Sustainable Wisdom: Integrating Indigenous Knowhow for Global Flourishing

Sustainable Wisdom: Integrating Indigenous Knowhow for Global Flourishing is a small meeting/conference that was held at the University of Notre Dame from September 11-15, 2016. The meeting brought together an interdisciplinary set of scholars and artists ready to integrate first-nation and mainstream contemporary understandings to move toward a flourishing planet.

Organizer Darcia Narvaez wrote: We take Paul Shepard’s words as a guide:

A journey to our primal world may bring answers to our ecological dilemmas…White European/Americans cannot become Hopis or Kalahari Bushmen or Magdalenian bison hunters, but elements in those cultures can be recovered or re-created because they fit the heritage and predilection of the human genome everywhere, a genome tracing back to a common ancestor that Anglos share with Hopis and Bushmen and all the rest of Homo sapiens. The social, ecological, and ideological characteristics natural to our humanity are to be found in the lives of foragers.

Must we build a new twenty-first-century society corresponding to a hunting/gathering culture? Of course not; humans do not consciously make cultures. What we can do is single out those many things, large and small, that characterized the social and cultural life of our ancestors—the terms under which our genome itself was shaped—and incorporate them as best we can by creating a modern life around them. We take our cues from primal cultures, the best wisdom of the deep desires of the genome. We humans are instinctive culture makers; given the pieces, the culture will reshape

itself. (Coming Home to the Pleistocene)

How can we integrate the best of modern technology and capacities with the wisdom of first nations? The conference looked deeply into the mindsets, practices and wisdom of first nation peoples across multiple disciplines. The goals of the conference were to (a) Increase understanding of “first” ways; (b) Describe how indigenous cultures foster wisdom, morality and flourishing; (c) Find commonalities among different indigenous societies in fostering these outcomes; (d) Develop synergistic approaches to shifting human imagination towards “first ways.” We expected that the conference would help us envision ways to move toward integrating helpful modern advances with first ways into a new encompassing viewpoint where the greater community of life (diverse human and nonhuman entities) are included in conceptions of wellbeing and practices that lead to flourishing.

In the conference, we brought together an interdisciplinary set of scholars to consider indigenous wisdom from multiple disciplines and to integrate this wisdom with modern knowhow. The speakers were selected for their specialty areas which range from science, history, education, psychology, and anthropology. The purpose of the conference and accompanying books was to bring to a wider audience an awareness of “first ways,” what we know about their effects on flourishing and how to integrate them into modern life for global flourishing.


Welcome (with Two Worldviews by Darcia Narvaez)

Pokagon Band Culture, Marcus Winchester:Pokégnek Bodéwadmik (Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi)

Preserving Indigenous Ethnohistory and Ecological Knowledge. Christopher Ball

Boarding Schools and Education. Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert

Mother Earth vs. Mother Lode: Native Environmental Ethos, Sustainability, and Human Survival. Bruce Johansen

Spirit of the Salmon: Indigenous Spirituality and Sustainability in the Columbia Basin. Andrew H. Fisher

Modern (Intellectual) Shamans and Wisdom for Sustainability. Sandra Waddock

Indigenous Spirituality: A Matter of Significance. Four Arrows (Wahinkpe Topa), aka Dr. Don Trent Jacobs

Spiritual Connections, Obligations and Outcomes: The Foundation of Tlingit Existence. Steve Langdon

Regenerating the Roots of Indigeneity: Resurgence and Resilience in Troubling Times. Waziyatawin

The Indigenous Worldview: Original Practices for Becoming and Being Human. Darcia Narvaez

Woman Is the Mother of All’: Rising from the Earth. Barbara Mann Orality, Literacy, and the Animate Earth. David Abram

Guidance from the Trembling Aspen. White Standing Buffalo

Daughters of Mother Earth: The Wisdom of Native American Women. Winona LaDuke

Nature Sense to Innate Wisdom: Effective Connection Modeling & Regenerating Human Beings. Jon Young

Indigenous science. Greg Cajete

Magic and the Machine; Reflections on Animism and Technology in an Age of Ecological Wipe- out. David Abram

The Fortress, the River and the Garden: New metaphors for knowledge symbiosis. Robin Wall Kimmerer

ENOUGHNESS: Indigenous Economics 101. Rebecca Adamson

Aki-gikendamowin (Learning from the Land): Indigenous Art, Ecology, and Aesthetics. Dylan Miner

Ancient Light: Picto-Poems and Ekphrastic Poetry. Kim Blaeser Talking Circle Day 1

Talking Circle Day 2

This piece draws on the new book, Indigenous Sustainable Wisdom: First Nation Knowhow for Global Flourishing, edited by Darcia Narvaez, Four Arrows, Eugene Halton, Brian Collier and Georges Enderle.

Until relatively recently in human history, most people had a sense of a living Earth. We understood trees, forests, rivers, mountains, humans, animals and plants as living, sentient neighbors and community members. This worldview promoted an authentic concern for the mutual well-being of all. As can be seen among today’s Indigenous peoples who act to save the Amazon rainforest, humans evolved to be deeply connected, relationally and responsibly attuned to the natural world around them — otherwise they perished. In his bookBeyond Nature and Culture, anthropologist Philippe Descola documents the unique integration of culture and nature around the world in non-industrialized societies not overtaken by unfettered capitalism’s globalization.

We honor Indigenous traditional cultures and peoples with a commitment to reclaim this legacy and way of understanding our symbiotic relationships and interconnectedness as members of a sacred and living Earth. In light of the recent United Nations report on extinction rates that reveals how Indigenous worldview, not technology, is the key to rebalancing our ecological systems, such a commitment is crucial. What can we do to reclaim our original worldview? What can we do to help today’s Indigenous peoples with their struggles to protect their land, language and sovereignty?

