Another Way of Knowing
We must learn from those cultures that, rather than deplete ecosystems, presided over their enrichment.
by Russell Maier & Banayan Angway
Over the course of human history, certain societies have excelled far more than others at the art of green. Rather than depleting the ecosystems of which they were part, these societies steadily enriched them. Rather than moving on to new lands and resources, these cultures made a common home with the organisms around them. As they did so, these cultures got to know ever better the ecology in which they were immersed to develop a practical wisdom for maximizing their ecological integration. Today, as we strive to ensure that our modern enterprises are green, we have much to learn from the way these cultures knew their world. In fact, Banayan and I have come to see that integrating their way of knowing is a fundamental requisite to an ethic of green.
Four centuries ago, the first Europeans began to explore the Americas. From the 1490’s to the 1790’s, they found themselves in awe of the tremendous ecological diversity and abundance that they encountered. On the Pacific West Coast of North America, for example, the first Europeans documented rivers overflowing with salmon, forests teeming with game, trees of colossal size, and coastal shoals overflowing with marine life.
“…the country before us exhibited every thing that bounteous nature could be expected to draw into one point of view. As we had no reason to imagine that this country had ever been indebted for any of its decorations to the hand of man, I could not possibly believe that any uncultivated country had ever been discovered exhibiting so rich a picture.”
— Captain Vancouver’s observations of the Pacific Northwest Coast, May 2nd 1792 1
However, like other European explorers before them, their observations of human habitation were tainted. Just as as the mountains and thick forest restricted their routes, so too did the lens of European culture restrict their observation and appreciation of the societies they encountered (we’ll take a close look at this in our next chapter). Cultural bias aside, early explorers, simply did not realize that they were observing the remnants of great societies that had been completely devastated by disease. In some cases, the populations of these nations had been reduced by 90–95% by diseases that had swept the continent only a few years before2. Consequently, early explorers, and their colonists to follow, attributed the stunning ecological abundance to the power and potential of ‘nature’ — the land undisturbed and untainted by man’.3
However, through the meticulous work and perseverance of anthropologists over the last century, it is evident now that the Americas, shortly before the arrival of most European explorers, was home to hundreds of thriving independent nations and on the whole, tens of millions of people, if not hundreds of millions4. With the populations of some Mesoamerican cities in the hundreds of thousands, nations easily had the potential to exhaust the carrying capacities of local ecosystems5. Indeed, it is now widely recognized that these first nations had sophisticated gathering technologies, and had long attained the skills to over-fish, to over-hunt and over-cultivate the ecosystems around them6. They also had the destructive potential. War and raids, the taking of slaves and heads, the destruction of towns and cities were not uncommon occurrences.
But despite their technology, population and destructive-capacity, over-consumption and ecological exploitation did not occur.
In fact, quite the opposite.
Today it is becoming increasingly clear that the startling ecological vitality of the time was not due to a lack of indigenous population, skill or technology. Rather it was a consequence of it — the culmination of centuries of mindful and masterful human ecological integration. Modern research shows that these fields and forests7, shoals8 and shores9 once presided over by various first nations, are today demonstrably more verdant, productive and biodiverse than adjacent, “natural”, or un-managed ecosystems10.
Interestingly enough, despite the vast disparities of politics, beliefs and identity among these first nations11, they nonetheless shared a consistent fundamental view of the world. Much as the various European colonial nations shared certain fundamental precepts (such as Greco-Roman myths and metaphysics) so too did the network of first nations spread out across the continent three hundred years ago12. In a similar way, first nations held their own underlying myths and metaphysics. In particular, a view of the world in which humans, animals and plants were all members of a common family.
Quite unlike the lens of ‘nature’ by the explorers and colonist saw the land, the first nation view of the world had no notion of man’s separateness or superiority. Instead, these first nation cultures saw the plants and animals around them, quite literally as kin — a community of beings that share ancestry and origins.13 As such, they saw themselves, like plants and animals, as an equally integral part of the life and place within which they live.
This ‘kincentric’ world view14, enabled a wholly different way of ecological knowing than we are accustomed to in our modern society that inherit so much of the colonial culture that came to dominate the continents.
Seeing the animals and plants around themselves as kindred creatures, many first nation cultures articulated their relationship to them as that of a younger brother to an older, or as a granddaughter to a grandmother. Then, just as one learns from a distinguished elder, these cultures paid special attention to those particularly distinguished organisms around them. Creatures that, in elegance, ingenuity and beauty had most magnificently mastered their ecological integration.
