Care for the Environment – Indigenous Traditions

Alliance of GuardiansAs part of the Interfaith Call to Action auspice by United Nations Environment Program and other multifaith organisations, we will, each month, present the view of one religion on the Environment and care for the environment. Religions to be covered include Indigenous Traditions, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism, the Bahá’í Faith, Hinduism, the Jain Religion, Buddhism, the Sikh Religion, Confucianism, Daoism, Shinto, and in summary, Environmental Ethics: Points of Agreement among the World’s Religions.

Indigenous Knowledge

Indigenous knowledge is a way of thinking applied to phenomena across biological, physical, cultural, and spiritual systems. It includes insights based on evidence acquired through direct and long-term experiences and extensive and multi-generational observations, lessons, and skills. It has developed over millennia and is still developing in a living process including knowledge acquired today, and in the future, and it is passed on from generation to generation. Under this definition, it is recognised that Inuit knowledge is a way of life. It goes beyond observations, ecological knowledge, and research, offering a unique “way of knowing.” —Utqiagvik Declaration 2018, Inuit Circumpolar Council.


Mesa Arch Trail, Moab. Photo by Jad Limcaco
We, Guardians and Children of Mother Earth, Indigenous Peoples and allied partners, held our Second Assembly, and our prophecies, our wisdom, our insights have allowed us to see that life on Mother Earth is in danger and is coming to a time of great transformation. Indigenous Peoples have continually taken care of Mother Earth and humanity. We wish that this can continue with the support of the people of the world. The Indigenous prophecies place in us the responsibility to tell the world that we must live in peace with each other and Mother Earth to ensure harmony with her natural laws and with the Creation. We are calling for effective solutions that recognise the rights of Indigenous Peoples. We are calling to the world leaders, the States, the United Nations, and civil society to start thinking about phasing out those juridical systems inherited from the colonial times and replacing them with others that take up Nature, Mother Earth as an entity which has fundamental rights. We must evolve towards a paradigm based on Indigenous thought and philosophy, which grants equal rights to Nature and which honors the interrelationships between all life forms and the preservation of Mother Earth. — The Declaration of the Alliance of Guardians and Children of Mother Earth: On November 28th, 2015, The Constituent Assembly of the Alliance of Mother Nature’s Guardians, November 28, 2015 and October 11-16, 2017.

in the beginning

In the beginning were the Instructions. We were to have compassion for one another, to live and work together, to depend on each other for support. We were told we were all related and interconnected with each other … The Instructions during that time, at the beginning, were to love and respect one another even with all the differences, different cultures, different languages. We were told we were all from the same source. — Vickie Downey (Tewa, Tesuque Pueblo), in Wall, S. Wisdom’s Daughters: Conversations with Women Elders of Native America, p.2.

a Message of the haudenosaunee to the World

In the beginning we were told that the human beings who walk about on the Earth have been provided with all the things necessary for life. We were instructed to carry a love for one another, and to show great respect for all the beings of this Earth. We are shown that our life exists with the tree life, that our wellbeing depends on the wellbeing of the vegetable life, that we are close relatives of the four-legged beings. In our
ways, spiritual consciousness is the highest form of politics.

Ours is a Way of Life. We believe that all living things are spiritual beings. Spirits can be expressed as energy forms manifested in matter…

All things of the world are real, material things. The Creation is a true, material phenomenon, and the Creation manifests itself to us through reality. The spiritual universe, then, is manifest to man as the Creation, the Creation that supports life. We believe that man is real, a part of Creation, and that his duty is to support life in conjunction with the other beings. That is why we call ourselves Onkwehón:we — Real People. —A Basic Call to Consciousness, pp. 85-86.


Forest management workshop
Forest management workshop, Wajãpi village, Brazilian Amazon. Courtesy of

The Beauty Way

…As it used to be long ago, may I walk.
Happily may I walk.
Happily, with abundant dark clouds, may I walk.
Happily, with abundant showers, may I walk.
Happily, with abundant plants, may I walk.
Happily, on a trail of pollen, may I walk. Happily may I walk.
Being as it used to be long ago, may I walk.
May it be beautiful before me,
May it be beautiful behind me,
May it be beautiful below me,
May it be beautiful above me,
May it be beautiful around me,
In beauty it is finished.
— From the Navajo Night Chant Ceremonial, in Sanders, T. E. and W. W. Peek, eds. Literature of the American Indian, pp.193-94.

Words of a Yanomami shaman

I would prefer the white people to talk about “nature” or “ecology” as a whole thing. If we defend the entire forest, it will stay alive. If we cut it down only to protect small parcels that are leftovers of what was ruined, it will yield nothing. With leftover trees and leftover watercourses, leftover game, fish, and humans who live there, its breath of life will become too short. This is why we are so worried…

We shamans say simply say that we are protecting “nature” as a whole thing. We defend the forest’s trees, hills, mountains, and rivers; its fish, game, spirits, and human inhabitants. We even defend the land of the white people beyond it and all those who live there. These are the words of our spirits, and they are ours. The xapiri are truly the defenders of the forest, and they give us their wisdom. — Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert, The Falling Sky, pp. 396-98.


