Indigenous Sustainable Wisdom

First-Nation Know-How for Global Flourishing

by Darcia Narvaez (Volume editor) Four Arrows (Don Trent Jacobs) (Volume editor) Eugene Halton (Volume editor) Brian Collier (Volume editor) Georges Enderle (Volume editor)
Textbook XII, 292 Pages

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Acknowledgements
  • 1. People and Planet in Need of Sustainable Wisdom (Darcia Narvaez / Four Arrows / Eugene Halton / Brian S Collier / Georges Enderle)
  • Section 1. Understanding Humanity’s Past
  • 2. Conversations with the Deep Past: What Can Ancient Hunter-Gatherers Tell Us about Sustainable Wisdom? (Penny Spikins)
  • 3. Indigenous Bodies, Civilized Selves, and the Escape from the Earth (Eugene Halton)
  • 4. Rematriating Economics: The Gift Economy of Woodlands Matriarchies (Barbara Alice Mann)
  • 5. Original Practices for Becoming and Being Human (Darcia Narvaez)
  • Section 2. Ways of Doing Science and Relating To Nature
  • 6. Plants, Native Science and Indigenous Sustainability (Gregory A. Cajete)
  • 7. Mother Earth vs. Mother Lode: Native Environmental Ethos, Sustainability, and Human Survival (Bruce E. Johansen)
  • Section 3. Ways of Being Human
  • 8. Spiritual Relations, Moral Obligations and Existential Continuity: The Structure and Transmission of Tlingit Principles and Practices of Sustainable Wisdom (Steve J. Langdon)
  • 9. Sustainable Wisdom and Truthfulness: An Indigenous Spiritual Perspective (Four Arrows (Wahinkpe Topa) / aka Don Trent Jacobs)
  • 10. Listening to the Trees (Tom McCallum)
  • Section 4. Steps Toward Integrated Futures
  • 11. Connection Modeling: Metrics for Deep Nature-Connection, Mentoring, and Culture Repair (Jon Young)
  • 12. Wisdom, Sustainability, Dignity, and the Intellectual Shaman (Sandra Waddock)
  • 13. For a Tattered Planet: Art and Tribal Continuance (Kimberly Blaeser)
  • Contributors
  • Index

| ix →


Figure 2.1: Horse engraved on a bone from Creswell Crags

Figure 2.2: The Müller-Lyer Illusion

Figure 3.1: Henry Adams, the increase in power over time

Figure 3.2: The Contractions of Mind

Figure 4.1: Three Governance Models, schematically shows lines of authority in statist, confederated, and community relationships

Figure 4.2: Shows the complex intertwinings of Blood (“clans”) and Breath (“nations”) binding the Confederacies into strong units

Figure 8.1: Tlingit Kwaan Territories

Figure 8.2: Lukaax.ádi crest blanket

Figure 8.3: Hinyaa Tlingit petroglyph

Figure 8.4: Owl’s original long beak

Figure 10.1: Hierarchy of Dependence

Figure 11.1: Eight Attributes of Connection

Figure 11.2: The Connected Self

Figure 11.3: The 64 Cultural Elements

Figure 11.4: Models of Trans-Cultural Facilitation

Figure 11.5: Intersection of Aspects Resulting in Eight Attributes

Figure 13.1: Picto-Poem “Dreams of Water Bodies”

Figure 13.2: Picto-Poem “A Crane Language”

Figure 13.3: Picto-Poem “Of the many ways to say: Please Stand

| xi →


We thank the courageous Indigenous Peoples, often unrecognized, who have fought against all odds to maintain humanity’s original ways of knowing. We especially thank the generous support of The Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi (Pokégnek Bodéwadmik) upon whose traditional homeland, for thousands of years, the University of Notre Dame is placed. This book (and the conference from which it emerged) was also made possible in part by support from the Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts, College of Arts and Letters, University of Notre Dame and from many entities across the university. We thank the following units at the University of Notre Dame:

