What Would It Look Like If We Treated Earth’s Gifts as Sacred?
Learning from Indigenous Peoples
Last year, though we loved our seventh grade homeschool curriculum, we felt that there was just not enough coverage of indigenous cultures. We chose to take a deep dive on our own learning about tribes, nations and civilizations past and present to supplement what was missing. The unquestionably glorious part of homeschooling is that, as a parent, you can relearn, learn and unlearn those lessons that now bring greater meaning to your life with your student. But, of course, this learning opportunity does not have to only occur in a homeschool setting. Families can examine how indigenous peoples’ relationship with the land and its resources can inform how we live.
In our study, we began in the Arctic Circle in the Aleutian Islands reading historical fiction about the Aleut people we encountered in “The Island of the Blue Dolphins” and in “Aleutian Sparrow” in Language Arts and worked our way south. We studied the Alaskan Tlingit’s totem pole meaning and design to create our own in Art class along with the story of the trickster Raven. In History, we travelled to Mississippi in the 1500s when the Chickasaw, Choctaw and Creek nations were pushed away from their lands through the Indian Removal Act to a new, unfamiliar location of Oklahoma where those nations reside today. We learned the art of the pow wow dance in physical education. And finally, learned from a Mayan scholar (I call him Dad! 🙂 who has studied and written books on the Mayan civilization in Central America his whole career. We remained in the western hemisphere last year (because of the sheer amount to cover) but now his new school is exploring the eastern hemisphere and the many indigenous peoples on the other side of the globe.
According to the United Nations Permanent Form on Indigenous Peoples, we can understand who indigenous peoples are by a…
“historical continuity or association with a given region or part of a given region prior to colonization or annexation; identify themselves as indigenous and be accepted as members by their community; have strong links to territories, surrounding natural resources and ecosystems; maintain at least in part, distinct social, economic and political systems; maintain, at least in part, distinct languages, cultures, beliefs and knowledge systems; are resolved to maintain and further develop their identity and distinct social, economic, cultural and political institutions as distinct peoples and communities; and often form non‐dominant sectors of society.”1– United Nations Permanent Form on Indigenous Peoples
Because of this interconnection with land and its natural resources, indigenous peoples are the most advanced in preserving and conserving nature and also, the most at-risk for consequences from abuse of our natural resources.
There were numerous principles my Dad taught my son and I that the ancient Mayan Civilization adhered to that, if we applied today, would have a considerable impact on the Earth’s sustainability. These were not only true for the Maya but also many other indigenous peoples. The following I’ve adapted from my father’s article, “Indigenous Principles; The Ways of Harmony with Nature and Other Human Beings“2 and from the book “Shift; Indigenous Principles for Corporate Change” by Glenn Geffcken.3 These may offer us some opportunities for reflection on how we respect and connect with nature and how we teach our children about their use and interaction with natural resources. Though there are many, here are just a few common principles across indigenous cultures.
- Every natural resource is alive and has a spirit.
Mayans, as an expression of their beliefs, asked permission to pluck a plant from the ground or cut down a tree. They asked for the trees’ forgiveness and offered deep appreciation to the spirit of the tree for giving their life for the purpose needed. When a plant or animal was killed, every part of it was used. No part of it was thrown away or wasted. Rocks, mountains, the sun and moon — all natural creations – are living and therefore, sacred.
2. In decision-making, we consider the impact on the next seven generations.
When you’ve made a bigger family decision like moving to a new home, selecting a new school, or even navigating social gatherings during the pandemic, have you considered your child’s child’s child’s children (seven generations ahead of us)? It’s difficult to conceive. If we go back seven generations in our family tree, we can think about people who lived in the early 1800s. How did they think about and make decisions related to the economy, transportation, use and development of machines, freedom, beliefs and human expression and advancement? The decisions they made are having an undeniable impact on us now. Are we doing what we can to preserve our natural resources for that seventh generation? Are we creating systems and structures that are environmentally sustainable in the world and in our family? How about our everyday decisions? Are we teaching this generation how to care for others and the environment, how to show love, how to act with integrity, ethics and authenticity? How to be a champion of inclusion and kindness, of truth-telling?
