Book Review ...

Wisdom of the Elders


Peter Knudtson and David Suzuki


Native and Scientific Ways
of Knowing about Nature

Web Publication by Mountain Man Graphics, Australia - Southern Winter of 1996

Editorial Notations

The ambitious scope of this 1992 publication Wisdom of the Elders by the two authors by Peter Knudtson and David Suzuki, must not be under-estimated. If I am not mistaken, this publication will be hailed as one of the greatest milestones in the history of modern man. The work represents a meticulous and well-documented gathering of sacred stories and traditions from over 22 different indigenous and native cultures of our contemporary twentieth century world. Deeply profound ecological wisdom about our universe, our planet, and our physical and spiritual lives as human beings is to be gleaned from this compendium of resources. The extent of the research may be perceived by examination of the following table which presents the resource framework in terms of the global terrestrial distribution of the scattered tribes of indigenous peoples in the final decade of the second millenium:

Extent of Sources - the Wisdom of the Elders

PageGlobal Terrestrial LocationNative Peoples
23Columbia (NorthWest Amazon)Desana
25American SouthWestHopi
28Alaskan InteriorKoyukon
31NorthEast British ColumbiaDunne-za (Beaver)
38Northern Territory, AustraliaYarralin
41North American AntarcticBarren Grounds Innuit
48New MexicoTewa (Eastern Pueblo)
56Canadian Sub-ArcticWaswanipe Cree
66AfricaSan Bushmen
100North Central CaliforniaWintu
118Sarawak, MalaysiaDayak
125SouthWest United StatesNavajo
127Central British ColumbiaGitksan
129Central AustraliaAranda
138Northern AustraliaMurngin
154VietnamMnong Gar
170North Central United StatesDakota Sioux
188SouthWest British ColumbiaLil'wat
191NorthEast North AmericaIroquois Confederacy

In the following section of this publication I have extracted a large portion of the authors' introductory preamble to their truly planetary presentation of the subject matter, which they have entitled Visions of the Natural World and appropriately sub-titled Shaman and Scientist. In their prefacing note we find the authors describing the extended presentation of their research in terms of a mosaic ...

There is no shadow of doubt in my mind that this work will be hailed as a milestone in the achievements of "civilised man". It will become a companion text, if not to be considered standard bibliography for any research in the area of ecology, nature and the study of the intergrative approaches to the cultural diversities of the global future in the third millenium. The authors and their associates in all lands beneath the sun should be commended, and the readers of this publication should be exhorted to track down a copy of "The Wisdom of the Elders".

All living beings which were born into the planetary terrestrial environment of the earth may be considered as indigenous to the earth. All human beings therefore - whether they acknowledge the fact or not - are terrestrial natives of the Earth. As such, in accordance to the eternal presence of the cosmic environment, and in its eternal interface to the terrestrial environment, there exists a cosmic solidarity of the soul - of the greater spiritual life - which is present in and, surrounding us all like the sunshine, is reinforced by the many and varied unities presented in this great publication of Peter Knudtson and David Suzuki.


PRF Brown
BCSLS {Freshwater}
Mountain Man Graphics,
Newport Beach, Australia
Southern Winter, 1996

Native and Scientific Ways
of Knowing about Nature

Wisdom of the Elders

An extract from Chapter One
written by Knudtson and Suzuki:

Before we embark on our journey to aboriginal visions of the natural world we should discuss some of the more important differences between Native and scientific ecological perspectives, between the kinds of questions each "asks" of nature and the kinds of "answers" each is, in turn, likely to receive.

Few Westerners have written more lucidly on this subject than French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. In his book The Savage Mind, his classic study of this topic, Levi-Strauss completely sidesteps Western society's long-standing tendency to prejudge the Native Mind,* and shamanism or magic, as little more than a spiritually stunted cultural antecedent to the nobler, more clear-eyed vision of modern science. Rather, Levi-Strauss refers to the worlds of the shaman and the scientist as two parallel modes of acquiring knowledge about the universe that have managed to give birth independently to two distinct though equally positive sciences. In these two fundamentally different modes of thought, nature is accessible to scientific enquiry: one [is] roughly adapted to that of perception and the imagination: the other at a remove from it.

