Decolonizing the Western Worldview: Interview with Cherokee activist/scholar, Randy Woodley

Over the last few months, I have been writing more and more often about the need of people in Western civilization to pay attention to indigenous wisdom and knowledge. In that spirit, my first post of 2020 is an edited transcript of a phone interview I did with Rev. Dr. Randy Woodley, a Cherokee activist/scholar, in December 2017.

Woodley has authored several books including “An Introduction to Postcolonial Theologies,” “The Harmony Tree: A Story of Healing and Community” and “Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision.” When I met him in Portland in 2013 he was farming outside Newberg, Oregon, and employed as a Distinguished Professor of Faith and Culture at George Fox University/Portland Seminary. Currently, Woodley and his family are working to establish Eloheh, an Indigenous Center For Earth Justice, in eastern Oregon.

This is an abridged version of the full interview, which is included as a chapter in my book, “The Failures of Farming & the Necessity of Wildtending.”

Kollbri terre Sonnenblume: The book that I’m working on starts from Jared Diamond’s thesis that agriculture could be called a wrong turn for the human race. But looking at the Americas, you can see that there were cultures that did not get into agriculture, so there’s still examples there, not only of ways of doing things but ways of thinking about the world and ways of relating to the world that have been lost to Western Civilization for many many centuries.

Randy Woodley: Let me start off by saying that though I really like his book Collapse, with his more famous book I disagree with a minor point. His understanding of why civilizations take over other civilizations and mine are different. His is that when the technology is there to advance over other civilizations, that’s what’s going to happen. What I would say is that there’s a particular Western worldview—and I’m not an expert on any other worldview except the Western worldview as it relates to the Native American worldview—there’s something endemic in the Western worldview that says that you have to use your power over others. So we differ about that because hundreds and hundreds of cases on Turtle Island where people had the ability to take over others but didn’t. Now there’s some where they did as well. But I don’t think that there is a causality, if you will. So he sees the world through that lens and I differ with that.

KtS: I agree with you. I think that that viewpoint is kind of cynical. There’s a tendency for some Western writers and thinkers to take the attributes of the West and cast them as being human nature in general.

RW: Exactly. That’s the whole point, to universalize Western religion and the Western worldview so that it wipes out anything local, right? Did you ever read “God is Red” by Vine Deloria, Jr.?

KtS: No. I like what I’ve read from him but I haven’t seen that one yet.

RW: He talks about [how] the Western worldview substitutes time as the universal for place. I’ve developed this a little bit more so I get confused about what I’ve added and what was his, but basically he says that time becomes universal over local beliefs and understanding, etc. So Western people operate by time and indigenous people operate by place.

You can just take that template as a universal and apply it to education, economics, religion, whatever, in the West. They have basically tried to replace locality and geography, really. We’re talking about local social history, which is about what has happened on the land for millennia before anybody arrived with a different philosophy. That’s the key to my understanding of that universality that Diamond uses and other people use and it’s embedded in Western worldviews. They’re not able to see local place as reality. They only see universal time-space. That sets us looking at the world from two different realities.

KtS: I have not heard of this distinction before and it’s really fascinating to me.

RW: Yeah, it’s really important to understand. You know I’ve been in religion most of my life and working in and out of it, with it, and I’ve come to see this as absolute truth but it’s true in the sciences, it’s true in education, it’s definitely true in economics. And you couple that with a Utopian vision, whether it’s “making America great again” or The Republic or the Garden of Eden, or the purest Islam—whatever that Utopian vision is—you couple that with this universality and basically you have a cause to take over the world, right? Justify whatever you do if the end vision is strong enough.

KtS: Can you name an example in any of these areas to help me grok this one?

RW: Yeah, well let’s look at economics. You have the vision of Socialism and the vision of Capitalism and they’re not really incompatible but because the West sees a binary choice for everything, you have Socialism vs. Capitalism. You get two sets of nations trying to propagate their vision for economics because they think that is the Utopian end-all—the best thing for the world. The same is true of religion. So Christianity is based on a Utopian vision, usually in the future, of getting back to the Garden of Eden. Either [you] believe that the kingdom on earth will make that happen or it’s the kingdom of the future to come, which is the more prominent Roman Catholic and major Protestant view. You gotta get everybody into Heaven because that’s the perfect place.

