Indigenous Thought: a current possibility

In his book The Ascent of Humanity, Charles Eisenstein (2003) holds the idea that the whole building of Civilization is mounted on top of a particular story, called Separation. According to this autor, the convergence of crisis that is presented today has as a background a change in our mythology, from the narrative of Separation to Reunion, where each one responds in a very different manner to the question of Being (Who are you?) and the World (What are you doing here?). This essay will look to reflect about the role of Indigenous Thought, with the goal of arguing that it represent an actual possibility in a dialogue of discourses that could transform our whole Civilization.

In order to do this, the text will be divided in three parts. To start, the general thesis of The Ascent of Humanity will be presented. On second order, the role of Indigenous Thought inside this scheme will be discussed, specifically the way its narrative about the Self and the World questions the myth of Separation. Finally, the essay’s conclusions will be given.

  1. The Ascent of Humanity

First of all, Charles Eisensein is an author that Arturo Escobar (1999) would describe as culturalist. In the discourses on sustainable development, culturalists are born from a criticism to liberalism, which concibes the environmental crisis as a problem of bad administration, of low effectivity. According to the first ones, culture and the way we relate to nature bring us necessarily to the environmental crisis, which is why overcoming it demands a change in the whole structure of civilization. In this way, culturalists question aspects like reductionism and utilitarianism, even though the work that will be exposed now looks to explain all of this phenomenons at their deepest root: Separation.

To start, the symbolic moment that represents the origin of Separation is the dominance of fire. Here, a distinction between the known and the unknown was created, between me and the other, between man and nature. From now on, Civilization would embark on the project of expanding the rule of fire, of light or the known, until it could undertake the whole existence. Due to this, science and technology would become the main tools of man for comprehending the world, with the final objective of creating a tower so high as Babel’s that could Ascent and separate so much from its origin, that it would touch the sky.

In that regard, the project of Ascent was built over a particular ideology. The spirit of separation says that human is not nature, community, body, thought, actions or sentiments; that we have to separate politics from love, business from morals, work from play, artistic from useful and country from rural. Progressively, people were mutilated from a sense of being much more extended to what Descartes would propose: I think, therefore I am.

At the same time, Newton’s physics would create the basis for the causality of separation. In his theory, every movement or change in the world is given due to forces and, without them, nothing would occur in the Universe. On his part, Darwin would say that this conjunction of external forces were indiferent or even hostile to us, which is why the struggle of man was about dominating them in order to survive. Finally, God, that before did not habited the world but it was the world, had now been relegated to a celestial site from which it interfered intermittently in human affairs through events that would defy the laws of the known, called miracles. With this, God died, a phrase by Nietzsche that would fury christians, who would not notice that they were part of the same process of scientist of desacralizing the world.

In the moment life was perceived as a struggle between a separated self looking to survive in a hostile world, it was natural that the animus for controlling everything external was created, from the body to the tropic. For this, it was necessary to generate a knowledge that would not depend on any of the untimely changes of nature, just as a technique that would let us apply information through force, resources and power. The first one would be known as science and the second one as technology.

In consequence, security became a supreme value of our Civilization. The control of nature, human or not, was inevitable, as life without Civilization was, in Hobbes’s words, “Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (pg. 52). In biology, men were “Survival machines, robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes” (Dawkins, 1993, pg. 4); in physics, we were discrete observers of an objective world; in christian theology, a soul incarcerated in the body; in economics, robots looking to maximize their own self rational interest. Everybody seemed to agree that us and the world were everything but sacred.

All in all, the myth of Separation has two slopes: the explanation of Being, and the explanation of the World. In the first one, it is said that we are separated beings and, not being in direct contact with a world in constant change, inmutable. In the second one, it is said that the human project consists in the Ascent: the creation of arts, writing, science and technology, all the tools of the mind as of the hand, with the aim of guiding human to its total separation and dominion over nature, the use of all of its secrets for its control and profit. In this project, there is the idea that evolution consists in transcending nature to, one day, arrive to a place in which there is not pain nor effort.

Nevertheless, the speech of Separation is not the only one that exists. Different cultures around the world have very distinct responses to the basic questions of self and its mission on earth. In the story of Reunion, there is nothing like an isolated being: to exist is to be related, as there are not clear frontiers with the other or nature. Also, nature is not a capricious entity with unintelligible norms but rather works under cyclical rules that keep the balance of the Universe. More so, causality has different ways than force, as being involved with the whole condition of the world, the movement of the parts influence the whole, and viceversa. Not being separated, the Pirahã, a native group in the Amazon, do not even have ways to name, count or measure things in nature, any way of making nature an ‘other’ or to abstract from reality (O´neill, 2012).

