The concept of how humans and non-humans define and ultimately engage with each other is under hot debate as new solutions for planetary health are sought. At core are fundamental differences in philosophical systems of belief. In contrast to Western precepts of nature where humans tend to be segregated and disconnected from nature, Native American cultures typically hold a holistic view of nature, believing that all things are connected and interdependent.
Although there is great diversity among Native Americans with no singular narrative on nature, certain commonalities stand out. First, there is no hierarchy between nature and humans, all parts of the ecosystem, human and non-human, have equal value. In Native worldviews, humans, animals, plants, and rocks are dependent on each other for survival and well-being. This ethos provides a stark contrast to Western belief systems which largely define nature as an obstacle to be conquered, tamed, and exploited by humans.
An additional shared belief among Native Americans is a spiritual and scared connection to nature. Most indigenous tribes embrace the notion that all objects and elements of earth -living and nonliving – have an individual spirit that is part of the greater soul of the universe (see Lakota story). As Robin Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and Professor of environmental biology, observes: “In some native languages the term for plants translates to ‘those who take care of us.’” (Braiding Sweetgrass).
With deep spiritual connections to nature and subsistence tied to the land and rivers, as well as centuries of forced removals, indigenous tribes are especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change (see The Last Days of Isle de Jean Charles). On the frontline of climate crisis, many indigenous tribes have taken the lead to create climate action plans to protect their way of life. In this process it’s become abundantly clear that tribal ecological wisdom has an important role to play in repairing damaged ecosystems.
Give legal rights to animals, trees, and rivers say experts. The Guardian, October 10, 2022.
Indigenous Americans: Spirituality and Ecos. Daedalus Fall, 2001.
Once ignored indigenous knowledge now shapes science. Matthew Holding Eagle III and Kirsti Marohn. MPR News, July 27, 2022.