The Native Mind and the Scientific Mind are embodied in the traditional ecstatic healer, or shaman, and scientist, respectively. The first of these two vital traditions of thought is virtually as old as humankind itself-its taproot descends deep down in the rich Pleistocene soil of an ancient hunting-gathering way of life, and its tender leaves still unfurl to this day. This Native Mind, this aboriginal vision of the natural world, in its various incarnations and with constant modification, helped Homo sapiens navigate through countless crucial cultural transitions-ranging from the domestication of animals and early agriculture to the margins of modem industrialisation. The Scientific Mind is, in comparison, a relative upstart. Its roots are for the most part in the much shallower soils of seventeenth century European Christianity and natural philosophy, although some of its ideas descend into the deeper tilth of ancient Judeo-Christian and Greek thought.

Despite the profound differences in the sensibilities and separate historical lineages of these two modes of thinking, argues Levi-Strauss, both are alive and neither is inherently "superior" or "inferior" to the other. Each tradition is endowed with an originality, an internal coherence, and an intellectual integrity that renders it independently beautiful, adaptive, and worthy of respect in its own right. Each aims also to discover some sense of order within the physical universe and conjures up visions of nature that, when seen side by side, can seem strikingly complementary.

The critical difference between these two traditional ways of knowing (there are of course others) arises from the opposite ways in which each asks questions about the universe. Their different perspectives - not simply the historical timing of their emergence - fundamentally determine the kind of knowledge about the natural world that each has accumulated over the centuries. Writes Levi-Strauss:

The predicament of the traditional shaman and the modem scientist might be compared to that of the proverbial troupe of blind men who, after each has been permitted to touch a different area of the same elephant's anatomy, proceed to pontificate - "ethnocentrically," strictly on the basis of each man's circumscribed experience - on the underlying "truth" of elephant-ness.

The savage mind, says Levi-Strauss, totalizes. In other words, the Native Mind's perspective tends to be holistic, multisensory, and boundless in scope. Shamans (along with an assortment of medicine people, healers, artists, and other traditional figures of authority who have long served as precious repositories of aboriginal knowledge) reach out to embrace the entire cosmos-not just the most tangible or accessible part of it. Shamanic images of the natural world are largely rooted in the rich soil of generations of revelatory personal encounters with the concrete, sensible aspects of the cosmos. The Native Mind yearns to envelop the totality of the world and brings a totality of mental capacities, beyond cool reason, to the task.

In a parallel quest, scientists set out to confront the awesome mysteries of the cosmos with sensibilities that are in some sense one step removed, to borrow Levi-Strauss's phrase, from the primary, experiential, holistic perceptions of the Native Mind. Rather than becoming active participants in nature - rather than ecstatically immersing themselves in the immediacy of its sensory juices - they observe nature as an object - as an inanimate "other" - and consequently "from afar." They view nature as a distant abstraction: a composite of the clever, fragmentary insights they have painstakingly gleaned from the measurable aspects of nature.

The individual scientist's ultimate goal, seen as part of a multi-generational enterprise of scientific inquiry, is in some ways far grander than that of the ecstatic, world-embracing shaman. The scientist seeks nothing less than eventually to comprehend the workings of the whole universe-to "explain" it rationally by somehow reducing all of its seemingly unfathomable mysteries to a finite set of natural laws that grant order to the cosmos. In this audacious quest, the scientist relies upon an extraordinary intellectual and technological tool-kit that greatly amplifies certain perceptions and powers. He possesses precision instruments, for example, ranging from microscopes and telescopes to supercomputers, and clever sleights-of hand such as mathematical equations and shared rules of logic and evidence-the legacy of centuries of scientific thought.

Paradoxically, as these tools and strategies have inched scientists ever closer to the subjects of their intense scrutiny, they have also tended to insulate scientists from the potentially psychologically overwhelming impact of nature's totality-familiar territory to the shaman. By dissecting nature, by rationally reducing it to bits and pieces, the scientist remains aloof from that swirling vortex of ecstatic joys, terrors, and mysteries captured with breathtaking clarity by novelist George Eliot in Middlemarch:

Science's vaunted "objectivity" does not render it in every way supreme, however. What might the Native Mind glimpse that the scientist's more myopic gaze cannot? What creative images of the cosmos might holistic minds that are equally gifted intellectually conjure up if they were granted limitless access not just to the mind's reason but also to its capacity for feeling, compassion, visceral experience, and soaring imagination as it struggles to convey its personal vision of nature's boundlessness?