Children of Water poem

Spiritual Cooperation

All peoples living like the Saami, linked to nature as reindeer herders, have spiritual contact. We live adoring nature and then it becomes sacred. There is a necessity to please nature so that it gives to you. You have to be kind to nature so that nature will give you more. You have to be friends with the environment, otherwise it won’t work in cooperation with you on whatever you call the spiritual. — John Mathis Turi (Saami), in “Voices of the Earth,” Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity, p. 152.

A Covenant with Nature

Samburu, Kenya. Photo by Emily Marie Wilson/
Samburu, Kenya. Photo by Emily Marie Wilson/

The people of ancient Africa did not regard nature as something to be exploited, governed, or conquered. They did not believe that nature was made only for humans to use, misuse, or enjoy and exploit solely for economic or material benefit as we do today…

Yoruba religion is based on a profound respect for the natural environment due to an ancient covenant between humans and all the other creatures and objects of nature. That ancient covenant, which was broken in Ilé-Ifé (because of humans’ disrespect of animals), has got to be re-examined. In the face of the excessive greed, capitalism, materialism, and wanton exploitation of the earth, forests, the oceans, animals, and other creatures of nature in contemporary times, and in the face of man’s inhumanity to man on the dying planet, we should ask ourselves… “Isn’t it time we made a new covenant?— Baba Wande Abimbola (Yoruba, Nigeria), Ifá Will Mend Our Broken World, pp. 18, 23.


Ethiopian Highlands. Photo by Erik Hathaway.
Ethiopian Highlands. Photo by Erik Hathaway.

Mother Earth

African religion, no matter the level of sophistication or education of the individual, permeates every aspect of his or her life, from seedtime to harvest, through the rites of passage — birth, puberty, marriage, death, and hereafter. We have no creeds to recite, as these dwell in the heart, and each one of us is the living creed.

All over Africa, Earth is regarded as the female spirit, Asase Yaa, Mother Earth. One is expected to care for her, nurse, cherish, and love her. Generally, one will not till the land without her prior permission. We ask her permission again before digging to bury the dead so that her child may return into her womb. Asase Yaa is also known as the upholder of the Truth, and whenever someone’s word is in doubt, he is asked to touch his lip to some soil to become credible.

Before every function and ceremony, a libation is done whereby water or spirits are poured onto the ground while calling the name of the God, Mother Earth, and the ancestors, and beseeching their blessings upon all present. Gesture and symbol play an important part in the African rites. When in a dance a priestess raises her hands, she is delivering a message, “I am leaving all in the power of God.”

The aim of African religion is to promote harmony between humans, the spirit world, society, and the environment. Its distinctive feature is the sharing spirit. We believe that Earth is God’s gift to us. We are merely the keepers of Earth and are charged with taking care of it and leaving it in a better condition than we found it. If we fail, our children will not have any Earth to inherit. – Queen Boakyewa Yiadom I (Akan, Ghana).


Australian indigenous dancer
Dancer at the Homeground Festival, Sydney, Australia. Photo by PomInOz.

This world was not always as we know it now. Once, all was featureless, shapeless potential, and into this potential, the Ancestors came. Land, water, sky, life was given shape, and life in all its shapes was given the way of living, the Law, that the world might go on as the Ancestors had made it. These are the beings, events, “everywhen,” that the invader calls the Dreaming. In the language of my grandfather, it is called Manguny.

For Aboriginal peoples, country is much more than a place. Rock, tree, river, hill, animal, human — all were formed of the same substance by the Ancestors who continue to live in land, water, sky. Country is filled with relations speaking language and following Law, no matter whether the shape of that relation is human, rock, crow, wattle. Country is loved, needed, and cared for, and country loves, needs, and cares for her peoples in turn. Country is family, culture, identity. Country is self…

For Aboriginal peoples, learning began when the world did. The Ancestors taught the peoples the ways of living in country, and these ways were called the Law. It was Law that sustained the web of relationships established by Ancestors, and the web of relationships established by the Ancestors formed the pattern that was life itself…Life, and the knowledge of how to care for it, was created at the same time. This land never endured a Dark Age when the light of learning grew dim, and existence was threatened. Until now…

In the end, all that seeks to uphold the pattern that is creation is the same good, just as all that seeks to destroy it is the same evil. In the learning borne of Country is the light that nourishes the world, and if Country, and the world, is to be helped now, it is this light that must show the way home. — Ambelin Kwaymullina (Bailugu and Njamal, Pilbara region, Western Australia), in “Seeing the Light: Aboriginal Law, Learning and Sustainable Living in Country,” Indigenous Law Bulletin
(May-June 2005).

Uluru – home of the Anangu Peoples, Yulara, Australia


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