FOUR ARROWS, aka DON TRENT JACOBS, Ph.D., Ed.D., is the author of numerous books, articles, and chapters on applications of the Indigenous worldview as a proven solution to our existential world problems. Former Director of Education at Oglala, Lakota College, and currently professor of education for change at Fielding Graduate University, his academic work, spiritual life, and social/ecological justice activism have received international recognition.
In part 2 of this series, he speaks with JUDITH NELSON from the Heartfulness Institute about what Indigenous really means, and the importance of place-based knowledge, kinship, feeling the world, the evolution of language, and interconnectedness.
Q: How would you define the First or Indigenous peoples?
4A: Well, the United Nations has an official definition of Indigenous peoples, and it usually has to do with living in one area since pre-colonial times, maintaining language, etc. Ultimately, what it means is that you can self-identify as indigenous if an indigenous culture agrees that you are a part of that. And that’s moving away from the “blood quantum,” which has been the white man’s tool to control, divide, and conquer.
For example, I have no Lakota blood, but according to Rick Two Dogs in the Medicine Horse Tiospaye, my spirit will go to where the Lakota go, not to where the Irish or the Cherokee go. So, people who have lived in one place and have continued with their language and a different worldview are indigenous.
The distinction that is not made by the United Nations, which I like to make, is that there’s the Indigenous worldview on one hand, and “worldview” is what I’m all about, but we’re all indigenous to this planet. We all can respect that 99% of people have understood how to treat great diversities of cultures, but with these basic common themes that you saw in the chart.
The other part of it, that’s even more vital in many ways, is place-based knowledge. Place-based knowledge is something we can support indigenous people to hold onto through autonomy and sovereignty, and by stopping mining from destroying their lands. I cannot teach, and you cannot teach place-based knowledge. You have to know the language, because language is of the land. Language comes from understanding the flora and fauna, whereas the European languages are about social systems, humans, etc. They are noun-based. For instance, the English language is noun-based, whereas indigenous languages are verb-based. They’re in motion all the time. You have to grow up with place-based knowledge, you have to know the ceremonies, you have to know the territory. That’s so vital.
So much of that has been lost. Languages have been lost, cities have been lost, and nobody knows which indigenous people were there.
My hope is that we can all re-indigenize ourselves to Mother Earth. Where there are still indigenous people who know places, we can go to them and say, “Help us understand better how to farm, how to take care of the land, how to take care of the water.” We can do research to understand how the people who once lived there did it, and how to re-indigenize ourselves to place-based knowledge, so we can start to take care with the worldview precepts that allow us to recognize the spirit in the trees, etc. That’s an important aspect of defining Indigenous.
Q: Can you talk about kinship? How does it extend to include all beings in the Indigenous worldview?
4A: The idea of kinship is really key – the sense of oneness, the sense of interconnectedness, the sense of the non-human being teachers because they were here first. and they can teach us about all the virtues.
It’s interesting that even in the European genre of children’s books, the majority of them are animal stories. Children learn from snakes and beavers about how to do things that snakes and beavers do. And yet, it’s only for little children, right? Pretty soon it’s “Let’s get away from that.”
Most indigenous tribes have clans that are based on animals. They really master the understanding of that animal, and then they work in complementary harmony with what they can manage that the animal has jurisdiction over. So, kinship is a good way to define worldview. We don’t like the word “worldview” because indigenous people don’t really “see” the world, they “be” the world, they “feel” the world.
Kinship is a good way to define worldview.
We don’t use the word “worldview”
because Indigenous people don’t really “see”
the world, they “be” the world,
they “feel” the world.
But, over the years, when worldviews are discussed, more and more scholars talk about things like animism versus anthropocentricism, materialism versus spirituality, interconnectedness versus independence, etc. So, even if they’re not mentioning dominant and indigenous, they’re really talking about those two things.
Q: Can you give some examples of how First Nation societies include kinship in their worldviews, and how they demonstrate kinship?
