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Learning Native Wisdom

Learning Native Wisdom: What Traditional Cultures Teach Us about Subsistence, Sustainability, and Spirituality

Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    Learning Native Wisdom
    Book Description:

    Scientific evidence has made it abundantly clear that the world's population can no longer continue its present rate of consuming and despoiling the planet's limited natural resources. Scholars, activists, politicians, and citizens worldwide are promoting the idea of sustainability, or systems and practices of living that allow a community to maintain itself indefinitely. Despite increased interest in sustainability, its popularity alone is insufficient to shift our culture and society toward more stable practices. Gary Holthaus argues that sustainability is achievable but is less a set of practices than the result of a healthy worldview. Learning Native Wisdom: Reflections on Subsistence, Sustainability, and Spirituality examines several facets of societies -- cultural, economic, agricultural, and political -- seeking insights into the ability of some societies to remain vibrant for thousands of years, even in extremely adverse conditions and climates. Holthaus looks to Eskimo and other Native American peoples of Alaska for the practical wisdom behind this way of living. Learning Native Wisdom explains why achieving a sustainable culture is more important than any other challenge we face today. Although there are many measures of a society's progress, Holthaus warns that only a shift away from our current culture of short-term abundance, founded on a belief in infinite economic growth, will represent true advancement. In societies that value the longevity of people, culture, and the environment, subsistence and spirituality soon become closely allied with sustainability.Holthaus highlights the importance of language as a reflection of shared cultural values, and he shows how our understanding of the very word subsistence illustrates his argument. In a culture of abundance, the term implies deprivation and insecurity. However, as Holthaus reminds us, "All cultures are subsistence cultures." Our post-Enlightenment consumer-based societies obscure or even deny our absolute dependence on soil, air, sunlight, and water for survival. This book identifies spirituality as a key component of meaningful cultural change, a concept that Holthaus defines as the recognition of the invisible connections between people, their neighbors, and their surroundings. For generations, native cultures celebrated and revered these connections, fostering a respect for past, present, and future generations and for the earth itself.Ultimately, Holthaus illustrates how spirituality and the concept of subsistence can act as powerful guiding forces on the path to global sustainability. He examines the perceptions of cultures far more successful at long-term survival than our own and describes how we might use their wisdom to overcome the sustainability crisis currently facing humanity.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4148-0
    Subjects: Environmental Science, Sociology, Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Axe Handles
    (pp. 1-2)
    Gary Snyder
  4. Introduction: Why Subsistence, Sustainability, and Spirituality?
    (pp. 3-12)

    Why learn native wisdom? Because if we want to think about a sustainable culture and find ways to create one, we have models right at hand, as Gary Snyder indicates in “Axe Handles.” The models have roots and forms in several cultures, but in each case they grow from antiquity. I’m thinking here of Eskimo and Indian cultures in Alaska, whose roots are older than even those Chinese sage kings who preceded Confucius, and may be three times as old as Western culture. They have been around long enough; there must be something we can learn from them, if we...

  5. Back to Basics

    • Music and Story
      (pp. 15-37)

      Why try to create what Prescott Bergh, the Wisconsin farmer, calls a sustainable culture? Because the disparate efforts that we are making now, though essential, are too small for the task that confronts the world. Our myriad efforts to create a sustainable aspect of our lives together include sustainable agriculture, sustainable communities, sustainable energy, sustainable economies, sustainable ecosystems, sustainable bioregions, sustained yield in natural resources like timber or fisheries …

      But apparently no one is trying to bring all those efforts together, to think about ways that we might create a sustainable culture that will take into account not only...

    • Habitat for a Sustainable Culture
      (pp. 38-49)

      Perhaps sustainability is always more complicated than it seems. We devote our attention to recycling and discover that our public health is becoming public obesity and public diabetes. So we work to restore public health, only to discover that another element of sustainability has now slipped through our fingers, slick as fresh liver that we have to scramble across the kitchen to pick up. Indeed, I have spent time working on health issues in our town and, from there, gone to a meeting of about thirty folks in town forthrightly called the “racism committee.” For several years they got together...

    • Functional Cultures and Structural Cultures
      (pp. 50-64)

      Gary Snyder offered me another way to think about learning native wisdom in an important observation he called “The Three Lineages”:

      Mythopoetically speaking, there are three human lineages. One is the Children of Abraham —a group who all believe in a very convincing story, and one which traces their contemporary existence back to the somewhat quirky patriarch Abraham. These people of course are known in the world today as Jews, Muslims, or Christians.

      The next group is the Descendants of the Primates. These people are commonly found in universities, coffee shops, the upper levels of corporations, Hollywood, and the Democratic...

  6. Subsistence

    • Exploring Subsistence
      (pp. 67-83)

      Sustainable cultures are to subsistence cultures as squares are to rectangles. That is, all sustainable cultures are subsistence cultures, but not all subsistence cultures are sustainable. Here I explore the nature of subsistence and look at what we might learn about our own sustainability from that exploration. Of course I do not think we should—in some romantic dream fog—try to return to the old ways of hunting and gathering. Nevertheless, I want to explore a tribal definition of subsistence by looking closely at contemporary traditional cultures with which I am somewhat familiar. From our place in a subsistence...