Today, we can appreciate the accuracy of the elder analogy.
In the same way that brother and sister, grandson and grandfather are parts of a larger family, so too are plants and animals subsets of an ecological system — just as are humans. Likewise, in the same way that forests and reefs are subset systems of larger biomes, so too are human communities and economies. Consequently, plants and animals, forest and reefs, having had millions of years longer than humans to adapt and integrate into a particular ecosystem, have invaluable systemic adaptions for humans to learn from.
In this way, a salmon or an eagle, a toad or a tree, all embody the culmination of hundreds of millions of years of evolutionary trial and error — the result of innumerable attempts and optimizations to integrate within a particular ecosystem. In comparison, the first humans to settle in the Americas (only several tens of thousands of years ago!) were newcomers — ecological young-lings who had much to learn from their resident elders.
And so they did!
As early Americans observed the way in which the lives of plants and animals synced with the cycles of an ecosystem, patterns were discerned. As they observed these patterns in the life and death of a particular creature, tendencies were noted and its character compiled. Over time, these insights were passed down over the generations in moral stories that featured the creature and the ecological principle that it most illuminated — ever increasing the ecological awareness and integration of the community.
Often, a tribe, resonating with the character of a particular creature would adopt it as their representative and guide. Almost all North American first nation clans took an animal — such as the wolf, raven, elk and beaver — as their representative, or totem.15 They were guided by the animal’s ecological example as it was embodied in myths that expounded particular principles, vices and virtues.16
Learning the art of earthen integration from their ecological elders, these societies were able to weave their ecological mastery into the fabric of their language, grammar and values.17 In so doing their were able to by-pass the tedious, million-year process of evolutionary trial and error and dramatically fast forward their ecological awareness and integration.
While societies elsewhere inclined towards the eminence of human needs, these kincentric societies continued to incline towards ecological enrichment.
While other societies moved outwards to subjugate ever more resources and land, these kincentric societies made do with what was at hand.
While other societies centered their culture upon themselves, these kincentric societies centered around the life cycles of the creatures they admired — the migration of geese, the return of salmon, the coming and going of the whales.
And precisely because these life-cycles remained, so could they continue to learn from them.
In a spiral of ever deeper knowing, awareness and consciousness, kincentric cultures grew ever more in sync with the ecosystems around them. With the momentum of millennia of compounding insights, their epistemology steadily led to an ecological understanding of unparalleled lucidity. Steadily, humans were able to co-create with plants and animals a common home for all to thrive.
Today, as we strive to green our modern culture and enterprises, the recognition and integration of the kincentric way of seeing and knowing is essential.
Learning from them, we can at last perceive long buried faults in our modern view of the world that stand in our way to fast forwarding our own ecological integration.
NEXT: Chapter 6 | Nature’s Fallacy
PREVIOUS: Chapter 4 | The Earth’s Pattern of Process
Russell Maier and Banayan Angway, a western philosopher and Igorot wisdom keeper, met ten years ago to protect the Chico River, from an inundation of plastic pollution. Ever since, their exploration of the critical modern relevance of indigenous ecological wisdom has steadily unfolded. They are now publishing their insights in a theory of green and grey entitled the Tractatus Ayyew. The Full Story
1George Vancouver, A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean, and Round the World, vol. 2 (London: G. G. and J. Robinson, Paternoster-Row; and J. Edwards, Pall-Mall, 1798), 220–28, 288–89. Chapter 4, 2nd of May 1792
2Most explorers and colonists simply did not have the chance to see the full levels of pre-colonial population: “In the first 130 years of contact about 95 percent of the people in the Americas died — the worst demographic calamity in recorded history.” — https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/03/the-pristine-myth/303062/ Referencing: William M. Denevan, (1992), The Native Population of the Americas in 1492, Second Revised Edition.
3“For years the standard view of North America before Columbus’s arrival was as a vast, grassy expanse teeming with game and all but empty of people. Those who did live here were nomads who left few marks on the land. South America, too, or at least the Amazon rain forest, was thought of as almost an untouched Eden, now suffering from modern depredations. But a growing number of anthropologists and archaeologists now believe that this picture is almost completely false.” — Charles C. Man (2006), 1491, Vintage Publishing, Chapter 1, A view from above.
4 Henry Dobyns estimated a 1492 population of the americas ranging from 90.04–112.55 million inhabitants. Dobyns, Henry F. An Appraisal of Techniques with a New Hemispheric Estimate. (1966) Current Anthropology 7, no. 4 : 395–416. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2740306.
