Lessons in Equality, Social Justice, and Ecological Balance from Indigenous Cultures

Lessons in Equality, Social Justice, and Ecological Balance from Indigenous Cultures

A paper by Steve Szeghi, Professor of Economics at Wilmington College (USA), presented for Eighth Rhodes Forum Session, October 2010

Indigenous peoples did not always live in perfect harmony with one another or with the earth. But in comparison to modern mainstream culture and the current global economic system, indigenous culture was and is indeed characterized by a quite high degree of equality and living in harmony with the earth and with other species. These cultures provide for us abundant lessons in how to integrate the human economy with the earth while providing for basic human needs in a context of socially cohesive human relationships.

The earth is your mother,

she holds you.

The sky is your father,

he protects you.



Rainbow is your sister,

she loves you.

The winds are your brothers,

they sing to you.



We are together always

We are together always

There never was a time

when this

was not so.

(Silko, Storyteller, p51)

Leslie Marmon Silko in her book Storyteller, adeptly describes how her people, the Laguna, see the elements of the earth and sky and the relationship of the people to all that dwells on the earth, in the sky. All the elements of earth and sky, everything that exists and lives is seen as a living being, a spirit, to whom respect and reverence is owed and with whom the people have a relationship which must be nurtured and maintained. It is quite typical among indigenous people to see, to celebrate, and to cherish the web of life. It is quite common to see sky, earth, sun, moon, stars, trees, the forest, the desert, rocks, streams, animals, and people as living spirit beings. All of the elements of earth and sky are members of a community who need one another, and whom deserve respect and reciprocity.

If all of the elements of the earth are members of a family, then all of the people of the earth are sometimes seen as members of a more intimate family, although the tribe is an even more intimately connected family. Among other tribal peoples, the tribe itself and only the tribe itself is seen as human, with a greater distance between other peoples along with animals and the elements of nature. But even in this case, everything that is, is still connected in kinship.

Indigenous cultures, past and present, from every continent, provide abundant lessons for us today in how to live in harmony with the earth, with other species, and with one another. Generally it is well known that indigenous people thought and acted in their economic lives and otherwise more in terms of We than I, more in terms of family, the tribe, the group, as opposed to the solitary individual; in comparison to mainstream economies and cultures today. It is also well known that indigenous people lived and live on a daily basis much more aware of their relationship with the earth and with other species. This paper will seek to expand on these themes, exploring why the value of harmony with the natural world and with the group tends to be so ascendant in these cultures, how such values are maintained and nurtured and even grow, and why. Finally this paper will provide specific examples from indigenous societies past to validate these general statements.

“Indigenous” refers to the original people as opposed to the colonizers, imperialist conquerors or invaders and their descendents. Of course since the dawn of humanity groups of people have been moving around quite a lot conquering and being conquered. In some sense everyone is indigenous and everyone is non-indigenous. In this paper the term indigenous refers to the original people in a place or region in contradistinction to invaders and settlers from both Europe and the Middle East, people predominately of the Christian and Muslim monotheistic religions. Indigenous peoples comprise hunters, hunter-gatherers, agriculturalists, as well as those who built great civilizations. Indigenous people are of the past and present. It is sometimes surprising in the face of vicious suppression how magnificently indigenous culture managed to survive in some form through the generations since contact. Indigenous Peoples would include the Shuar, the Yanomani, the Apache, the Pima, the Dine, the Hopi, the Yaqui, the Paiute, the Maori, the Intuit, the Mambai, the Iroquois, and also the Mayan and the Aztec., to mention but a few. While some generalizations can be made about indigenous peoples, the analysis in this paper is directly derived from experiences with and study of the indigenous peoples of the United States, particularly in the Southwest.  

It serves no purpose to portray indigenous peoples as always living in harmony with the earth, with other species, with other people or with one another. According to N. Scott Momaday, the First Americans were likely responsible for the extinction of the Wholly Mammoth, although he claims the experience occasioned them to be more cognizant of the web of life. According to archeological evidence there were times when native peoples did indeed slaughter buffalo in mass without using all of the buffalo they had stampeded over cliffs. The indigenous civilization of Easter Island devastated the island ecology so well that their civilization had to be abandoned, thereby provoking a mystery for those who later discovered its remnants. The Aztecs, and the Mayan before them, did indeed conquer and enslave many of their neighbors. In some indigenous cultures inequality was quite high. According to Pima storyteller Juan Smith as told to Julian Hayden, it was the unacceptable emerging levels of inequality that lead to the abandonment of the Hohokham site at Casa Grande. It was abandoned for a return to a more simple egalitarian way of life. Romanticizing indigenous culture serves no legitimate interest, and brings neither justice to the indigenous or worthwhile lessons.

