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Environmental concerns

Responses by indigenous peoples

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Indigenous Religions:

Indigenous religions are spiritual practices followed by the descendants of the original inhabitants of many lands: Native Americans, dwellers in the Brazilian, Sarawak and Philippine rainforests, the Bushmen of the Kalahari, the Australian aborigines, etc. These all are peoples whose religion and ecology are in harmony. There are many indigenous groups comprising more than 200 million people, identifiable by a variety of living faith traditions. Distinct ancestral memories and reverence for nature are at the heart of their spirituality – their inspiration comes from the chthonic world-view of the earliest periods when people everywhere really knew how to live in harmony with the natural world. 1

Chthonic religions are religions of the earth, i.e., Gaian religions. Edward Goldsmith identifies the term Chthonic religions as expressing a world-view of ecology. 1 Central to their indigenous traditions is the fact that the beliefs in the supernatural cannot be separated from the daily routine, as is the case in the current organized religions. Indigenous religious beliefs impact the way people live their everyday lives and provide them at the same time with a religious worldview.

For James Parks Morton, religion and ecology are almost flip sides of the same reality -- the two sides of the same coin. 2 This fits well with indigenous religions sensitivity to the interconnectedness of everything. According to Edward Goldsmith, many societies had a word for the interaction of the indigenous environmental knowledge with the larger whole of reality: Among such words are the R’ta of the Hindus of Vedic times, the Asha of the Avesta, the Maat of the ancient Egyptians, and the ancient Chinese Tao. 1

Many members of the so-called primitive societies still have a considerable feeling for, and intimacy with, the Earth.  3,4 They are far more sensitive to nature and have a better ecological wisdom than Western culture. For example, Bruce Chatwin, in his book "Songlines" gives the following description of the earth-bound philosophy of the Australian aborigines::

“The earth gave life to man; gave him food, language and intelligence; and the earth took him back when he died. A man’s own country, even an empty stretch of spinifex [porcupine grass], was itself a sacred icon that must remain unscarred." 5

By drawing on examples taken from indigenous Earth oriented religions, Goldsmith shows that in their societies economics is subservient to the social needs of society. In the modernist world, the priority is reversed.

Primitive people who lived three or four thousand years ago had remarkably humane laws. For example, they forbade cruelty to animals. Their descendants still obey them. Could anyone imagine modern-day factory farming in a society following such laws?

Each individual within an industrial society consumes far more resources and contributes far more to the environmental pollution than an individual in an agrarian society. (Wayne Davis 6) As we are becoming more aware of our ecological situation, we are gradually realizing the relevance of the teaching of the tribal religions that the destruction of the environment is a sin. Such a statement seems to support the view of indigenous peoples as ‘first ecologists’ and ‘purveyors of an environmental wisdom.’ This is absent in the technologically developed industrialized ‘first world’. We accord to indigenous peoples a new respect. For the first time, we look towards the so-called ‘primitive’ cultures not to denigrate them or idealize them, but to assess how far they were able to live sustainedly and honorably on earth. 7 It appears that we could learn from the wisdom of primal people.

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Teaching and practice of indigenous religions:


bullet Chief Luther Standing Bear of the Lakota tribe wrote in his work, Land of the Spotted Eagle:

“All this was in accordance with the Lakota belief that man did not occupy a special place in the eyes of Wakan Tanka, the Grandfather of us all." 8

bullet Chief Seattle of the Duwanish tribe said:

"This much we know. The earth does not belong to man: Man belongs to the earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself."

bullet An Oglala individual had to be worthy of the friendship and aid of the animals and plants he was related to.
bullet The Hopi showed reluctance to be singled out from the group. Teachers in Hopi schools have reported discomfort and even tears as a reaction to praise in public. 9
bullet Coercion and persuasion were not acceptable among the Dakota.
bullet The Navaho did not coerced each other. The individual remained inviolate. Traditionally, parents did not force their children to do what they unequivocally did not want to do. 9
bullet The greatest regard for animals was shown in the hunter-gatherer societies, where no strict hierarchy existed between human and non-human species.
bullet Ian McHarg wrote:

"The North American Indian evolved a most harmonious balance of man and nature. The gatherer and hunter learned to adapt to the crop and the prey. In his evolution there must have developed an understanding of creatures and their habits. Hunting must have responded to the breeding seasons, be protective of pregnant females, cull the surplus males. This was a major step in human understanding." 10

bullet Ian McHarg also wrote:

“In a hunting society the attitude to prey was of vital significance. Among the Iroquois the bear was highly esteemed. It provided not only an excellent hide and meat, but also oil that was used for cooking and could be stored. When the hunted bear was confronted, the kill was preceded by a long monologue in which the needs of the hunter were fully explained and assurances were given that the killing was motivated by need." 10

bullet The Plain Indians lived off the vast herds of bison. They did not, on the whole, attack the main herd. Rather, they killed off the stragglers, the old and the weak. The same is true of the lions living off the buffalo herds of East Africa. 6
bullet Dorothy Lee 9,11 wrote that the great care with which so many of the Indian groups utilized every portion of the carcass of the hunted animal was an expression, not of economic thrift, but of courtesy and respect -- an aspect of the religious relationship to the slain.
bullet The Wintun Indians (who formerly roamed the west side of Sacramento Valley in California) lived on land so densely wooded that it was difficult to find clear land for putting up a group of houses. Nevertheless, they used only dead wood for fuel, out of respect for nature. Compare their non-utilitarian behavior with that of the present members of the American consumer society. 11
bullet In 1770, the Wintun were estimated at 10,000 persons. In 1958 there were only 58 living members left in California. In the eyes of the Indians, the white missionaries, soldiers, colonists, and so on,  targeted the natives, hunted them, and tried to exterminate them, in the manner they exterminated their brother, the buffalo. The white Christian colonists who replaced the Wintun have not learned anything from them, certainly not about how to look after nature.
bullet An old Wintun woman expressed it thus:

