We All Have Indigenous Wisdom

The word indigenous literally means “born of a particular place”. We may, most of us, be disconnected from the natural world in which we were born and in which we live now, and we may be ignorant of, and even oblivious to, the true nature of the places we have lived, and what they can teach us. But we are still animals, and we intuitively come to learn, and know, what we need to know to survive and hopefully thrive wherever we may be.

My sense is that we (and by we I mean the collective group living in any community) know a lot more than we think we do, and that when crises occur we are able to rise to the occasion much better than we might have expected.

I got thinking about this as a result of an article that Kavana Tree Bressen sent me from the Atlantic, by Jeffery Stern, entitled How Civilians Saved Their Oregon Town From Two Megafires. The article is harrowing reading, and relates the story of how, last year when all the wildfire fighters in North America were fully deployed and nearing exhaustion, a group of civilians decided to self-organize and fight two huge fires bearing down on their town, alone, and against the advice of the authorities to just evacuate and let their town burn.

It turns out that the people of this community, despite having no firefighting expertise, equipment or experience, actually, collectively, had a lot more skills, resources and capacities than even they could have imagined. Spoiler: With almost MacGyver-like ingenuity, collaboration and self-management, they were able to hold back the two massive fires until professional firefighters from other areas were finally able to join the fight.

This reminded me about a story I read years ago about how the people of El Salvador, after being told there was no money in the government coffers to institute a national disaster plan for earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and volcanos (none of which is a rare occurrence there), self-organized to rehearse their own plans, community by community, and share what they learned with other communities.

The citizens knew what the problems would be, and they organized community-wide exercises in which citizens imagined a particular disaster had struck, and then assumed and played out roles on how they would respond if it had been real. Then they celebrated their learning with a communal dinner. Apparently, their subsequent success in dealing with real disasters has been better than that of neighbouring countries with elaborate, well-funded top-down emergency plans.

In recent years I’ve been part of a couple of Sharing Circles. These were astonishing, small-group local events where I discovered (1) many of the people I thought I ‘knew’ had skills, knowledge, and surplus resources that I was completely unaware of, and could really benefit from, and (2) I had skills, knowledge and surplus resources, mostly unrelated to my work credentials, that the people of my community really valued and appreciated, but didn’t know about. We don’t know our neighbours, other than on a superficial level. In some cases, we don’t even know our friends.

As Joe Bageant famously said, Community is born of necessity. Could it be that, as economic and ecological collapse worsens and ushers in civilizational collapse, that we might actually be able to create and build true, highly-functioning communities, right where we are in the midst of our anonymous, dysfunctional cities and towns?

I think the answer to that question is complex. Theoretically we could solve many (though not all) of the global problems that underlie the current collapse and great extinction of life. But practically speaking, with 7.8B humans all moving in different directions, and no one in control, it’s not going to happen. Once you move down to the community level, however, different possibilities emerge, as the Oregon and El Salvador stories suggest.

The hardest lesson for me to learn is the futility of trying to advocate and prepare for monumental change until people accept that there is no alternative — that it’s now or never. That point has already been reached in many parts of the world, including many parts of our own largely-affluent countries, and in those places people are working, in one way or another, in community to do for each other what ‘the system’ can no longer do, or has never done, for them. That point will be reached everywhere sooner or later, but until it is, very few people will be interested in preparing for it. That’s our nature.

The point I keep stressing is that collapse won’t happen overnight, anywhere. Economic collapse will be more immediate than ecological collapse for most of us, but even the Great Depression was only recognized as that four years after it had begun. And it won’t happen all at once, like going off a cliff. We’re going to become aware of the need to reinvent our entire way of life around local community gradually, in fits and starts, and reluctantly (preferring to believe we can return to our profligate ways until it becomes undeniable that we cannot).

So there will be time to practice. We got a wake-up call on the likelihood of continuous, disruptive global pandemics last year, but we’re still far from ready to make the changes needed to genuinely deal with them. We still think that there’s a technological fix, or some top-down way of preventing a recurrence of the current pandemic pandemonium (or that it’s all a conspiracy). What will it take to change our minds? It’s likely that, depending on the country, between two and four of every thousand people on the planet will have died of CoVid-19 by next spring. That includes 2-4% of people over 70 years of age. That’s about 15 million people globally (about 1.5M Americans). Had it not been for the rapid development and introduction of effective vaccines, the carnage would almost certainly have been about four times worse. More than half of these deaths were preventable if there had been universal mask and vaccine mandates (and the pandemic would have ended months ago).

You would think that would be enough to precipitate change, but it’s not even close to enough. Even if the pandemic had killed 60 million people, like the 1918 influenza, it wouldn’t have been enough. More than that number die every two years from chronic diseases that are directly the result of our poor modern diets, but there is no move to mandate global nutrition standards. No one wants to look at the evidence for this, or any other, inconvenient truth. “My body, my choice”, and all that crap — when that “choice” imperils the health of everyone around them.

