The Wisdom of Indigenous Cultures

In late October 2010 a group of eight indigenous elders travelled to London, UK, to share the message that it is time to re-connect with Mother Earth in order to overcome a global environmental disaster. Motivated by a deep concern for humanity and the planet, their visit formed part of a wider movement in which indigenous peoples are calling on the world community to urgently rethink modern notions of progress and development.

The indigenous approach to living sustainably is not religious, but one that conveys a spiritual truth which the elders believe is common to all people. The importance of nurturing relationships in communities through sharing is at the heart of this approach, alongside the understanding that our planet is a living entity that must be cared for and preserved for future generations. This ancient perspective clearly has immense implications for sustainable living during this period of global economic and environmental crises, and aligns closely to the views of a growing number of economists, policymakers and concerned citizens.

Share The World’s Resources (STWR) interviewed two of the elders during their stay in London to further explore the indigenous call for people to reconnect with the basic community and ecological values that should define what it means to be human. Freddy Trequil is an artist and longstanding prominent member of the indigenous Mapuche community in Chile. He also founded and directs the Native Spirit Foundation, a non-profit charitable organisation which promotes the knowledge and preservation of indigenous cultures and supports education in indigenous communities. Victor Lem Masc is the Mayan spiritual guide of his Mayan Community in Guatemala, Latin America, who travels with Freddy and conducts workshops on the mysteries of the Mayan Calendar and the ancestral wisdom locked in the symbology of its intricate design. The spoken interview was translated from Spanish by Agustin Bazzini.

STWR: In your opinion, what are the key differences in the way indigenous people relate to each other and the planet compared to those of us who live in the so called ‘modern world’?

Freddy Trequil: Every indigenous community, wherever they are located, has a cosmology which is related to Mother Earth and a relationship between individuals and people, as well as an economy. But our economy was very much linked to the spiritual life. If we cut a tree, for example, we would always plant another one, and some indigenous cultures would hunt certain animals only for eating, not to accumulate wealth. They hunt to share. In indigenous communities the ones who share the most are the most appreciated, the most important. In Western modern societies, the value of a person is based on how much they have.

The indigenous people hold on to their memory of the past, which they identify with the present. But in the Western world the way of life has become like a huge, big machine that has led millions and millions of people into a labyrinth from where there is no way to get out. The consequences of following this life system, this model of development, can be seen in the suffering of the indigenous people. There is the contamination of the waters which results from the exploitation of oil; the construction and building of dams to generate electricity; the cutting of the forests; the extinction and disappearance of different animals and species. In this sense, we indigenous people are confronting people so they can understand that these models of life that have been imposed through religion and economics cannot in any way help develop humanity.

From our point of view, the heart of humanity has been lost and the indigenous communities who have maintained the memory [of a more spiritual and sustainable past] are an alternative to this [present way of] life, and our people are united with all the different ‘life alternatives’ around the world. It is not through religion, but through faith and life that all these different people [who uphold an alternative way of living] are united.

The one who understands his culture can understand his past. In this sense we know our past history, how we have been invaded, and how the different religious, economic and military systems have been imposed. The problems we face in the indigenous communities are a result of all this imposition.

To give an example, for us it is very important to respect the elders, the children, the women, and Mother Earth. But a foreign educational system unrelated to our traditional way of life has been imposed on us and has effectively destroyed the community in the name of so-called progress. Sometimes we find ourselves between two worlds: the imposed one and the ancestral one that we are now trying to revive.

Another example of how our traditional way of life has been eroded is the use of pesticides on the lands. These changes are not changes that have developed from the community, but they have been imposed on us from outside. And this exact same problem possibly exists everywhere in the world. But those who have the memory of their past and who have strong roots in their cultures, we know where we are going. The solutions are not only in future progress, but also in recovering our old culture.

In our visits to different countries and cities in Europe, we have found many organisations and communities that promote exactly the same things that we are promoting, and that are searching for the same balance in life. So the indigenous elders that have come to Europe are working to relate these two different worlds together, to develop new possibilities of collaboration between the grassroots organisations of many countries. We do not come here with anger, or to seek revenge, but to promote a different philosophy. We come with positive and constructive ideas, to help.

STWR: Could you explain in more detail what you have referred to as the spiritual ‘cosmology’ of the indigenous people you represent. What is the relevance of this cosmology to the modern, consumer-driven economy that shapes the lives of increasing numbers of people around the world?

Victor Lem Masc: The indigenous people that we are representing in this visit are the Aymara, the Mapuche, the Kuna, and the Maya. We have come to the conclusion that there are common elements that unite us in our vision, no matter the distances between the different people. The distinctive characteristics of each people and each community are very similar, especially in relation to their cosmology or the way that we each see life, to our spirituality, and to the concept that everything that exists has life and energy.

