Indigenous as a Way of Life

by Stephen Wall “I think that when we talk about re-indigenization we need a much larger, bigger umbrella to understand it. It’s not necessarily about the Indigenous people of a specific place; it’s about re-indigenizing the peoples of the planet to the planet.”

– John Mohawk, Original Instructions, p. 259. (Emphasis in original article)

Defining “Indigenous” The word indigenous is defined as “originating in and characteristic of a particular region or country” ( While this definition applies to almost anything, in today’s world the word indigenous is often used to describe a people; that is, the people who originally lived and still live in a particular region or area and who have had to adjust to outsiders coming into their land. In today’s world, with a history of colonialism and economic migration, indigenous has political and cultural overtones. However, this article is not about the rights of indigenous people vis-à-vis colonial powers and settler communities. This article is based on the above-stated sentiments of John Mohawk, a Seneca scholar, and the need for humans to see themselves as indigenous to planet Earth. Using New Mexico as an example: For the purpose of this article, the particular region or area in focus is the Río Grande Valley, including the watersheds and tributaries that contribute to the Río Grande. This would include Río Abajo (below La Bajada), Río Arriba (above La Bajada), the San Luís Valley, ríos Jémez, Puerco, Galisteo and Chama, and the creeks and canyons that make up the headwaters of all these rivers. Ecologically, the Río Grande Valley contains much of the same animal and plant life found in surrounding bioregions, such as west to the Colorado Plateau or east toward the Llano Estacado. However, the presence of the Río Grande riparian environment provides some plant and animal diversity and food security. For the past several hundred years, the indigenous peoples of the Río Grande Valley included the Pueblo, Navajo, Apache and Utes. These people came to the Río Grande Valley for similar reasons that bring people today: economic forces, changing weather conditions and the search for a safer, more secure place to live. These peoples brought with them an ethic that recognized the reciprocity and relationship necessary for sustainable living within the ecosystem. The arrival of Juan de Oñate, in the late 1500s, brought new animals and a new people to the Río Grande Valley, and over the next 400 years those people indigenized into the rhythms and spirituality of the land. Generations of Hispanic settlers have grown to be a part of the land because they understood that the Earth was the Mother that provided food, clothing, shelter and all that they needed. However, change came to the Río Grande Valley. The 20th century brought dramatic transformations for the people and the land. Americans came after 1848 in search of wealth and fortune. They changed the traditional land-use patterns of the indigenous people—Indian and Hispanic—and set the stage for the changes we saw in the 20th century. Policies and programs set in Washington, D.C., over 2,000 miles away, took land-use prerogatives away from the indigenous people. Resource extraction and development were designed for the benefit of outside investors rather than those who lived on and drew sustenance from the land. The population of New Mexico grew from 360,000 in 1920 to a bit more than two million today. While a small portion of that population growth is the natural growth of the indigenous populations, most have been newcomers, spurred on to New Mexico by the growth of the defense industry and other business opportunities. These newcomers brought land-use ideas, water-use practices and environmental ethics that are not born of this land and not part of the reciprocal relationship with the Río Grande Valley. Thus, indigeneity in New Mexico is not defined solely through a racial or ethnic lens but is based on the practices and ethics that flow from the land itself and ensure the sustainability of life. Those who act in a manner attuned to that flow might be considered indigenous. Neither those who see this place as a way station on the road to bigger and better things nor those who place the creation of personal wealth at the expense of community and future generations will have the insight and perception to interact with the land in a manner that generates indigeneity. A Short History of De-indigenizing Regardless of ancient astronaut theories, humans are indigenous to planet Earth and have, over thousands of years, developed ways of life that existed in relative balance with the places of their habitation. While examples of overuse of resources, forced migrations and population die-offs exist, when we consider the extent of human habitation, these occurrences, while devastating, have not been the norm in human history. Indigeneity has meant living within the limits of resources, exercising reciprocity and acknowledging relationships that existed within the confines of a particular bio-region or ecological niche. Worldwide, there have been many examples of man’s inhumanity to man, including slavery, conquest and war. However, the