So when the missionaries came to America, it didn’t matter what was going on here. It didn’t matter what the beliefs were. They already had this Utopian vision that superseded anything else that they saw here. In fact they would just find reasons to discount Native culture—“Well, they’re of the devil” and all these kinds of things. So [their] job was to make this religion across this whole land. And that’s what basically happened. They just went around and claimed everything in the name of Christ. So they justified the genocide, justified the assimilation, justified all the other policies that are still going on today.

Education is the same. We teach the same thing. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a high school in Newberg, Oregon, or a high school in Miami, Florida, or a high school in Bangor, Maine. This factory-style education system has been created that says this is how you educate people. It makes no difference [what was] on the land there before, what the land and the environment are saying. It’s all about laying this other template on top of that and saying that all doesn’t matter… No plants, no things that happened on the land, the ceremonies that were held, [and] the appreciation, whether it was for Salmon culture or Acorn culture or Pinenut culture or Buffalo culture. It’s just as if none of that mattered. What is natural and was put there for our health and understanding didn’t matter. We had to replace it with something different.

KtS: Because at the time that the Westerners invaded the Americas, they had no cultural memory of how to live off of the land and to be cultivating what’s there—to be wildtending as some people would now say. They had no memory because they had turned away from it, well, something like 8000 years before or longer.

RW: Yeah. So the Native people also commented that they [the Whites] were like children. They felt sorry for them so they helped them to learn how to grow stuff, to learn how to fish. You’ve probably read Charles Mann’s books 1491 and 1493?

KtS: I’ve read 1491, yeah.

RW: 1493 you’d probably like even more because he talks about what was going on in Europe at the time. Basically, all the streams were fished out, and all the bays. All the rivers were polluted. The cities were awful in terms of sewage and dead meat and bones and things that would just be left on the streets. And disease. Most of the hardwoods were already harvested for building forts and castles and churches and so one of the first things they would send back with these ships here were virgin oak trees from the east. They had basically expended the world that they were living in.

Now, it took 500 years, but the same thing has happened here because the philosophy hasn’t changed. And so, you know, our slow response is basically the same as no response. So the lesson didn’t get learned.

They learned first how to survive from the Native people but then they started resurrecting their old patterns of growing things like wheat, and then of course that’s when you need to have cheap labor. The Indians were 90% dead from being enslaved and diseased and so that’s when the West African slave trade opened up. It’s one bad thing after another in terms of the Western mindset.

KtS: Yeah, clearly. And it’s this mindset that I’ve been trying to grapple with and figure out why—why is it that Westerners are so different?

RW: We create cultures from our worldview and we also create our worldview from our cultures. When you grow with the land you learn how to make an even exchange. But when you come into a new place with another worldview from a another land and another culture, it’s a little harder unless you’re open to understanding what’s really happening here, what reality is in this place.

KtS: That one’s interesting, in part because there’s differences in how. For example, looking at Western Culture how it currently is, especially here in the United States, if you look at the meat industry—if you look at animal agriculture—it’s an incredibly brutal thing, with killing hundreds of animals per hour. It’s really just a horror show what’s going on in these places where the animals are confined and so many are slaughtered. And I certainly wouldn’t be the first to say that eating that kind of food is bad for you as an individual… It seems like Westerners are able to treat the land the way that they do, treat animals the way they do, treat plants the way they do, is because they’re not viewing them as living creatures, in some way.

RW: Right. That has to do with a couple things. So, in my view of Western society, the philosophical error that undergirds everything, almost everything, is dualism. And that really comes from the Greeks as far as we can tell, and then passed on to the Romans and then passed on to the Brits and other parts of Western Europe and then passed on to the United States. It takes on a whole ‘nother energy when it goes throughout the Enlightenment period and all that in Europe.

There’s both physical and moral dualism. Let’s talk about the physical: Plato, Socrates, and the Utopian vision are all about a spiritual or a mind perfection. The physical becomes less important. You have this Utopian vision of this place that you’re supposed to reach, this plane of thinking. This is why Socrates killed himself; because he couldn’t realize this on earth. It carries into religion—the idea that this world is not my home—I have this better place.

In higher education I see it all the time, too. What is physical doesn’t matter nearly as much as what you think, right? So it becomes a thinking person’s reality. We pay people who think generally higher wages than those who do physical labor. With theology, for example, we have people with PhDs that are are higher than what we call “practical” theologians. Those are the people who actually do the work of pastoring, those sorts of things. It creates hierarchy.

