How would you diagram an Indigenous project? To begin with, there is no bridge — because we are not trying to move ourselves from where we are now to a place we would rather be. Every aspect of Indigenous life, including the environmental projects we carry out, is represented by this important diagram that is a map of the Land itself. We stand at the center of this Circle. Its rim can actually be seen as encircling the horizon line in a flat place like the surface of the sea or a large plains area, but it is existentially there even if we are on a mountainside. If we stand in the center of a Circle that is the Land itself, does this make us egocentric or human-centric? No, it actually makes us Land-centric instead. This 11-minute video clip explains in more detail if it’s important to you to understand this.
This is the fundamental value for Indigenous people because the Land is the source of literally everything that supports and nourishes life, materially and in every other way. So if the Land is unhealthy, everything in the ecosystem — including the humans who are also part of it — is unhealthy. There’s no way it could be otherwise.
The reason people in Western culture don’t see things this way is that their people who live in places without clean water simply buy clean water from places where it has not yet been polluted. People who have depleted their topsoil buy food from places where the topsoil is still adequate. Or else they grow hydroponically, or they produce fertilizers from oil so they can bolster the soil’s productivity again. These sorts of behaviors have permitted people of Western culture to avoid facing their real dependence on the Land for survival for a long time. But the day of being able to buy or take resources from other people and places is coming to an end as even the resources of previously undepleted lands become over-extended. That’s what’s driving the current crisis. It’s rooted in behaviors that have been going on for a very long time.
How do Indigenous worldview and its agenda play out in the example we just looked at, of someone living in an urban environment, in an apartment building, with children? How would this example be different if the family was Indigenous?
Let us put the apartment building in Manhattan. Notice this first big change: we have to ground the example in an actual, specific Place. This is not a minor thing, as you will see by the time we’re finished. So we have a parent with several children, living in a no-pets apartment building in Manhattan. And the parent and the parent’s family have some sort of long-term relationship with animals, for some kind of important reason related to raising children properly. But at this point, the story changes. The thing that matters most is the Land. It must be respected, seen, heard, nurtured, and thanked. People must be in reciprocal relationship with it. To raise their children properly, the parent must make sure they learn these things. So the agenda of the parent who wants to raise children properly (the same agenda the parents in the other example had, but a different worldview*) is to make sure children learn how to stand in the center of the Circle, on the Land where they live. They must learn how to respect it, relate to it, see it, hear it, nurture it, and thank it. They must learn how to be in reciprocal relationship with it. Yet, when people live in an apartment, their feet aren’t even on the ground. The city influences the air currents and weather. Its light pollution makes it difficult to see the stars and other things in the sky. So it’s challenging to live in a city like Manhattan and still stand in the Circle. But it can be done. Many Indian people live in Manhattan, and have for many years. They even built many of the skyscrapers and bridges there. So obviously we know how to build bridges. We simply choose not to approach our own essential work this way.
The parent must teach the children to look up when they go outside, and to pay attention to where the wind is coming from. They take the children to the waterfront and look at the sea or the river, the currents at different times of the day. They pay attention to the plants in the parks and on the streets, the animals such as squirrels, mice, pigeons, rats, and hawks. They orient themselves with respect to the rivers, the sea, and the distant mountains. They visit places such as the Lenape Center, where Indian people in the area have been working to restore the wholeness between Land and people. The children go to museums to see exhibits of local culture with clothing and other objects that manifest patterns of nature that were perceived by the local Indigenous people. The parent and children talk about the difference between what they see manifesting in these things, and what the white people who designed the exhibit wrote. The parent walks the children around Manhattan and talks about the deeper history of the Land, and what it is underneath all the things that have been piled on top of it. All these things help the children ground themselves in the place they live.
But this grounding is not just material, physical, or geographic. The children are taught to listen to and understand special Dreams, to understand Story, and to develop the discernment that permits them to tell Stories and Dreams that have come from the Land, from ones that have come from less meaningful sources. The objects in museums that were made by Indigenous people of long ago are used to help the children learn how nature, manifesting through materials and designs, is woven into human life in a way that brings Knowledge from the Land as well. So the children begin to learn how art itself is a way of knowing. They learn physical skills such as hiking, climbing, or skating, and are taught to feel their own bodies and the relationship between their bodies and the spaces they move through, and to receive Knowledge from this perception. They are taught courage, resilience, and strength on walks of somewhat challenging length, on journeys in which they are responsible for reading a map and plotting a course, by running errands and having responsibilities for meeting family needs. All these things also help children ground themselves in the place they live, for that place is the Land — and the Land is more than mere geography or ecology. This part of things is about the broader spectrum of Indigenous Knowledge, which you will read about on the next page in this series, Indigenous Perception.