Center for Arts and Cultures

Center for Social Concerns

College of Science, Nieuwland Lecture Series

Department of American Studies

Department of Anthropology

Department of Art, Art History & Design

Department of English

Department of History

Department of Psychology

Department of Sociology ← xi | xii →

Department of Theology

Eck Institute for Global Health

Environmental Change Initiative

Gender Studies Program

The Graduate School

Institute for Advanced Study

Institute for Educational Initiatives

John J. Reilly Center for Science, Technology & Values

Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies

The Law School The Minor in Sustainability

Multicultural Student Programs and Services

Native American Alumni

Native American Initiatives

Native American Student Association of Notre Dame

Office of Research

Poverty Studies

Shaw Center for Children and Families

The Snite Museum

| 1 →

People and Planet in Need of Sustainable Wisdom


It is always a shock to learn of the teeming wildlife that greeted the first Western explorers and invaders of the Americas a few centuries ago. Columbus and others who followed him reported on the sweet smells of blossoms and trees from hundreds of miles off the coast, even off the Jersey shore.1 It was a land of luxuriant vegetation filled with huge herds of animals and flocks of birds that could darken the sky for hours if not days during migrations. In the interior, romps of river otters and knots of giant catfish impeded the progress of canoes. The land gave forth a profusion of life that seems impossible to imagine today. Yet how we might envision and bring about such a return to biodiversity, as well as cultural diversity, is one of the questions this book attempts to address.

Today we may be concerned about the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and other remaining pristine forests, but will our actions on these concerns be as inadequate as in the past? For example, in the 19th century, the cutting and burning of the old growth forests across the United States proceeded at a rate of up to 25 million acres a year, with regular celebrated intentional massacres of wildlife—from flocks of passenger pigeons and Carolina parakeets (which went extinct as a result) to millions of bison. In 1818, citizens in Hinckley Township Ohio came together in the nearby forest to kill hundreds of “pests”: “three hundred deer, twenty-one bears, seventeen wolves, and uncounted numbers of foxes and other small game.”2 In a brief amount of time, the invaders transformed the vast ← 1 | 2 → paradise into a deforested, parched, and eroded landscape. The ravaging included old growth cultures—at least 600 different societies existed across what became the United States.3

California offers a relatively recent example of such extermination practices that included not only plants and animals, but humans. Prior to European contact in 1543 and stretching back earlier, through at least 12,000 years of mostly peaceful cooperation, California was home to approximately 70 native tribes, speaking about 100 languages from 5 different language families, as well as vast herds of antelope, deer, and elk, rivers teeming with fish, coastlines banked by thousands of sea otters and other sea life, and massive old growth forests.4 Thousands of native peoples were lost initially through systematic enslavement and torture during Spanish occupation from 1769 until 1821 when Mexico won its independence from Spain. The U.S. military started to invade California in 1846, before the ultimate transfer to the United States in 1848, when a systematic hunting and slaughtering of natives by vigilantes and soldiers began. Many genocidal actions were directed by governors and congressmen, with the feverish lure of the gold rush as a backdrop. By 1873, only 30,000 native persons were known to remain (though many others likely persisted, by passing as non-native). Much of California’s ecological wealth was also decimated during the 19th century.

The mindset and practices that exterminated species and cultures in the past are still with us today. In fact, in recent decades, they have spread to virtually every corner of the earth.5 Moreover, the prognosis is not good as global warming and decimation of ecosystems accelerates in the 21st century. This book offers new attention to alternative mindsets and practices that are based in sustainable cultural wisdom.

The Setting

While the 21st century has seen the growth of a staggering amount of financial wealth around the world, inequality has burgeoned. Attacks on bio- and cultural-diversity continue unabated, despite increased knowledge of the interrelations among and within ecological systems. Increasing technological capacities have only worsened the situation. Signs of ill-being among ecosystems, biodiversity, and plant and animal life have surged.6 The dominant culture of the earth, whose roots grow out of earlier Middle Eastern empires and patriarchal religions, exploded out of Europe with globalizing imperialism, capitalism, and technological power. Now fully globalized, it is putting all life on the planet at risk.7 The dominant worldview, largely driven by the fever of financial wealth within economically-advanced nations in the northern hemisphere, has emphasized financial wealth ← 2 | 3 → at the expense of social and ecological wealth and health.8 The Dakota pipeline project—which gave rise to the Standing Rock protest led by the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota People—is one of many examples of such hegemonic priorities. In 2016, Energy Transfer Partners, in concert with the federal government, ignored long-standing treaty obligations and well-founded concerns regarding the potential for oil leaking into the drinking water of over ten million people in order to lay oil pipe across the sacred Missouri River and tribal lands.

