The Ecological Wisdom of Indigenous Peoples

 The Original Nations of Great Turtle Island (typically called “the Americas”) have contributed much to the world, but are seldom publicly recognized by major educational institutions as having done so. Nor are they often recognized as models of ecological sustainability. Yet reverence and passion for thousands of years the earth and its web of life was the primary focus and way of life of all Original Nations and Peoples in North, Central, and South America, and this was a direct result of their values and worldviews.

Western thinkers tend to take the position that solutions to the ecological crisis will only be found by Western science in the future. With few exceptions they do not view the past as being instructive and certainly do not consider the traditional cultures of Original Peoples as holding meaningful answers for the world community. For Western European peoples, the knowledge systems of Original Nations and Peoples have been viewed as mere superstitious nonsense. 

However, now that ecological limits of the Earth are being reached, and the future supply of fresh water on the planet and the health of the world’s oceans are being seriously called into question, some Western thinkers are finally coming to the realization that the Earth and its ecosystems have biological limits, and there are severe Karmic consequences when humans arrogantly refuse to maintain ecological balances and safeguard the waters of life. Original Nations’ knowledge systems were and continue to be grounded in thousands of years of multi-generational and interactive understanding of the biological processes of Life.

When early Christian Europeans traveled for the first time across Native lands in North America, they did not find the ecosystems devastated by destructive Native cultural practices. Conquistadors, explorers, chroniclers, surveyors, and missionaries described the vast majority of the Indian lands they were visiting, from the Atlantic seaboard to the Pacific Ocean, as virtual “Edens” with tremendous abundance. Yet our ancestors who worked with the natural life systems to build such places were not and are still not credited for their amazing ecological accomplishments. They are not acknowledged at all.

It was not by mere happenstance that the lands of our Nations were so beautiful and pristine, with pure water, rich dark soil, and millions of acres of verdant old-growth forests, most of which have since been destroyed. Our Nations and Peoples had, over a period of thousands of years, understood themselves to be an integral and innate part of the processes and web of life. They understood, based on origin stories and other teachings, as well as through deep spiritual discernment and ceremonial traditions, that life is sustained by certain patterns of thought and behavior.

There are numerous examples of the commitment of Original Peoples to the conservation and increase of the earth’s natural abundance. In his book 1491, Charles C. Mann includes a photograph of a Peruvian landscape with the following caption: “Agricultural terraces like these in Peru’s Colcha Valley still cover thousands of square miles in Mesoamerica and the Andes, mute testimony to Native Americans’ enduring success in managing their landscapes.” 

Thousands of square miles of land with human made agricultural terraces ought to be viewed as a tremendous human accomplishment by Indigenous Peoples and a model for the world community. Yet this and many other such accomplishments are still not a central focus of mainstream educational institutions.

Mann notes how William Balée, a Tulane University Anthropologist, “cautiously estimated, in a widely cited article published in 1989, that at least 11.8 percent, about an eighth of the non-flooded Amazon forest was ‘anthropocentric’—directly or indirectly created by humans.” C. L. Erickson, a University of Pennsylvania archaeologist, told Mann in Bolivia that “the lowland tropical forests of South America are among the finest works of art on the planet.”

In the 1990s, reports Mann, “researchers began studying … unusual regions of … rich, fertile ‘Indian dark earth’ that anthropologists believe was made by human beings.” This wonderful soil was made, in other words, by Indigenous Peoples, and has been estimated to cover at least a few thousand square miles or perhaps as much as 10 percent of the Amazon basin, an area the size of France. This is tangible evidence of “ecological intelligence.”

Dr. Florence Shipek explains the meticulous way in which the Kumeyaay Indians worked with plant life. The Kumeyaay had evolved ecologically intelligent and deeply discerning methods of caring for the lands and the waters. According to Dr. Shipek, “Kumeyaay plant specialists experimented with all plants, testing them for subsistence, medicinal, or technical purposes, and trying seeds, vegetative cuttings, or transplants in every location. Whenever a plant was useful or successful, its numbers were increased. This specifically applied to emergency food plants, which sprouted only in the unusually timed rainfalls of drought years. Some might sprout only once in twenty years and produce vegetable and seed foods when the regular staples were reduced by drought.”

Western thinkers knew and understood little or nothing about Indigenous knowledge systems historically. For American Indian societies traditionally, the road to education lay through the keen observation of and interactions with the processes of the natural world, and through stories and oral histories that encapsulated the knowledge gained. Such teachings, passed from one generation to the next, built upon the observations and interactions of previous generations, while leaving a standing legacy for future generations. 

The Western myth of the “dumb Indian” emerged from a bigoted and dehumanizing attitude which has persisted to this day in some sectors of the dominating society. Those who are regarded as less-than-human, barely human, nonhuman, or not-quite-human will be considered to have nothing of value to teach those who view themselves as operating on a “higher” level of intellect. Such arrogance is a presupposition built into the Western system of thought and “science” when it comes to the living knowledge systems of Original Peoples. 

Early on, so deep seated was the bigotry against Indigenous Peoples that it was a foregone conclusion that “primitive,” “heathen,” and “uncivilized” societies were lower in development when compared with superior European societies. It took many centuries for the Europeans’ thinking to develop to a point capable of understanding the sophistication and wisdom of Original Peoples’ ecological knowledge. Some Western thinkers, of course, still refuse to concede the point.

Yet it is the dominating society that is ignorant when it comes to ecological intelligence. It operates on the basis of ecological ignorance, meaning that it operates against its own well-being and contrary to the well-being of the human species and all other species. It is a society that conducts itself in a manner that poisons and destroys the biological health of the Earth and its ecosystems. It is a society that continually poisons the waters of the Earth, and therefore wreaks havoc on the cells and waters of our own bodies, and all forms of life. 

Original Peoples’ knowledge systems lead us to certain tautologies. You cannot enhance life by destroying life. If you poison the cells of your body you cannot keep the cells of your body clean and healthy. If the water you drink is poison, you cannot maintain optimum health because the water will poison you. If you poison the air, then the air you breathe will be poisoned.

You cannot maintain optimum health for the cells of your body if your body’s cells are constantly under attack from free radical damage. You cannot reasonably expect the health of the Earth to be maintained if society’s patterns of thought and behavior work to destroy the Earth’s health. If the child developing in the Mother’s womb lives in a toxic carcinogenic brew, your newborns will not be born healthy, and the prospects for their health and longevity are likely to be greatly reduced.

Today, the traditional life-ways and ecosystems of Original Nations and Peoples have been, to a great extent, destroyed. The vast majority of the lands of the Original Nations of Great Turtle Island have been overrun, built on top of, and poisoned with countless pollutants from the industrial non-Indian lifestyle. Time will tell whether the dominating society will ever wake up to the fact that Original Nations and Peoples demonstrated models of ecological sustainability that the dominating society would be wise to emulate.

The Lakota was a true naturalist—a lover of Nature. He loved the earth and all things of the earth, and the attachment grew with age. The old people came literally to love the soil and they sat or reclined on the ground with a feeling of being close to a mothering power. —Chief Luther Standing Bear, Teton Sioux

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenape) is the indigenous law research coordinator at the Sycuan education department of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation in San Diego County, California. He is cofounder and codirector of the Indigenous Law Institute, and a producer of the forthcoming documentary “The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination,” directed by Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota) (find out more about the documentary).

This article is excerpted from “Indigenous Peoples’ Living Knowledge Systems: Models for Ecological Sustainability,” a short essay prepared for the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, April 13–17, 2009. The full essay is available on request from Steven Newcomb at