphasis on inter-relationships between different species and individuals, and describes these interactions by employing the metaphor of a web. Connectedness also shares themes with the ecological concept of nutrient cycles. Although the idea of cycles, or circles, of life, is an integral part of Indigenous spiritual beliefs, these are not mystical concepts, but a practical recognition of the fact that all living things are literally connected to one another.

The shared ideas of connectedness and nature as home have profound implications for conceptions of politics and ethics. In Western political and ethical paradigms an understanding of how human beings ought to act ethically is imbedded in one's social, or human, relationships, and a "home" is perceived of as being located indoors. In contrast, Indigenous peoples see relationships among species and incorporate themselves within a community consisting of many nonhuman persons: four-leggeds, winged-ones, plants, and even landforms, such as mountains, rivers, hills, and stream.

It is important to emphasize this ability to change the way in which an individual or culture understands the world and its relationship to the world. This is true not only for Indigenous people but for people from any cultural tradition. There is nothing magical or "in the blood" about the ability to take the lives of other species seriously and to accord them respect and the status of "persons" (Pierotti and Wildcat 2000). An example of how this is being attempted by Western philosophers can be found in the work of Paul Taylor (1986, 1992) and C. D. Stone (1974), who explore the history of the expansion of the concept of legal "personhood" in the United States to include women, children, and nonwhites, the development of animal welfare laws, and the Western legal tradition of providing legal standing to such nonhuman entities as ships and corporations to create a basis for including nonhumans and features of the natural landscape in a philosophical and legal concept of "personhood." These philosophers draw solely on Western sources for their arguments, yet they are achieving a framework that creates a more respectful relationship between humans and the natural world.  Humans from any cultural tradition can establish a respectful and reciprocal relationship with nature if they are willing to be patient and put in the hard work. There are numerous examples where people of European ancestry managed to establish or at least maintain such relationships with nonhumans. In recent years several animal behaviorists have published books dealing with the emotional states and relationships of our nonhuman relatives.

Accepting the fact that nature does not "care" in a human sense, that the environment fluctuates in uncontrollable ways, and that plants and animals continue to live their lives despite "disasters" presents a different way of viewing the world than the romanticized or sentimentalized Western perspective of a "balanced" nature, or even the idea of “North American Indians” “living in harmony with Mother Earth” as described by Hughes (1996) and caricatured by Krech and his followers. When populations plummet because of natural or manmade "disasters," individuals go on to live their lives and build up their populations. Many species that have been considered endangered, like the sea otters I discussed at the opening of this chapter, have managed to recover when humans treated them respectfully. Today the nonhumans of North America seem to be waiting for their human relatives to return to their senses and learn to live side by side with them once again, in a manner that was only rarely peaceful but allowed reasonable numbers of all species to survive.

Quotation from Louise Erdrich 2005: The Painted Drum 120-121

TEK is a constantly evolving way of thinking about the world. Although views covered by TEK are described as "traditional," this should not be taken to mean that they cannot change. The essence of traditional beliefs is that they have existed long enough for long-range consequences to affect them. Use of the term "traditional" implies the repetition of a fixed body of data to many who are not of Indigenous ancestry. Each generation, however, makes observations, compares their experiences with what they have been taught, and conducts experiments to test the reliability of their knowledge. TEK is linked to both the long-range consequences of human action and environmental change; therefore adherents to TEK should always be able to modify their activities and responses if environmental conditions so demand.

                  This reliance on new information as local conditions change reinforces the spatial orientation of TEK. The spatial orientation of Indigenous peoples leads them to recognize that there are always new experiences and knowledge in the world, and transmission of TEK by oral traditions allows them to adjust in response to changing conditions. As a result, ethical and moral instructions for living are fit to the current ecological and historical context.

Humans can establish relationships with other species; all it takes is respect and caring and living as though the lives of other species matter. Humans from a wide range of cultures already do this with wolves (domestic dogs), European and North African wildcats (domestic cats), horses, Indian elephants, and a wide variety of other species of birds and mammals. These are what we call pets, but they are better described as "companion animals." It takes more work to establish such relationships with non-domesticated species, but it can be done, but these relationships must be based on respect, not control or domination, in order for them to lead to a relationship with the natural world that is similar to that found in TEK.

                  I have tried in this book to show the reader that the knowledge, metaphors, and models employed by Indigenous peoples are as valid as those employed by peoples whose ancestry is in the nations of Europe or Asia. This should not be construed as an argument that Indigenous knowledge and models should stand alone, that Western society should co-opt Indigenous belief systems, or that Indigenous people cannot benefit in some ways from working with scientists from other intellectual traditions. These different ways of seeing and knowing can complement one another and in many cases advance human understanding. In some cases, however, Indigenous concepts have clearly had precedence and should be taken seriously by Western scientists. Recent discoveries of culture, traditions, and teaching by nonhumans have shown that Indigenous peoples were correct in describing such phenomena. Similarly the social relationship-based approach toward ecology taken by Indigenous peoples continually yields new understandings of the dynamics of ecological communities.

                  An interesting thing about science is that, like TEK, it constantly changes and can ultimately be self-correcting. The problem with science as it is currently practiced is that too often it suffers from what I call the Imo problem. Imo was a Japanese macaque and apparently a genius for her species. When she was still a juvenile she discovered that if she washed pieces of potato she could get dirt off them so they were easier to eat. She later discovered that if she took a mixed handful of seeds and sand and threw them into water that the sand would sink and the seeds would float. Over several months she taught her mother, her playmates, and other adult females how to do these techniques. Rarely discussed in reference to this work was the discovery that there was one group of individuals who refused to learn from Imo, who was, after all, both female and a youngster. The group that chose to remain ignorant was made up of the old males in her troop. As Imo and her playmates grew up, her young male playmates learned from her teaching, but the old males never did. They went to their graves with grit in their teeth. Science is like Imo's troop in may ways.  Fortunately we now have new generations of scientists who are open to the ideas of culture, traditions, high intelligence, and organisms establishing relationships that turn them into new types of life forms. These individuals are more open to TEK and different ways of thinking about the world. It is time for Indigenous people to overcome their uneasiness about Western science and realize that it is rapidly converging on TEK in many ways. It would be helpful for Indigenous people of all ages to make their contribution to overall understanding of the natural world and Indigenize science.