What will be enough? It depends. Every place will be different. Everywhere, what is enough to force a certain level of change will depend on how convinced people are that they’re on their own and that the imaginary good old days are not coming back. And it will be fits and starts — a sense of urgency and necessity for change in one area may suddenly recede, while it may re-emerge in another. There is no predicting. So there is no preparing, with any degree of certainty of what exactly to prepare for (unless you live in El Salvador, perhaps).

If the economy collapses suddenly over a wide area, that point of necessity might come sooner than we expect. In the past, barter and scrip systems have sprung up quickly when currencies collapsed, people in all economic strata have learned quickly how to grow their own food and mend their own clothes, cars and other goods. And elements of a sharing economy (similar to community sharing circles but more extensively) have emerged. It’s a reasonably good bet that these will happen relatively soon, though we have no known precedent, so far, for an economic collapse that simply never ends, and how people will react to a “no back to normal” world.

So I can imagine community co-ops suddenly springing up to deal with food shortages, with chronic power outages and fuel shortages, with hyperinflation, with massive unemployment, and, over the longer term, with crumbling infrastructure and health and education services. That’s what’s happened in other places that have dealt with these crises, and were no better prepared for them than we are. People will learn, in place, to find and connect with others in their community and self-organize to do the things that will otherwise not get done at all. And I think they’ll find, like the people of Molalla Oregon, that, once they know what skills, resources and capacities they are collectively able to muster, they’ll do them a lot better than they’d imagine.

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3 Responses to We All Have Indigenous Wisdom

  1. Yes, we all have skills and yes, most of the solutions to human problems will be local. And may even be manageable. (Well, of course, they will be to those who survive… that means they managed…) However, that does not make humans indigenous, and it seems a little wrong to use that particular word.

    First, you don’t talk much about humans acting outside the human sphere. You talk about humans managing the portions of the problems that affect humans (though all the problems are created by humans). We depend upon the rest of the world for our survival, so unless we do something to tend to the bigger problems around us (still in place, still local, but more than human), we’re not going to survive. Becoming indigenous is sort of an oxymoron if humans aren’t putting down roots within a place, if humans are not becoming part of that place, but merely living there. Indigenous wisdom means knowing how and why we immerse our human needs into the real world where those needs are met.

    But the reason I squirmed when reading your title is it seems a bit like appropriation. There are few words left to describe things that are not of the EuroWestern culture. Indigenous seems to me to be one that does not apply in EuroWestern culture — ever, by definition.

    It seems that what you are naming is not indigenous anyway. It is adaptability. Communal approaches to surviving. (Because in spite of our culture’s received “wisdom” there is no individual approach to surviving.)

    Don’t mean to be cranky so early on a Sunday morning, but this bothered me deeply and I’m white. So, it’s likely to be really offensive where the offense actually falls.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks Elizabeth. I thought hard about whether to use the world, for the reasons you suggest, but I decided it is important that each of us appreciate that we aren’t helpless in the face of collapse, and that in fact we all have this inherent wisdom, this instinctive capacity to discover and adapt to place, and it will be important to relearn it through practice and exercise. I use the term in its original sense and tried to make that clear. In fact we have much to learn from each other about our indigenous wisdom, much but not all of which comes from cultures that have chosen the term ‘indigenous’ or ‘First Nations’ to describe themselves. Many of those cultures have been severely damaged by contact with European cultures, and in the process some of that indigenous knowledge has been suppressed and lost, and it will need to be found again, so rediscovering our indigenous knowledge is something all of us who now find ourself in one place will have to do together. We will have to rebuild community, and with it the community’s culture, from the ground up, drawing on ancient capacities each of us still has, if we can learn by practice and exercise what they are.

    So I think the essence of indigeneity is adaptability, to a particular place, and it’s something we all do all the time. It’s just that in our modern broken society we are unpracticed in it, because we have obliterated much of what makes a place a place, including, as you note, its essential more-than-human attributes. We will have to relearn and rediscover the essence and knowledge of the place(s) we live, and then adapt to it. And I think, to our surprise, we will find we are able to do that much better than we expect.

    So apologies for those offended by my choice to use that term. I do so with respect, because it’s important and gets to the root of what we will have to do as collapse worsens.

  3. Joe Clarkson says:

    Thank you for the link to the Jeffery Stern article. The story was very poignant to me since I was familiar with most of the places described. During my college years in the late 60’s, I worked for the Forest Service during the summers. We traveled all over the areas of the two fires. I am a little more familiar with Estacada than Mollala, but know the area well.

    Elizabeth Anker – While I share your concerns about cultural appropriation and the difference between adaptability and being indigenous, please remember that the word “indigenous” is derived from Latin via English and French. It is a purely European word.

    I suspect that aboriginal people rarely use the term “indigenous” (or “aboriginal” either). Most aboriginal peoples have names they use to describe themselves such as Inuit, or Murri, typically meaning “the people” in English.

    Appropriating those and similar words to describe oneself or other people who do not belong to those groups would surely be rude and offensive. Using the English word “indigenous” the way Dave has used it seems OK to me. He clarified his intent and the particular meaning of the word as he used it in the first sentence of his post. I think that was enough.

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