These same tribes were all too familiar with such violations. In the 1950s, similar policies were responsible for placing dams on the Missouri River that selectively inundated their riparian homeland. Entire tribal communities were relocated to barren plains above the river valley.9 This kind of displacement of people and alteration of environments in which people dwell is the story of civilization since its beginnings, undergirded by a narrative, until recently, of continued progress, but one that masked its real underlying costs. Blind and destructive “progress” is a cause for great biocultural destruction, as noted in the 2015 papal encyclical letter, Laudato Si,

in various parts of the world, pressure is being put on [Indigenous communities] to abandon their homelands to make room for agricultural or mining projects which are undertaken without regard for the degradation of nature and culture. Authentic development includes efforts to bring about an integral improvement in the quality of human life, and this entails considering the setting in which people live their lives.10

The rise of the modern world, rooted in domination of Nature and technological progress, has increasingly revealed its shortcomings and unsustainability through human-caused cultural, ecological, and biodiversity destruction.11

As mentioned earlier, even in advanced nations like the United States, the situation is worsening despite overall vast financial wealth.12 This caps a long-term trend showing an inverse relationship between financial wealth and wellbeing. Physical anthropologist Clark Spencer Larsen stated: “Although agriculture provided the economic basis for the rise of states and development of civilizations, the change in diet and acquisition of food resulted in a decline in quality of life for most human populations in the last 10,000 years.”13 Western science and scholarship may lament the resulting ill health (mental and physical) and environmental destruction from their civilization’s development, but all too often these are considered to be a part of “the human condition,” a “necessary collateral damage,” or “price of progress” which cannot be escaped. This argument suggests that “there is no other way” because, before hegemonic civilization, humanity is believed to have lived in conditions of “brutality and savagery”—in spite of the fact that all first contact accounts between Europeans and natives of the “New World” suggest otherwise—and no one wants to return to that. ← 3 | 4 →

However one measures inclusive wellbeing, the human species as we know it could be headed for extinction as the dominant culture leads more and more people to behave suicidally in lifestyle decisions and actions. The warning signs of a planet in distress brought out the Cogi People of Colombia, who lived in seclusion for centuries. They contacted the BBC in 1990 to convey a message to the “younger brother” (those of Western civilization) to stop destroying the earth. They could discern from their mountaintop home that the natural world was in peril. Their ethics come from the land itself: “The Great Mother taught us right and wrong. Now they are digging up the Mother’s heart, and her eyes and ears. Stop digging and digging. Do not cut down trees—they hurt, like cutting off your own leg.”14 “If crops aren’t properly blessed, they dry up … that’s how it is.”15 “If we act well, the earth will survive. If we do not, it will not.”16 More recently, awareness of imminent peril has found form in the emerging scientific concept of the “Anthropocene,” of significant human-influenced effects on global ecosystems; a potential sixth major period of extinction is already underway.17 Derrick Jensen has suggested that the current era be called “Sociopocene” to reflect the sociopathy that humanity is displaying in face of its destructiveness.18 Others have suggested “Capitalocene” because capitalism is the primary culprit behind the rapid race toward planetary destruction.19

The Illness

What accounts for the differences between dominant global modern culture and the cultures of successful, sustainable Indigenous communities that existed for tens of thousands of years and that are still represented today in First Nations who struggle against the odds around the world? First, there are significant contrasts between the traditional Indigenous Worldview that led humanity for most of its history and the one that has become dominant over the past eight or nine thousand years.20

The ancient worldview considers the cosmos to be “unified, sacred and moral.”21 Communities who live with this worldview are connected to the lifeways of a particular landscape, they promote the flourishing of the local biocommunity, and view the human species as just one member of that community: one member among many members.22 Animals are often considered as persons with lives similar to humans. In this view, all human actions directly affect the wellbeing of the biocommunity and so must be thoughtful and respectful of the other-than-human.

The other, more recent, worldview considers the cosmos “fragmented, disenchanted, amoral.”23 Modern civilization has become infused with this worldview, which focuses on preventing bad outcomes (for humans) through promoting accumulation (hoarding, then consumerism), using coercion to enforce norms of hierarchy and obedience to the system; at the same time, its efforts intentionally ← 4 | 5 → work against nature and focus on human aggrandizement.24 The goal became that of ensuring, no matter the cost, that the dominant human group would survive. Often this entails exterminating anything in the way of human dominance and control—presumed necessary to avoid human suffering and death.

Second, embedded in this recent worldview, is a sense of separation from and superiority to Nature, a view that reaches all the way back to the origins of mono-agricultural civilizations. This harmful cocktail of separation and superiority has intensified in recent centuries. In fact, Western scholarship was founded on assumptions about human separation from and superiority to Nature, easily casting off the wellbeing and even continuing existence of other life forms as unimportant or collateral damage to humanity’s goals. “Personhood” was removed from all but humans, and nature became a commodity for human interests.25 The pursuit of wealth as an end in itself has resulted in unsustainable ways of living that contrast starkly with the ways of non-civilized cultures that thrived for thousands if not tens of thousands of years before being displaced.

