A Healing Model of Western-Indigenous Collaboration

What do you stand to gain, if you collaborate with Indigenous people through projects like IKhana Fund? If you do it right, you may begin to recover something very precious you’ve been seeking for a long time. After all, the peoples of Europe who colonized the world lived in Indigenous worldview before they were, themselves, colonized by people whose worldview bore the salient characteristics we now call “Western.” This is not a history lesson, so we aren’t going to discuss the who or the when, or even the why (though please note that colonization is itself one of Western culture’s benchmark traits). Instead, we’ll point to the precious thing you may begin to recover, which is the deep and ancient root of Indigenous understanding that still exists within you. It is withered now, and nearly dead, and most of you believe it’s gone forever and grieve its loss deeply. But still, with a kind of desperate longing, you seek its remnants.

Callanish Stones, Outer Hebrides, Scotland. Erected in the Neolithic, 4000-2500 BCE, in relationship with resident humans through the end of the Bronze Age. Photograph by Chris Combe on Flickr.

Where you look for for your deep Indigenous roots is, oddly, outside yourself. One of the places they are commonly sought by people of Celtic descent, for instance, is in Neolithic standing stones such as the Scottish ones in this photograph. A search outside one’s self makes sense to people of Western culture because knowledge is thought to be best acquired by objective observation of the external world. People of today also sometimes try to find their Indigenous roots by recreating the ancient ceremonies that were held at standing stone sites until about 3000 years ago. That makes sense to people of Western culture too, because it focuses on intentional human doing as the “cause” that makes things happen. A lot of people in Western culture see ceremony as something people create — something that permits humans themselves to “make” a thing happen (or to “make” or “move” a spiritual being to intervene in and so “make” it happen). In Indigenous worldview, on the other hand, a ceremony often exists on its own and has its own agency. In that view, a given ceremony rises up in relationship with humans to manifest its own self in the world. The power is in an entirely different location in the different views of ceremony, and it’s one of the biggest differences between Indigenous and Western worldview.

This difference isn’t bimodal, but it’s real and it matters. Indigenous understanding of sustainability exists within a view in which the Land has all the real power, not humans. Contemporary Western expressions of sustainability, such as those articulated in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, exist within a view in which humans have all the power, and therefore must take control of things.

So where might an Indigenous person think you should look, instead, to find your ancient Indigenous roots? Because Indigenous worldview is about relationship about humans being part of and connected to the Land as a living entity with its own agency, many of us think the place to look is in your own personal relationship with the Land. And in fact, once you change your search field frame of reference from “external and separate” to “relational,” you can begin to see and hear the voice of Indigenous Knowledge speaking from and through people of Western culture. It’s sporadic, not common, and it’s nearly always unrecognized as what it is. But it’s present.

Here is one example, in a poem written by the Irish poet Thomas Moore, who lived from 1779 to 1852. Read it, and look for the voice of Indigenous Knowledge speaking through Moore. When you’re done, I’ll point out to you where it’s visible.

Dear Harp of my Country!
by Thomas Moore (1)

Dear Harp of my Country! in darkness I found thee,
The cold chain of silence had hung o’er thee long;
When proudly, my own Island Harp, I unbound thee
And gave all thy chords to light, freedom and song!
The warm lay of love and the light note of gladness
Have waken’d thy fondest, thy liveliest thrill;
But so oft hast thou echo’d the deep sigh of sadness,
That e’en in thy mirth it will steal from thee still.

Dear Harp of my Country! farewell to thy numbers
This sweet wreath of song is the last we shall twine!
Go, sleep with the sunshine of Fame on thy slumbers,
Till touch’d by some hand less unworthy than mine;
If the pulse of the patriot, soldier, or lover,
Have throbb’d at our lay ’tis thy glory alone;
I was but as the wind, passing heedlessly over,
And all the wild sweetness I waked was thy own!

Let’s start our exploration of this poem at its very end: “If the pulse of the patriot, soldier, or lover,/Have throbb’d at our lay ’tis thy glory alone;/I was but as the wind, passing heedlessly over,/And all the wild sweetness I waked was thy own!”