The great effort that we and the elders have made to come here is to share the wisdom of the indigenous people. We have faith that the knowledge we bring based on our ancestral traditions and our ancestral practices of life can contribute to the equilibrium of the universe. The most important aspect of this process is the spiritual part, the search for a balancing of the energies of the earth. This is something that we can now see in the science world through their discussions about quantum physics. The indigenous people already know all of this – it is the way that they have understood life for thousands and thousands of years. The only difference is between visualising and conceptualising these ideas. Because we try to live close to nature, we experimented and developed our approach to life that is harmonious and in balance with the universe. We are now telling other people in the cities of Europe about our view of life, because we believe it is necessary that all the people around the world should wake up and that we should work together.

In each city that we have visited, we have found that people are interested in change and have a desire for a new way of living. However, as reality is so immense, we see this willingness to change as a single seed in a big grain silo. There are many people who are in need of that change or that transformation. The only problem is that they cannot see how to sustain or realise it. We have many tools, many elements that are within their reach, but what they need is this spiritual relationship and connection. That is what it has to do with – mass unity. For the indigenous people, the concept of spirituality is all-encompassing and integral, a wholeness, we don’t see it as separate from our daily activities. Everything is equal; culture, economy, spirituality, social life, work – everything forms a part of this wholeness and is interrelated.

For example, in our culture the economy has its spiritual component. But the consumerist society dominates people and makes them subservient to the consumer culture. People become dominated by consumerism and they get stuck in this way of life; the accumulation and possession of material things. People caught up in this process, in this consumerist way of life, are not happy, not satisfied. They have everything, but at the same time they are empty because they don’t see the spirit in things. In our culture, balance and equilibrium is therefore encouraged. We should only consume what is really necessary. In that way we are contributing to the sustainability and equilibrium of the universe.

Part of our work in this visit to Europe is to share with society the many worries and problems that we have seen and been told about by other people. There is a need for people to reconnect with their spirits. So we share with them that it is important to come back to oneself, to go back to our origins, to find out your own culture. Because we notice that history has been fragmented, so there are many people who are not strong in their identity. We don’t come here to impose our cultural values. We simply want to share what we think is important, which is to invite people to reflect on and find their spirituality and to connect with the universe, with everything that exists, with the sacred.

FT: We don’t see with the same eyes that you see. You might see what is apparent, the material part, but if you ask me about the people, the humans that live here, I can tell you what I see. There are many people that want to be forever young – to party. They are empty, they have built in themselves an emptiness from their vanity. They are in competition on all the different levels of the material world, like sexuality, all the clothes, everything that you have; all the different material aspects. Here [in London], for example, they spend double what they earn.

But we also find people and organisations that are different from what I just described; they are educating their children in a different way, they work the land, they are searching for ways of living a sustainable life. Like working in the community, collaborating with each other. In fact we are here with some old indigenous people, one of whom is 115 years old, and when he met with some of the different groups, he said ‘But these people are indigenous, like us’. Because we share food, we share singing, we dance together in a great human community.

Rather than just observing, what we try to do is reflect on what we have seen, because we also have a lot of work to do in our community. The other important point that we have to work on in our community is our indigenous culture, because our culture is still alive. Many people talk in the name of the indigenous, but it is never the indigenous who can speak for themselves. This is our contribution to this great rainbow movement for change that is growing at the moment.

So we work on an individual level, we talk with people and help discover the power inside each one of us as individuals. The same way you feed your body, the same way you have to feed your spirit. And that helps produce a balance in life. As Victor was saying, for the indigenous people everything is connected. If we don’t make a change in the balance of our individual life, we won’t be able to see that the earth is also out of balance. We cannot be conscious of how our individual behaviour and actions in life also create bad effects to other people around us. The indigenous people are culturally and spiritually rich. We can also build on our materialistic wealth, but it has to be in balance, without harming the other. That should be done from our humanity, from us as human beings, because life is very fragile. This is something that people generally cannot perceive – that life is very fragile.

So this is the message that we have been sharing, this is what we came to share with the different people, communities and organisations in Europe. One of the Elders said “My heart is going back home full, because we have identified that there are other people who see the same way as we do”. The same things that we are telling you now, many other organisations also know because they are also choosing the same path in life as us. And they are of all different nationalities; English, Spanish, French, German…

STWR: Your call for individuals to live spiritual and sustainable lives is clearly one that resonates with many people around the world, even those who do not consider themselves as indigenous. What more do you think needs to be done if the transformation you are calling for is to be become a truly global phenomenon?

VLM: On our visit to London, we have watched how different human beings live their life, and the fast pace that society lives life in general, with the end result of a psychologically ill society and a general stress level that affects our bodies and in the end our DNA. So what hope do we have for this new generation and for the future if we continue with this pace of life? However, we have hope that many people, as Freddy was explaining, are interested in and fighting for change. But change has to come bit by bit. I was telling you about the groups of people in this region of Europe who are fighting for change in the world, and who are already starting to change by starting with themselves.

