Becoming Indigenous: Settling a Population Adrift in an Unstable World

In the modern and post-modern worlds, we are set adrift. Who now lives fully integrated with a clan, tribe, or other group ‘emplaced’ for many generations in a particular location and fully integrated into the ecology of that place? Nobody on my block! We are all individuated, barely a member of a family, and that family is probably scattered across the country, if not the globe.

Is that a problem? Very much so. For most people in the industrially developed nations – in the U.S. more than most – mobility is a way of life. Rich or poor, people move in response to economic conditions, and not always with much success. We have long passed the point where family or clan, or place for that matter, are more important than our job or a potential job. We are usually located in some corporate setting with hopes for a career path, not a geographic one.

Nevertheless, the coming transformation of the place of humans in the world makes what may now be thought of as “lifestyle” choices a matter of survival. The idea of becoming indigenous may be easily misunderstood. As intended here, it is meant not as a fashion statement, lifestyle choice, or sudden personal adaptation of native folkways. As time runs out for humanity to respond to the extant and looming catastrophic consequences of industrial pollution of the ecosphere, a massive reorientation will be necessary. The remaining indigenous peoples offer a potential source for guidance in designing a new way of living in harmony with the earth that may not otherwise sustain us. The world will be very different in any case.

Indigenous Peoples and Interest Groups

Until the dawn of the Industrial Era, people were organized around kinship. Economic activity and trade were an aspect of the life ways of core social groupings. Human groups existed in stable locations. People were indigenous. Most indigenous peoples left in the world today are the residual elements of populations that were colonized and/or enslaved during the colonial and imperial eras. Almost none are truly isolated from the industrial nations or industrializing nations that constitute most nations on earth. Some ethnic groups have retained a semblance of their traditional culture and stayed together in one area. More and more are reviving their language and cultural practices. But in most cases, the influences of the larger globalized economy are very powerful.

Most of us organize our lives around our jobs. What little time is left may be devoted to some special interest such as sports, hobbies, or other entertainments. As often as not, engagement with that interest is via a ‘flat screen.’ We are a culture of spectators, whether watching NFL games or even while engaged in the unreality of a “World of War Craft.” Our illusions are illusory. The illusions of indigenous mythology are real in their cultural functions of sustaining viable relations with each other and with the natural world. Many of the illusions of the modern/postmodern world are little more than dysfunctional.

Extractive Economics and Indigenous Culture

The displacement of everyone in industrial culture is an inevitable result of the endless extraction of materials for the endless production processes of the endless-growth economy. No place is sacred if profit can be extracted from the land or water. The expansion of industrial production that necessitates more and more extraction of resources for both energy and products has no internal limits. In fact, it requires that there be no limits. However, for decades now the earth’s systems have been showing us their limits increasingly in climate disruption and ecological destruction.

The blindness of industrial culture to the earth’s limits on the exploitation of ecologies and earth systems is precisely the opposite of the awareness inherent in the cultures of indigenous peoples. People who still live intimately with their environments directly perceive the elements of Nature that they must respect. Their long traditions are built around that awareness. The irony of the end of the industrial era is that as the growth economy accelerates toward its catastrophic end, only its victims can show a path to human survival. Only the wisdom of the indigenous peoples who industrial culture defines as “backward,” can even come close to salvaging some semblance of civilization from the fast approaching chaos.

Becoming Indigenous

The globalizing economic/political leviathan is in for a big surprise, and very soon. It continues to minimize the adaptations necessary to convert from fossil-fuel energy production to “renewable” energy production, with nearly no sense of the necessity of energy conservation. Yet nearly nobody involved recognizes that a viable place for humanity on the planet in the near future will require a total transformation far beyond anything currently contemplated. It will be such a vast reorganization of economic activity and social relations that the term “paradigm shift” is hardly sufficient.

The new indigenous activism of native peoples from around the globe has grown rapidly around the principle of climate justice. The connection between the destruction of local ecologies and the threat to the entire planet posed by the globalized economy is obvious to indigenous activists. Protecting local land and resources and defending all earth systems are synonymous to them. Wide cultural divides exist between indigenous peoples from Canada to Brazil, from Uganda to the Pacific islands. Yet they are united and work together in the struggle defending the earth against plunder by the globalizing world economic system.

Significant numbers of citizens in the industrially developed nations must “become indigenous,” but not by merely mimicking any particular native peoples. For us, becoming indigenous must entail a new recognition of the essential relationship of our species to the planet. We must also recognize that relationship outside the paradigm of the industrial era. “The old ways” can help guide us, but it will be difficult, requiring us to abandon many of the ideas and conveniences we daily take for granted and don’t really want to give up. We must build new understandings of the unprecedented transformation that lies ahead by learning what it really means to be an indigenous people. Such a creative reintegration of humanity with our world may be the greatest transformation of the human experience ever.

4 thoughts on “Becoming Indigenous: Settling a Population Adrift in an Unstable World

  1. Hi Robert. Fantastic piece! I am currently taking a 4 month course at Schumacher College called “Becoming Indigenous” so I was fascinated to read your piece, and would love to connect and discuss your ideas more. Many of your points fit beautifully with what we are discussing. Would you be available to talk at some point? Best wishes, Tommy

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    • Thanks, Tommy. The piece was re-posted on resilience.com and drew a wide variety of interesting comments. Some, unfortunately, missed the point, assuming that I meant to slavishly follow the ways of tribal peoples. The point, of course, is that much can be learned from any people who live directly in relationship to the land and local echosystem. Best wishes with your studies. E.F. Schumacher was way ahead of his times, or perhaps his times were way behind him. Quite a lineup of people who have taught at Schumacher College.

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    • Thanks. Sorry I overlooked your comment for awhile. Of course, putting any idea into practice is the hard part. What I am talking about is a cultural change in human orientation to the natural world that [we so easily forget] sustains us. Many people are starting to get it, in the abstract, as you say. It will ultimately take a lot of localized organization, since the “higher” authorities are almost entirely incapable/unwilling to take the drastic steps to change some very fundamental ways of living tied to the hyper-production/consumption economy and all the powerful interests that are involved. Yet, it is all supported by the corporate-driven culture we all [mostly] participate in. At the practical level it will take lots of increased awareness of the critical nature of the underlying problem and the impossibility of resolving it by conventional “reforms.” It ain’t gonna be easy…

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