        2. Indigenous Thought

Before going into the vision Indigenous Thought has on the question of Being and the World, it is necessary to warn that Civilization has lived in a mixture of terror and curiosity for the unknown (Serje, 2005), which is why it has tried to enter into its darkness with the fire of the known, so it has many times utilized its own categories to classify other ways of knowing. This process is described by Agrawal (2002) in its critics to the databases that classify indigenous knowledge, that cannot apprehend a complex reality with other logics and presupposals.

The necessary incomprehension that follows from trying to understand the new in terms of the old, make us to reject and underestimate the different. For example, when the 2016 USA presidential candidate for the Transhumanist or Cyborgs movement, Zoltan Istvan, was asked for the reasons why we should compromise with causes like eradicating death, he responded that it was common sense (Real, 2015). Nevertheless, the unidimensional vision ignores that words like rational, intelligent or normal and historically conditioned. Having said that, Indigenous Thought will be analized with the warning that, in the words of Aguirre (2009), “we may never know what this millenary people really thought” (pg. 51).

The first difficulty when trying to understand the concept of being that exists in indigenous communities is that the anguish for defining doesn’t seems to exist, which by itself says a lot. More so, it is another way of defining, as it points to shape but not to content. This shape could be stipulated like being, in Indigenous Thought, is the union of singularity and relation. This doesn’t mean that they don’t have individuality, but that their frontiers of being are much more ample, or even inexistent. El Orden del Todo (2011) explains us this with a tissue of seven houses that go on from the individual to the relational, each one building upon the other, parting from identity at its most individual level, which is the body, to the relationship with the Milky Way where the Law of Origin resides.

Then, it is possible to see that a fundamental characteristic of being in Indigenous Thought is relation. Moreover, it is said that “The whole contains the part and the part contains the whole” (pg. 53). Thus, in contrast with the story of Separation, where being is standardized and separated, in Indigenous Thought it is unique and interrelated.

In addition, the mamos in Universo Arhuaco (1997) assert that they exist in order to look after thought on earth and show little brothers how to live according to the Law of Origin. In a similar way, in the documentary Pacífico Colombiano: Entre la vida, el desarraigo y la resistencia (2013) it is shown how communities in the Pacific, more than living on or from the jungle, life with it. Through offerings and rituals the harmony of the ecosystem is kept between opposing but complementary forces, like heat and cold, the sky and the earth or life and death (Aristizábal, 2001).

Hence, it is possible to see the way in which the story of the World differs between Separation and Reunion. The Ascent of Humanity lives in a dichotomy between the organic and the synthetic, where it wants to reemplace each time more the given with the created, like in artificial intelligence, so it can one day dominate and transcend totally the cumulus of resources called nature. On the contrary, Indigenous Thought has learnt to coexist with nature just as it lives with its own body because, basically, they are not separated.

       3. Conclusion

In conclusion, Indigenous Thought is a very strong and important Reunion actor in the discourses against Separation, specially on the question on Being and the World. Its incredible survival until today may have the end of showing us an alternative, a possibility. If one make an analysis, the separation mythology permeates all of the current institutions, from money to the family. Thus, under the bottom of this conversation about the significance of human being, the whole of Civilization’s project sways.


  • Aguirre, D. (2009). Destilación del conocimiento indígena. En: Diálogo de Saberes: plantas medicinales, salud y cosmovisiones. Giovanna Reyes (Ed.). Universidad Nacional de Colombia. Sede Amazonía.
  • Agrawal, A. (2002). El conocimiento indígena y la dimensión política de la clasificación. En: Revista Internacional de Ciencias Sociales. No. 173.
  • Aristizábal, G. (2001). Conocimiento local y diversidad étnica y cultural. UNAD. Facultad de Ciencias sociales, Humanas y Educativas. Licenciatura en Etnoeducación.
  • Dawkins, R. (1991). El gen egoísta. Salvat Editores. Barcelona
  • Eisenstein, C. (2013). The Ascent of Humanity. Evolver Editions.
  • Escobar, A. (1999). El final del salvaje. Naturaleza, cultura y política en la antropología contemporánea. CEREC-ICAN. Bogotá.
  • Organización indígena GOANAWINDA. (2011). El orden del todo. IEPRI. Universidad Nacional.
  • Serje, M. (2005). El revés de la Nación. Territorios salvajes, fronteras y tierras de nadie. Uniandes-CLSO
  • VVAA (Mamos de la Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta). (1997). Universo Arhuaco. Colección Prometeo. Serie Hip

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