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What is “Indigenous”?

May 7, 2020

From recent opinion pieces in The Hill on the importance of listening to the wisdom and worldview of Native and Aboriginal Elders to protect our planet, to stories about the connection between Indigenous knowledge, the protection of biodiversity and the prevention of pandemics like Covid-19 in outlets such as CNN and The National Observer (Canada) and the many articles and newsletters landing in your inbox from organizations like Sacred Fire Foundation and others, who are working with Indigenous partners around the world to support the continuance of their cultural traditions for the benefit of all people everywhere, you may find yourself asking, what exactly does “Indigenous” mean?

It would be a fair question. 

If you grew up in the United States for example, depending on where you went to school, Native America history, might appear to be exactly that; history, a thing of the past.  Unless you were fortunate enough to live near a reservation or pueblo, you might not have ever met an Indian.  You might be shocked to know there are over 570 federally recognized tribes with their own distinct language, traditions, ceremonies and culture.  The same goes for the 325 million Indigenous peoples living on every continent except Antarctica.

Depending on the region, Indigenous may also be referred to as First Peoples, First Nations, Aboriginal, Indian, Tribal or Native.  In short, they all refer to the ethnic groups who are the original or earliest known inhabitants of an area.  They are of the place.  Historically, though they may be nomadic, roaming across a large territory, working with the seasons for food as hunter/gatherers or they remain in a given area, for the most part, they are not only dependent on the land for their survival, but their spiritually is rooted there as well.

The land and surrounding bodies of water, provides everything they need. Medicines from the plants, food, shelter. And in return, they watch over vital ecosystems – rainforests, cloud forests, grasslands, the ocean and wetlands.  From the tiniest micro-organism to plants and animals that co-exist in an environment, everything has a role to play. When one is disturbed, all are affected.

They are the original conservationists.  Though Indigenous people make up about 5% of the world’s population, they protect 80% of our remaining global biodiversity. No matter the culture or territory, they see themselves as stewards of the planet and all living things.  This is in contrast to so-called modern culture, who see themselves as dominant over the natural world.  Indigenous worldview is rooted in the belief that decisions made today need to be weighed against what that means for the generations to come – 7 generations into the future.

These living cultures can be traced back thousands of years. Their wisdom, cosmologies, and traditions, though under constant pressure, are rooted in the concepts of four guiding principles:  reciprocity, respect, responsibility, and relationship. Everything is sacred.  Everything has value. Everything is interconnected and interdependent.  These principles inform how they interact with the world around them.

In a recent article in the National Observer, “The coronavirus is telling the world what Indigenous Peoples have been saying for thousands of years – if we do not help protect biodiversity and nature, we will face this and even worse threats,” said Levi Sucre Romero, a BriBri Indigenous person from Costa Rica and co-coordinator of the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests.

According to the article, Romero was one of three Indigenous leaders invited to speak on the panel for an event sponsored by Covering Climate Now, a global partnership of more than 400 news outlets working to increase accurate news coverage on climate change.

“In our communities, we have respected a certain biodiversity that protects us today,” Romero said. “We plant what we eat, and we have the resources and knowledge needed to get through times like this, and this is what we are trying to tell the rest of the world.”

In that same article, Mina Setra, secretary-general of an alliance that brings together 17 million Indigenous Peoples from across the Indonesia archipelago, says “The orientation of our communities is sustainability. While everyone is trying to find solutions on what to do to face climate change, they look to the cities, but no one is looking at what we are doing in the villages and communities.”

In a report by the World Resources Institute, when Indigenous lands are secure, billions, sometimes trillions of dollars’ worth of benefits in the form of reduced pollution, clean water, erosion control, flood prevention, low deforestation rates and a whole host of other local, regional and global “ecosystem services” are possible. 

In this time of great uncertainty and transformation, we are seeing firsthand what can happen when humans are given a timeout by Mother Earth. This is not to make light of the suffering- physically, emotionally and spiritually we are experiencing. But in a relatively short period of time, we’re beginning to see what Mohawk Elder Tom Porter told me last August during a visit to our sister organization, the Blue Deer Center in the Catskills. 

We were doing an interview after Tom received the foundation’s Wisdom Treasure Award for lifelong commitment in keeping their traditions alive and leadership in his community. He looked around at the beautiful, lush green land.  He gazed up at the sky.  Listened to the river gently flowing nearby.  Smiled at the birdsong accompanying our talk. Breathed in the fresh clean air.

After a few moments he said, “The birds, the trees, the river, the sky – they don’t need us but we sure need them.”

There are solutions to the issues we face now, today.  They are rooted in centuries of Indigenous wisdom and worldview that values the guiding principles of reciprocity, respect, responsibility, and relationship. They are the principles by which Indigenous people live. This is what it means to live sustainably.

We must be willing to work alongside them and bring our gifts to create solutions that are sustainable and in reverence for our planet and respect for all living beings.

When we step back from the noise, what we used to call our “normal lives”, and listen to this urgent calling, we inherently understand that as Dr. Vandana Shiva notes: “At a time of ecological and social collapse, business as usual is not an option”. She goes on to note that “deeper sources of inspiration and resilience” are needed. “We need to recover the Sacred.”

No one can say, at this moment in time, with any kind of real authority, what the future will look like.  But we have an opportunity to rise up and make choices, that will ensure the next generations can flourish.

We are just beginning to understand the threads of Indigenous cultures – language, ceremony, rituals and traditional ways of living, are imperative for our very survival.

Living in this way brings us a deeper sense of purpose, connected with community. 

As Dr. Shiva said, “And in this, the Sacred Fire Foundation’s mission is vital to our times.”