You might feel this kind of agenda can’t possibly apply to environmental projects rather than raising children. But it does. It’s all about standing in the Center — just holding that Center and strengthening the reciprocal relationship we have with the Land. Reciprocal means we care for the Land with the same loving attention it cares for us. It’s about recognizing that everything depends on the Land, and literally nothing can live without air, water, and food. The quintessential Indigenous agenda is for our own Place and People to attend to our own Place and People. It creates an intensely local and very personal kind of environmental project that is extremely powerful. The evidence of its effectiveness is here.
So how does this difference in agenda play out in a way you can see for yourself, when you’re evaluating programs to decide what’s really going on and who’s really running them? Here are a couple of simple “tips” that might help you start to reorient the way you look at environmental projects.
1. Look for the presence of words or phrases that suggest a value system based on economic gain. That tells you the people involved are Western. One simple example is the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which, in trying to elevate sustainability to prominence, actually makes it merely an adjective that supports Western culture’s long-term primary value of economic growth. It’s also important to point out that while “development” may have been an attempt to avoid use of a term related to economics, reading the associated documentation makes it very clear that the term does not refer to the development of sustainability, but to the development of increased values of measurable economic standards. Indigenous cultures’ primary value system is that the Land matters. In a project developed and implemented by Indigenous people, sustainability is spoken of as a natural law and the value derived from that natural law. Sustainability is a noun, not an adjective. When there is real sustainability, there is also real local prosperity, meaning that people’s needs are supported by their own lands. Its resources are not being extracted by other people, in other places, for their own economic gain.
2. Look for the presence of universal, human-derived or human-deduced environmental goals such as “improving biodiversity,” “reducing methane levels,” or “burning to increase grasslands productivity.” These tell you the people involved are Western. In a similar way, look for the presence of universal applicability — of actions based on practices that were found to have meaning in one place (for example, “reducing methane”) being picked up, carried to a new place, and applied to it from the outside. That’s Western too. By comparison, Indigenous people are going to have received very specific Knowledge about what a particular Place needs in the way of assistance. It might be that a particular forest has asked to have one particular invasive plant species removed, or that it’s asked for rocks that were blasted from a mine to be put back, or that it wants a pipeline going through a wetlands to be removed. It may also be that ceremonial actions to help the Land might have been requested, so people will be preparing to do a community song or dance or other ceremony that supports the Land’s health and healing. These are the locally-based kinds of things Indigenous people do, that serve the Land itself. They permit the Land to heal itself because they restore or unblock something the Land in a very specific place needs to be healthy. The Knowledge of what must be done, and how, will have come through Indigenous Knowledge, to specific Indigenous people, for a specific Indigenous Land. How does this Knowledge arrive? That’s a page you’ll read about next, once you finish reading about agenda here.
Oh, and by the way, the Indigenous kids in our example get a pet or don’t get a pet, and the family figures how they want to do it (move apartment, move to suburb, volunteer at a rescue, etc.), but it doesn’t have anything to do with learning responsibility, life/death lessons, or getting exercise and fresh air because those things are all part of learning to live in reciprocal relationship with the Land. Think about the errands I mentioned, the maps, the squirrels, the river. So yeah, if the kids want a puppy or a kitten, the family talks about it. But a pet is by no means their only pathway to connecting to the natural world. The family’s entire worldview is about connection. This is why when you stand in the Center of the Circle, in an Indigenous way, you don’t develop projects that build bridges to take you somewhere else. Instead, you strengthen the Place you stand.
OK, now it’s time to read about Indigenous methods for environmental projects. After that you’ll read a Story that weaves together Indigenous agenda, goals, methods, and values to show you how these things all play out together in an environmental project. So keep going, because you’re really starting to get somewhere important.
*Parents raising children often have the same agenda, across differing worldviews. Their different worldviews change the way these agendas play out, but the love they bear their children means they want to raise them properly and well. But the environmental agendas of Indigenous and Western people are very different, because the two cultures’ relationships to the natural world are entirely different. If people in Western culture had the same relationship to their children that they have to the natural world, they would be emotionally estranged from their children and see them primarily as a means of personal gain in some way. Perhaps you can imagine how that would change the parental agenda we’re using in our example.