Why a “Re-Indigenization” of Society Makes Sense

It may sound patently absurd to discuss a “re-Indigenization” of society. Yet, I argue not only is it practical but necessary if humanity is to survive into this century and beyond. Humans, for most of their history, lived as hunter-gatherers, for about the first 290,000 years or so. It is only in the last ten to fifteen thousand years from the “Agricultural Revolution or Neolithic Revolution”, did we begin domesticating animals and plants, and thus began so-called “civilization” with writing, hierarchies, state systems, endemic warfare, and worst of all, slavery. In fact, most of us do not even think about this pre-history. We simply “are” in the world today—a globe we inherited from our collective human shift of moving away from hunting and gathering to a world of domesticating the natural environment.

If we are to legitimately address a history of these inequalities and their historical consequences, “environmental destruction”, “genocide”, “racism”, “systemic warfare”, “human exploitation”, and “state system oppression”, we must begin by examining if progress means a continuation on our present path toward self-destruction. In part, I address some of the effects of these colossal man-made calamities in my new book, Epochal Reckonings (2020, Co-Winner of the Proverse Prize)—a poetic guide to some of our 21st century crises.

What I wish to examine here is a re-thinking of ourselves on our planet earth, in relation to an indigenous understanding of “Mother Earth”. Moreover, I will argue while we have moved well beyond the likes of French philosopher René Descartes, for many reasons his intellectual legacy still remains as we struggle to come to terms with our environment and our heritage from the Agricultural Revolution.

Descartes is well-known for his Cogito, ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am”, which in many ways, makes Descartes the father of “philosophy of mind” and “consciousness” from a Western perspective. He thinks and therefore he knows he exists. But what does existence mean though in terms of our own present day understanding in relation to the world and the environment? In biology, cognition, and neurology alone, our knowledge of brain, mind, and body are indeed profound. With basic evolutionary knowledge, we know biologically we are animals, although perhaps a special kind, and why it is a false narrative to separate humankind from nature. When René Descartes wrote, for example: “…For as to reason or sense, inasmuch as it alone makes us men and distinguishes us from the beasts, I prefer to believe it exists whole and entire in each of us…” (Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, 1637 & 1641, 1998, trans. Donald Cress, p. 2), Descartes had no way of knowing the future of human epistemology. Perhaps he might even have been amused by the contemporary subdiscipline of primatology as aiding our comprehension of human behavior. Who is to know?

What is extremely dangerous, however, is holding on to a kind of Medieval thinking that somehow our world is centered around us, humans and humans alone, and God made man (humans) for the world and for him (them) alone. In the Old Testament, Isaias (45: 18) in the Bible (1899 edn.) it states: “For thus sayith the Lord that created the heavens, God himself that formed the earth, and made it, the very maker thereof: he did not create it in vain: he formed it to be inhabited. I am the Lord, and there is no other”. Yet, it is in Descartes’ Meditation 6 where he explicitly outlines why he separates “Mind from Body” as if the mind itself in all its abstractive capabilities can somehow be divorced from our corporeal selves. And thus, if men’s (human’s) minds may be divided from our bodies then humans may be divided from nature. Here is what he asserts: “Thus it seems to follow that the power of imagining depends upon something distinct from me. And I readily understand that, were a body to exist to which a mind is so joined that it may apply itself in order, as it were, to look at it any time it wishes, it could happen that it is by means of this very body that I imagine corporeal things…” (p. 93) Of course, and to be fair, René Descartes was well ahead of his time on his discourse about the mind, human perception, and the brain. Even so, there are remnants from what he contended which have remained with us, namely, “Cartesian Dualism”, or our complete divorce from nature.

In Maurice Bloch’s (2013) seminal work, In and Out of Each Other’s Bodies: Theory of Mind, Evolution, Truth, and the Nature of the Social, he explains rather than thinking of the separation of mind and body, or culture and nature, “…The social is understood as the flow of interaction between people: I call this the transactional. On the other hand, the transactional social is contrasted with conscious, explicit representation of the social: these I call the transcendental social. I argue that the transcendental social consists of second-order phenomena created and maintained by rituals. The transactional social is governed by norms and ways of doing things that are largely subconscious. It involves the continual mutual monitoring of each other by the members of a social group” (p. vii). In other words, there is no separation between mind and body, nor nature and humankind, nor between culture and nature, the biological is intertwined with the social and vice versa.