4A: Well, I just got back from Columbia, where I was with the Kogi people. If you get a chance, watch the film Aluna on YouTube, and you’ll see these amazing people. They were never conquered. They live on the highest coastal mountain peak in the world, and the access to it is very difficult. They weave baskets from the plants, and use shells and coca leaves to concentrate. They’re constantly giving thanks to different animals for what they’re doing to keep the balance of foods.
We’re all indigenous to this planet.
We all can respect that 99% of people
have understood how to treat great diversities
The Rarámuri of Mexico (I lived with them) know 300 to 400 plants intimately –what exactly those plants do and how they do it, and what happens if you combine them, because the plants talk to them. There’s really no other way to understand it. For example, the hallucinogenic medicine Ayahuasca [a South American brew of two plants] only works if you include both plants. One plant causes the brain to see the images, but if you don’t mix the other plant with it, the digestive system blocks the part of the plant responsible for the images. So, you take them together. Now, those plants are found growing close together, but they’re in a forest with hundreds and hundreds of plants. How on earth did people figure out to combine them? You could not have done a hit or miss scenario: “Hey, do you know what? I bet if we eat that plant, we can have a deep view of our DNA history, but I think we’re going to have to add that plant to make it work.” I mean that’s impossible odds, so the plants talk to them, right?
Almost all Indigenous peoples, like the Lakota, the Wolf Clan of the Cherokee, the Bear Clan, have an affinity with trees, wind, and all of nature. Their languages are built upon those worldviews. If you walked across British Columbia and you observed, as soon as you saw differences in the animals and the trees, you’d find a different dialect, a different language that would represent that change.
So, it’s giving thanks. The Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Prayer is one example that many use. In the morning, the community, including all the children, say, “I want to give thanks for the crocodile, and how the crocodile does such-and-such for us. I want to give thanks for the Pelican and how the Pelican does such-and-such, for the boa constrictor …” “I want to give thanks for the Northern wind. I want to give thanks for the mountain in the East.”
They have an understanding of the dynamics of interconnectedness; how the mountain provides the climate for growing food; how the bear does such-and-such, etc. They have such an intimate knowledge of it, and every morning that’s how they start the day. It’s a beautiful prayer – a beautiful thing to watch. I’ve been with many different cultures and they all have this similar way. It’s a real-life heartfelt thing. It’s not just symbolic.
Q: Yes, the level of perception, relationship, and understanding is quite extraordinary.
They have an understanding of
the dynamics of interconnectedness;
how the mountain provides
the climate for growing food;
how the bear does such-and-such, etc.
They have such an intimate knowledge of it,
and every morning that’s how they start the day.
It’s a beautiful prayer.
4A: One of the things I’ve done for many years with different types of people, like Buddhist monks, drive-by shooters, and in residential treatment programs – they come into the room and as they sit down with their paper and pencils, I’ll say, “Before you sit down, I’d like you to go out and touch one of those plants, and then come back.”
And many of them ask, “What the heck is this all about?”
Then, before they sit down, I say, “Okay, I’m going to ask you to do it one more time. You’ll probably laugh, but I want you to do it again. This time, before you touch the plant, I want you to ask permission and wait for an answer.”
Depending on the group, they’ll sometimes be like, “This is crazy.”
I’ve done this maybe 70 times, and when people come back and I ask them to report, there’s almost always somebody who cries, there’s someone who shares a story like, “You know, it’s going to sound weird. I didn’t hear it, but this palm tree said something about its relatives being lost in a hurricane. It is alone, lonely.” Things like that. Then, I start my presentation, “Imagine living 24/7 with that kind of respectfulness.”
Don’t get me wrong, life eats life. The Lakota kill buffalo, but the buffalo is sacred, every part is used, and the process of killing the buffalo is so full of respect. That’s so different than boxing up millions of chickens in feedlots (concentrated animal-feeding operations).
So, it is a true kinship of everything.