West has been the only civilization to measure its history and progress as a society through chronicling the rise and fall of empire. Starting with Alexander the Great, the history of Western civilization moves through the Greek, Roman and Holy Roman empires into the feudal empires of Spain and Portugal, and then to those empires based in the modern state, including most of Western Europe and, most notably, Britain and the United States. Through the combination of technology, the modern state and empire, colonial relations came into existence as European empires encircled the planet. The existence of empire and colonial relations created the notion of indigenous peoples: those original inhabitants of a land, as opposed to those settlers, developers and governors who originated in the colony’s mother country. The arrival of colonial powers brought to the land a people whose beliefs, values and practices were not based in a relationship with the colonized land but were based in the mother country and overlain with dreams of riches, status and glory. But the process of de-indigenizing humans from the planet was not just the result of colonization. The marriage of science and technology has worked to create a worldview that has become de-spiritualized and materialistic. Since the scientific revolution, the processes of science have moved beyond observation and description into manipulation and control. Technology has been the handmaiden of this transition, and now the Western ideals of progress and development have been globalized. This, in turn, has marginalized the indigenous knowledge that took hundreds of years to develop as indigenous peoples interacted with their environment. In today’s world, the techno-values that minimize the importance of place mythologize technology’s ability to control the natural world and direct the world’s financial resources to the development of even more technological “fixes” that have become the underlying principles by which most countries operate. Thus, humankind at large has lost the ability to connect to the power of place and connect with the flow of energy that arises from the land, leaving us as strangers in our own lands, lost to the indigenous sense of belonging and purpose. Why Indigenize? So why would anyone in their right mind want to move away from a technology-based economy and lifeway, which appear to provide for all of the needs of humankind, to a regionally defined, self-limiting lifeway? For the majority of people in the United States, this is a no-brainer: looking to indigenous knowledge to provide for our needs is to reverse evolution, or precipitate devolution. We know that progress means going forward. We live in a complicated world. We transport food thousands of miles between production and consumption. Similarly, we develop our energy sources far from the point of consumption, requiring extensive and complex delivery systems. Our economy is based in the purchase of material goods manufactured on other continents, using natural resources from many parts of the world. Our empire requires huge expenditures of money and energy to maintain a planet-wide presence to support our lifestyles. By and large, we have an affluent lifeway, but our institutions are beginning to fail: schools don’t educate, hospitals don’t heal, courts don’t dispense justice and governments can no longer govern fairly. Not only is the world complicated, but it is fragile, as well. We are beginning to see the environmental impact of the excesses of the industrial revolution and a consumer economy. As climate change progresses, we are starting to see how drought, flooding and severe weather events impact various communities and bio-regions. We may not immediately feel the effects of these events, but if they continue, their cumulative impacts will overwhelm our ability to import food and other necessities. Our dependence on hydrocarbons has made us deaf to environmental concerns, dependent upon capricious leadership of oil-producing countries and dangerously unprepared for a society without hydrocarbons. Finally, we must look to finance and the monetary economy, the weakest link in this fragile world. The cyclical nature of capitalism, with its peaks and valleys, has become exaggerated in the last 40 years, creating economic crisis followed by economic crisis. The peaks have enriched only a small portion of society, while the majority feels the effects of the valleys. Indigenization is the connection between the people and the land on which they live. To indigenize is to recognize that life-serving activities in the bio-region need to be sustainable and that we need to encourage and foster activities that enhance our reciprocal relationship with the land. Re-indigenization: A Process In some ways, indigenization seems to be a pipedream or a radical vision. But the inability of our political and economic leaders to come to grips with environmental realities is quickly manifesting a condition in which the complexity and fragility of the planet will converge to bring dramatic and possibly catastrophic change. As rational human beings we should be looking to possible alternatives to our current predominant lifeway.