Third, from their beginnings in the 16th century, Western science, technology, and economics have grown as outlooks based on extreme abstraction.26 These fields advocate systematic detachment from the earth, thereby breaking the bonds of relational responsibility to other-than-humans who are studied as objects. On the other hand, detachment from relational commitment to the wellbeing of the natural world has led to sophisticated technologies, some helpful and some destructive. Detached science and technology, in part because of their philosophy of separation and control, have led to great physical comforts—but only for a minority of humans, and often with catastrophic hidden costs.

Fourth, and perhaps most tragically, Western expansionism and global control of most areas of the earth have impaired capacities to perceive alternatives to the current pathway of increased control and extermination of nature. As Thomas Berry has pointed out, humans continue to be enchanted with technology despite the fact that the “wonderworld” promised has led instead to a “waste-world.”27 Cultures that do not conform have been forced into submission to the dominant system. Landscapes have been degraded and species lost for the sake of material accumulation and “progress.” Globalized culture often seems unable to perceive an alternative to the current pathway of increased control, domination of nature, and the destruction of cultures that do not conform to the dominant format.

When considered from the perspective of the history of human cultures, predominant Western beliefs of individualism, human superiority, and separation from nature, along with their resulting practices, appear odd, rare, and even aberrant.28 Most societies in the history of the world would consider individual “self-interest”—assumed to be normal human nature in most of the West—to be profoundly destructive and even a sign of insanity. ← 5 | 6 →

Indigenous World View

Non-industrialized, First-Nation, Indigenous societies around the world support the ancient worldview, an “Indigenous” worldview that can provide a portal to global flourishing.29 An emphasis on “global flourishing” (in contrast to “economic globalization”) provides an alternative to the fatalistic pathway of the dominant worldview. The goal is to promote a flourishing life through following nature’s gift economy (constant sharing, reciprocal giving-and-taking among entities), being receptive to the natural flow of events, working with nature respectfully to promote diversity, including valuing human life as inseparable from the lives of other members of the bio-community. First-Nation societies “feel themselves to be guests not masters.”30 They display a whole different awareness of humanity’s place: walking with the earth, not simply on it, and walking within its relational grasp.31 Accordingly, the view includes a sense that spirit pervades all things, that All are related and indeed, that humans are younger siblings who have much to learn from creatures who have resided on this planet far longer. This worldview is accompanied by a sense of place on the earth, by a feeling of being at home, and by practices of fitting in with the local landscape and biocommunity.

Many First-Nations peoples of the earth have lived well and kindly with the earth for generations. Many belong to cultures around the world that lived sustainably and relatively peacefully for tens of thousands of years.32 Their companionship orientation—from raising children, to living with humans and nonhumans—fosters enduring wisdom, morality and flourishing.33 These societies are continuous with 99% of the history of the genus homo and provide evidence for humanity’s sustainable relationship with the rest of Nature.34 Thus, we may regard the Indigenous worldview and lifestyle as a baseline for humanity living well on the earth and as an alternative pathway for human futures.35

Broken Pathways

This book addresses a number of reasons that we have departed from humanity’s original—Indigenous—worldview. Paul Shepard notes a fundamental reason that becomes apparent throughout the chapters in this book. Shepard describes the broken pathway to adulthood that plagues financially wealthy nations by throwing a child off the pathway to maturity.36 More recently, the epigenetic and developmental neurobiological outcomes of this altered child-to-adult pathway have been delineated by scholars who have noted the power of early life experience on neurobiological and social capacities, as well as on worldview.37 In many Western ← 6 | 7 → societies, there has been a divorce between adult behavior and the development of wellbeing in children—a blindness about the immaturity of humans at birth and ignorance of humans as dynamic systems who require a particular species-typical nest to foster human nature and potential, one which includes lengthy, intensive support to reach maturity.38 Most recently, Darcia Narvaez has suggested that the missing species-typical nest plays a large role in undermining sense and sensibility in adulthood, including cultural assumptions about the natural world.39 When the species-typical nest is missing, individuals misdevelop in the ways apparent and widespread in advanced nations. Often they are restless and unattached to the local other-than-human world and focused on self-protective self-aggrandizement (financial self-interest) at the expense of future generations.40 Detachment from close connection (parents to children, family to family member; human to other-than-humans) is now built into U.S. institutions and systems.41 The received view normalizes the view that human nature is innately competitive and selfish and collateral destruction cannot be helped.