In addressing the human issue of our separation from nature may have its Western roots in the so-called “Scientific Revolution” of the 1500s-1600s and the “Age of Enlightenment” of the 1700s, but today, we may re-examine some of the erroneous philosophical carryovers and create a future of cohabitation and interbeing akin to an indigenous understanding of our world. A skeptic may declare, “Well that’s all fine and good but what about poverty, starvation, over-population, and the like?” A re-indigenization of society means a re-orientation of human thought. It does not mean becoming Native or indigenous. It means re-imagining our humanity.

As a society we need to think beyond technological progress and using the planet as an unending natural resource. Here is how in my humble opinion. 1) Accept human beings as part of Earth, and not apart from it, and by this acceptance, accept our dependence upon it; 2) Accept Earth as a living being, the Gaia theory. And if we are to take care of ourselves, we need to take care of the Earth too and become its guardians. We need to love the Earth and respect it as much as indigenous peoples everywhere do; 3) Being grateful for our being on this planet and not endlessly destroying it and polluting it is a good beginning which has been around for a while in ecological consciousness circles; 4) Instead of putting resources into warfare, put resources into renewable energies and into solving malnutrition and poverty in sustainable ways. Make farming more sustainable too instead of a form of factory production and endless soil depletion; 5) Allow indigenous peoples to have “more voice” with first-world nations (Europe, United States, Japan, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other powerful states as China and Russia) in United Nations forums and such environmental decision-making as the Paris Agreement of 2015; 6) Protect indigenous peoples and their rights and allow for indigenous parks and reserves to remain and to be expanded upon by protecting larger tracts of land, instead of developing and exploiting natural resources on indigenous lands for industrial farming, mining interests, oil extraction, electric dams, lumbering, and ranching; 7) Make the “re-indigenization” project official in international law and international treaties, and along with other international laws concerning indigenous peoples (e.g. ILO Convention Number 169 of 1989 and the 2007 UNDRIP, United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples). Make all nation-states adhere to such a project if possible; 8) Create more public awareness through more education programs through universities, and above all, create an ecological consciousness understood from indigenous perspectives and in their own voices; 9) Remember scientists believe we are entering the sixth extinction phase on the planet and we must prevent this by all productive means necessary; 10) And finally, allow more indigenous peoples to be spokespeople and to become planetary ambassadors for realizing such a re-indigenization project before it is too late.

One indigenous leader in Ecuador, Nemonte Nenquimo, First Female President of the Waoroni Organization of the Pastaza Province and Co-Founder of the Ceibo Alliance, declared in an open letter to world leaders: “My name is Nemonte Nenquimo. I am a Waorani woman, a mother, and a leader of my people. The Amazon rainforest is my home. I am writing you this letter because the fires are raging still. Because the corporations are spilling oil in our rivers. Because the miners are stealing gold (as they have been for 500 years), and leaving behind open pits and toxins. Because the land grabbers are cutting down primary forest so that the cattle can graze, plantations can be grown and the white man can eat. Because our elders are dying from Coronavirus, while you are planning your next moves to cut up our lands to stimulate an economy that has never benefited us. Because, as Indigenous peoples, we are fighting to protect what we love—our way of life, our rivers, the animals, our forests, life on Earth—and it’s time that you listened to us. In each of our many hundreds of different languages across the Amazon, we have a word for you—the outsider, the stranger. In my language, WaoTededo, that word is “cowori”. And it doesn’t need to be a bad word. But you have made it so. For us, the word has come to mean (and in a terrible way, your society has come to represent): the white man that knows too little for the power that he wields, and the damage that he causes. You are probably not used to an Indigenous woman calling you ignorant and, less so, on a platform such as this. But for Indigenous peoples it is clear: the less you know about something, the less value it has to you, and the easier it is to destroy. And by easy, I mean: guiltlessly, remorselessly, foolishly, even righteously. And this is exactly what you are doing to us as Indigenous peoples, to our rainforest territories, and ultimately to our planet’s climate.” (The Guardian, October 12th, 2020).

J. P. Linstroth is a former Fulbright Scholar to Brazil. His recent book, Epochal Reckonings (2020), is the 2019 Winner of the Proverse Prize. He has a PhD (D.Phil.) from the University of Oxford. He is the author of Marching Against Gender Practice: Political Imaginings in the Basqueland (2015) and, most recently, author of Politics and Racism Beyond Nations: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Crises (2022).