We have this separation from the physical, making it a little less than the mental or the spiritual. Now we have an excuse to pay less attention to the physical. So for example in Christianity, saying that human beings are higher than everything else, they’re more important than anything else. With the human beings, they are the ones who rule everything else. Everything else matters not nearly as much. Then you can take and break that down farther and say, okay, well, Americans are better than anyone else. Or you can say racism. White people are better, smarter and deserve more than everyone else, so everyone else can be treated not quite as well. We do that with the animal world, the plant world—

KtS:male over female—

RW:—oh yeah absolutely, we do it with males over females, We do it with plants: some are weeds. This fits into what I call extrinsic categorization. You have these false categories. Some animals are varmints and some are animals. And some animals are pets. This worldview lays this hierarchical, dualistic template on everything. The lack of understanding of the sacredness of life in everything, I think, stems from this. You have people like Descartes in Europe, and Francis Bacon who really saw the mind as superior and the body and nature as inferior, and that melded with both philosophy and religion.

I have friends who are animal activists. There’s always a caveat: “Well you treat your animals well.” We’re vegetarians now [he and his wife] but when we weren’t, when we’d go out to hunt, we were told if an animal doesn’t give itself to you, then you can’t kill it. You have to pray beforehand, do a little ceremony and then wait and watch for an animal to give itself to you. Then you put tobacco down and say a prayer and you thank that animal for giving its life. That even happened when we were farming with our goats and sheep and things like that. We went through whole ceremonies and things to make sure that we thanked the animal, we thanked the earth, we thanked the creator, but most of all to remind ourselves that we’re taking a life here. We do the same thing when we take a plant or a tree. I’ve gone out looking for tepee poles and we put tobacco down first.

In our Native prayer we’re asking that tree, we’re asking that animal, for forgiveness and saying, “This is something I have to do to feed my family. I apologize. Thank you for giving your life.” We recognize that the spirit is in everything. and life is in everything and so we don’t have a right to just go and haphazardly take it. We have to use wisdom. We have to use ceremony to remind ourselves and to teach our children as well.

KtS: I think that to most Western people, the idea of being able to recognize when an animal is presenting itself, or of asking a plant and being able to hear the answer—that is incomprehensible to most Westerners.

RW: Yeah. And I think part of that comes from what I’ve been talking about. Part of it also comes from the idea of individualism and competition as opposed to cooperativeness, right?

KtS: Right.

RW: So it’s like I killed this animal and I can put its head on the wall because I took it. I climbed the mountain so I conquered the mountain. Which is absolute silliness, right? [laughs] The mountain is still there and you’re lucky you made it up alive. But it’s the idea that there we are number one, triumphing over nature and there’s a hostile relationship. And it’s the idea that we’re in competition, right? With other human beings or whatever. It’s like, I did and you didn’t. It stems from this Western worldview that’s influenced by the dualism, the hierarchy, the competitiveness.

KtS: Have you ever read Theodore Roszak?

RW: No.

KtS: He coined the term “counterculture.” He wrote in the ’60s and ’70s. He has a book called “Where the Wasteland Ends.” Fascinating book. I think you’d probably really enjoy it. One of his things is how the Western religions—the monotheistic religions, starting with Judaism, and going to Christianity and then to Protestantism (I don’t think he really talks about Islam in there)—how they served to make separation between people and nature. And he goes further and says that those religions took the divine out of nature, and out of the world, and put it up in the sky, literally.

RW: Yeah.

KtS: I guess I would see this as being partly why people—why Westerners—are able to do things they do—or that we do: these religions. Which have their roots in agriculture too.

RW: Yes and [in the indigenous worldview] there is no dichotomy. The Great Mystery is both in everything and outside everything. It’s where people get mixed up. They try to put the creator or Great Mystery or force or universe or however you want to look at it as outside and then everything is about achieving that Utopianism. But the Great Mystery resides in everything and outside of everything as well, independent.

KtS: So then when we are able to communicate with animals or plants we are interacting with, or communicating with, the Great Mystery?

RW: Yes. Although I wouldn’t say what some religions will say: that they’re God then. I would say that no, God is present in them just like God is present in me. The problem is that we’re all affected to one degree or another by this Western worldview which is a handicap to understanding what the possibilities are. And secondly we’re never on the land long enough to understand how the relationship worked.