Indigenous peoples did not always live in perfect harmony with one another or with the earth. But in comparison to modern mainstream culture and the current global economic system, indigenous culture was and is indeed characterized by a quite high degree of equality and living in harmony with the earth and with other species. These cultures provide for us abundant lessons in how to integrate the human economy with the earth while providing for basic human needs in a context of socially cohesive human relationships.

The origin of the Financial Crisis: growing inequality in the USA

The global financial crisis of the last few years along with the global economic slowdown or recession with which it is entangled largely originated in the United States when housing prices collapsed. Certainly the proliferation of new fangled financial instruments which were immune to effective regulation and oversight due to both deregulatory legislation as well as market fundamentalist ideology played a huge role. But growing inequality in the US as evidenced by an increasing Gini coefficient, declining average hourly real wage rates, and stagnant median family incomes also played a huge role. When housing prices collapsed it was not merely a case of US consumers spending less because they had less wealth. US consumers had increasingly for decades relied upon re-mortgaging the home, or otherwise tapping home equity to finance a level of consumption to which they had become accustomed, a level of consumption trumpeted in magazines, commercials, and ever manner of advertisement as well as keeping up with the neighbors. When housing prices declined, home equity declined, and with it the ability of US consumers to finance their consumptive habits.

Sitting Bull once said, as reported by Peter Matthiessen,“Their love of possessions is like a disease with them.” (Matthiessen, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, p9) The materialism of our society stems from not having right relationship, not having community, not having the economic security which relationships and community bring. In a dog eat dog society, where people are encouraged to be on their own and are in fact on their own, people try to build up a sense of security through the accumulation of wealth and possessions and lavish consumption, but no matter how much they accumulate it is never enough. It can never bring the security that a cohesive society, that being a member of a true human family, a community can bring. A lack of community creates the ground upon which materialism and consumerism grow, but materialism in turn makes community very difficult, thereby creating a vicious cycle.

The reality of the crisis of the environment and growing inequality

The earth on which we live and depend upon to sustain life is undergoing a crisis, from both toxic pollution, as well as human induced global warming. There are of course many who still wish to debate but I will leave that to climatology experts. The concern of this paper is what can be done and what lessons can be garnered from indigenous cultures.

Globally as well as in many nations the gap between rich and poor has been steadily increasing for decades. Contemplate the lifestyles, the opulence, of the richest fraction of a percentage of the global population and compare it to the poorest fraction of a percentage of the population. Never in the history of humanity has this gap been greater even as it grows wider. Some deny the growing crisis of inequality, even alleging decreasing inequality. Yet, if the mean income of each country is used to construct a global Gini, that Global Gini is decreasing only if the mean income for each country is weighted by population. The mean income for China has been increasing relative to the richest nations in the world, and since the population of China is so large, a decreasing Gini is thus obtained. But income inequality has been growing in China as has income inequality in most countries of the world. It would be far more methodologically sound to construct a Global Gini by taking the weighted average based on population of each country’s Gini and that Gini is rising.

Equality, the Common Good, and Social Justice

There are many examples of the egalitarian spirit of the indigenous. Bartalome de las Casas, as quoted by Howard Zinn, wrote of the Amerindians of Hispanola, “ They prize bird feathers of various colors, beads made of fishbones, and green and white stones with which they adorn their ears and lips, but they put no value on gold and other precious things. They lack all manner of commerce, neither buying or selling, and rely exclusively on their natural environment for maintenance. They are extremely generous with their possessions and by the same token covet the possessions of their friends and expect the same degree of liberality.” (Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, p5)

Howard Zinn writes of the Iroquois, “In the villages of the Iroquois, land was owned in common and worked in common. Hunting was done together and the catch was divided among the members of the village. Houses were considered common property and were shared by several families. The concept of private ownership of land was foreign to the Iroquois. …   A French priest who encountered them in the 1650’s wrote: “ No poorhouses are needed among them, because they are neither mendicants or paupers … Their kindness, humanity, and courtesy not only make them liberal with what they have, but causes them to possess hardly anything but in common.”” (Zinn, p20) In addition, Howard Zinn quotes Tecumseh, “The way and the only way, to check and stop this evil, is for all the Redmen to unite in claiming a common and equal right to the land, as it was ar firsst and should be yet; for it was never divided, but belongs to all for the use of each. That no part has the right to sell, even to each other, much less to strangers …” (Zinn, p127)