Moore says very clearly here that the music that came out of the harp is the harp’s own voice (“And all the wild sweetness I waked was thy own“). That is, the harp itself is alive and has its own wild and sweet voice. Please notice his intentional use of the word “wild” here, which is a term often used by people in Western culture to specifically designate that part of nature that is apart from human beings (in contrast to nature that’s been “domesticated”). Often “wild” is seen as dangerous and/or awe-inspiring or overwhelming. But the “wild” voice of the harp here is sweet. That’s a significant deviation from the usual perception of “wild” in Western culture. Further, this wild and sweet voice, this music, came from the harp itself. The human merely “woke” the harp’s voice, and the poet says the same thing could have been done just as well by a “heedless” strumming of the wind passing over the strings. The music, in other words, was not a thing a human “made” happen, or that a human “created.” The music, the song, existed within the harp itself. All that had to happen for the music to manifest itself in reality was for something to be in relationship with the harp. That relational thing could be the wind or the equally “heedless” (non-causal) hand of a human being.

This is really a very fine description of a typically Indigenous view of music. For instance, Shawn Wilson has told a Dakota story of “how the flute came to be, which was that a person was present when the wind blew through a long and slender hollow stick that’d had some holes drilled into it by a woodpecker. So the flute was not ‘invented.’ Knowledge was translated from its source through the medium of wood, wind, and woodpecker to the person who was watching and listening. The person was then able to use that knowledge and transmit it to everyone else.” Shawn then “pointed out that ritual [ceremony] is a part of this type of learning, too.” (2) Compare this view of ceremony with the Western one we described above, that consciously attempts to “create” ceremonies and “make”  them happen. In Indigenous worldview, the natural world of wood, wind, harp strings, and/or woodpecker do the creating; the humans watch, listen, and learn to participate in the process that’s unfolding around them. That’s the view that’s expressed in the poem about the Irish harp and also in the story Shawn told about the flute. Compare that to the contemporary Western worldview that it’s humans who have the power of invention or creation — of ceremony, music, and everything else.

You could argue that I’m projecting my own Indigenous worldview into a poem in which it doesn’t really exist, and that’s certainly possible. But please look at that passage again and consider whether or not you can make any sense of it within a Western system in which the harp is inert and the music is created by the mind of the human who plays it. Also, if you think that’s the case, then what’s the phrase about the wind about? It really doesn’t seem mere coincidence that the basic view of music, musical instruments, and the natural world (the wind and the human here) that’s expressed in this passage is the same one typically seen in Indigenous traditions.

Irish passport from English Wikipedia. Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain.

You might wonder, instead, how it’s possible for Indigenous Knowledge to speak through a Western poet. Where did the voice here come from? Moore actually tells us that too, in the poem’s opening lines: “Dear Harp of my Country! in darkness I found thee,/The cold chain of silence had hung o’er thee long;/When proudly, my own Island Harp, I unbound thee/And gave all thy chords to light, freedom and song!” This poignant passage tells us that before Moore wrote the poem, the voice of the harp that manifested through his writing was locked in dark silence. Not only that, but he makes another crucial connection in this passage, comparing the harp not once, but twice, to his country. The moment you realize how literally he means “Dear Harp of my Country,” you realize Moore sees the harp as Ireland itself. And in fact, the harp is the actual emblem of Ireland, appearing on its coat of arms, official documents, and currency. So what we’re talking about here is not merely the nation-state of Ireland. The Harp is the LAND of that area, that’s called Ireland. It’s a Land that sings a wild and sweet song. That’s who and what it is to those who know it.

With that in mind now — that the harp which makes this “wild sweet music” all by itself IS the Land — reread the opening lines:  “in darkness I found thee,/The cold chain of silence had hung o’er thee long.” These words do not merely describe a harp, but the Land itself. The poet found the Land itself shuttered in darkness, imprisoned by a cold chain that had locked it up for a long time, that silenced the Land’s voice (“the cold chain of silence”). So what did the poet do when he found this terrible situation? He released the Land’s own inherent voice by brushing his hands over its harpstrings — not with any conscious ability to “make” music himself, but mindlessly — as the wind might pass over the strings and draw the harp’s music from it. He’s actually telling us this poem arose from his subconscious (“heedless”) mind. The song that came out is the Land’s own voice.

