Return to Reciprocity

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Review of Traditional Ecological Knowledge; Learning from Indigenous Practices for Environmental Sustainability, co-edited by Melissa K. Nelson and Dan Shilling (Cambridge University Press, 2018)

“Whatever we do to the land, which is our source of life, we do to ourselves. . . . Kinship and guardianship are necessary for our very survival” (253), concludes Melissa Nelson at the end of the comprehensive and interdisciplinary volume, Traditional Ecological Knowledge: Learning from Indigenous Practices for Environmental Sustainability, co-edited with Dan Shilling. The book’s themes about the importance of connection to local land in a visceral, cultural, linguistic, and familial way offer both a call for the Western world to heed the important knowledge held by Indigenous communities—an important framework for the type of environmental sustainability that serves entities other than just humans—and an insistence that this knowledge must be approached respectfully.

Overall, I would highly recommend this book to a wide range of readers. Its accessible writing will make it useful and interesting not only to specialized scholars in the fields of sustainability, environmental, and Native American studies, but also to students and community-based readers (at least, those of them who can afford the $100 price tag). I have already recommended particular chapters to students, farmers, food producers, and Indigenous thinkers. I would encourage every library to buy this book.

The book is comprised of fourteen chapters by eighteen contributors from a variety of intellectual backgrounds. There are selections from the ecologists, environmental scientists, and business professors that one might expect to be publishing about sustainability, but also from philosophers, poets, and Native American studies professors. A majority of the contributors are Indigenous, and over half are women—the book touches on the corresponding oppression of nature, women, and Indigenous peoples associated with settler colonialism and neoliberal capitalism (see Chapter Seven, by Joan McGregor).

The interdisciplinarity of the assembled authors is reflective of the Native Science described within. Pueblo Native American studies professor Greg Cajete describes Native Science as including not only traditional ecological practices but also categories such as metaphysics and philosophy; art and architecture; practical sustainable technologies and agriculture; and ritual and ceremony practiced by Indigenous people both past and present. Native Science encompasses areas that would fall under conventional scientific categories such as astronomy, plant domestication, plant medicine, animal husbandry, geology, and an array of other studies related to plants, animals, and natural phenomena, but also extends beyond those areas to include spirituality, community, creativity, linguistic explorations, “the nature of human knowing and feeling; the nature of proper human relationship to the cosmos; and other such questions related to natural reality” (16–17).

One of the things that many of the authors of this book call for is a similarly interdisciplinary approach to the current climate crisis. Potawatomi biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer insists that “what we need is not the intellectual monoculture of scientism but an intellectual pluralism. A polyculture of ideas is especially important at this critical time as we search for strategies of resilience in the face of accelerating ecological and cultural shifts of unprecedented magnitude” (47). Based on the model of the “three sisters” garden—which entails the polycropping of corn, beans, and squash for the mutual benefit of the plants to each other and as a complimentary diet for humans—Kimmerer calls on us to develop a scientific mutualism in which “the climbing ‘beans’ of scientific inquiry are guided by the ‘maize’ of Indigenous principles,” with the squash representing “the educational climate of mutual respect, intellectual pluralism, and critical thinking in which both TEK [traditional ecological knowledge] and SEK [scientific ecological knowledge] can grow” (51-52).

One of the main themes of the book, as outlined by co-editor Dan Shilling in the introduction, is that “sustainability is foremost a moral, not technological, undertaking, beginning with how our species relates to its surroundings” (4). As O’odham/Chicano/Anglo restoration ecologist Dennis Martinez describes in Chapter Nine, when operating under neoliberal capitalism, the framing of solutions to sustainability problems involves the very economic forces and belief systems that caused the problems in the first place. He sees the dominant economic model as “ethically incompetent” (158). What is instead needed, write environmental ethics professor Michael Paul Nelson and animal ecologist John Vucetich in Chapter Eight, is a non-anthropocentric moral system—an inclusive environmental ethics that allows for the attribution of intrinsic value or direct moral standing to the more-than-human world. And since “there’s a perceived lack of ability within Western culture to extend direct moral standing to the nonhuman world” (131), this book lays out how Indigenous communities across the world (with a primary focus on North America) have co-existed with their environments through an ethos of reciprocity, respect, and gratitude.