Peter Matthiessen accentuates these same points writing in, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. First he quotes Henry Dawes, a Senator from Massachusetts in the late 1800’s, before going on to make a more general point. ““ They have got as far as they can go, because they own their land in common,” sniffed another Indian well-wisher, Senator Henry L. Dawes of Massachusetts, in precocious disapproval of the Indians’ “communism” (observing also that, among Indians, “There is no selfishness, which is at the bottom of civilization”) And it was precisely that communal attitude towards land that had to be destroyed before the buffalo plains could be domesticated and the huge railroad, oil, and cattle empires could rule the west.” (Matthiessen, p17)

Matthiessen further elaborates on the theme, “By destroying communal guardianship of land, the Dawes Act … destroyed not only the unity of Indian nations but the people’s tradition of generosity and total sharing for the common good. Since according to their sacred instructions the Indian could never “own” a Mother Earth of which they felt themselves a part …” (Matthiessen, p18)

Some of those quoted above, saw the Indians in their sharing and common ownership as admirable, others such as Dawes regarded those same traits as backward ,as causing the Indian to lack what was needed for what he called civilization. Some saw that proclivity for sharing as a virtue others saw it as a vice to be purged along with all things Indian. In more recent times Edward Abbey, writing in Desert Solitaire, also speaks of the egalitarian spirit intrinsic among the Dine (Navajo) and how that tradition makes it difficult to assimilate. Writing with a bit of sarcasm directed at the prevalent modern society he largely detested, “He lacks the drive to get ahead of his fellows or to figure out ways and means of profiting from other people’s labor. Coming from a tradition which honors sharing and mutual aid above private interest, the Navajo thinks it somehow immoral for one man to prosper while his neighbors go without. … Among these people a liberal hospitality is taken for granted and selfishness regarded with horror.” (Abbey, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, p134)

Among many indigenous groups the exchange of gifts was and is common. This is too often termed barter, which makes the indigenous economy appear a lot like our economy but without money. The exchange of gifts has as much or more to do with building, maintaining, and nurturing relationships, a type of reciprocity practiced even with other species, than it does with the items of the trade. Gifting is a byproduct of relationships rather than relationships being a means to engage in trade.

Some indigenous peoples worked land or hunted together and shared equally, others worked more individually, some tribes were very territorial others more welcoming of strangers, some used the land as individual or close family but shared use with other individuals in the larger group. Some shared what they had yielded from the land. There was great diversity in how work was done and in how sharing occurred. What is almost universal among the indigenous is contempt for the idea and practice of buying and selling land by individuals. How utterly alien the invaders seemed, who did sell land. There is a small museum next to the Wounded Knee Massacre Site, in South Dakota which houses a mural which reads, “A man does not sell the earth he walks upon.”

Sharing at all levels was not universal. In some, being rendered unable to gather or hunt due to sickness or injury, if the individual had no surviving close family members, might have meant death. Other more distant members of the tribe, depending on the tribe, were not always expected to pitch in. In most tribal societies however there was a high degree of sharing in such situations. What is universally true among tribal societies is that the manner in which most members of society provided for their needs was available to all, such as hunting and gathering or planting. No one who was able was denied access to the means of life. Those who were able to engage in the type of labor that most people engaged in to support themselves were free to engage in that type of labor. There existed no economic institutions or property arrangements which seriously compromised an individual’s ability to gather or hunt for the basic means of life.

In the economic systems which exist in the various nations of the world today, many are denied access to the means of sustaining their life, particularly a life of median quality for that particular society. The means of sustaining life today for most people is through employment. Yet there is no obligation or duty on the part of society to guarantee employment to all. There are not enough jobs available to allow everyone who is able to have one. Today there exist economic institutions and property arrangements which deny the means of sustaining life, particularly a quality of life enjoyed by the median, to all.

Indigenous societies did and do not structure their economic systems to deny access to the means of life to some of their members. Today our economic system in how it is structured does deny access to some. The lesson to draw from the indigenous is to restructure our economic system so that all have access. Given an economic system characterized for the most part by private property, large for profit corporations, and market allocation, the only way to guarantee access to the means of life is to guarantee a job with a livable wage to all, and that most likely means the government as employer of last resort. Once our societies guarantee employment to all, another lesson to gain from the indigenous generally speaking, is to take care of those who are unable to work as though they were close family members. In our modern economic systems that means the construction of a sound social safety net, precisely that which has been cut back in country after country.