5 In his survey of population studies of Mesoamerica and North American nations prior to the arrival of Europeans, Charles Mann, describes numerous regions and even cities with populations exceeding 100,000. Charles C. Man (2006), 1491, Vintage Publishing, Chapter 1, A view from above.
6“With their technology the people could have captured every fish, but that would have made no sense. River groups agreed to remove traps periodically to allow enough fish upstream to spawn and keep the run healthy. Spaces between weir stakes were also calibrated to allow smaller fish to ascend unimpeded. The fishery was so well managed that when the settlers arrived it is estimated that returning salmon numbered in the millions.” David M. Buerge, (2017), Chief Seattle and the Town that Took his Name, The change of world’s for the native people and settlers on Puget Sound, Sasquatch Books. Chapter One: Prehistory to 1792. Referencing: The Salmon Weir on Green River in Western Washington, Davidson Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 3 №1, Summer, 1957 pp. 37–54.
7Armstrong, C., J. Miller, A. C. McAlvay, P. M. Ritchie, and D. Lepofsky. (2021). Historical Indigenous Land-Use Explains Plant Functional Trait Diversity. Ecology and Society 26(2):6. https://doi.org/10.5751/ES-12322-260206
8 A. Groesbeck AS, Rowell K, Lepofsky D, Salomon AK (2014) Ancient Clam Gardens Increased Shellfish Production: Adaptive Strategies from the Past Can Inform Food Security Today. PLoS ONE 9(3): e91235. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0091235
9Haggan, Nigel, (2006) 12,000+ Years of Change: Linking Traditional and Modern Ecosystem Science in the Pacific Northwest, Haggan, N., Turner, N.J., Carpenter, J., Jones, J.T., Menzies, C. and Mackie, Q. UBC Fisheries Centre Working Paper #2006–02.
10“Patches of forest cleared and tended by indigenous communities but lost to time still show more food bounty for humans and animals than surrounding forests. [These] ‘Forest gardens’ show how Native land stewardship can outdo nature”, Gabriel Popkin, (2021), Forest Gardens Show how native land stewardship can outdo nature. National Geographic https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/forest-gardens-show-how-native-land-stewardship-can-outdo-nature
11The prevalence of a vast disparity of social structures and political systems is the main argument of the recent book: David Graeber, David Wengrow, (2021) The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, Signal Publishing.
12“Understanding the depth of relationships and the significance of participation in all aspects of life are the keys to traditional American Indian education. Mitakuye Oyasin (we are all related) is a Lakota phrase that captures an essence of Tribal education because it reflects the understanding that our lives are truly and profoundly connected to other people and the physical world.” Cajete, G. 1994. Look to the mountain: an ecology of indigenous education. Kivaki Press, Durango, Colorado, USA.
13“Indigenous cultural models of nature include humans as one aspect of the complexity of life.” Enrique Salmón, (2000) Kincentric Ecology: Indigenous Perceptions of the Human-Nature Relationship , Ecological Applications, Vol. 10, №5 (Oct., 2000), pp. 1327–1332, Ecological Society of America, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2641288
14We are referencing the term ‘kincentric’ from the work of Enrique Salmón, Kincentric Ecology: Indigenous Perceptions of the Human-Nature Relationship (2000), Ecological Applications, Vol. 10, №5 (Oct., 2000), pp. 1327–1332, Ecological Society of America, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2641288
15“… A North American 500 years ago could travel from the shores of the Great Lakes to the Lousiana bayous and still find settlements — speaking languages entirely unrelated to their own- with members of their own Bear, Elk or Beaver Clans who were obliged to host and feed them.” David Graeber, David Wengrow (2021), The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, Signal Publishing. Chapter 4. Free People, the Origin of Cultures, p. 123
16"According to the beliefs of the Cree of eastern James Bay, it is the animals, not people, who control the success of the hunt, a view that has parallels in many other indigenous groups such as the Inuit. … These beliefs indicate a cosmology in which humans are part of a ‘community of beings’ within the ecological system.” Berkes, F. (2012). Sacred ecology. Third edition. Routledge, New York, New York, USA. Chapter 5, p.105.
17For a wonderful account of ecological wisdom intertwined within the grammar of various first nation languages see: Matthew C. Bronson, Lessons in the Old Language (2018) Global Oneness Project https://www.globalonenessproject.org/library/essays/lessons-old-language