Native American Knowledge and Epistemology

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Christian Arnsperger:

"Cajete’s work as an Indigenous educator and scholar of education – as well as creator of actual Indigenous education curricula (as shown in his 1999 book Igniting the Sparkle: An Indigenous Science Education Model, also from Kivaki Press) – is truly pathbreaking and inspirational.

Along complementary lines, Daniel Wildcat offers what he calls “indigenous realism,” which

- affirms patterns and processes beyond our human making – patterns residing in ancient environs, such as wetlands, mountain ranges, prairies, and coastal estuaries and seascapes, and processes emerging in these environs, some of relatively short duration and some extending far beyond directly observable human time frames, such as the processes embodied in the hydrologic cycle, nutrient cycling, and the rock cycle, to name a few. (Red Alert!, pp. 102-103)

Knowledge of these “patterns and processes” and, even more so, a clear intention to keep them from malfunctioning and to correct their disruptions and perturbations, are part and parcel of the newfound wisdom we need.

And intention is nothing without attention:

- Saving the Earth with indigenous knowledges will require a serious re-examination and reconstruction of the experiential knowledge of Native peoples: it will require getting people out of the physical and metaphysical boxes in which they live and think. In order to live in life-enhancing relations, humankind in industrial and postindustrial societies must move beyond their self-imposed physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual imprisonment. … The Native insight that indigenous knowledges should not be understood as human constructions, but rather as collaborations, is worth emphasizing. Indigenous knowledges in this sense are emergent from the nature-culture nexus. Consequently, indigenous knowledges are a set of relations and relationships situated in our life experiences, which vary as we move through what physicists would call space-time. … Indigenous knowledges are grounded in the human realization that the life that surrounds us can teach us valuable lifeway lessons, if we pay attention to our relationships and interactions with the land, air, water, and other-than-human living beings. (Red Alert!, pp. 49, 73-74 and 74-75) "

Relatedness and Circularity as the Key World-Ordering Processes of the Native American Worldview

Christian Arnsperger:

"Drawing inspiration from, among others, luminaries of Native American thought such as Vine Deloria and Donald Fixico, the philosopher Thomas Norton-Smith posits both relatedness and circularity as two of the central – if not the most important – “world-ordering principles” in the Native American view of the cosmos and the world, that is to say, “way[s] American Indians categorize, organize, and order sense experience” (The Dance of Person and Place, p. 57).


Concerning relatedness, he has this to say:

- World-constructing processes include composition, decomposition, weighting, and ordering, all of which depend on and help determine how our sense experiences – and our worlds—are organized into objects and kinds. … [O]rdering – creating various patterns in sense experience – is a particularly important world-constructing process, especially for Natives who actively search for the newly emergent, previously overlooked, unexpected, and strikingly unusual connections between experiences. We say that creating patterns of relatedness in sense experience is central to the making of the American Indian world. All beings and their interactions in the American Indian world are related and interconnected, so knowing about the world involves actively seeking out newly emerging connections between experiences. [According to] Deloria…, “‘We are all relatives’ when taken as a methodological tool for obtaining knowledge means that we observe the natural world by looking for relationships between various things in it”. (The Dance of Person and Place, p. 58)

For Norton-Smith, this method of looking for patterns of relatedness also implies a wholly different take on what the word “person” means. In Native American thought, humans only become persons if they take moral responsibility for the whole of nature and all the relationship they discover within it. Moreover, there are such things as nonhuman persons: there are plant persons, animal persons and place persons. (The Swiss-Canadian anthropologist Jeremy Narby called to my attention the work of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, a Brazilian anthropologist who has reflected among other things on the fact that, in the Amazon, Indians see jaguars and plants as people.) This immediately extends into the question of the extent to which a creek, a river, a forest, an ocean or even the whole water cycle could be seen to have personality-like or person-like elements of self-coherence and self-belonging. After all, our Western, reductionist systems science speaks of “operational closure” as a defining characteristic of a system: might this not merely be a clumsy way of still accepting some idea of personhood while, at the same time, making it innocuous through mechanistic terminology? (The legitimate fascination of so many Western and Westernized scientists with systems science, with “emergence” and “complexity,” is a pretty sure sign that ancestral intuitions and experiences of interconnection and relatedness are far from defunct.) (


Concerning circularity, Norton-Smith reminds us that, in a manner not at all alien to what today’s proponents of permaculture are urging us back towards,

- indigenous peoples are very close observers of the natural world and all of the cycles in its workings – seasonal cycles, lunar phases, animal migrations, and the growth of various plants. Indeed, hunter-gatherer societies had to observe, create, and operate in accordance with seasonal patterns, with cyclical patterns imposed on temporal experiences – the ripening of the berries in spring, late summer corn harvests, autumn migrations, and winter hunts – in order to survive. But such seasonal circular orderings are also spatial orderings – harvests and hunts are events in both time and space. As a result, American Indian traditions came to regard cycles and circles as the primary temporal and spatial ordering principle, to develop “tribal philosophies based on the circle,” as Fixico puts it. (The Dance of Person and Place, p. 125)

The utter loss of circular/ cyclical knowledge, awareness, consciousness and responsibility is perhaps the main reason why short-term economic and financial blindness overrides the desire – which every child possesses before we make them acquisitive and mind-focused – to protect and love plant persons, animal persons and “sky people” (as some Native tribes call the clouds). This disconnection from our biosphere’s great cycles and grand circulations is perhaps the principal cause of disasters such as the irreversible poisoning of huge swaths of Alberta due to tar-sands extraction or the drying-up of the Colorado River Delta into a parched, salty desert due to massive dam-building and water diversions. The Colorado River is a living being, perhaps a “person” in the expansive sense championed by Norton-Smith – my own Western mind bends itself out of shape to accept such a statement even as it rings true to my heart and soul. The water cycle is a living being, perhaps an expanded person – and this, I know, ties into the whole debate about James Lovelock’s “Gaia Hypothesis” and its meaning. (Does he literally mean that Gaia is a person? Does he mean it metaphorically? Does “metaphorical” mean “poetic” or “mythological,” and does either of those words imply a contradiction with “science”?)" (

Key Books

Recommended by Christian Arnsperger:

Look to the Mountain: An Ecology of Indigenous Education

"In his pathbreaking book Look to the Mountain: An Ecology of Indigenous Education (Kivaki Press, 1993), the Native American scholar Gregory Cajete from the University of New Mexico argues that indigenous Americans cannot be required to literally believe Western science and its often mechanistic and disenchanted way of portraying the biosphere. Whole swaths of ancestral wisdom about how to live in contact with nature, Cajete argues, are marginalized by “science” even though they could be – and, in many Native lifeways, still are – living resources helping us to revere and conserve the cycles of the biosphere, to whose dysfunction the Western scientific worldview has contributed heavily.

Red Alert! Saving the Planet With Indigenous Knowledge // The Dance of Person and Place: One Interpretation of American Indian Philosophy

As argued by two other Native American scholars – Daniel Wildcat from Haskell Indian Nations University in his 2009 book Red Alert! Saving the Planet With Indigenous Knowledge (Fulcrum Publishing) and Thomas Norton-Smith from Kent State in his 2010 opus The Dance of Person and Place: One Interpretation of American Indian Philosophy (SUNY Press) – a deep respect for, and internalization of, the cyclical character of the world as well as the unbroken community between humans, nonhuman living species and the “inanimate” remainder of the biosphere are the cornerstones of any contemporary quest for wisdom that would seek to repair the Earth system’s broken, dysfunctional cycles." (