Native people, native trees, & the power of spiritual ecology 

Words by Oliver Eastwood with art by Jenna Bornstein

“We are one with the tree, partners with the tree, companions with the tree”, says Charlie Nelson, an Elder of Bigaawinashkoziibiing, Roseau River Anishinaabe First Nation in Manitoba, Canada. On the other side of the Atlantic, French Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote of divinity being present in every particle of life. While both men come from very different backgrounds and teach from very different lived experiences, both speak to the idea that there is a spiritual connection between all living (and indeed non-living) things on this planet. Amidst the growing criticism of humanity’s relationship with the Earth, these ideas have now been given a name – spiritual ecology – and their teachings are crucial to redefining the environmental movement.  

Settling on one definition of spiritual ecology can be tricky, but at its core it is the belief that life on Earth exists as an interdependent system of beings, an idea that defines humanity’s values, beliefs and responsibilities to the planet. And after centuries in the background, spiritual ecology is entering the environmental mainstream. James Lovelock’s famous Gaia Hypothesis, in which the Earth is viewed as a self-regulating and interconnected organism, is rooted in spiritual beliefs of Gaia as the goddess of the Earth, while the environmental field of deep ecology argues that all living beings have inherent value, no matter their utility to humans. 

So where do indigenous people come into this? Well, as the first occupants of the land, indigenous communities were the first to develop understandings of their place on Earth and to form a spiritual bond with the natural environment that is embedded in the indigenous identity. We have so much to learn from these communities, yet too often they are perceived not as teachers or guardians, but as powerless actors with nothing to offer to the fight against climate change. Viewing indigenous peoples as passive stakeholders is a crucial mistake made by governments and policy-makers – not only do they hold essential knowledge and teachings on the environment, but they occupy a substantial portion of land that is of crucial importance to conservation efforts. 

But unfortunately, the importance of these environmental guardians has largely failed to be recognised. While living in Indonesia, I conducted a series of interviews with forestry experts while researching efforts to formalise indigenous land tenure claims. Perhaps the most illuminating were the insights given by Irfan Bakhtiar of Yayasan Keanekaragaman Hayati Indonesia, a resource-management and biodiversity NGO. Reflecting on the Indonesian government’s economic policies, Pak Irfan noted that “community rights are treated as inferior since they aren’t commercial activity.” It deeply saddened me to hear this, but the fact of the matter is that our current view of the environment means that we too often disregard indigenous thinking as, simply put, something doesn’t make us any money.  

In the Arctic polar region, indigenous peoples such as the Inuit of Canada and the Sami of northern Scandinavia are coming into increasingly frequent clashes with governments, arguing that their nations have been adapted to their local environment for centuries and are dependent on sustainable use of local natural resources. But the governments insist that the land is owned by the state, not the community. It’s this kind of worldview that has gotten us to the climate crisis we’re in today – by viewing resources solely in terms of their economic value, we lose the incentive to safeguard the planet, instead gaining justification to accelerate the destruction of our home. 

In studies of environmental sustainability, academics and policy-makers often focus on indigenous methods of conservation such as sustainable agriculture or regenerative forestry. But to be able to properly use those teachings, we first need to change how we relate to the environment. This has to start at an early age, for example by teaching children about indigenous environmentalism in school science classes, or through forest schools, which use nature as a classroom to foster an love for the environment in young kids. But as well as bringing indigenous knowledge into the mainstream, the culture of indigenous communities is an incredibly important tool for spreading native teachings . For instance, by eating more indigenous food, we can gain an understanding of the relationships native peoples have with the land and how they use its natural resources. 

In her wonderful book, Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes that “indigenous ways of understanding recognise the personhood of all beings as equally important, not in a hierarchy but in a circle.” Human beings are the gap in that circle – for too long, we have believed we can get away with simultaneously protecting the environment and existing outside of it. For the environmental movement to be a success, we need to relearn indigenous teachings and reforge our spiritual connection with the planet and view Earth not as a tool or a resource for us to overexploit, but as a home and family. 

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