What does it mean to be indigenous? Ecologist and author Eileen Crist, in a recent interview, usefully outlines 3 principles held by all indigenous cultures. Indigenous people live sustainably and bioregionally, that is, they live “within the contours of the land.” They regularly celebrate the natural world through an annual cycle of festivals and ceremonies. And they see “everything as alive, as wondrous in itself.” *
In other words, indigenous people don’t simply love “the land” in the abstract—they know themselves as part of the place on Earth where they live. They’re not just casually attentive to the more-than-human world of Nature around them—they experience themselves living within it, in a web of relationship that is continually studied, affirmed and celebrated. And they don’t pray to a remote, abstract God—they attune with the immanent spiritual energies, beings, and deities of the land around them. Indigenous people’s personal and community lives continually mirror and express these realities, from birth to death, from a long-ago past to a calmly beckoning future.
All of us now alive come from a long heritage of being indigenous, land-based people. Only in recovering our own indigeneity can we become who we really are. As we reinhabit our authentic, Gaia-centered selves, individually and collectively, our ties to the disconnected, unfulfilling life of the human-created world will fall away. And someday that entire world will fall away too.
Contrary to what many people seem to believe, finding our own indigeneity is not the same as “learning to be Indians”! Instead of blithely setting out to copy the ways of Native Americans, we of European ancestry should begin by educating ourselves about the social, cultural and economic injustices inflicted upon them. It’s true that similar injustices were probably perpetrated on our own ancestors if we go back far enough. In a chilling foreshadowing of American treatment of Native peoples, 400 years ago the ruling English forbade my colonized Scottish ancestors to speak Gaelic and play the bagpipes.
Nevertheless, in the short term, we Euro-Americans are descended from the colonizers of this land and its Native peoples, and we can’t simply shrug that off. It is both just and honorable to find ways to respectfully give to our indigenous neighbors. It doesn’t take much research to connect with local Native American organizations, and to humbly, appropriately support their efforts and, when invited, share in their celebrations.
And—we ourselves have every right to co-create and participate in a Gaia-centered life!
The challenge for us is that our own ancestral, Nature-based traditions arose in faraway lands, and we ourselves live here now. These days, many Anglo people throughout North America are coming together to practice Earth-centered ways, inspired by what is known about the ancestral and pagan traditions of Old Europe. But the most important thing has always been this: A true ancestral tradition is not and never was founded on human ideas, but shown by the land itself.
The Earth in our place has always been telling us who we are and how to live. Every morning’s sunrise speaks of rebirth and renewal. Every summer instructs us in rapid growth and true abundance; every winter brings stillness and surrender. Flowing waters lovingly sustain green life and beauty, while fierce winds bring in sudden, sweeping change. The wild creatures and plants of our region, all living together in Gaia’s web, paint a vivid picture of ongoing interrelationship. And the mysterious, non-material beings of the land can teach us how to forge reciprocal, regenerative partnerships with the deepest natural forces.
An Earth-centered tradition, like Gaia herself, is both enduring and ever-changing. The touchstone for our indigeneity is the Sacred Land. When we’re truly living within it, we come back again and again to the natural world in our place, in a spirit of attentive and celebratory communion. We find our identity and our allegiance, for the rest of our lives and for future generations.
Becoming who we really are as participating members of Gaia’s web is the most profoundly revolutionary act we can engage in. Onward!
* “Our Great Reckoning,” Interview with Eileen Crist, The Sun, December 2020. Very important reading!