Responses by indigenous peoples
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.
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::
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
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
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
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.
Teaching and practice of indigenous religions:
||Chief Luther Standing Bear of the Lakota tribe wrote in his work,
Land of the
“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
||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."
||An Oglala individual had to be worthy of the friendship and aid of the animals
and plants he was related to.
||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
||Coercion and persuasion were not acceptable among the Dakota.
||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
||The greatest regard for animals was shown in the hunter-gatherer societies,
where no strict hierarchy existed between human and non-human species.
||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
||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
||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
||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.
||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
||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.
||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
||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
||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
||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.
||Oglala children were helped to develop sensitivity towards nature.
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
||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:
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
||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."
||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.
||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
The tradition of the Bishnois and their sacrifice finds its symbolic expression
in the ‘hug the tree’ movements in India.
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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.
A search of the Amazon.com data base shows the following books on Indigenous
peoples' responses to the environment:
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The following information sources were used to
prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still
- Goldsmith Edward: The Way. Themis Books, 1996.
Morton James Park: Creativity, Spirituality, and the Arts.
- McDonagh Sean: To Care for the Earth. Geoffrey Chapman, 1989.
- Harvey Graham (Ed.): Readings in Indigenous Religions. Continuum, 2002.
- Chatwin Bruce: Songlines. Picador, 1987.
- Ecologist Staff: A Blueprint for Survival. Penguin, 1973
Morton James Park: Religion Cleans Up It’s Act: The Renewal of Spirituality.
Grim John A.: Introduction to Indigenous Traditions. at:
- Lee Dorothy: Freedom and Culture. Waveland Press, 1987.
- McHarg Ian L.: Design with Nature. Wiley, 1992
- Lee Dorothy: The Religious Dimension in Human Experience. In Sadler William
(Ed.): Personality and Religion. SCM Press, 1970.
- Hart John: The Spirit of the Earth. Paulist Press, 1984.
- Lee Dorothy: Valuing the Self. Waveland Press, 1986
- Birch Charles: Regaining Compassion. New South Wales University Press, 1993
Copyright © 2006
by Vladimir Tomek
Original publishing date: 2006-AUG-16
Latest update on: 2006-AUG-16
Author. Vladimir Tomek