International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Indigenous Traditions and Ecology: The Interbeing of Cosmology and Community

by John A. Grim

Introductory Essay by Christopher Corbally

Neither in this book’s title nor its subtitle, The Interbeing of Cosmology and Community, is religion mentioned. Yet this volume of essays is one of a series arising from conferences held from 1996 through 1998 at the Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions. These meetings addressed the critical gap in our contemporary understanding of religion and ecology. In the context of indigenous peoples, “religion is what we are, what we do” [496]. What are being presented, the book’s data as it were, are the spiritual beliefs, practices, and the sophisticated ecological knowledge that will help foster carefully managed, sustainable uses of the environment. These are not laid out in an academic, scientific format, but through many examples of the indigenous realities of place, relationships, and work. “Cosmic” does seem appropriate to describe this volume’s scope.

 The book consists of 26 essays, divided more or less equally between five sections.  Among the helpful literary apparatus is an introduction by the editor in which he gives an overview of the articles [xliv ff]. This overview can be consulted and essays chosen for reading accordingly, unless one wants to tackle the whole formidable 720 pages of text.

The first section, “Fragmented Communities,” emphasizes communitarian approaches to life and how symbol systems foster individual commitment and creativity within the community. It draws attention to the threats from individualistic orientations, whether those of single people or commercial enterprises.

The next section, “Complex Cosmologies,” makes it clear that the approach to reality among indigenous societies is very diverse. That reality includes both the spiritual and the practical, a component that is evident in the sustainable use of land and resources.

The third section, “Embedded Worldviews,” focuses on specific religious traditions and how they affect the cultural life of particular peoples, especially in the ways that challenges are faced with the help of these traditions. Various symbols of food and of place feature strongly in such worldviews.

The fourth section, “Resistance and Regeneration,” deals with the widely-publicized clashes between the trend toward globalized commerce and the values of indigenous communities. The crucial issues are treated, as are the resources for resolution that indigenous people find in their traditions and knowledge of ecology.

The final section, “Liberative Ecologies,” provides alternative understandings to seemingly science-based conservation research which can tend to focus on individual rather than communitarian concerns. Our dominant societies may need introduction to other ways of learning about the harmonious management of resources for hunting and agriculture.

The book emphasizes that indigenous approaches to ecology are highly varied and that mistakes do occur. But it argues that their overall cosmologies are effective in helping achieve carefully managed and sustainable uses of the environment which is shared by us all. This is practical science and religion; its “science” includes the accumulation of lifeways to back the issues of sovereignty for indigenous peoples and of ecological conservation; and its “religion” complements the Deep Ecology and World Religions volume and Christian ecological theology, such as Denis Edwards’ and Sallie McFague’s found elsewhere in this ISSR Library.