Traditional Native knowledge about the natural world is often extremely sophisticated and of considerable practical value. Prescientific aboriginal systems for identifying, naming, and classifying soils, plants, insects, and other elements of local environments and deriving medical and economic benefit from them are perhaps the most powerful illustration of this. In the rain forests of the Philippines, for instance, the Hanunoo people know how to distinguish sixteen hundred different plant species. Preliminary studies suggest that the Kayapo Indians of the Amazon jungles of Brazil rely upon more than 250 different species of plants for their fruits alone, and hundreds more for their roots, nuts, and other edible parts. Traditional Bolivian healers use some six hundred different medicinal herbs, and their counterparts in Southeast Asia may use up to sixty-five hundred kinds of plants for their medical concoctions. In addition, more than seventy-five percent of the 121 prescription drugs used around the world that are derived from plants are said to have been discovered on the basis of initial clues found in traditional indigenous medical practices.

Many aspects of ancient Native nature lore and preevolutionary "taxonomy" are grounded in supremely thorough field observation. Native schemes of names and classification, seen in the context of the cosmos that shaped them, are intelligent and coherent. While Native thinkers, writes Levi-Strauss, searched for the elemental basis for nature's orderly designs without perfected instruments which would have permitted them to place it where it most often is - namely, at the microscopic level - they already discerned "as through a glass darkly" principles of interpretation whose . . . accordance with reality have been revealed to us only through very recent inventions.

If shamans and scientists for centuries have asked very different kinds of questions of the cosmos, how different are the "answers" each has elicited? One way to distil the differences between Native and scientific knowledge about nature is simply to list some of the fundamental qualities of Native ecological perspectives and contrast them with conventional scientific ones. By listing them, we do not mean to imply that all these characteristics will necessarily be found in every indigenous belief system. Nor are we implying that no scientist subscribes in any way to any of the Native viewpoints and values that we are suggesting. Nor do we believe our list to be exhaustive.

First, traditional Native knowledge about the natural world tends to view all - or at least vast regions-of nature, often including the earth itself, as inherently holy rather than profane, savage, wild, or wasteland. The landscape itself, or certain regions of it, is seen as sacred and quivering with life. It is inscribed with meaning regarding the origins and unity of all life, rather than seen as mere property to be partitioned legally into commercial real estate holdings.

The Native Mind is imbued with a deep sense of reverence for nature. It does not operate from an impulse to exercise human dominion over it.

Native wisdom sees spirit, however one defines that term, as dispersed throughout the cosmos or embodied in an inclusive, cosmos- sanctifying divine being. Spirit is not concentrated in a single, monotheistic Supreme Being.

Native wisdom tends to assign human beings enormous responsibility for sustaining harmonious relations within the whole natural world rather than granting them unbridled license to follow personal or economic whim.

It regards the human obligation to maintain the balance and health of the natural world as a solemn spiritual duty that an individual must perform daily - not simply as admirable, abstract ethical imperatives that can be ignored as one chooses. The Native Mind emphasises the need for reciprocity-for humans to express gratitude and make sacrifices routinely - to the natural world in return for the benefits they derive from it-rather than to extract whatever they desire unilaterally. Nature's bounty is considered to be precious gifts that remain intimately and inextricably embedded in its living web rather than as "natural resources" passively awaiting human exploitation.

Human beings are to honor nature routinely (through daily spiritual practice, for example, or personal prayer) rather than only intermittently when it happens to be convenient (on Earth Day, for example, or following a particularly moving speech or television documentary, or in the throes of personal despair over a pressing local environmental crisis). And human violations of the natural world have serious immediate (as well as long-term) consequences rather than comfortingly vague, ever "scientifically uncertain," long-term ones.

The Native Mind tends to view wisdom and environmental ethics as discernible in the very structure and organisation of the natural world rather than as the lofty product of human reason far removed from nature.

The Native Mind tends to view the universe as the dynamic interplay of elusive and ever-changing natural forces, not as a vast array of static physical objects.

It tends to see the entire natural world as somehow alive and animated by a single, unifying life force, whatever its local Native name. It does not reduce the universe to progressively smaller conceptual bits and pieces.

It tends to view time as circular (or as a coil-like fusion of circle and line), as characterised by natural cycles that sustain all life, and as facing humankind with recurrent moral crises.- rather than as an unwavering linear escalator of "human progress."

It tends to accept without undue anxiety the probability that nature will always possess unfathomable mysteries. It does not presume that the cosmos is completely decipherable to the rational human mind.