Author and educator C.A. (Chet) Bowers describes how the industrialized world takes for granted several root metaphors that act like a straitjacket on thought and action. As anthropologist Marshall Sahlins pointed out, individualism, self-interest, linear progress, centrality and superiority of human beings, positivism (the need for an experiment to know anything), and belief in an insensate natural world are all considered strange by human societies around the world. All indicate a human orientation disconnected from grounding in the Earth.

Don’t miss a beat

Get the latest news and thought-provoking analysis from Truthout.

  • Email

Why do these notions seem logical to industrialized humans? Contemporary industrialized nations by and large undermine the development of human capacities, toxically stressing children and adults, leading to disconnection. Our research shows the importance of humanity’s evolved nest (Evolved Developmental Niche), which matches up with the high immaturity and needs of human children in the first years of life when neurobiological systems are shaped by social experience. The nest includes responsive calming care by multiple adults, years of on-request breastfeeding, frequent affectionate touch, extensive play, relational connection and social support. All these foster health and well-being, sociality, and morality through epigenetics and other plasticity effects in early life. Nature connection and ecological intelligence are part of our heritage as well, and are critical for sustainable living. But parents in industrialized nations are encouraged (and often forced) to deny babies and children what they evolved to need, establishing neurobiologically aberrant trajectories and long-term ill-being, dysregulation and disconnection.

Nature connection is apparent in all “non-civilized” groups around the world and was integral throughout the existence of our species. The fact that “civilized” humans, a type of society around for only 1 percent of the human genus’s existence, are disconnected from nature shows the unsustainability of civilization as we know it. As First Nation peoples know, disconnection is at the root of destructive acts.

As researchers, we lament how ignorant Western scholarship and media generally are about this nature-connected history. Humanity spent over 90 percent of its history as small-band, hunter-gatherer societies, living close to and cooperatively with one another and the Earth, with concern for future generations. Humanity would have died off without what we can refer to as our “Indigenous worldview.” As mentioned above, recent United Nations extinction rate report refers to the disregard for this worldview as the major reason for current ecological disasters, and notes that where the Indigenous worldview is operating today, thriving biodiversity is maintained.

Scholars routinely pick out or sort societies of the past in ways that make them look primitive or violent. They call any positive descriptions of our non-civilized history “romantic.” But the real romanticism is apparent in our unquestioning support for the path we are on, the one that assumes we can continue to extract from the Earth without penalty or limit.

Western science does not promote ecological attachment, though some come to the sciences from an enchantment with nature. Instead, Western science and scholarship encourage detachment and “objectivity” (relational disconnection) with what is studied. In either case, the ecological crisis cannot be solved by continuing intellectual discussions. Even Western scientists are coming to realize that to act responsibly toward the natural world, one must care about it in a relational manner, as Indigenous science and worldview promotes. One must feel and act connected to the Earth. Efforts to restore nature connection and “rewild” human nature are spreading. Awareness of and respect for the intelligence of animalsplants and insects are increasing.

Importantly, societies who hold an Indigenous worldview, including American Indian/Alaskan Native societies, have long prioritized “the seventh generation” and have done so with both heart and mind. Those who, against all odds, still hold onto this wisdom continue to put their lives on the line for future generations, as occurred with the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Humanity’s future depends on re-embracing the Indigenous worldview, its grounding in connectedness and its foundational love for all diversity. This a human heritage that we can restore and live out. We can revive a “common memory” of our species on the Earth and reshape the foundations of our governments and institutions, as U.S. Independent presidential candidate and member of the Navajo Nation Mark Charles advises. Charles, who identifies also a Christian, articulates a decolonizing agenda as necessary for relearning how to take care of our common home, Planet Earth, as Pope Francis has advocated. In fact, the recent Pan-Amazon Synod of Bishops in Rome, guided by Indigenous wisdom, not only acknowledges the church’s historical role in colonizing lands, peoples and cultures of the Amazon, it also refers to the imposition of Western culture onto Indigenous worldviews.

If we have come to a time when the Catholic Church — whose policies initiated the onslaught against our Indigenous way of being in the world — can now address decolonization and Indigenous worldview, perhaps we should make every day Indigenous Peoples’ Day. To remind us of who and where we are, we can begin to learn how to reclaim our more authentic worldview for education and survival.

We kindly and respectfully put our thoughts together

So we wrap our minds around all this, with great gratitude

We kindly and respectufully put our minds together as one,

Remind us in our minds and hearts, through our hearts, our thoughts,

Kindly, respectfully, with great gratitude

Message that came to us, how to conduct ourselves, how to live

We kindly and respectuflly give gratitude, for reminding us how

Let it be that way in our mind

Creator set all the medicines, fruits, instructions, the love, also acknowledge that the Creator has great patience, the Water, so we kindly and respectfully put our minds and hearts together as one

Contentment and peace

So let it be that way in our mind

The words before all aelse

After each pause of category we are giving thanks for, we acknowledge the people there in attendance.



Johnson v. M’Intosh – religious liberty angle – both for land return and climate, Earth rights and intergenerational work

Catholic work – really need to find more Catholic collaborators to try to get this picked up again. Steve ran into a wall with Tomasi. I have some other contacts I promise to follow up with to try on this again, at the Vatican.

I need moral support keeping this up/continuing to raise this issue in the reform Catholic movement – Call to Action

Lifting up/sensitively