In an effort to better understand our natural world and its important connections to humanity, I have frequently referred to the traditional knowledges of our Native American people. We should probably label it Indigenous knowledges, as the concept is not unique to the American continent. Indigenous peoples around the world have preserved distinctive understandings, rooted in cultural experiences which guide relationships among human, non-human and other-than human beings to specific ecosystems. These understandings and relations have been developed through thousands of years of empirical observation and passed down from generation to generation. Indigenous knowledges are basically a collection of knowledges, beliefs, and traditions intended to preserve, communicate and contextualize the people’s relationships with culture and landscape over time. This knowledge is passed on formally and informally to the community through social encounter, oral traditions, ritual practices and other activities. Storytelling is a major communication tool. Other performances such as dance, song, chants and celebration convey traditional knowledge to the youth.
Indigenous knowledges are of particular interest due to the life style of the people. The people lived, and still live, as a part of the natural world and developed of a keen awareness of the ecological conditions of their environment. Unique skill sets, activities and localized knowledges had to be developed and learned. Survival depended upon one’s ability to learn and apply the knowledge passed down from the elders. Oral traditions, whether communicated as historical narratives or mythical stories constitute a form of Indigenous knowledge that can teach, clarify and reinforce other knowledges. Gerald Vizenor, 2008, Annishinaabe, said, “ Native stories of survivance are prompted by natural reason, by a consciousness and sense of incontestable presence that arises from experiences in the natural world, by the turn of the seasons, by sudden storms, by migration of cranes… by the favor of spirits in the water, rimy sumac, wild rice, thunder in the ice, bear, beaver, and faces in the stone”.
For centuries we have ignored this indigenous wisdom as primitive and unsophisticated. Indigenous beliefs and traditions were regarded as religious superstitions when compared to imperialistic ideologies and larger organized religious movements. The truth is all human knowledges are rooted in traditions passed down from one generation to the next, one community to another. One might consider the scientific approaches to archaeology as a body of traditions that emerged from the distinctive social relations and exercises of power that developed in the environment of modern European academies.
Although, my wife and I have been introduced to traditional knowledges, we have only a rudimentary appreciation for the vast amount of wisdom our Indigenous people have developed and the importance of how this knowledge guides their everyday lives. My wife’s native ancestry has provided a path to allow us to share our interests with several tribal elders and learn more about the traditional knowledges that guide their relationships with the natural world. Our interest has always focused on the remaining forest covered lands and the important role these lands play in supporting life on Earth. Soon after publishing my first book, “Trees of Life-Our Forests in Peril”, we had the privilege of having several meetings with citizens of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa & Chippewa Indians. Our friendship with some of the members grew and on our second meeting we were introduced to the “Seven Fire Prophecies of the Anishinaabe Nation. I was over whelmed by the Seventh Prophecy, which summarized the purpose of my book better than I ever could have. Seven prophets appeared to the people long ago and foretold what was to come in the future. The people believe the first six prophecies, which predicted the coming of the light-skinned, have been fulfilled and we are living in the time of the seventh prophecy. The seventh prophet said, the time would come when the waters would become so poisoned the plants and animals would fall sick and begin to die. Much of the forests and prairies would be gone so the air would begin to lose the power of life. The way of the red, black and yellow nation by the white nation would bring danger to the whole world. In this time a new people will arrive and re-trace their steps to find the treasures left by the trail. We will be given the opportunity to choose between two trails. If we choose the right path, the eighth and final fire will be lite and we will join hands as brothers and sisters to prolong live on Earth. If we choose the wrong path much harm and even death will come to all the people of the Earth. The depth of the people’s wisdom was overwhelming!
A few years later, I was asked to review a proposed legal document designed to initiate a cooperative agreement between the U.S. Department of Interior and several Tribes in the Great Lakes Region. The purpose of the document was to share traditional knowledges to support a study on climate change and suggest possible solutions. Discussions with members of other Tribes and continued friendships we had made, have intensified my belief that rebuilding our relations with our Native American brothers and sisters, sharing their traditional wisdom with modern day science and working as partners, offers the best opportunities and realistic solutions for environmental issues we face together. The insights that emerge from these collaborations will continue to inform, expand and complicate scientific understandings of the Indigenous past, present and future. Dr. Thomas Berry and Dr. Kyle Whyte, along with a handful of other scholars, philosophers and archeologists have recognized the important contribution Indigenous knowledge can provide in understanding and managing our natural world. The knowledge and insight these scholars have presented has intensified my findings as to the necessity of a collaborative effort to join modern day science with Indigenous knowledge and wisdom. It also suggests the need for major adjustments in the education of natural resource scientists and managers. Indigenous people are increasingly being recognized, not just as cultural informants, but as intellectual partners in cultural, ecological and landscape studies. The question is, have we ignored this knowledge base to long, do we have time and can we develop the trust necessary to allow this partnership to function? Humanity’s future is calling us to action!