Ecological Balance and Harmony

The first peoples of the Americas, along with indigenous peoples throughout the globe tend to see the world as a community of being and elements, all with personhood and all with a spirit. Among most of the Indians of the Southwest as found in their origin stories there was a time when the animal people could speak with humans. Among both the Hopi and the Navajo, previous worlds existed beneath this one. For the Hopi this is the Fourth World, for the Navajo it is the Fifth. What is common in these origin stories is the role animals play in assisting people from one world to the next. For the Yaqui, there are many worlds superimposed upon each other, that we live in simultaneously, a flower world, a wilderness world, a spirit world to name a few. When the Tohono o’Odham go for a walk in the desert, it is very important to be mindful of someone who has been in the same spot before and to be reverent. And the other someone could have been a Puma, a lizard, a rabbit, a rattlesnake, a javelina, or a raven. The basic idea is to walk with respect. In the origin story of the Southern Paiute the legendary Coyote carries the people in a little pouch to where the tribe is now located after he accidentally spills them on the ground. That is how the Paiute came to be where they are today. Animals, and people, and spirits, and ancestors, all played a role in shaping the earth and cosmos according to the origin stories of the Indians of the Southwest.

These origin stories suggest a view of the earth of other species, of all the elements of nature, of other people, as a community, as a family where all is woven together, where everything that is, including everything made by people and animals is alive, is a spirit and must be respected. Reverence, Respect, and Reciprocity bring about a harmony and balance in relationships. Fairness to others who are family, who are living beings, living spirits, drives that value of harmony, which results in rough equality between people, as well as ecological balance. For the Navajo sickness occurs when there is a lack of balance, sickness for individuals, for the community, for the earth. The Navajo word Hozho means beauty, balance, and harmony. It is the essence of health and life. The Lakota have a similar word it means all things are related or we are all relatives or everything is tied together. It implies respect for what holds everything together, reverencing the unity, the web of life. Hozho and Mitakuye Oyasin both epitomize the deep awareness of the natural world, other species and the earth which permeates American Indian culture and spirituality.

How to adapt the lessons

The national and global economic systems of which we are a part are of course so much vaster in scale than any economic system of tribal peoples. So even if we could somehow take some spiritual or emotional solace in their relative harmony with the earth and with one another compared to our system today what sort of practical lessons can we take from them. It is nice that they lived in touch with the earth and with a great awareness of one another, but how could we ever hope to duplicate that on a much vaster scale? One important point to recognize is that both sharing in indigenous communities as well as respect for the earth were not merely nice sentiments that the people indulged in when it so suited them. They were not merely voluntary. Respect for the earth and an attitude and a life giving out in sharing respectful of others was mandated by custom and tradition. For those who didn’t abide by these social customs there were serious consequences. Those consequences began with shunning and could eventually lead to ostracism or exile. In addition, those who lead lives which mocked the community spirit or the web of life oftentimes found that which they tried to hoard seized by the community. Sometimes they could even be killed. In other words tribal societies wove structures and institutions to govern a certain shared way of life, and a way of life that respected the entire community of life.

What occurs in the market place is purported to be a matter of choice. Yet, in an age of a manipulative and multidimensional global advertising culture, fads make choice quite whimsical and every changing, and make choice itself suspect. Where the individual is supposed to reign supreme, there are few if any unifying customs and traditions. We must build new global economic and social institutions and structures to promote and mandate the level of sharing required to be a true global human family. The same is so in order to promote and mandate ways of living and using the earth that are both sustainable and just to other species and the environment.

Examples would include a global guaranteed annual income or job with a living wage, universal minimum labor, health, and safety standards and enforceable global environmental laws. As such it is necessary to build the global institutions and structures which can accomplish these ends. The book, Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy, is one work among many providing an excellent starting point to consider the dramatic changes necessary in global governing institutions and structures.

The Need for Ancient Wisdom

There are certainly many lessons in social justice and equality in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, as in Humanist philosophy. There are, perhaps not quite as many, but still abundant lessons in these same traditions in ecological balance and respect for the natural world. These traditions though serve as the foundation for much of the thinking which informs and shape the global economic system. Although the more dominant and prevalent traditions certainly preach social justice and equality and some respect for nature, adherents to those traditions have continually found ways to discount such sermons. There was and is a huge gap between what is preached and what is lived in the societies, and economies informed and shaped by these traditions.

