Cliff Notes - How it is 🐢.

I believe that taking meaningful restorative action for the planet starts with changing our culture, and that culture change requires an understanding of other ways of being. In my own search for alternatives, I read “How It Is”, by Viola Cordova - a Jicarilla Apache / Hispanic professor of classical Western & Native American philosophy. In Viola’s words, “I study white people.” The book helped me see blindspots in my own world view, as well as insights into a belief system that might make that culture shift possible. The following is a synthesis of my notes, but I highly recommend reading the book.

The foundation of our beliefs starts with our stories of the world, and our concept of ourselves.

White Western Stories of the World

  • The earth is a thing out of which humans have evolved and now transcend.
  • Human beings, the greatest of species, are still in a transition phase on the way to becoming something even greater.
  • Because they are in transition they are riddled with leftover instincts that must be controlled.
  • In the future everything will be even better than present but only if human beings keep evolving.
  • The earth came from nothing. It is a statistical anomaly. It is a resource-rich rock floating through cold empty space.

The idea that we came from a shared beginning with a shared direction is uniquely western.

Native American Stories of the World

  • There has never been “nothing”. All things are constantly changing. The earth is a living organism. People depend on her for survival. She is not harmful. The peoples of the earth occupy their rightful place, and there will be others in their own right place, living in their own true beliefs.
  • Usen” is that which can’t be explained. It has no wants for humanity. It is sacred in its unknowingness and can’t be given human characteristics. We should not try to know it or master it.
  • That which has energy has motion. That which has motion exists. Time is a measure of motion. Energy pools in the form of diverse beings. There is no separation between body and mind - both are part of a system that must work together - matter-energy.
  • The earth is an embryo, the atmosphere its protective albumen. The galaxy is a womb. The earth is a fragile thing trying to reach maturity.

Tribal peoples do not require a sameness of thought.

“The stories of all people need to be laid out on the table before one understands how to be fully human.”

There is a general understanding that multiple stories, belief systems, and worldviews exist. There is no belief in a single Universal Truth.

“The purpose of the search for universal truth is that it places a high degree of control in the knower. The goal is to lock in some thing unchanging.” The Native American approach is not to find truth but stability. “There are no native correlates to the terms soul or God. The things we seek are balance and harmony.”

The relationship between humans and the earth is one of reciprocity, give and take. “We must care for the earth for her to continue producing.”

The future is not preordained and waiting for us to arrive. It is a product of our actions. Survival depends on stability.

We know monoculture farming is bad, why do we not feel the same about human culture?

“What we change, changes us.” In my attempt to change others, how is it changing me?

Part of why native culture has persisted because of its sense of bounded space

Part of why native peoples have survived and their culture has persisted in its identity is because their cultural moorings and values are tightly coupled to the environment ,the place, and the stories of that place.

When you recognize your own bounded space you honor the space of others.

Western culture does not place limits on where it calls home. White Americans, by way of immigration, do not have a storied sense of home. This unfamiliarity takes its toll on a person. “We are bombarded every time we leave home, we walk into another layer over our world and have to comprehend it, work within it as well as within our own layer of the world.”

“Without a sense of bounded space there is no sacredness accorded to one’s own space of place. There are no sacred mountains no deep knowledge of the land the night sky and its own multiple astronomies”.

Even Nomadic tribes had a distance from home at which they ceased to be.

When I travel do I cease to be? Am I developing/ learning, or just living another’s life? Having moved so many times, have I lost a sense of place, yet retained the need to belong?

The relationship between the group and the individual

In American society we prize individualism. The group is a threat to one’s individualism - we must seek to set ourselves apart, avoid “herd mentality”. Economics operates on the principle that man acts in his own self interest, and facilitates a state of competition. A member of a “developed” society can show that he acts in his own best interest, and separating the individual from his group defeats the need to abolish the group itself.

In Native society, the unattached individual is not fully human - in need of being shown how to be human by being part of the group.

A native child becomes a person when they are mobile, capable of encountering the world and exploring their own environment, free to make decisions and suffer the consequences, where an American child is protected from the world, watched and controlled.

To imagine we are self made requires a denial that we were formed by a group. There are no self made individuals, only those who refuse to acknowledge their debts.

The Impact of Western Culture on Native Peoples

“Environmentalists are of another mind from natives because they are not concerned so much with the sacred as with the idea of stewardship.”

White progress (quite literally) paves over the native’s reality and connection to spirituality.

In considering other cultures histories part of our own, we give ourselves permission to co-opt them, claim their artifacts.

In our study of history we give things labels according to their level of advancement. “Bronze age”, “iron age”, “primal”, “feudal”, “developing”. These labels ignore a diversity of environment (different access to these “fundamental” resources) and diversity of values (developing toward what?).

Describing “human nature” in the context of evolution implies some aspects of our humanity have not kept pace with others, implying we are flawed.

We attribute vanished cultures to their inability to adapt to modernity, but don’t consider our role in helping them stay beyond our encroachment.

Native Americans as an artifact are popular, but as a living community are ignored. How do we inform ourselves about other cultures in a way that doesn’t make them an artifact?

The average Native American lifespan in the US is 47, they have the highest unemployment, suicide, and diabetes rates. None of our research of the cultures lessens these statistics. Why?

When you lose the lore of a people you lose the justification for their lifestyle. How many of us have lost our lore? Do I have a justification for my lifestyle? It is impossibly far removed.

Often Natives describe a state of mental illness as a fog. The fog is a way of characterizing the point at which a Native American might question their reality, especially when confronted with a white western reality. In that reality, self sufficiency and independence is offered as a solution to alienation. “These cures would cause a native to participate in the cause of his own distress.”

We praise ourselves for giving people new modern skills, but bemoan when they can’t find a way to live like we do.

We don’t preserve Amazonian tribes for their necessity in maintaining healthy ecosystems, we preserve them as zoo specimens - last of their kind.

Creating a better future

It is not the planet that is in danger, it is us.

Taking personal action to solve the climate crisis will take adoption of a new religion. We cannot have faith only in “another world” waiting for us when we die. The idea that we have a soul and therefore are not animals is religious in nature. We can’t adopt a new attitude toward the environment without evaluating our current one.

It is not enough to deprive the old believer of outdated and perhaps harmful beliefs. One must also provide new beliefs.

Environmental evolutions are necessary given the conditions in which they come into existence. It is not ethics that will change our behavior, it is observation.

If in fleeting moments we stop to consider the price we have had to pay for our present and future achievements, there are a few of us who would regret that price. We can rise in indignation should a new and potentially polluting project be proposed for our community. “Build it elsewhere,” we can say. But what we cannot say is, why build it at all?

Perhaps what we need is not a return to simpler times, but a new reverence.