At the Peace and Justice Studies Association annual conference, held this week at Tufts University with the theme “Anticipating Climate Disruption: Sustaining Justice, Greening Peace,” I presented a paper entitled “Changing the narrative and crafting alliances between Western and indigenous worldviews to create a sustainable global future.”
In it, I sketched out the standard Western triumphalist narrative of technological domination of Nature and the New World, starting with the voyages of Columbus and Darwin, continuing with the Manifest Destiny doctrine of the takeover of North America, and on into the present, where we continue to tell ourselves the story of living happily ever after in the brave new world established by the subduing and harnessing of the natural world, the routing of resistance, and the triumph of a technologically advanced global civilization.
Given that the premise of the conference theme anticipates serious climate disruption that will take the story to a very different, and much less rosy kind of conclusion, it’s clear that we need to start telling ourselves stories that reflect a different kind of understanding of our relation as humans to the natural world.
The kinds of stories we need to embrace are not new; in fact, they are ancient. I believe that the indigenous peoples left on the planet, who have survived the intense onslaught of Western culture over the past 500 years, are in the best position to survive the coming cataclysms, and to teach us how we can survive too. We just need to start listening to the stories they tell, rather than remaining spellbound by our own Western narratives.
I shared with the audience the voices and visions of two indigenous elders, Rigoberta Menchu Tum of Guatemala and Malidoma Some of Burkina Faso, who have both spent much of their adult lives reaching out to Westerners, trying to get us to see our relation to the natural world in a more holistic, less destructive way.
Menchu, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 and ran for President of Guatemala in 2007, was a leader in the pan-indigenous drive to get the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples ratified by the General Assembly of the United Nations, which it finally was in 2007. She has worked tirelessly to promote the rights and improve the living conditions of the indigenous peoples in Guatemala, who are a majority in that country, but have little national political representation or power.
Central to Menchu’s political activism is her Mayan understanding of the importance of ecological balance. “An indigenous people’s cosmovision is centered on their relationship with Mother Earth and Mother Nature,” Menchu says. “In contrast, the majority of the world doesn’t give it a thought, doesn’t know what the source of life is. They pollute the earth and do more and more damage. One day the earth will exact a price for this disdain and destruction. When this happens, we will see that the earth is not just good and bountiful, it can also be vengeful.
“Indigenous people see Nature as a living mother, not as an inert organism that would allow itself to be destroyed,” she continues. “All those who violate its laws must accept the consequences, because it is alive and will react. My grandfather always used to say that the day human beings violate our universe, they will receive signs and messages. These messages will be very forceful, and will bring severe punishment.”
These words of Menchu’s come from her second book, Crossing Borders, in which she tried to reach out to the non-indigenous world with a challenge to the dominant narrative of “development,” which has been so terribly damaging not only to indigenous peoples, but to the ecological web of life itself. As she remarks bitterly in the book, “I often wonder why people criticize the Aztecs for offering human sacrifices to their gods while they never mention how many sons of this America…have been sacrificed over the past 500 years to the god Capital.”
These biting words would no doubt resonate with Dagara shaman Malidoma Somé, who was taken as a child by Catholic missionaries to be educated at their school some hundred miles from his village, and was not allowed to go home to visit his family or village for 20 years.
On the point of being sent to France to finish his Catholic education, he rebelled and ran away from the missionary school, somehow finding his way back to his village on foot, unaided. Once there, he insisted that he be given the initiation he had missed out on, and he started on the path to becoming a traditional shaman, or healer.
His healing practice has taken the form of trying to reconnect Westerners with the indigenous knowledge that our culture long ago left behind and rejected as “primitive.” Malidoma, whose name means “he who makes friends with the stranger/enemy,” spends much of his time in the U.S. and traveling around the world, guiding groups of Westerners into a different kind of understanding of self, community, and natural world.
Both Menchu and Malidoma stress that they do not reject all of Western technology —just the way it has been used, and the narrative vision that guides and undergirds it. “What indigenous and Western peoples have in common is the desire to understand the intricacies and complexities of the world we live in, and to harness the power of nature for certain practical purposes,” Malidoma says in his book The Healing Wisdom of Africa.
“Where we have taken different routes, however, is the context within which we have developed our technologies and the purposes for which we have used them. In the West, technology is oriented toward industrial, commercial and military uses; among indigenous people, it serves to heal and help people remember and fulfill their purpose in life.”
Malidoma continues, “Individuals, as extensions of Spirit, come into the world with a purpose. At its core, the purpose of an individual is to bring beauty, harmony and communion to Earth. Individuals live out their purpose through their work. Thus the human work of maintaining the world, to indigenous people, is an extension of the work that Spirit does to maintain the pulse of nature. The villager’s quest for wholeness is an extension of nature’s wholeness.”
Both Malidoma and Menchu describe a human relationship to the earth rooted not in dominion and conquest, but in a cyclical give and take that takes ecological balance as a core value.
I believe that theirs is the vision that must animate the narrative arc of our future as a species on the planet, if we are to survive the environmental challenges that are speeding towards us now.
The good news is that though you won’t find much about this in the mainstream media, there is a quiet but forceful movement building on several fronts that is heeding the call to craft a different kind of human life story.
There is the Transition Town movement, which is imagining communities that are less dependent on multinational corporations, and more interdependent as individuals and cooperatives working together to meet needs on the local level. And there is the Pachamama Alliance, which I talked about in my Tufts presentation, which has been partnering with indigenous peoples to, as they put it, “change the dream” of Western-style domination, development and destruction.
The Pachamama Alliance is quite remarkable in that it sees itself as a solidarity movement guided by its indigenous partners, the Achuar and Shuar peoples of the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador. It grew out of the connection with indigenous shamans established by John Perkins, who began in the 1990s to bring small groups of Americans and Europeans into the Andes and the rainforest to meet with indigenous shamans to learn a different way of understanding our relationship to the natural world.
Ecuador is one of the most beautiful places on earth, but is also one of the places that has been most devastated by the plundering of oil companies, specifically Texaco and Chevron. Millions of acres of rainforest have been polluted by oil spills and the byproducts of unregulated drilling—and a landmark case has just been won against Chevron, ordering the company to pay $18 billion in damages to Ecuador for a clean-up. The case is still in litigation, and meanwhile the people there are coming down with cancers and birth defects in astronomical numbers. It is truly a place where you can see the worst conclusion of the Western narrative of development in action.
But it is also a place where another story is being told, and broadcast out into the world with increasing urgency. It is a story that has been told by indigenous peoples of South America and beyond for hundreds of years.
According to the ancient prophecy of the Eagle and the Condor, which animates the work of the Pachamama Alliance, we are at a moment in history when the Eagle – representing intellect and the mind – and the Condor – representing wisdom and the heart – must come together to ensure the continued existence of humankind.
The human intellect and heart must realize that without the natural world we are nothing. All the computers and synthetic chemicals and megawatts of electricity in the world will not enable us to survive in a world without plants and insects and animals.
It is that simple, and we know it scientifically, but we have not yet absorbed it in our hearts, and put our knowledge into practice in a different way of relating to the natural world.
So the question going forward, as Menchu so pointedly asked, is:
Will we sacrifice ourselves and most of the life forms currently on the planet to the great god Capital?
Or will we begin to understand wealth in a more balanced, ecologically sound way?
Will we have the strength to build a groundswell of resistance to the top-down hierarchies that hold such sway over our lives and the narratives we live by?
I believe we can do it. I want to believe that we will.