It tends to view human thought, feelings, and communication as inextricably intertwined with events and processes in the universe rather than as apart from them. Indeed, words themselves are considered spiritually potent, generative, and somehow engaged in the continuum of the cosmos, not neutral and disengaged from it. The vocabulary of Native knowledge is inherently gentle and accommodating toward nature rather than aggressive and manipulative.

The Native Mind tends to emphasise celebration of and participation in the orderly designs instead of rationally "dissecting" the world.

It tends to honor as its most esteemed elders those individuals who have experienced a profound and compassionate reconciliation of outer- and inner-directed knowledge, rather than virtually anyone who has made material achievement or simply survived to chronological old age.

It tends to reveal a profound sense of empathy and kinship with other forms of life, rather than a sense of separateness from them or superiority over them. Each species is seen as richly endowed with its own singular array of gifts and powers, rather than as somehow pathetically limited compared with human beings.

Finally, it tends to view the proper human relationship with nature as a continuous dialogue (that is, a two-way, horizontal, communication between Homo sapiens and other elements of the cosmos) rather than as a monologue (a one-way, vertical imperative).

This unfinished litany of Native ecological themes suggests that there is a fundamental division between Native and Western ecological perspectives. Within Native worldviews, the parts and processes of the universe are, to varying degrees, holy; to science, they can only be secular. Thus, this ancient, culturally diverse aboriginal consensus on the ecological order and the integrity of nature might justifiably be described as a "sacred ecology" in the most expansive, rather than in the scientifically restrictive, sense of the word "ecology." For it looks upon the totality of patterns and relationships at play in the universe as utterly precious, irreplaceable, and worthy of the most profound human veneration. To indigenous peoples around the world, the sacred is, and always has been, waiting to be witnessed everywhere - diffusely scattered to the four directions of the winds and "everywhen" (a term coined by Australian Aboriginal scholar W.E.H. Stanner) - continuously, throughout all time.

The eminent Swedish historian of religion Ake Hultkranu suggests that the narrow Western term nature seems incapable of enfolding Native notions of a vast, spiritually charged cosmic continuum, in which human society, biosphere, and the whole universe are seamlessly rolled into one. The Western religious dichotomy between a world of spiritual plentitude and a world of material imperfection, a dualism pertaining to Christian and Gnostic doctrines, he states, has no counter-part in American Indian thinking. Indians value highly life on earth, and their religion supports their existence in the world. The whole spirit of the religion is one of harmony, vitality, and appreciation of the world around them.

According to Alfonso Ortiz, a Tewa Indian and well-known anthropologist: Indian tribes put nothing above nature. Their gods are a part of nature, on the level of nature, not supra-anything. Conversely, there's nothing that is religious, versus something else that is secular. Native American religion pervades, informs all life.

At the same time, it is important to emphasize that this inherent spiritual dimension does not mean that Native nature-wisdom is somehow naively romantic, ethereal, or disconnected from ordinary life. Native knowledge about nature is firmly rooted in reality, in keen personal observation, interaction, and thought, sharpened by the daily rigors of uncertain survival. Its validity rests largely upon the authority of hard-won personal experience-upon concrete encounters with game animals and arduous treks across the actual physical contours of local landscapes, enriched by night dreams, contemplations, and waking visions. The junction between knowledge and experience is tight, continuous, and dynamic, giving rise to "truths" that are likely to be correspondingly intelligent, fluid, and vibrantly "alive."

This experiential basis of knowledge, explains Canadian anthropologist Robin Ridington, who has spent years studying British Columbia's subarctic Beaver Indians, or Dunne-za, allows for a "science" that is negotiated in the same way that people negotiate social relations with one another. This does not mean that aboriginal people are colorful and spiritual but somehow not really connected to the real world in which we now live, he continues. They are real. They are translators. They remember. We forget or ignore what they know at our peril.

To be sure, Native attitudes toward the natural world are not with out certain tensions. After all, nature is not only sacred and beloved - it must daily be exploited, to some extent, in order to survive. Native knowledge embodies an ethos for mitigating this universal conflict, but it cannot be expected always to do so in perfect harmony. Historians suggest that Native peoples too have, on occasion, committed environmental "sins" - through wasteful hunting and trapping practices, for example, or the gradual depletion of agricultural soils. But the worst of these excesses were generally of relatively recent vintage and occurred under the influence of powerful, imposed, non-Native economic incentives and value systems. The earlier, precontact ecological infractions that took place certainly were done without the terrible technological leverage of modern Western infractions.

