Insights from Michael Bloomfield, Founder and Executive Director of the Harmony Foundation http://www.harmonyfdn.ca/
One of the beauties of the human species is our diverse and creative ways of living in the world and with each other. It seems odd that we need to be reminded that there are many ways of knowing the world, and that all of them are valuable. And yet, many violent conflicts the world over result from our lack of understanding of each other’s different ways of life.
In the western world a strong belief seems to have rooted itself that our way of knowing the world and living in it is the best and that other so-called underdeveloped” societies need to be either helped or forced to achieve our standard of living. I recently read Wade Davis’ The Wayfinders. This book presents striking cases of dazzling contributions so-called primitive cultures have made to the sum total of human knowledge before being overrun by the juggernaut of “progress.” The question we must ask ourselves, before it is too late, is: Can we find room in our world for societies that use traditional knowledge to survive and save ourselves from extinction? They have a lot to share with us about how to live in the world and with or without our permission they have the right to adequate space for themselves.
We have already missed some valuable opportunities to learn the knowledge of simple and sustainable solutions to our problems from indigenous societies long gone. Colonization wiped out many indigenous societies, brutally and without regard for the human lives lost.
European colonizers generally saw the indigenous people they encountered in “The New World” as primitive inferiors; children to be taught European standards of living at best; wild and dangerous animals to be disciplined or extinguished once they no longer served a purpose as slave labour. The colonizers ignored or disdained the rich cultural heritage that was lost in their misguided attempts at “bettering” both “The Old” and “The New” world and advancing humanity through the colonization process. In fact most indigenous people encountered during colonization represented complex social structures and comprised flourishing societies highly proficient in their environment. The world would probably have been better off today if colonizing powers had been less keen on killing the natives and destroying their environment, thereby digging their graves (and perhaps our own).
Davis makes the same point about other cultures. The aboriginal peoples of Australia, once a million strong, now reduced by 50%, spoke 270 languages. They are the closest descendants of the first human beings to leave Africa and offer one of the great experiments in human thought. But they were hunted like animals by white settlers. Today, we are losing those languages at the rate of one per year; only 18 are now spoken by more than 500 people.
Another example of lost traditional knowledge comes from Polynesia, where there has been a revival of traditional knowledge with the sailing of the Hokulea, a re-creation of an ancient Polynesian vessel, first from Hawaii to Tahiti and then from Hawaii to the Easter Islands, without the aid of electronic navigational equipment or even a compass. Such an amazing feat proves that Thor Heyerdahl was completely wrong in his assumption that colonizers to Polynesia could only have come from South America. They came from New Guinea as long ago as 1500 BC, traveling fantastic distances using “wayfinders” (hence the book’s title). They were navigators who sensed the presence of islands by reading stars, the sea, wind, clouds and light. “One of the tragedies of history,” Davis writes, “was the failure of early Europeans to make any effort to study and record this extraordinary repository of seafaring knowledge.”
Colonization is of course not just a historical event. The indigenous cultures that have survived until today are under constant threat from the surrounding world of having their environment and traditional knowledge destroyed. The idea that those that do not live in cities or speak majority languages (i.e. English or Spanish or Mandarin) are “backwards” is deeply rooted in western perceptions of superiority and dominion. But reading The Wayfinders, we see what detrimental impact such ignorance can have on our own lives and how we could benefit immensely from revalidating traditional knowledge. This requires, of course, respect and a renewed attention to the protection of indigenous people, their way of life and their environments.
Why does ancient wisdom matter? Because these people have lived on Earth for millennia without destroying it, whereas Europeans have been “improving” The New World (having already trashed The Old World) for barely 500 years, and have brought it to the edge of ecological extinction. “The entire purpose of humanity,” according to aboriginal thought, Davis writes, “is not to improve anything. It is to engage in the ritual and ceremonial activities deemed to be essential for the maintenance of the world precisely as it was at the moment of creation.”
It may not be too late. Revival of ancient customs and wisdom, such as has taken place in Polynesia, is also taking place among the Inuit of northern Canada, aboriginal peoples of northwest British Columbia, the dwellers of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Amazonia, and elsewhere around the world.
Soon the majority of the world’s population will be living in urban settlements. We need to stop and listen to those voices sharing with us great wisdom on how we can live in harmony with each other, other species and future generations before we end up living in armed enclaves of pollution, disease and grinding poverty surrounded by nature so degraded it is unable to any longer provide us with the essentials of life.
Recommended further readings:
Wade Davis (2009): The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in The Modern World. Anasi Press.
Ronald Wright (2004): A short History of Progress. Anasi Press.