The term reciprocity was mentioned in nearly every essay. Syilx Okanagan literary scholar Jeannette Armstrong writes that “ethical conduct within nature is based in reciprocity” (98). Kimmerer (in Chapter Three) describes this reciprocity as coupling “taking” from the planet (i.e., extracting “natural resources”) with the moral responsibility of “giving back in equal measure,” something she sees as a missing link from Western economic models. Martinez (in Chapter Nine) describes this reciprocal relationship as “kincentricity”—Indigenous land care practices that entail reciprocal relationships laid out in “original compacts” between animals and humans; a way of life that includes relating respectfully to all life as kin and to the Earth as a nurturing mother. There are no “natural resources” when those beings are your kin who must be approached with respect before harvesting. Kimmerer describes this as the “Honorable Harvest,” a “practical reverence” that has both spiritual and material dimensions. She calls on us to recognize that “we inhabit a landscape of gifts peopled by nonhuman relatives, the sovereign beings who sustain us” (27).

So how does one respond to a world made of gifts? In her essay on Indigenous food sovereignty in Canada (Chapter Ten), Cree Native studies professor Priscilla Settee points out the major contributions that Indigenous peoples’ TEK has historically played in creating global food security through the development of crops like corn, potatoes, and tomatoes—gifts to the world often not recognized.

Throughout the book, contributors insist that reinvigorating cultures of reciprocity provides our only sustainable way forward. The well-being of humans, plants, and animals are linked, and for the mutual thriving and survival of all parties we need to restore cultural services as well as ecosystem services, as Kimmerer describes. This idea of reciprocal restoration, “the expansion of restoration goals to include the mutualistic role of humans as active participants in land healing through cultural practices” (41), leads to a repair of ecosystem services, as well as cultural revitalization. Kimmerer gives the example of her research on sweetgrass plots, which found that beds that were respectfully harvested using the methods employed by traditional basket makers demonstrated more robust growth than beds that were left untouched. As Martinez describes, “most activists supporting the conservation of ‘wilderness’ without people have little knowledge of Indigenous cultural land care practices or environmental history” (145). Kimmerer’s work, on the other hand, as well as that of others in this volume, has quantitatively and qualitatively demonstrated that the ethos of the honorable harvest is mutually beneficial.

The need to restore and revitalize these types of practices and ethics rang throughout the book; as Cajete notes in Chapter Two, “the revitalization of Native Science is an essential component of cultural revitalization and preservation” (17). Acoma Pueblo poet Simon Ortiz, in his essay on the role of land as the originator of language and culture, concludes that TEK matters because it is the foundation for Indigenous wholeness and provides pragmatic tools for resiliency responding to environmental change. This Indigenous knowledge is needed not just to save the world from environmental destruction after centuries of extraction and abuse, but its revitalization is also important for the health, thriving, and continued existence of the Native communities who developed it.

Along these lines, some of these essays are adamant (and to some extent unapologetic) about who this information should be for and to what end. TEK is not just for contributing to the broader goals of science and knowledge production; this information is by and for Indigenous people and should be protected as such. In Chapter Four, Potawatomi environmental philosopher Kyle Whyte describes how often scientists appreciate the “supplemental value” of Indigenous knowledges—adding data that scientific methods do not normally track. But Whyte argues that Indigenous knowledges also have governance value and serve as crucial sources of guidance for Indigenous resurgence and nation building. Indigenous knowledge guides how Indigenous peoples will prepare for, adapt to, and mitigate further sustainability challenges. Resurgence in this case entails striving to “recover our former selves and push toward creating better future selves reclaiming Native values” (68). The ability of Indigenous communities to flourish is contingent on Indigenous collective continuance—their capacity to adapt in ways sufficient for their members’ livelihoods to flourish in the future. This collective continuance entails adapting to the impacts of settler colonialism—including climate change—by adopting emerging means, strategies, and other planning tools and utilizing them within a framework of collective self-determination. Whyte is adamant that Indigenous knowledge is not just about the past but is relevant for the future: “Indigenous knowledges are not backward-looking repositories of information that are about historic or waning ways of life. Instead, they have a special value in Indigenous planning efforts that is different from the supplemental value of Indigenous knowledges for scientists” (70).