The misunderstandings of human nature and history is especially embedded into the psyche of America, beginning perhaps with the view that the Americas were a wilderness brought under proper control by European settlers. Through a selective re-telling of history, it came to be believed that those who lived in the Americas before European settlement either were savage (and evil), spiritually “primitive,” or undeserving of the land because they did not manage it in the proper, European, agricultural way (visible manipulation and coercion of other-than-humans for human ends).42 They were considered part of Nature, and nature was to be exploited. At the same time, U.S. history books tend to discuss First Nations as relics or extinct (“firsting and lasting”), “wiped out” by the progressive wave from European expansion.43 However, in fact North America was not a wilderness but inhabited, nourished and enhanced by small-scale ingenious innovations with a partially cultivated landscape.44 Many American First-Nation peoples still exist (and flourish) today, continuing longstanding relations in the environments they have inhabited for thousands of years. In fact, much of Western scholarship has ignored the vast numbers of societies and perspectives that fall outside of dominant Western notions of human life, those that lived sustainably for thousands if not tens of thousands of years, even though they make a better baseline for human nature and functioning than industrialized peoples.45

Moving toward Sustainable Wisdom

In order to save the human species and many others with it, the focus on domination of Nature and technological progress needs to change. As noted, globalized ← 7 | 8 → finance and power structures have been built on shutting out responsible relations with the natural world. The frame of mind that dominates influential institutions (business, industry, military, education, politics, religion) continues to objectify Nature and deplete biocultural diversity around the world. However, science is coming to agree with the Indigenous perspective that nature is cooperative through and through—e.g., finding cooperation across species in forests, ecosystems generally, and even the microbiome within every human body—with competition a real yet minor component.46 Science and other disciplines are starting to better appreciate how the sustainable outlooks of “First ways” practices are rooted in an ecological mindset that fosters landscape flourishing and cultural diversity.47 Still, there remains a disconnect when it comes to the possibilities of sustainable wisdom. The modern world has much to learn from Indigenous peoples. Their wise ways and relational lifestyles can provide new frameworks for establishing sustainability more generally.48 Native American49 peoples are reinvigorating traditional practices that provide insight into how sustainable, respectful human cultures have profound importance for the contemporary world.50

Western views are that nature can only thrive by humans leaving it completely alone. This is a misconception. The flourishing landscapes in the Americas were highly “managed” by native groups through controlled burning and other methods. For example, the Coast Miwok in Marin County, California, harvested from eleven major clam beds (basically semi-domesticating them by moving them around and decreasing densities). Interestingly, following the view that leaving natural systems “alone” is the best way to preserve it, the state’s Department of Fish and Game stopped the harvesting in the 1920s in order to “protect the resource.” The clam population crashed51—a demonstration of the limitations of dominant science views which are typically closed to the deep experience-based wisdom of Indigenous science. Native American traditions approach the natural world with reciprocal, respectful relations. This includes following the partnership principles of “the honorable harvest” such as asking permission to take a life, taking only what is needed, and taking no more than half.52


XII, 292
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2019 (April)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2019. XII, 292 pp., 19 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Darcia Narvaez (Volume editor) Four Arrows (Don Trent Jacobs) (Volume editor) Eugene Halton (Volume editor) Brian Collier (Volume editor) Georges Enderle (Volume editor)

Darcia Narvaez is Professor of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame, where she specializes in virtue development and human flourishing. Her book, Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture and Wisdom, won the 2015 William James Book Award from the American Psychological Association and the 2017 Expanded Reason Award. Four Arrows (Cherokee/Irish/Oglala), aka Don Trent Jacobs, is Professor of Educational Leadership at Fielding Graduate University. Selected as one of 27 "visionaries in education" by AERO and recipient of a Martin Springer Institute Moral Courage Award for his activism. He has authored 20 books and numerous chapters and articles on Indigenous worldview. Eugene Halton is Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame. He has written extensively on the limitations of the civilizational mindset, and guideposts toward re-attuning contemporary civilization to the poetic wonder of the variescent earth. His most recent book is From the Axial Age to the Moral Revolution. Brian S Collier is coordinator of supervision and directs the American Indian Catholic Schools Network at the Institute for Educational Initiatives at the University of Notre Dame. Georges Enderle is John T. Ryan Jr. Professor of International Business Ethics in the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame.


Title: Indigenous Sustainable Wisdom