“But I live in a multibuilding apartment complex in midtown Albuquerque. How can I indigenize myself to the land?”  This is an excellent question, and it really gets to the heart of indigenization. As a society, we have created urban areas that are totally dependent on the surrounding rural areas—both near and far—for energy, water, sustenance and markets. We have become reliant upon wage labor that places a premium on the creation of wage-paying jobs, often to the detriment of the environment.

In our current situation, indigenization starts with mindfulness or intentionality. So what does that mean? It means that we need to become mindful of the choices that we make in relation to our place, the land we live upon, the bioregion we inhabit. The less control you have over the source of resources you need—food, energy, water—the more mindful or intentional you must be over how you use those resources. Awareness of water-use practices (long showers, lawns, running water while you rinse dishes), energy-use patterns (lights left on, use of instant-on devices), food-use habits (wasting food, relying on food grown at a distance) are first steps to indigenization. Mindfulness and intentionality create awareness that leads to the next step in indigenization: connection with the land. In order to connect with the land, one has to be aware of the land. The mindfulness employed to become aware of our consumption habits, practices and resource use can be expanded to become aware of the land. In order to connect with the land, one has to study the land, spend time outside and be intentional in one’s desire to understand the interrelationships between the land and all that lives on it. Just being outside with that intent and desire will pay off after a while, as one slowly becomes aware of the subtleties found in the natural world. Where does the sun rise on the summer solstice? Where does it set on the winter solstice? When do the sand hill cranes first appear in their migration? What do the various cloud formations portend? When should I plant my garden—even if it is just a few planters on the apartment balcony? Many will see the attainment of this kind of knowledge as something beyond their abilities. But because the universe is always teaching us, it is not our abilities that determine whether we gain the knowledge—it is our will. We gain this knowledge through observing the natural world, reading historical accounts and travelogues, talking with people who hold this knowledge. Slowly, the knowledge will come. As we become aware of the basics of our connection to the land, we become more indigenized; that is, we are beginning to understand the land, sky and other natural phenomena as metaphor within our lives and psyches. These metaphors are lessons to further our understanding of place, relationship, other values and their application in our lives and the lives of our families and communities. For example, as we look to the cardinal directions, what values or concepts do we associate with the east? Values and concepts such as rebirth, a new beginning, hope and light can be associated with the rising sun. Similarly, the west can represent darkness, closure or maturity. Likewise, concepts and values can also be delegated to the north and south. In a comparable manner, the same metaphorical process can be assigned to the changing of the seasons. We hear of mental conditions such as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), or we think of spring fever, both being examples of the effects the seasons have on us. While these are general observations, the change of seasons is different in each bioregion and place. Part of indigeneity is being aware of how the seasons come and go and how that affects our lives and psyches. The ability to see the connection between our psyches and the land signifies a deep connection. When we become aware of our psychic connection to the land, we have deepened our relationship with the land. Through this depth, we can see our responsibilities to the land, celebrate the joys of living on the land’s bounty and look to a meaningful future for our families and communities. Being indigenous is to be aware of that deep connection with the land and act accordingly. Indigeneity is not race- or ethnic based, but it is an awareness and action that recognizes the importance of place and land in our own lives. It is also acknowledging and acting upon the reciprocal relationship with the land that provides for future generations. Indigeneity is a commitment to place and to the future of our communities in that place. About the Author Stephen Wall (White Earth Reservation) is Chair of the Indigenous Liberal Studies Department at the Institute of American Indian Arts, a college focused on Native American art, located in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Stephen Wall earned a B.A. in Anthropology from Fort Lewis College in 1972 and a J. D. from the University of New Mexico in 1975.  In addition to teaching at Fort Lewis College, Stephen has served as Research Analyst for the American in Indian Law Center, Community Development Specialist for the Albuquerque Indian Health Board, and Behavioral Health Coordinator for the Tohono O’Odham Heath Department. Stephen also spent 11 years with the Mescalero Tribal Court, serving as Prosecutor and as Chief Judge. In addition to teaching at Fort Lewis College, he has also been adjunct professor at the University of New Mexico and has developed and taught a vast number of workshops and trainings for community and professional development. Stephen Wall is an enrolled member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe/White Earth Reservation. He was born in Roswell, NM and was raised on and near the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation in southern NM. In 2006, Stephen was appointed Department Chair for the Indigenous Liberal Studies Program at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. After attending Fort Lewis College in Durango, CO and completing his BA in Anthropology, and he earned a degree in law from the Law School at the University of New Mexico. Wall has worked with the American Indian Law Center as research analyst, the Albuquerque Area Indian Health Board as a community development specialist, and he has served as Behavioral Health Coordinator for the Tohono O’odham Health Department in Sells, AZ. In Mescalero, NM, he served for 11 years in the Mescalero Apache Tribal Court as the Prosecutor and Chief Judge. Wall is also an award-winning artist whose work focuses on sculpture and jewelry. Links: Stephen Wall Institute of American Indian Arts