I have also perceived and noticed that many people are fearful. There is a general psychosis that has been growing in Western society, and that weakness is a result of the repression of the spiritual life. So here is where our call of attention is needed, because society in general is facing the loss of many important values. Where there is no value for life, it is very difficult to ask someone to act from the heart, because they live or they act automatically, without feeling. So the elders have mentioned various values – spirituality, respect, gratitude – that can sustain a balanced life. As long as a human being is conscious about themselves and their actions, human life can achieve a level of equilibrium.

It is also important that governments and nation states get involved in this process of change. In the case of indigenous peoples, policies are implemented from the top down and there is no consultation with the people about what they want. To give an example, in many indigenous areas there is opposition to the exploitation of open mines. As a result of these activities, contamination and many other problems are passed on to the indigenous people and also to the planet in general. So our future depends on the work that what we do here in the present. At least in our indigenous communities we work on instilling the correct [spiritual] values in our people, and we encourage the practice of these values in all the different aspects of life.

Personally, I see it as the obligation of the government of each country to share [their resources with other countries]. It is not just a suggestion or proposal, it is an obligation. But unfortunately the reality is that in many communities and Latin American societies the people are divorced from the state. We all know who controls the state in Latin America and I assume in other parts of the world: those who hold and wield the economic power also exercise political power. And so when we talk to the indigenous populations in our area, we can see that it is an elite group who exercise the power. So from an indigenous point of view, politics and policies that are on behalf of the people will never develop.

But we are optimistic about the future, and believe in our spirituality; that it will keep us alive and strong and full of energy to continue with this struggle. And this leads us towards a very clear future. According to the cosmology of the Mayan people, the year 2012 is the beginning of a new era, a time of changes and the flowering of cultures in which the indigenous people are being reborn, and the indigenous culture is re-emerging.

Rajesh Makwana is the director of Share The World's Resources and can be contacted at Adam Parsons is Editor of Share the World's Resources and can be contacted at Read other articles by Rajesh Makwana and Adam Parsons, or visit Rajesh Makwana and Adam Parsons's website.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. MichaelKenny said on November 19th, 2010 at 8:51am #

    That the elders should have found much agreement with their views in Europe is not surprising. Ecology, at all levels, is very popular here. A recent opinion poll actually put the German Green Party ahead of the SPD, for example. My generation of Europeans were all firm socialists, but the young people are green. The empty people referred to are the “yuppy generation”, born in the 1960s and a little bit on either side. They signed up big time for the neo-liberal “counter-revolution” of the 1980s and have lived to regret it! Although they still haven’t grasped why they’re regretting it! The lesson to be learned is that US-American civilisation is increasingly out of step with the rest of the world and may well have to collpase so as to allow something new to be built in its place. The native peoples of the American continent will no doubt have a major role to play in that process.

  2. bozh said on November 19th, 2010 at 9:45am #

    devil may help u whenever or wherever a priest shows up.
    and a supremacist not even to mention. it is just such people who destroyed the last vestiges of civilized behavior.
    i am very happy that indigenes did not need me or, rather, us to tell them that they had the IT.
    The awful, primitive, das untermenschliche DAS, TO, ID! the It had to be utterly destroyed.
    this piece show the priests have not destroyed it utterly; there are some traces of it left! tnx

  3. hayate said on November 19th, 2010 at 10:24pm #

    “The Rain Forests of the Amazon are disappearing at the rate of 5,000 acres a day. Four million Indians once lived there. 120,000 remain. A few tribes have never had contact with the outside world. They still know what we have forgotten.”

    -The Emerald Forest (film)

  4. Don Hawkins said on November 20th, 2010 at 4:03am #

    (Climate change skeptics will be more prevalent in the incoming Congress, as our colleague John Broder noted in a post this afternoon.)

    Mr. Inglis used an analogy comparing the climate to a sick child.

    “Your child is sick,” he said. “Ninety-eight doctors say treat him this way. Two say no, this other way is the way to go.”

    Other Republicans on the subcommittee stood by their doubts on climate change. Among those questioning the validity of climate science was Ralph Hall of Texas, the leading candidate to take the House Science and Technology gavel in next year’s Congress.
    Mr. Hall, 87, told The Dallas Morning News several weeks ago that he had “almost been assured” of the post by the House leadership.
    He has voiced serious doubts about humans’ potential to influence the climate and at the hearing he vowed to query climate scientists under oath about the integrity of their research when he became chairman of the science subcommittee.
    The departing Mr. Inglis warned climate scientists to prepare for this type of grilling by the new Congress.
    “I’d encourage scientists who are listening out there to get ready for the hearings that are coming up in the next Congress,” he said. “Those will be difficult hearings for climate scientists. But I would encourage you to welcome those as fabulous opportunities to teach.” NYT

    Oh well the Rain Forests of the Amazon one of those sick children and yes prepare alright.