Listening to Indigenous voices

by Guest Contributor

In her insightful blog, Jane Lavery, a dedicated volunteer with the Columban Justice, Peace, and Ecology Team, explores the wisdom of Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Native American botanist. Together, they uncover lessons from indigenous cultures on ecological harmony, spiritual well-being, and the transformative power of gratitude in facing the relentless "Windigo" within.

Jane Lavery at the Handkerchief Tree
Jane Lavery at the Handkerchief Tree

In his newly published apostolic exhortation Laudate Deum (2023), Pope Francis tells us “A healthy ecology is also the result of interaction between human beings and the environment as occurs in indigenous cultures”. And Fratelli Tutti Francis (2020) says, “The West can discover in the East remedies for those spiritual and religious maladies caused by a prevailing materialism”.

Just over a year ago, I completed a degree in Theology, Ecology and Ethics; I call it my Laudato Si degree! For my dissertation I looked at the work of indigenous female writers, in an attempt to understand the indigenous relationship with the land, and how it benefits the environment. I discovered Robin Wall Kimmerer is a Native American botanist, author, an American Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology; and the director of the Centre for Native Peoples and the Environment at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass,(2013) Kimmerer, a proud member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, becomes a storyteller. The magical stories she weaves – braids – throughout her book are the traditional stories of her nation, her people, her blood family, and the relationship they all have with the natural world. It is a relationship of mutual respect and gratitude, and in her stories, Kimmerer insists that the relationship of all the participants, sentient and non-sentient, is one of reciprocity, understanding and respect from which all participants benefit. Her stories illustrate this relationship.

The first story Kimmerer tells is of “Skywoman Falling”, a creation story from her own Native American tradition. It tells of Skywoman falling from the heavens, and her fall being broken by a flock of geese, into whose soft feathers she falls. Many other animals are then called upon to help care for Skywoman, including a turtle. She steps onto the turtle’s back, which is strong, and the other animals then each try to find her land of her own for her home. After many failures, a muskrat finally finds some mud for her from the bottom of the ocean but dies from exhaustion at his effort. Skywoman sings and dances her thanks, and Turtle Island is formed from the mud. During her fall, Skywoman had grabbed at some vegetation: she scatters this vegetation on the newly formed Turtle Island, and it flourishes, allowing both Skywoman and her animal companions to have plenty to eat, and for the human, the animals and the vegetation to live in harmony and reciprocal respect.

Kimmerer is relating this story to illustrate the reciprocity and connectedness of all the natural world that exist in the creation story of her people; I believe she is also saying that humans were not the first to inhabit our beautiful planet and that we have much to learn from those creatures with whom we share it. It is interesting to note from a feminist perspective that, as Kimmerer observes, the Native American story and the Christian religion creation myth both have a woman as a key figure in their stories; in the former the woman is accepted, helped and admired, whilst in the Christian tradition she is reviled, told she will bear much pain, that her husband will rule over her, and is informed that the ground would be cursed (Gen 3: 16-17). Kimmerer tells us “And then they met – the offspring of Skywoman and the children of Eve – and the land around us bears the scars of that meeting, the echoes of our stories”.

Kimmerer proposes that the European Christian colonists of the Americas brought with them an attitude to the land and to the environment that was entirely opposed to the indigenous people’s relationship of cooperation and respect. She wonders how agriculture in the Americas would have developed if the colonists had learnt from the indigenous traditions instead of abusing them. Indigenous agriculture had crops like corn, beans and squash growing together for their mutual benefit; after centuries of monoculture across the American prairies, it is now understood what damage this has done to the natural environment. In some parts of Canada, industrial-scale agriculture is being replaced by mixed farming, and local birds are singing again, and local butterflies are fluttering by again. Is it appropriate to have traditional solutions to the climate and biodiversity emergencies of the twenty-first century?

Another indigenous story that Kimmerer tells is the story of the Windigo, “the legendary monster of the Anishinaabe people” “Windigo is the name for that within us that cares more for its survival than for anything else” The Windigo is always hungry but never satisfied, always seeking what it desires but always destroying it through greed, continually moving from place to find what it wants, but never gratified by what it receives. We’ve all played the part of the Windigo; buying something because we liked and wanted it rather than needed it, or buying something that was on ‘special offer’ because we thought it was a bargain, then having to throw it away when it was past its ‘best before’ date. Kimmerer suggests “Gratitude for all the earth has given us [may] lend[s] us courage to turn and face the Windigo that stalks us, [and] to refuse to participate in an economy that destroys the beloved earth to line the pockets of the greedy.”

I think the Windigo within us all is responsible for the out-of-control consumer society of which we are a part which is destroying our beautiful planet. The Windigo’s is the voice that talks about growth, even when it knows that the world’s resources are finite and perpetual growth is impossible. The Windigo is the monster that puts profit before people in multinational corporations. But I’m not sure we have ‘the gratitude for all the earth has given us’ to turn and face him and dismiss him from our lives. Yet nature is so wonderful, and we should take time and effort it be with it and appreciate its gifts.

In her book Gathering Moss (2003 [2011]) Kimmerer says:
“In indigenous ways of knowing, we say that a thing cannot be understood until it is known by all four aspects of our being: mind, body, emotion and spirit. The scientific way of knowing relies only on empirical information from the world, gathered by the body and interpreted by the mind. To tell stories I need both approaches, objective and subjective. These essays intentionally give voice to both ways of knowing, letting matter and spirit walk companionably side by side. And sometimes even dance”.

Reading Kimmerer has given me an overwhelming sense of what it is to belong; of how communities belong to each other and the living world around them. She says, speaking of her ancestors who had lost so much when they were forcibly removed from their territory: “Our lands were where our responsibility to the world was enacted, sacred ground. It belonged to itself; it was a gift, not a commodity”. Unfortunately, enlightened humans do not share this attitude and are often guilty of treating the environment as a commodity which is solely there for their benefit.

Kimmerer’s books are full of love; they extend gratitude for everything the earth continues to give us, and Kimmerer asks her readers to listen and learn so that our beautiful world may feel the love and find restoration, renewal and redemption.