Tuesday, December 2, 2014

On Indigenous Cultures as the Saviors of the World

As we all know, our world sucks.  Or rather, the issues we face as a global culture and sometimes individually are severe and horrible in many ways.  I see much talk about indigenous cultures as where to look to for a solution.  Are the beliefs and practices and world views held by indigenous cultures our saviors, the answer to all our problems?

A good friend posted the following link, asking if I and others thought it was romanticized or realistic, possible or impossible:

Can Indigenous Beliefs Save the Contemporary World?

I think it is romanticized, and while not impossible, not a complete solution, nor a perfect solution.  I think we are just looking for a savior of the world, and think we will be disappointed.


The world's problems are very complex.

Because each person is complex, and the interactions of people that much more. Adding a second person doesn't double the complexity, it changes the order of the complexity.

In computers, we refer to the complexity of a solution as orders. A constant is order 1, O(1). Linear is O(N), regardless if it's 2N or 2000000000N. Quadratic is O(N^2). Two people is relationship isn't X+Y where X and Y are the complexity of each, it is X*Y.

If human complexity is O(N), two people are O(N^2), three are O(N^3), and so on. Each increase in order of complexity makes the problem harder to solve, and needing more resources to solve. We live in a global culture now where virtually all people in the world are part of the complexity, and both the problems and the benefits that complexity brings. There are over 7 billion people in the world. We're talking a complexity of O(N^7,000,000,000). To be solved by a computer, that type of complexity would basically require more resources than there are atoms in the universe.

Because it is such a complex problem, there is no easy solution. Isolating specific issues can be more manageable, if you can abstract them down to a low enough order of complexity. But all issues? A perfect solution isn't possible, no matter what paradigm or world view is used. Not meaning it's hopeless, just meaning it is too complex to address the entirety of the problems facing our global culture, all solutions must focus on narrowed down problems to be solvable within the constraints of our resources.

The Utopian Projection on Indigenous Cultures

The assumption that indigenous beliefs and practices can solve the problems facing the global culture relies on the assumption that indigenous beliefs and practices have no issues of their own and are perfect "utopian" societies. Note that Moore named his ideal society Utopia from the ou+topos, not+place. Part of his point was that there are no perfect societies, and his book shows that if you look carefully. And the point is as true today as it was in the 1500s, and was true millennia ago as well.

Some of the cultures that practice female circumcision are indigenous. Some of the cultures where rape is accepted and expected are indigenous. All the cannibalistic cultures I'm aware of are indigenous. The Native American plains tribes that slaughtered whole herds of bison by pushing them back until they fell off cliffs and left most of the meat to rot were indigenous. The tribes who burnt the forests that once covered the Plains, in order to have more grazing room so the bison and other herds could increase in number to provide more food were indigenous. Many indigenous peoples kill babies born with birth defects or handicaps. Many indigenous peoples fought century or more long wars, killing any of the enemy tribes that were encountered, armed or not.

Yes, there are great things to learn from indigenous people, but there are also many things to avoid. And yes, not all this issues, or even any of them, are true of every indigenous culture or group.  But they aren't outside the problems non-indigenous cultures have, they just have their own problems and their own versions of universal problems.

The Monster and the Noble Savage

The idea that indigenous cultures are the solution is just a new expression of "noble savage" in 17th century literature and thought.

It is akin to monster theory, just the other side of the coin. In monster theory, and this is easily seen in literature, history, and present day, the idea is that to avoid seeing the monster in ourselves, we project it on others, making them the "monster", Other. It is easier to deal with the monster being outside and known than inside and unknown. Horror movies where the monster is one of you and you don't know who or where tend to be much scarier than an outside threat. The monster as Other and outside distances that monster-ness from us, so we don't have to look at our own monstrosity. What happened following September 11 in the US is a good example, as is the rhetoric of Islamic extremists. And Christianity in some pagan and LGBT circles, and LGBT and pagans in some Christian circles.

The other side of the coin, the noble savage, assumes the opposite, that we are the monster, and the Other, whatever isn't us, must be the location of salvation. So we look to the indigenous peoples because they are Other, "not us", as our saviors. We romanticize them and ignore their faults and their own problems, because if we don't, we might lose hope they can save us. So we claim the Monster and paint those that aren't us as the Utopia, not understanding that both are projections and illusions, not reality. I see the same thing with Westerners who are infatuated with Hindi or East Asia religions and philosophies. They ignore that problems and struggles, because those might make them lose hope in the strengths and good things.

Instead of honest assessment and realistic learning, we idealize and romanticize, end idolize something that doesn't actually exist outside our projections and illusions.

The Golden Age

We always as humans tend to look back to an earlier time as a "Golden Age". You see this in late antiquity in Greco-Roman thought, the looking back to the Golden Age of Greece. You see this in the High Middle Ages and Renaissance looking back to Rome. You see it in the Pagan Revival of the 19th century. You see it in reconstructionist circles today.

And because indigenous peoples maintain cultural links to the past, to what we see as pre-civilization, we see them as ambassadors of that distant past, so, romanticize go that last as a Golden Age when all was perfect, we project that fantasy of ancient utopia onto the indigenous peoples as ambassadors of that time, and see them as guides to take us back there.

But we forget that the world has changed since back then, and that the indigenous peoples, even those without extensive non-indigenous contact, have changed with it, just as we did, if not to the magnitude. And we forget the dangers and problems and fears and hardships faced back in that bygone time, that even the most struggling indigenous people today are still living improved from then, that that bygone age was not the utopia we project on it.

Indigenous Cultures as the Saviors of the World

The idea of indigenous peoples as the saviors of the modern world and the global culture is a romanticized, oversimplified, and idealized idea that ignores both the complexity of the issues we face and the reality of indigenous cultures.

Yes, non-indigenous cultures can learn from them, as there are strengths they have that have been lost by the larger overculture.  And yes, we have a lot of issues that indigenous cultures don’t share.  I take inspiration from some of the concepts and philosophies that are common in many indigenous cultures, even if I don’t use their practices themselves.  I definitely think non-indigenous peoples can learn from indigenous ones, and that there is value in the dialogue.

But we need to remember that indigenous cultures are not without issues purely by the virtue of being indigenous, and that our issues are complex and can’t be solved by one overarching solution.

~Bethany Davis