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Beliefs and Ethics of Non-Human Centered Cultures

Many cultures that have existed for over thousands of years evolved a relationship with nature, or more correctly, were an integral part of nature so that "Mother Earth," or "Mother Nature" is held as sacred. The full recognition of the close relationship between us and the Earth, or even the "one-ness" of us and the Earth/nature is a hard concept to understand fully in the way we construct knowledge in our analytical, reductionist ways of thinking.

It is therefore important to look at the way we construct knowledge itself, including our culture's emphasis on knowledge as something received only form the outside and then internalized. Knowledge, especially science, is considered valid only when all people independent of their origins and cultural contexts see the same thing. What this definition of knowledge does is to select out the facts that are independent of relationships which come from social, cultural, and personal contexts. Such "objective," "empirical" knowledge considers the knower as active and the thing being studied as passive. This in the study of nature and environment, nature is an object of study rather than a giver of knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge is seen as a human possession, a human activity, dominated by human interests.

The diverse Native American traditions consider knowledge as understanding that "emerges from a conversation between world and person; our human part in the genesis of knowledge, in its most essential aspect, is to prepare ourselves ethically and spiritually for the reception of knowledge." This quote form an essay called "The Journey Home" by Jim Cheney, a Native American philosopher. Thus in the Chipewyan Indian tradition, knowledge and language have a more subtle and profound significance than in the European cultures. Language, its symbols, and even ideas are not passive ways of perceiving a determined positivist reality, but a mode of interaction between the people and their environment. All animate life interacts, and, to a greater or lesser degree, affects the life and behavior of all other animate forms. The Chipewyan interact with all life in accordance with their understanding, and the animate universe responds. This is the description of that tradition by anthropologist Henry Sharp. This means that a person's interaction, language, and behavior towards the natural world is mindful, as our interactions with people we care about, and this mutual respect is the underpinning of the Chipewyan environmental ethics. Indeed we cannot even call it an "environmental ethic": it is their fundamental way of being—in communion with nature. The reciprocal relationship gives knowledge and language as acts mindful of nature, and nature in turn helps shape the knowledge. The relationship involves a different, respectful style of inquiry than when "Man," seen as superior, studies nature, seen as a passive "other."

This type of worldview brings about an awareness that is both a way of knowing, and learning and a way of behaving. If we are mindful of the rocks, the water, the air as not only things that we use for sustenance, but as witnesses to evolution on Earth, as our larger partners in life, knowledge and thoughts about the environment take on a different meaning in our lives. This type of thinking is woven into the fabric of belief of Native American cultures as well as Eastern cultures such as Hinduism. These are really cultures rather than religions, or theology, or philosophy. These "wisdom traditions" are practiced not like modern religions such as Christianity or Islam but are "ways of creating, discovering, and communicating worlds of meaning through ordinary and common actions and behavior," writes Sam Gill, describing the Navajo prayers.

This is why stones are important in these traditions. The stones encode worldviews and paint pictures of the practices. Carol Geddes writes about Annie Ned, a Yukon Indian woman who listened to an all-day scientific conference about the environment and land in which her people live. Asked about what she thought, Mrs. Ned said "They tell different stories than us." Thus in this mode of thinking, science is only one way of looking at the universe. In this type of worldview, "environmental ethics" is not a separate subject or area of study, but a part of the story of nature and us. What we in the scientific-technological-analytical society call the worldview is just a residue of a larger story. And what we call environmental ethics is just good etiquette.




  ©Copyright 2003 Carnegie Mellon University
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 9653194. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.