    • Education for Subsistence
      (pp. 84-96)

      Imagine walking out into a glowing upper Mississippi evening in the spring. The blufflands above the great river are expanding into a green haze where the maples, anchored in steep hills, are just beginning to leaf out. The speed of that process thwarts the mind. In the morning the bud clusters of the red maple are sitting upright on the branches; by evening the red leaves are half unfurled, and by the next evening they are full, rich, and dark with red the color of dried blood; the bud clusters have been as “disappeared” as a dissident in Argentina. This...

  7. Sustainability

    • Education for Sustainability
      (pp. 99-110)

      The best education does not necessarily come from the best teachers or the best schools. Behind those happy elements lies an important factor not often addressed in discussions of the problems of public schools: a desire for self-cultivation, the self-discipline that insists on learning whatever the learning environment might be. Discipline is a constant in our conversations about schools. Self-discipline doesn’t often register on the radar in such discussions. In my experience, teachers most often talk to students about obedience to them and to the rules. I don’t ever remember a teacher talking to us about the importance of disciplining...

    • Imagining Sustainability
      (pp. 111-121)

      Perhaps the desire to create a sustainable culture begins with wonder that we are alive, participants in this most complex system of flesh and stone and stars and ideas and spirit that surrounds and sustains us and within which we “live and move and have our being.” Or perhaps the imagination is simply prompted by the same question Mary Oliver raises in her poem “Spring”: “There is only one question: How to love this world.”¹ Howdowe love the world—with all its frequent beauty and inevitable pain, its occasional gentleness and nearly ubiquitous violence, with riches for a...

    • Defining Sustainability
      (pp. 122-129)

      There are clues about what sustainability might mean. As Ted Chamberlin suggested in a previous chapter, learning may be more about recognitions than about definitions or acquiring information. Perhaps we want to recognize rather than define sustainability. One way to create such recognition might be to ask, What are the characteristics of a sustainable culture? If we can determine those, then perhaps we can back into a recognition. Indeed, a sustainable culture begins in recognitions.

      A sustainable culture recognizes relationships. That is, it knows that everything is connected. It knows that, as folks like John Muir, Wendell Berry, and Gary...

    • Stories for Sustainability
      (pp. 130-150)

      Alaskan oral historians Phyllis Morrow and William Schneider admit “we face an awesome responsibility: the certain knowledge that our words will return.”¹ The responsibility rests not only upon oral historians but on all of us. Our modern words are often ancient, ricocheting down the years to us battered and banged around by time, misspoken till they are hardly recognizable echoes of other tongues, not only Latin, Greek, Navajo, Sami, or German but Sanskrit, Etruscan, or perhaps languages lost now without even a linguistic trace. What is lost is a matter not only of vocabulary but also of the way words...

  8. Spirituality

    • The Power and Pragmatism of Language
      (pp. 153-173)

      It is about 490 b.c. Confucius has been traveling around China, teaching, hoping to find a ruler who will not only seek his advice about running the country but actually implement it. He has had little success. A practical man, a disciple—one suspects he had ties to political insiders—comes to Confucius, asking, “If the Lord of Wei wanted you to govern his country, what would you put first in importance?” The question has the feel of a test question, a hidden agenda left unspoken and lurking behind the interrogative: “Answer this right and I’ll put in a good...

    • Rectifying the Names
      (pp. 174-188)

      If you can suspend disbelief, as required by every drama, then believe this for a moment: Out of the word came everything we know. Nature. The world. The earth. All creatures, plants, peoples. Four-leggeds and two-leggeds. Wings, legs, heads, thoraxes, abdomens. Thoughts and visions and dreams. We are considering notions regarding Nature and spirituality, but when I hear many people nowadays talk about spirituality, I am puzzled. It seems as if the current definition of being spiritual simply means that I think about my psychological health, that I take refuge in Nature, that “I understand Native American spirituality and where...

    • A Spirituality for Our Time
      (pp. 189-218)

      What we yearn for in the midst of our lives of mostly minor-league chaos and occasional major-league catastrophes is some kind of stability, something solid and dependable, someplace to put that trust in life that we cannot live without. Part of our spiritual and intellectual discipline is to learn to trust the world, to discover that stability, and to keep ourselves together when our world falls apart. We once believed that we could put our trust in the “laws” of Nature; now we are not so sure. Heisenberg sends a shiver through us; relativity makes us wonder; we fear that...

  9. Conclusion: Creating a Sustainable Culture
    (pp. 219-228)

    “We need to tell you up front that we are not here to serve this American culture that surrounds us, but to transform it—little by little—across the region we live in, and other places we can afford to reach or influence.” That is the opening sentence of a proposal our little nonprofit, the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society (NPSAS), sent to a foundation recently. I wrote that with my heart in my fingers and some fear in my heart. Most nonprofits and foundations are about service of some kind. Churchgoing Christian friends desire to transform the culture as...

  10. For Those Who Love Nature A Benediction Antiphon
    (pp. 229-231)
  11. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 232-236)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 237-245)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 246-251)
  14. Index
    (pp. 252-272)