Indigenous Perception

Bee on a Hopi sunflower. Photo by Jo Belasco, Esq.

Ideas with transformative potential are always hard to explain, but when those ideas cross cultural boundaries — as is the case for the Indigenous Knowledge work Tapestry advances through the IKhana Fund and other projects — communication is even harder. People of Western culture are just beginning to understand that the world has layers of reality their culture cannot see but that Indigenous people perceive, and that this perception is what makes us understand things like sustainability. But it’s still very hard for most people to understand how Indigenous Knowledge relates to the kinds of knowledge used by people in Western culture. Here’s a simple analogy that might help.

The light energy we humans can see is just part of the whole range of wave energy emitted by the sun and other stars. That little part we can see is called the visible spectrum because, well, it’s visible. Humans can see it because we have receptors for it in our eyes. Red light is the lowest-energy part of the visible spectrum, and blue light is the highest. The bar of colors that’s spread out below the bigger, gray bar here expands the visible light part of the bigger spectrum to show you the wavelengths of each color. If a wave has less energy than red light, we can’t see it. If it’s higher in energy than blue light, we can’t see that energy either.

Look at the right end of the gray bar that shows the entire spectrum of waveform energy. You’ll see radio waves there. Radio waves are waveform energy, just like visible light is. The only difference between the two kinds of energy is how much energy they have and what kinds of receptors respond to that energy. Our eyes don’t respond to radio waves, but radios do. Radios don’t respond to light energy but our eyes do. A radio has a receiver that vibrates at a frequency that matches one small segment of radio waves, and that receiver converts the waves to sound. The difference in our perception of radio waves or visible light is a result of the different kinds of receptors for energy in that wavelength. Our perception of waveform energy as a talk radio program or an orange sunset depends entirely on our receptors. Does this mean there could be living beings somewhere who can see energy we can’t? Yes it does.

The picture of an African lion at night you see here is a still from a “Love Nature” video that was taken with an InfraRed imaging system that can turn Infrared heat energy into a photographic image.

The waveform energy just a little lower than the type we can see — to the right of visible light on the diagram — is Infrared, IR for short. Humans have receptors for IR wave energy in our skin and we perceive it as heat. Bodies of mammals are warm and radiate IR wave energy like little space heaters, so cameras and viewers that can convert IR wave energy into visible light energy (which our eyes cannot do) generate images of mammals in dark places where normally we could not see them. Some snakes have a pit organ with receptors that allow them to see IR heat energy this way so they can hunt for mice and birds in the dark.

The same thing happens on the other end of the visible spectrum. Just to the left of the blue-violet end of it, above, you see UV, which stands for Ultraviolet. Humans don’t have receptors for UV light so we can’t see it. But a lot of insects, including bees, can. Furthermore, flowers have pigments that react to ultraviolet light, the same way they have pigments that react to yellow light or red light. We just didn’t know this for a long time because we had to invent film that would respond to UV light before we could see the patterns of those pigments in flowers. UV film allows us to see how flowers look to bees and other insects.

The picture of a Plateau Goldeneye flower on the left (below) was taken in visible light. This is what we humans see. The picture on the right was taken with UV-sensitive film. This is what a bee sees when it looks at the flower we see as simply yellow all over. Notice the big, dark “target” area that highlights the central region of the flower. And the reproductive structures in the center are no longer uniform in appearance either. Several different colors guide the bee to the specific reproductive structures that are ready for pollination and have lots of nectar the bee can make into honey.

Goldeneye flower in visible light (left) and UV light (right).

Now imagine what would happen if a bee tried to talk to you about the way it interacts with this flower. You’d see a bee land in the outer ring of reproductive structures in the flower’s center, and you would say, “Why did you land there in particular?” and the bee would say, “Because I can see that these structures are ready to give me nectar in exchange for pollination.” You would say, “See it!? I don’t see anything. What are you talking about?”

If a bee painted a flower in art class and made a flower look like what it sees, the human art teacher would say, “What is this dark area? That’s not there. And why have you painted the outer area pink? Make the petals yellow all over, everywhere. That’s what a flower looks like.” Western people have been “correcting” Indigenous perceptions of reality this way for as long as we’ve been interacting. But our perceptions don’t need correcting. We are able to perceive things you can’t, because our cultures teach us how as we grow up. It’s not a supernatural ability, any more than the bee’s UV vision is supernatural. It’s literally a natural perception of Knowledge that’s in the environment.

Indigenous perception changes how we experience the natural world. Because our perceptions are different from those of Western people, our responses to the natural world are different from yours too — just like a bee responds to a flower differently because it sees different pigments. Indigenous perception is what permits us to perceive sustainability as a self-evident part of reality, the same way the bee sees the “bulls eye” target of the goldeneye flower as a self-evident part of reality. We didn’t have to “figure out” or “invent” sustainability. We perceive it naturally, as an aspect of the natural world.

The total range of information a person can perceive if they experience the whole, broad spectrum of knowledge available in reality is Indigenous Knowledge, or IK. The multiple ways of knowing Indigenous people use to receive this range of information are analogous to different types of sensory receptors that can detect different wavelengths such as red light or radio waves or X-rays. By comparison, people in Western culture perceive a very restricted range of Knowledge. The well-known Lakota attorney and philosopher Vine Deloria estimated it’s about one-fourth of the full range of knowledge Indigenous people experience. And even within that limited range, Western people try to restrict knowledge. Some decide that only knowledge from “science” or “religion” or “art” is acceptable or real. That’s like arguing that only red exists, or only green. If you’re color-blind, that might seem to be so. But the restriction is in the eye of the beholder. UV flower pigments in flowers can, again, illustrate how much power is available when you unlock these kinds of knowledge restrictions.

Different varieties of sunflowers from different habitats have differing amounts of UV pigment. The flower on the left has the least, while the variety on the right has as much UV pigment as it has yellow pigment. From science education website.

It turns out that different varieties of sunflowers have different amounts of UV pigment on their flower petals. The varieties that have more UV pigment are the ones that live in dry habitats. That observation led to research that showed UV pigments make sunflowers more drought-tolerant. So we learned about an important climate adaptation trait simply because some people were trying to see flowers the way bees do — to understand the reality that bees naturally perceive. What other knowledge — of climate adaptation and many other things — exists beyond Western culture’s knowledge spectrum? Just from where we’re standing, Indigenous people can see a lot.

This is why Indigenous people are asking people of Western culture to stop dismissing the Knowledge we bring to the table, and listen to it instead. Indigenous people can see what’s going on in ecosystems right now, and we can perceive the kinds of responses that can still, potentially salvage things. You can’t. You can learn with and from us, but you’ve got to let Indigenous people lead at this point. We have run out of time to stop and teach you first so that you can keep leading.

And if you keep trying to lead anyway? Well, you know the answer to that yourself. How do you think the world’s environments got to the place they’re in now?

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