Modem science looks out upon the same universe through a very different lens. Through an often laborious process of debate and discussion, the community of scientists itself agrees for a time upon an interpretation of some aspect of the world - a new, more intellectually satisfying paradigm, or model, of reality, the latest in a long, lurching succession of ever provisional scientific "truths."

Native and Scientific Thought
as Mutually Enriching

Despite this gulf between Native and scientific ways of knowing about nature, each tradition has much to learn from the other. A cross-cultural resonance can be felt in the ringing public statements issued by some of our wisest and most respected elder statesmen of science. They speak knowingly of the genetic and evolutionary kinship of all species and of our fundamental dependency upon the systems of nature. They describe the intricate, lifelike homeostatic processes that regulate the chemical balance of the earth's oceans, soils, and atmosphere. And they plead for a new global environmental ethos based on this scientifically documented unity - one that might grant all forms of life an inherent value and right to exist and burden human beings with a greater sense of responsibility for maintaining long-term ecological balances in the biosphere.

Despite their different perspectives on the natural world, shaman and wise scientist seem here to be issuing strikingly similar messages about the underlying interconnectedness of all life and warnings about the deteriorating state of natural systems. Wisdom of the Elders is an exploration of a few of these shared ecological themes. It represents a search for points of intellectual, emotional, and poetic resonance between some of the most profound truths of modern life sciences - particularly evolutionary biology, genetics, and ecology - and those of the time-tested nature-wisdom of First peoples around the world-ranging from American, Andean, and Amazonian Indians of the New World to indigenous peoples of Africa, Southeast Asia, Australia, and beyond.

A landmark 1987 report by the World Commission on Environment and Development, popularly known as the Brundtland report, boldly addresses the value of indigenous ecological perspectives to many global efforts to deal with ongoing environmental crises. It pleads for the prompt restoration of traditional land and resource rights to the world's remaining indigenous and tribal peoples, and it calls for a renewed respect for their ecological wisdom.

We wholeheartedly concur with the Brundtland report's stand on the urgency of protecting Native rights, lands, and knowledge. Native spiritual and ecological knowledge has intrinsic value and worth, regardless of its resonances with or "confirmation" by modern Western scientific values. As most Native authorities would be quick to point out, it is quite capable of existing on its own merits and adapting itself over time to meet modern needs. For it is, after all, a proud, perceptive, and extraordinarily adaptive spiritual tradition, every bit as precious, irreplaceable, and worthy of respect as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and other great spiritual traditions. In our view, respect for Native spirituality and the nature wisdom embedded with in it is inseparable from respect for the dignity, human rights, and legitimate land claims of all Native peoples.

Refer United Nations Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (1993)
Refer United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)

Seen in this light, Native knowledge and spiritual values are not simply "natural resources" (in this case, intellectual ones) for non-Natives to mine, manipulate, or plunder. They are, and will always be, the precious life sustaining property of First Peoples: sacred symbols encoding the hidden design of their respective universes; mirrors to their individual and collective identities; and ancient and irreplaceable maps suggesting possible paths to inner as well as ecological equilibrium with the wider, ever changing world.

Peter Knudtson and David Suzuki
Extracted from Chapter 1 - Wisdom of the Elders
Native and Scientific Ways of Knowing about Nature.

Concluding Notes & References

As the close of the second millenium draws near, and the totality of the race of mankind prepares its way towards the it's future and Towards a Science of Consciousness which will enable the global community of man to live in a spirit of "Peace of Earth and GoodWill to Man" then it is fitting to review - in mind and in heart and in soul - the progress of your own self and the progress of your neighbour and the progress of all fellow man - male and female - the children and the aged.

We find over and over again in this work of The Wisdom of the Elders the great, deep and meaningful statement of the nature of nature by the peoples who are closest to it - and by this the Mountain Man simply means those individuals who observe their terrestrial and cosmic nativity. Both the ancient Saints and Sages, and the wise of the elders speak of that which is ever-changing but that which never changes:

"It is the story of all life that is holy and is good to tell
and of us two-leggeds sharing in it with the four leggeds
and the wings of the air and all green things,
for these are the children of one mother
and their father is one Spirit"

Black Elk, Sioux Elder


Book Review ...

Wisdom of the Elders


Peter Knudtson and David Suzuki


Native and Scientific Ways
of Knowing about Nature

Web Publication by Mountain Man Graphics, Australia - Southern Winter of 1996