“The White people never cared for land or deer or bear. When we Indian kill meat, we eat it all up. When we dig roots we make little holes. When we build houses, we make little holes. When we burn grass for grasshoppers, we don’t ruin things. We shake down acorns and pine nuts. We don’t chop down trees. We only use dead wood. But the White people plow up the ground, pull up the trees. Kill everything …" 11

bullet The American Indians did not control, or master, or exploit the world,. Their emphasis was on relatedness with all aspects of nature (earth, plants, animals, thunder, etc.) The Oglala (Sioux Indians) had to prove to be worthy of the friendship and aid of the animals and plants to whom they were related. To the Hopi (Pueblo Indians living in Arizona), every aspect of nature, plants, and rocks, and animals, had a cooperative share in the maintenance of the universal order.
bullet Chief Luther Standing Bear of the Lakota tribe wrote:

"The Lakota was a naturalist – a lover of nature. He loved the earth and all things on the earth. … Kinship with all creatures of the earth, sky, and water, was a real and active principle. … Wherever the Lakota went, he was with Mother Earth. No matter where he roamed by day or slept by night, he was safe with her. This thought comforted and sustained the Lakota and he was eternally filled with gratitude." 12

bullet In the culture of the Oglala, achieving relatedness with the manifestations of the Great Spirit (with earth, plants, animals, stars, thunder, etc) was sought as the ultimate value -- indispensable for the growth and strengthening of a man. Emphasis was on rigorous development of the self, but this was important only because by enhancing himself a man enhanced his tribe.
bullet Oglala children were helped to develop sensitivity towards nature. Children, particularly boys, were brought up from infancy to be aware of his responsibility for the camp circle, and, and eventually, for the entire universe. To carry out his responsibility, the individual had to develop all his capacities to the utmost. This was conveyed to the growing child so that he realized his potential on his own initiative. 13
bullet Dakota children were brought up feeling that they were part of nature; they were relatives of all things. They felt that ‘there was no complete solitude.’ Wherever they were, they were with relatives – the rocks, the trees, the wind. 9 Chief Standing Bear wrote:

“Children were taught to sit still – and look when apparently there was nothing to see, and to listen intently when all seemingly was quiet. To become conscious of life about them in its multitude forms."

Categorizing things and logic came afterwards, bound up in experience.

bullet An Indian (Cree) proverb states:

“Only when the last tree is cut; only when the last river is polluted; only when the last fish is caught; only then will they realize that you cannot eat money."

bullet The task of the Tukano shaman is to cure a social malfunctioning, which he does by re-establishing the rules that to avoid over-hunting, the depletion of certain plant resources, and unchecked population increase. Tukanos are South American Indians of the rain forest.
bullet The examples of societies sensitive to the survival of nature are, of course, not limited to the American Indians. For example, Charles Birch 14 quotes the following case from India: There are in India tribal religions that have a profound reverence for nature. Among them are the Bishnois, tribal people in the desert areas of Rajahstan. Their religion forbids the cutting down of trees and the killing of animals. They are vegetarians and practice non-violence. In 1730, the Maharaja of Jodhpur decided to build a palace in a Bishnois village. For the building he needed firewood for the brick kilns, and firewood was a scarce commodity in the respective desert area. To obtain the necessary wood, the man in charge of the project decided to cut down the trees in the local sacred grove. When the workmen ignored the pleading of the villagers and started to cut down the trees one by one, everyone, women, men, and children went into the grove and hugged the trees. The axes fell. Along with the trees three hundred and fifty three defenseless villagers who hugged the trees were hacked to death. To this day the Bishnois are known for their zeal at the cost of their lives. The tradition of the Bishnois and their sacrifice finds its symbolic expression in the ‘hug the tree’ movements in India.

Nature has its own meaning and purpose irrespective of its value to humans. Christianity and other great religions have much to learn from the tribal people, such as North American Indians and Australian Aborigines, about their approach to the natural world.

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A search of the data base shows the following books on Indigenous  peoples' responses to the environment:

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Goldsmith Edward: The Way. Themis Books, 1996.
  2. Morton James Park: Creativity, Spirituality, and the Arts.
  3. McDonagh Sean: To Care for the Earth. Geoffrey Chapman, 1989.
  4. Harvey Graham (Ed.): Readings in Indigenous Religions. Continuum, 2002.
  5. Chatwin Bruce: Songlines. Picador, 1987.
  6. Ecologist Staff: A Blueprint for Survival. Penguin, 1973
  7. Morton James Park: Religion Cleans Up It’s Act: The Renewal of Spirituality. at:
  8. Grim John A.: Introduction to Indigenous Traditions. at:
  9. Lee Dorothy: Freedom and Culture. Waveland Press, 1987.
  10. McHarg Ian L.: Design with Nature. Wiley, 1992
  11. Lee Dorothy: The Religious Dimension in Human Experience. In Sadler William
    (Ed.): Personality and Religion. SCM Press, 1970.
  12. Hart John: The Spirit of the Earth. Paulist Press, 1984.
  13. Lee Dorothy: Valuing the Self. Waveland Press, 1986
  14. Birch Charles: Regaining Compassion. New South Wales University Press, 1993

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Copyright © 2006 by Vladimir Tomek
Original publishing date: 2006-AUG-16
Latest update on: 2006-AUG-16
Author. Vladimir Tomek

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