But most of us are so mobile, me included, that we don’t have the “cred” I guess you’d say—the credibility—to communicate in the way we should with the plants and animals. We’re in such an instant society; we want things to happen when we want them to happen. So it’s very rare to be able to have that privilege to be able to communicate with the trees, with the plants, with the animals, the way that we are actually created to do. To be in relationship with, nor relationship over.

KtS:Where to go from here? Is there even any place to go from here? Like, what does one do in the world at this point? I’ve met some different people in the back-to-the-land movement or rewilders and some are consciously imitating different bits and pieces of Native American lifestyle.

RW: What I believe sustains our people and makes community possible and made this relationship possible are the values that developed over time. For me it seems frustrating if people are trying to adapt Native things without Native values.

I have to understand things like my relationship to everything else. I have to understand that consensus gives dignity so everybody has a voice; it’s not hierarchical. I have to understand that spirituality is a very tangible thing. I have to understand that humor is necessary and sacred. I have to understand that work should be done where there’s work and when there’s not, I shouldn’t have to work. All these are Native values that sustained our people, and I’m speaking in a pan-Indian way.

For my dissertation I interviewed people from 45 different tribes across the United States and Canada and all these values are present in their “harmony” worldviews, their idea of “the harmony way.” Those are the types of values that you need for living with the land and with each other if you’re gonna do this.

KtS: Where did Westerners got so far off the path? Like, we can trace it back: “Oh, look at how the religions took the divine and removed it from the world,” or “Look at how agriculture was all about wiping out what was there and planting something else there and taking over.” But then why was it that humans were able to live for two or three hundred thousand years without doing this and then suddenly started doing this in the Middle East and then it took over. What happened?

RW: I don’t know the ultimate answer to this but I can at least trace it to the Greek idea of dualism, right? And the higher mind philosophy, and all this. I can trace the influence in America from that. If you think about when both the Enlightenment and the Reformation occurred, what happened in Europe right before that was the Renaissance. The Renaissance was the glorification of the Greeks and the Romans. You just need to look at Washington, DC, and the buildings there to see the influence, you know, but it was also in the minds of Franklin and Jefferson and all these other founders. I can only look at it and say, here’s how it happened that it influenced Americans, but I can’t say this is why humanity does this, or why that branch of humanity. That’s one of those ultimate questions that I don’t know will ever be answered.

I know the things I can see in the Greek culture that created the Western worldview: the physical dualism, the moral dualism, the religious intolerance, the individualism, the extrinsic categories, the hierarchy, the competitiveness, the Utopianism, all the anthropocentric “humans are over nature,” the triumphalism, the patriarchy. All of those things can be traced through those movements.

So that means that if we can trace them, we can undo them. And the way I think they can get undone is by adopting a more indigenous worldview, which is that people live with the land, right? Everybody’s’ indigenous from somewhere, sometime, so now we have to decolonize, begin to separate those things in our minds. We’ve been given a worldview that’s not really based on reality. And it takes a more indigenous worldview—whether it’s indigenous Native American or indigenous Australian or indigenous European, or whatever it is—a more indigenous worldview to correct that Western worldview that has taken us away from the reality of living as part of the earth.

Later that day, Randy added by email:

I’ve been thinking about your “why” question concerning humanity. So far, I can only say that the farther a culture gets from its earthiness, the more the mind starts to dwell on human accomplishments instead of cooperating with and learning from creation. This creates shortsightedness that imperils everything. Also, Greece and Rome and England and America all have been very young civilizations. I think perhaps their brief age shows the immaturity of thinking. When civilizations are older, like many Indigenous civilizations, they have more time to learn, perhaps they come to understand that war, competition, capitalism, individualism, etc., all eventually lead to instability and are simply bad for everyone, including the ecosystems, and this type thinking should be avoided as much as possible.

Unlike Augustine, the famous Christian theologian so revered among Christians, I do not believe people are born corrupted or sinful and are such “by nature.” I believe we are all born with choices to make. We have some good and some bad influence and we largely, (not exclusively) decide which way we want to go, hopefully learning from our mistakes along the way.

Kollibri terre Sonnenblume is a writer living on the West Coast of the U.S.A. More of Kollibri’s writing and photos can be found at Macska Moksha Press