Moore paints a picture of European Land huddled in the darkness, fettered in chains, silenced. Yet Indigenous people know the Land very well, and relate with it. So the image here isn’t a picture of the Land’s actual existential reality, but of the way the Land exists in relationship with people of Western culture. They have imprisoned it away from themselves and silenced its voice within their own lives. People like poets can sometimes hear the Land’s voice within themselves because the Land is connected to everything that lives. But when they do this, even when they manage to say this is what they’ve done, they often don’t consciously understand what they’ve really tapped into. They tend to see it as metaphor instead. That’s why it’s considered “poetic.” So even when the Land’s voice finds a way to speak through a poet here and there, or a painter, or a gardener, the larger Real significance of this event is completely missed.

If a poet like Thomas Moore can tap into the Land to which he is connected and let the voice of Indigenous Knowledge speak through him, then does every person of Western culture have that capability? Potentiality, yes. But it’s very difficult. Think of a baby who doesn’t talk yet. The potential is there for a baby to speak any language, as it can initially make all of the more than 800 sounds found in the known range of human languages. But a baby raised around people who never speak, and who therefore never gets feedback in a situation where real relational communication is happening, will not learn to do anything more than babble. To learn a specific language, a baby must be in a give-and-take relationship with speaking humans who correct it, even if only by giving it things it asks for properly and not rewarding requests that aren’t clear. With that sort of feedback, the baby’s potential language sounds narrow down to mimic the ones it hears most often, and the child begins to learn to communicate. The same general situation plays out in human ability to communicate with the living Land in different places.

The potential to communicate with the Land is there in each new baby, but its development absolutely requires mentored experience with people who can provide appropriate feedback (in this case Indigenous people, since they are the only ones who remember and still regularly use this skill set) and with Land that’s willing to engage in the process as a teacher. So can an adult learn to relate to the Land quickly and easily? Lakota scholar and author Vine Deloria cautioned people of the dominant culture more than two decades ago that the personal involvement of both Indigenous human and Land teachers is required for success of this enterprise, and that the developmental change takes a long time. (Note: the italicized emphasis on “personal involvement” and “required” were in Deloria’s original.) After all, the Indigenous people who retain and use this skill start learning while very young. If you are old enough to be reading these words, you’re far older than they were when they began the process you’re thinking about. It takes adults longer to learn to speak and understand a second human language, and it likewise takes adults longer to learn to relate with and understand the Land.

The good news is that you are entering a collaborative relationship in which some Indigenous people are willing to help you start this process of learning, in reciprocity for your gift as a significant donor helping the Land’s work to manifest itself. The bad news is that we can’t mentor you or give you feedback if you don’t understand what you’re supposed to be doing here. If you enter our collaboration seeing yourself as an expert whose “collaborative” role is to tell us how to do things properly or how to solve the problems we’re exploring together, you’ll miss out on a meaningful opportunity that’s as powerful as it is rare. But if you do that, we aren’t going to correct you or engage in a power struggle about the purpose of this experience. We will simply go on about the work we must do and you won’t be participating in it with us anymore. You will have given up the opportunity to find and revitalize the precious root of your own ancestral knowledge.


(1) In Irish Melodies by Thomas Moore, 1779-1852. Also published in Thomas Moore, A New Edition from the last London Edition, Boston: Lee and Shepard; New York: Lee, Shepard, & Dillingham, 1876.
(2) Dawn Hill Adams, Shawn Wilson, Ryan Heavy Head, and Edmund W. Gordon. 2015.  “Ceremony at a Boundary Fire: A Story of Indigenist Knowledge.” Available for free download at the University of Sydney eRepository site.(link to the flute story, p 20.