Q: As I was listening to you, I was thinking, “How extraordinary,” but it’s not extraordinary for Indigenous peoples. This is their norm. It shows us how far we have been removed from nature and these understandings. So, how does kinship affect our role as guardians on the Earth? You’ve just explained it quite beautifully, but do you have anything to add?
4A: Yes, you bring up a very important point: We’ve gone so far away from it now. Where is nature in downtown East St. Louis or Chicago or Paris? And yet, if we go through the worldview chart, and we start to look at the CAT–FAWN connection and the four precepts of Fear, Authority, Words, and Nature, in the Nature precept you practice learning from whatever nature is in your vicinity. That is still true of a weed growing out of a crack in the sidewalk in front of traffic, or a pigeon on the side of the of the street with somebody throwing popcorn to it, or the one star you might be able to see through the pollution. In other words, no matter where you are, you are still part of nature, no matter how much we have concretised and glassed it over.
So, let’s take that moment and consider what it means. Right here, a little mosquito came to teach us. It’s a mosquito that I picked up [he puts the mosquito out the window]. Now, I don’t always do that. If I’m in a place with Malaria or Dengue, I’ll do everything I can to keep from getting bitten, even if that means I have to slap one before it bites. But usually, I can pick one up and put it outside. It’s rare for me to have a mosquito in here, by the way [laughs]. So, again, it’s the symbolic understanding that the spirits of these creatures are also teachers, and that can happen anywhere.
There is a story that reflects this. I was ready to go on my fourth Sundance on Pine Ridge in South Dakota, when I heard the temperature predictions of 114 degrees Fahrenheit. In the Sun Dance, you go for four days without water, you dance from sunup to sundown and pray for peace in the world.
So, I was in Idaho at 5,000 feet, cool weather, and I told my wife, “Wow! You know, I haven’t been in that heat, I’m not acclimatized. I don’t know if I can go four days like that.” And I said, “I’m gonna go up and do a Hanbleceya, a vision quest.”
I went up the mountain with my tobacco ties, on which I prayed, and I put them in a circle and sat inside. I was still in my academic Western worldview perspective, going up into the woods and sitting down. I was going to get centered after that. I took my čhaŋnúŋpa (pipe), and right away a rat came and started eating the tobacco from one of the ties, so I kicked it away. As soon as I kicked it away, I thought, “You’ve got to get centered right away, Four Arrows. Come on, that was probably your vision, and you just kicked it away!”
I felt really bad. I was thinking, “Oh man! Get centered, get centered.” I sat there, and held my pipe, and the rat came back and started eating more tobacco. Then it stepped into the circle and sat down with its back toward me like a pet dog – big back haunches and a long tail. I gave thanks. I didn’t know what this animal was because I was new to Idaho, and I didn’t have the medicine people to ask. It stayed for a minute or two then walked off. And it was my vision.
I was up there for 24 hours and all I could think about was – you’re going to laugh – “I’ve got to get down to my computer and Google this animal to know what it is.” I didn’t have the wisdom of that territory. I didn’t have the language, I didn’t know anybody that did, so there’s Google. I came down, burned my clothes, made the fire for my Inipi ceremony, and ran to the computer. I typed in “mammals and rats of North America,” and there it was. I don’t remember the species name, but it was a Kangaroo Rat, the only mammal in North America that can go a whole lifetime without a drop of water. That was it! The message, the lesson was, “Yeah, I can do this. If they can go a lifetime, I can go four days.”
I have a thousand stories like that. If you go to YouTube and put in “wild horse hypnotist’, you’ll see me treating a wild horse on a TV program and getting on its back. I actually learned a lot of CAT–FAWN connection from animals. It’s something we can all learn again – we can – but not with the worldview we’re operating from.
To be continued.
The original article can be found at www.heartfulnessmagazine.com. It is reprinted with permission from Heartfulness Magazine.
Four Arrows, aka Don Trent Jacobs, is a champion of the Indigenous Worldview, has been endorsed by some of the world’s most noted thinkers, and has received the Martin Springer Institute’s Moral Courage Award.