A World Astir|Sep 15, 2006 11:50 AM| by:

Indigenous Peoples and the Quest for Wholeness

Early in February, news reached the western press of a brutal double killing in the Andaman Islands, an Indian-ruled archipelago off the coasts of Burma and Malaysia. Two Indian fishermen, apparently intoxicated, were ambushed as they slept overnight in their boat near North Sentinel Island. As soon as news broke of the deaths of Sunder Raj and Pandit Tawari, sensational reports of ‘primitive’ and ‘backward’ tribesmen gathered momentum. The indigenous Sentinelese were portrayed as a people living in the ‘Stone Age’, missing out on all the ‘advantages’ of ‘modern civilisation’, and yet engaged in a quixotic struggle against that modernity. The triumph of ‘progress’ was ‘inevitable’ and such progress involved the dissolution of economic and cultural boundaries and the end of everything that made the Sentinelese and other tribal peoples distinctive. In other words, the Sentinelese could not ‘hold back the tide’ of global capitalism and consumer culture. Their attempts to do so were proof of their backwardness, superstition and irrational hostility to the outside world.

Despite the blatant, unapologetic racism of such reports, it was the Sentinelese who were depicted as xenophobes, whose ‘distrust’ of outsiders resulted in murder. In the English speaking world, it did not occur to any avowed anti-racist organisation or commentator to protest against this coverage, perhaps because such movements and individuals are themselves mesmerised by ideals of progress and modernity. However Survival International, which has championed the rights of tribal peoples since 1969, launched a campaign called Stamp It Out, demanding an end to such language in the media. Words like primitive are ‘fundamentally a throwback to a colonial way of thinking’, according to Survival’s director Stephen Corry. ‘You cannot say ‘primitive’ without assuming these peoples are somehow inferior’.

By their very existence, people like the Sentinelese threaten the present western mindset. Rather than suggesting cultural confidence, descriptions of indigenous peoples as primitive and crude determinism about the inevitability of ‘progress’ are indications of fear. By dismissing their experiences, we can put off confronting our own demons for a while longer. The pretence of superiority shields us, temporarily, from the growing breakdown of our own society, the failure of materialism to bring stability, let alone happiness, and the festering wounds of racism and poverty. Yet it also stands between us and a reasoned – as opposed to narrowly rationalist – critique of many of our prevailing economic and cultural assumptions. The growing environmental crisis requires this process of questioning, and this includes opening ourselves to other ways of looking at the world.

The deaths of Sunder Raj and Pandit Tawari are two individual tragedies that should neither be trivialised nor downplayed. But it is equally misleading to downplay the concerns of the Sentinelese or dismiss their obsessive vigilance as irrational. For the Sentinelese, like other indigenous peoples, have reason to be suspicious of outsiders. Although they have avoided, or actively resisted, contact with the ‘outside world’ for up to 60,000 years, the hunter-gatherer tribe now number fewer than two hundred men, women and children. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, many Sentinelese were killed by wreckage salvagers who brought guns to North Sentinel when searching for iron and other goods from a shipwreck. Their island has also been visited in recent years by more and more outsiders, diving for lobsters and hunting pigs, activities that deprive the tribe of essential food sources. As a result of lobbying from Survival, and the locally based Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology (SANE), the tribal peoples of the islands now enjoy some protection. This has come too late, perhaps, for the Jarawa, who opened themselves to the forces of ‘progress’ in 1998. As a result they are, in Survival’s words, ‘plagued by intruders on their land stealing the animals they hunt, bringing in alcohol and sexually exploiting Jarawa women’.

In this context, it is easy to see why the Sentinelese guard their privacy so jealously. The fishermen were killed through a tragic misunderstanding, but their presence in Sentinelese territory was illegal and (in the light of past incidents) provocative. They did not ‘deserve’ to die, but in making moral judgements about their deaths we would do well to remember that the Sentinelese were acting in defence of their common property and heritage. At no stage have they attempted to invade other territories or use force to impose their world view on others. There is, one could argue, an element of the Sentinelese in all those who, in great and small ways, resist the dominance of faceless corporations and bureaucracies, favour the local over the global economy and seek to reduce the impact of human activity on the planet. Such ideas and the actions they inspire, challenge the belief that a uniform global culture is inevitable and that progress means the same as western consumerism.

After the tsunami of December 2004, Sentinelese were photographed firing arrows at a helicopter flying over their island. This was the first indication that the indigenous peoples of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands had survived this catastrophe. Because they lacked western technologies, it was feared that most or all of them would be swept away. What quickly emerged, however, was a remarkable story of survival, in which traditional knowledge transmitted through the generations enabled the islanders to protect themselves by escaping to higher ground. As a result, their communities were preserved virtually intact, in contrast to those who emigrated to the islands from South-East Asia several centuries ago. The Onge tribe, for example, have lived on Little Andaman for up to 50,000 years and have a folklore that tells of ‘huge shaking of ground followed by a high wall of water’. They, along with neighbouring peoples like the surviving Jarawa, fled to higher, thickly forested regions as soon as they felt intimations of the earthquake. They knew about tsunamis through their oral tradition and this knowledge proved to the most sophisticated technology, making them more attuned to natural forces than the ‘advanced’ tourist centres of the region. It is ironic that peoples who are told that they cannot hold back the tide of progress should rise above a devastating ‘harbour-wave’.