3. If we are truly observant, there’s much we can learn about our lives from plants and animals.
Observing the behavior of animals who may show up at our doorstep (a squirrel scratched at my door this week for the peanuts he knows I have!), we can ask deeper questions about their acceptance of the way things are and how we can learn more in our lives about the nature of nature. Though the squirrel is cautious, he asks for his needs. How do I ask for my own needs or do I suppress them so as not to bother others or disrupt others’ peace? The often anxious squirrel rests in the sunshine when he can. How do I take advantage of the shining sun to calm myself in the busy-ness of the work week? Similarly for plants, I am currently watching the tulips blossom. I so eagerly await their full bloom to see what is at their core. But that full opening of petals only happens toward the last stage of their blooming process. There is no rushing it. Trying to force open petals harms the flower. So too how are we patient with our own learning and development and with our child’s learning and development? If we attempt to force, it can harm us or our child. The lessons in nature abound if we only pay attention. We love The Octopus Teacher documentary in showing our family how to become fully mindful of nature and develop a deep, abiding relationship with it.
4. The Four Directions orient our lives in the context of a larger system.
The medicine wheel, with differing stories, rituals and traditions associated with it depending upon the tribe, includes the four directions of our awareness and healthy development – physical, social, emotional and spiritual which need to remain balanced. In addition, on the wheel, there are the four elements, the four life stages, four seasons, and four locations – north, south, east and west. The Medicine Wheel offers a circle of knowledge that shows that we are apart of the system surrounding us. The natural elements, animals, spirits are all apart of that system. We are no higher or better but play an essential role in creating and sustaining life.
5. Integrity is essential to our participation in the larger system.
We remain in healthy relationship with the four directions and all who are apart of the human, organizational and family systems we are apart of when we are committed to living with ethical thinking at the fore — do no harm to self or others. Truth-telling and transparency are fundamental to remaining in those sustainable relationships.
6. We must Inhabit the “Warrior Spirit.”
This means that we know what we stand for – the betterment of family, community, nature, people as a collective – and defend it. Regardless of personal sacrifice, this principle requires us to do what’s right for the greater good.
Glen Geffcken, author of the book “Shift; Indigenous Principles for Corporate Change” quotes Luther Standing Bear of the Oglala Sioux as saying,
The old Lakota was wise. He knew that a man’s heart away from nature becomes hard; he knew the lack of respect for growing living things soon led to a lack of respect for humans too. So he kept his youth close to its softening influence.
Earth Day this Friday, April 22nd is an opportunity to reflect on your own and your family’s relationship with nature. You might ask the following questions with one another:
- How do we tend to experience nature in our daily lives? What do we notice? What do we encounter? What do we care for?
- How can we deepen our learning with the nature that we encounter?
- As we learn, how can we increase our care of the nature we encounter?
- How do we relate to the aforementioned indigenous principles:
- Do we treat all of of nature as sacred and living?
- Do we consider seven generations forward in our decision-making?
- Do we learn about ourselves from the animals, plants and other natural phenomena we encounter?
- How do we balance our physical, social, emotional and spiritual development and consider our role in the systems we are apart?
- How do we ensure we are living with integrity?
- How can we inhabit the warrior spirit when it comes to what we stand for?
- United Nations Environment Programme. Indigenous People and the Nature They Protect.
- Smith, David L. (2021). Indigenous Principles: The Ways of Harmony with Nature and Other Human Beings. Contemplative Photography, June 13.
3. Geffcken, Glenn. (2014). “Shift; Indigenous Principles for Corporate Change” Bloomington, IN: iUniverse.
National Museum of the American Indian. American Indian Response to Environmental Challenges – Includes student and teacher resources and videos from various tribes and nations.
Facing History and Ourselves. Indigenous Peoples Resources.
Narvaez, Darcia, Four Arrows, Halton, Eugene, Collier, Brian S., and Enderle, Georges (Editors). (2019). Indigenous Sustainable Wisdom; First-Nation Know-How for Global Flourishing. NY, NY: Peer Lang Publishing.
Wall Kimmerer, Robin. (2015). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions.
Sneed, Annie. What Conservation Efforts Can Learn from Indigenous Communities. Scientific American.
Author’s Note: I am proud of my Navajo heritage and was honored to work with the Chickasaw Nation through Communities In Schools in the nineties.