And it is true that most or perhaps all Native Americans see the entire universe as being alive—that is, as having movement and an ability to act. But more than that, indigenous Americans tend to see this living world as a fantastic and beautiful creation engendering extremely powerful feelings of gratitude and indebtedness, obliging us to behave as if we are related to one another.
—Jack D. Forbes, scholar, poet, and activist
Last summer, I read “An Indigenous People’s History of the United States” by Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz. While it had been on my “to-read list” for a long time, the racial justice uprisings and my continuing discomfort of not knowing much Indigenous history of my country finally put it to the top of the list. The result was nothing short of transformational. It shifted the entire way I view my country. The scales created by the Euro-centric/settler-colonialism history I was taught growing up started to fall off. It’s what led to the articles I wrote last Fall about re-thinking Thanksgiving and Indigenous land acknowledgements. It has also reframed how I understand how we’ve been led astray around the colonialist perspectives about our relationship to the earth.
With Earth Day upon us, I thought it appropriate to channel this continuing transformation into a post about exploring the cultures and religions whose connection to nature is deeper, more humble, and more harmonious. In our capitalist world, the extractive principles of “the natural world is here to serve us” is clearly not sustainable. Perhaps we can learn from others on a more personal level to inspire our kids’ generation to feel more connected to, and therefore more protective of, our fragile planet.
We can learn about these cultures more deeply in our travels and everyday lives beyond the way they’ve been introduced to us in the Western sense.
Reciprocity Between Nature and Humans
Indigenous people all over the world possess a stronger cultural connection to the natural world and the natural resources than settler-colonizers like myself could even imagine. We can learn from the ancestors of the original people of the places we visit about the natural resources of a region based on what they hold sacred and powerful. We can learn about the reciprocity between nature and humans. When we take or use a resource, we can give gratitude for that life-giving nature, but we can also do the work to return the favor to those resources that sustain us.
An example is my home region of the Pacific Northwest of the United States. Here, salmon are not just a delicious local resource, they are an essential element of the natural ecosystem of the region’s waterways. With their harrowing annual spawning migrations from the ocean up the many waterways that lead all the way up to mountain streams, they bring nutrients and sustenance to all the ecosystems from the top of the mountains back down to the ocean. This recognition of salmon’s essential role in keeping the natural environment, and with it, the humans living in that natural environment, healthy and thriving, is embedded in cultural beliefs and practices among the Native people of the region. With each seasonal return of the salmon, the communities along the river celebrate and give constant gratitude to the fish. They do not proceed with the harvest with a one-sided view of the fish being there for the sole purpose of the community’s food.
Check out this article in The Atlantic by David Treuer advocating to return U.S. land back to the original people.
Healing Principles from the Earth
While modern Western medicine is an incredible invention, it is but a small part of the history of healing. Cultures around the world still practice traditional healing methods that are rooted in their connection to the natural world around them. This Natural Awakening article highlights a number of the regional practices around traditional healing.
These practices shouldn’t be dismissed as traditions from the past, but as both essential parts of today’s healing practices that can help balance Western medical practices and as the roots of modern medicine. Take Ayurvedic medicine that, as the oldest form of holistic medicine, dates back over 3,000 years in India. The approach is based on the balance between mind, body, and spirit by promoting overall good health. Because of Ayurveda’s focus on the five elements (air, water, fire, earth, and space/ether), there is an intrinsic connection to the natural world and how it affects our body.
If you’re interested in holistic healing or medicine in any region you visit, it’s important to learn about the traditional beliefs from the perspective of the people who carry that knowledge through their culture.
Connection to Food
Food is such an incredible vehicle to learn about a culture. Understanding how certain cultures, traditions, and religions respect their food is also a great way to expand our view of our relationship to earth. Many religions hold certain plants and animals as sacred. For example, Hindus regard cows as sacred animals to pay reverence for the gifts that they provide, namely milk and cream. Those who follow Jainism do not consume vegetables which grow under the ground because the process of removing the vegetables inevitably disturbs the habitat of living beings around them. This article by the Pluralism Project from Harvard University explains the vow of non-violence, known as Ahimsa, and its connection to the Jain vegetarian diet.
Buddhism is a great example of this connection between food, nature, and our own health and well-being. A 2017 Chef’s Table episode focused on Jeong Kwan, a Zen Buddhist nun at Baekyangsa Temple in South Korea provides beautiful insight into these beliefs. Temple cuisine, as Kwan notes, shows this connection in its purest form. “Secular food is focused on creating dynamic energy. But temple food keeps a person’s mind calm and static,” she said in the episode. She does not cook with the typical aromatic herbs and spices used in food all over the world: garlic, onions, scallions, chives, or leeks. “Those five spices are sources of spiritual energy, but too much of that energy will present a monk’s spirit from achieving a state of calmness.”
This beautiful understanding of how the food we eat makes our bodies react provides insight into the potential for harmony between humans and the nature that feeds us.
These are just snippets of cultures and traditions that value the earth in a deeper way than Western colonial perspectives do. In our travels, we can learn from the people we meet and how they regard the earth around them. We can see how they relate to the natural world, how older generations regard the land, and thus transform our relationship to the natural world around us to hopefully be better stewards ourselves.