The Andaman Islanders’ ecological sensibility should give westerners pause for thought. We are, after all, becoming aware that our attachment to growth is preventing us from coming to terms with the destructive impact of continuous economic expansion. The indigenous world view once seemed constricted, in comparison to ours, because it was geographically limited, less technologically advanced and placing the group before the individual. Today, faced with pollution and climate change, we can see the advantages of living within natural limits. Our definition of technology now goes well beyond heavy industry and we realise increasingly that true individual freedom includes a sense of community, indeed depends on it.

It is hard to generalise about indigenous cultures, but they can be said to share a more rounded, holistic approach to nature than the western model. They are aware that all life forms are subtly but intimately connected and bring this sense of interconnectedness to bear on their social and political organisation. They do not require lectures from western liberals because they are ahead of industrialised societies on sexual equality, without trying to force men and women to be identical. Indigenous peoples see themselves as stewards rather than consumers of natural resources, conserving them where possible for future generations. This is why the Kalahari ‘Bushmen’, for example, have been able to survive successfully for scores of thousands of years in conditions of extreme aridity. The government of Botswana dismisses them as ‘Stone Age’ and regards their survival skills as worthless, but it is fixated on ideas of ‘modernisation’ that have led to hunger and oppression throughout the continent.

For indigenous peoples, the environment cannot be parcelled out because it is common property, an extension of human society, on which humans depend. The Penan of Sarawak do not have a word for ‘thank you’ because sharing is commonplace. No hunter can eat a single bite more than he gives to others, however small the prey. Likewise, the Innu Indians of Labrador worship and revere the animals they hunt, seeing them as part of a cycle of creation. This awareness of cycles as well as straight lines, of interdependence as well as uniqueness, matches the most recent conclusions of modern science, which, ironically, are challenging conventional ideas of progress. An indigenous person would easily understand the concept of Gaia, the earth as a self-regenerating organism. And in concepts such as dark matter and parallel universe, we discover the continuity between ‘myth’ and ‘fact’ that ancient cultures take for granted.

Far from being primitive or backward, indigenous cultures can provide pioneering approaches to the social and environmental problems facing humanity as a whole. Nunavut, the recently created autonomous region of the Inuit (Eskimo) has built into its legal system the principle of restorative justice and community-based punishment supervised by tribal elders. The system is working because it has full community support and is based on consensus. As Premier Paul Okalik explains, Nunavut is ‘trying to avoid the “stovepipe” approach that often plagues governments. Three departments – Health and Social Services, Education and Justice – are working closely together’. In other words, they are applying the principle of interdependence to provide radical alternatives to prison.

Nunavut’s governing philosophy is known as ‘Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit’, or ‘traditional knowledge’. This is a mouthful even for most Inuit, and so it is known simply as IQ. Unlike the western notion of intelligence quotient – used to support racist claims that black people are ‘less intelligent’ – IQ encompasses emotional intelligence and includes concepts such as environmental stewardship, collaborative relationships and consensus decision making, as well as ‘being resourceful to solve problems’. This balance of initiative and co-operation is in effect a system of natural law, applying the best principles of evolution. And evolution, as indigenous societies have long known, is at least as much about successful collaboration as competitive impulses. For the green movement, IQ would be a far better philosophical basis than the failed ‘progressive’ ideologies of the left or the market fundamentalism of the right.

Further south, the Iroquois Nation has based its political process on the Seventh Generation Principle. This requires elders to attempt to look hundreds of years into the future as they weigh up the consequences of their decisions. They are obliged equally to look into the past and view their ancestors as sources of wisdom and insight. This is an organic view of society that sees the generations as interconnected rather than transient. It is conservative in the true sense, but its implications for our approach to the world’s resources are radical, indeed revolutionary.

The Seventh Generation Principle matches a little-known clause in the Preamble to the US Constitution, which cites an obligation to ‘secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity’. With this in mind, some Native Americans propose a Seventh Generation Amendment to the Constitution, enshrining:

‘The right of citizens of the United States to use and enjoy air, water, wildlife, and other renewable resources determined by the Congress to be common property shall not be impaired, nor shall such use impair their availability for the use of future generations’.

This movement is in its infancy, but it is one of the most profound political developments of our time and its significance will grow. The Amendment fuses western legal reasoning with the intuitive understanding of the indigenous world, humanising the former and universalising the latter. It offers us, the true ‘primitives’, a way beyond our superstitious form of economics. And surely Sri Aurobindo would have recognised in the Seventh Generation Principle that balance of tradition of continuity, spiritual insight and practical deeds, which made his life’s work so distinctive and valuable.

Aidan Rankin

(Aidan Rankin’s book, The Jain Path: Ancient Wisdom for the West, will be published later in 2006)