Among the indigenous, particularly the cultures I am most familiar with in the American Southwest, in regard to sharing, respect, and relationship with the earth, there is not so much of a gap between what is preached and what is lived. Among the indigenous it is not a question of exhorting and coaxing individuals to live a certain way because sharing, community, reciprocal relationships with the earth and other species are simply ways of life, communal ways of life. The stories told of spirits and animals, of the elements of the earth are a reflection of what is lived and experienced. The world of spirits is connected to the world in which the people live and breathe. They see a community of spirits, animal spirits, people spirits, spirits of earth, and rock, and tree, and that is how the people see the world in which they live, a community of beings, people, animals, earth, rock, and tree, beings who are in turn spirits. So the community of spirits is the same as the community of nature. There is no dualism.

Our earth, our planet, our mother to whom we all belong, is asking us in countless ways to stop the poisoning and the pillaging of our environment. Something more transformative than what can be found in the most prevalent monotheistic traditions and secular philosophy may be required, in order to make the changes which are absolutely essential. We really do need to see the earth as a living being, a spirit who is our mother to compel us to change on her behalf and ours as well.

The human family as a collective body is sick and bleeding because we have lost sight of the universal kinship of humanity. Not only is there this huge gap between what is preached and what is lived, but the inequality is increasing between members of the human family. This growing inequality in access to the means of life is at a crisis level and has done much to propel the global financial crisis. All of the great monotheistic traditions along with Hinduism and Buddhism and humanist philosophy extol fairness, justice, and some measure of equality, but perhaps even here we need something more transformative, to truly see ourselves as family, as one, in the way a tribe sees itself as family, not as a mere metaphor but as reality. In so doing the lessons of the indigenous can put the non-indigenous in touch with the best of their own traditions.


Indigenous peoples have frequently found their cultural and spiritual traditions and values suppressed and under constant attach by the invading or dominant culture. It has been going on for thousands of years from the destruction of the Sacred Groves of the Druids, to the Libraries of Alexandria and Mexico put to the torch, to the buffalo of North America almost extinguished, to the rituals of the people of the Red Willow (Taos Pueblo) and the People of the White Rock (Acoma Pueblo) ruthlessly suppressed, to the attempted eradication of the spirituality of the people of rock and tree (The Mauribe). Both Christian and Muslim invaders have on countless occasions invaded indigenous lands and then viciously attacked native custom, beliefs, and practices. Fortunately the indigenous found ways to weave their traditional ways and beliefs into the outward religious forms of the invaders and thereby endure.

Whether native views are characterized as animistic, pantheistic, polytheistic, or qualified monotheism, they are quite distinct from their unqualified monotheistic invaders. For the indigenous, spirit beings are embedded in and permeate the earth, forest, desert, mountains, oceans, rocks, streams, the sky, the stars, the moon, and the sun. In contradistinction to their Christian and Muslim invaders, the spirit beings of indigenous peoples were typically sexual beings who could laugh and eat and dream, who participated with people in shaping and forming the earth and sky, who were as described by Paula Gun Allen not distinct from the natural world in which they dwelt, paraphrasing Allen, The spirit of the mountain is the mountain, and is another way to see the mountain.’ (Allen, The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, p69)

Many refer to the spiritually of the indigenous as earth based spirituality as it is anchored and rooted in nature and the earth. What could be more natural than a goddess giving birth to life after making love? By contrast the celibate god of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition is celibate and non-sexual yet brings about life. Such abstraction in a spiritual view of the world might reveal a certain contempt or indifference to the natural world in favor of the other worldly, or the supernatural. Elevating the spiritual above the natural, dualism at its inception, lessens the importance of nature and of human connection to the earth. It is hardly a good foundation for a sound environmental ethic or ecological awareness.

Such lessens the importance of the earth, the community of nature, and the web of life, as the forest is no longer a living spirit being to reverence and with which to be in relationship. And so the human community is no longer part of that larger community of the forest, of the earth. In addition since indigenous people tended to see the spirit world as a community of spirits, where the spirits had relationships with each other, social relations and governance were a refection of that. In trying to separate indigenous peoples from their traditional spirituality, the invaders attempted to substitute their one true all powerful deity for the community of spirits of the indigenous.

In no circumstances did any of this suppression lead to indigenous peoples becoming more equal, more given towards sharing, more aware of their oneness with the earth and their connection to it. It is no wonder that the indigenous were more egalitarian, more governed by consensus, more in touch with the earth and respectful of other species than their monotheistic invaders. Their way of life emanated from how they saw the spirit world just as their view of the spirit world was reflected in their way of life. Fortunately for us today, indigenous peoples have endured. Hopefully it is not too late for our global economic system to relearn the ancient wisdom of the earth, of the community of nature, and the family of humanity. Let us celebrate that we are all related (mitakuye oyasin) and walk in beauty cherishing hozho.


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