For these reasons, the primary value of Indigenous knowledge, as Whyte describes, is “tied to the well-being of current and future Indigenous persons, families, communities, and nations. Sometimes Indigenous well-being conflicts with scientific aspirations to add to the public domain of global scientific knowledge” (75-76). This brings us to issues of knowledge sovereignty. Indigenous knowledge is often considered too old to protect or part of the public domain because it is not written down. Indigenous nations also face challenges in sharing their TEK with the U.S. federal government to protect the environment because of concerns that this information could then be accessed through a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request. Tribes don’t want sensitive locations containing sacred sites or food sources widely known for outsiders to plunder. As Yaqui legal scholar Rebecca Tsosie describes in Chapter Thirteen, “Indigenous knowledge is cultural property to be protected according to the norms of each Indigenous culture. . . . The Indigenous nation in the exercise of its right to self-determination should be recognized as having ownership of its traditional knowledge, along with the ability to exclude others from access and to gain damages for misuse of the traditional knowledge” (246). A theme that arose in Tsosie’s, Whyte’s, and Settee’s chapters is the need for Indigenous people to be asked to give free, prior, and informed consent before outsiders use their knowledge.

In opposition to the “ethnically incompetent” economy described at the beginning of this review, toward the end of the book, Maori business scholars Rachel Wolfgramm, Chellie Spiller, Carla Houkamau, and Manuka Henare define economy in its true etymological sense—the management of home as a physical space where home is defined as identity, community, a journey of social transformation, and a space for navigating futures. They argue that “the Maori economy is embedded in a holistic relational system where the natural, social, and spiritual worlds are interrelated, and the well-being of the individual is central to the well-being of the collective” (224). It is this type of economy and relationship with the environment that we need to collectively move towards, and quickly. Chickasaw literary scholar Linda Hogan wears her broken heart openly as she surveys the current condition of the world in her chapter reflecting on animals she has loved—some of whom have suffered terribly at the hands of humans. She worries, “Our knowledge isn’t expansive enough to take us to the sustainable world we so desire in this sacred place, where we once knew the means to keep this planet healthy. We have let our world down” (204). She insists we need new forms of energy and a new kind of education to pull out of this.

The book opens and closes with the acknowledgment that sustainability has become a prevalent buzzword. As Shilling notes in his introduction, critics have developed the label “sustainababble” to allude to the way in which the word has been stretched thin to the point of meaninglessness, as thousands of NGOs and other groups take on sustainability as their missions and the word is taken up by books, cities, college courses, and even as a way to rebrand the wasteful image of industries like tourism. As Shilling notes in the introduction, “Sustainability now touches nearly every academic discipline, social issue, political agenda, and professional sector . . . sustainability is big business” (7). In the conclusion, Anishinaabe American Indian Studies professor Melissa Nelson concludes that not only has “greenwashing” become a problem, but “red-washing” has as well, as TEK is used in superficial ways to satisfy diversity requirements. She calls on us to be wary of the intellectual habit of objectification, where TEK or Indigenous knowledge may be “reified, fragmented, and commodified for external exploitation” (258).

This book is not a guide for how to stick a feather or a medicine wheel on your sustainability plan. Instead, this book will help readers think through how general principles common across TEK (reciprocity, gratitude, responsibility, consideration for future generations) can be better taken up by the rest of the world, as long as Indigenous people are approached respectfully in the process. Nelson concludes with a call to action: “If sustainability is to mean anything relevant for us, our more-than-human relatives, and future generations, then we must put our environmental ethics into action and get back in our tracks by re-rooting to specific landscapes. If we are able to embody kindship with our natural world and practice reciprocity as if the future mattered, then we may once again become keepers of the green world” (265).

  • Elizabeth Hoover

    Elizabeth Hoover is Associate Professor of American Studies at Brown University, where she also serves as the Faculty Chair of Brown’s Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative steering committee.

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