Theorizing Modernities article

Enacting Indigenous Ontologies

“Never Forget” by Nicholas Galanin. North of the Palm Springs Visitors Center at Tramway Road, 2901 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs. Photo Credit: Flickr User Ted Drake. CC BY-ND 2.0.

If the academy is concerned about not only protecting and maintaining Indigenous intelligence, but revitalizing it on Indigenous terms as a form of restitution for its historic and contemporary role as a colonizing force (of which I see no evidence), then the academy must make a conscious decision to become a decolonizing force in the intellectual lives of Indigenous peoples by joining us in dismantling settler colonialism and actively protecting the source of our knowledge—Indigenous land.

–Leanne Simpson, “Land as Pedagogy


The “ontological turn,” despite pretensions to having radically transformed religious and social thought, is actually quite conservative when evaluated from the standpoint of affecting human-land relations. Scholars who study Indigenous lifeways and Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) would better serve the concepts and values they promote if they spent less time doing conceptual analysis and more time working in partnership with Indigenous groups.

Like many non-Native scholars in the Environmental Humanities, I came to Indigenous studies via environmental thought. Indigenous philosophies appealed to my taste for high theory, while providing a distinct set of resources for overcoming the nature-culture divide. Unlike object-oriented ontology, new materialism, and other post-humanist discourses, Indigenous ontologies do not bill themselves as “new.” Indigenous ways of being and relating to the land descend from time-tested practices that have sustained people on the land for countless generations. These modes of relation are the sine qua non of tenable human-land interaction.

Several years and one hundred billion metric tons of carbon dioxide later, I still believe that human life on earth critically depends on transforming human-land relations from one of domination to one of care and respect. But I no longer think it is sufficient to read (or write) ontologies (the study of natural existence and relationality). The problem needs to be reframed. The problem is not to which ontology—this or that one—we philosophers, religionists, and earth-bound scholars give our intellectual assent. The problem is how to enact the ontologies we espouse.

Environmental humanists tend to think of climate change primarily as an epistemological failure. Whether Lynn White views climate change as a worldview failure, or Rob Nixon views it as a failure of imagination, or Dale Jamieson calls it a failure of our moral concepts, environmental humanists have often imagined that environmental problems must be remediated by addressing epistemic limitations. This way of framing the problem gives license to scholars to keep doing what they do best: thinking, reading, writing, and expending carbon-intensive resources to puzzle through the failures of Eurocentric thought and the possible advantages of other spiritual and philosophical traditions.

The problem is not to which ontology—this or that one—we philosophers, religionists, and earth-bound scholars give our intellectual assent. The problem is how to enact the ontologies we espouse.

The notion I would like to advance for your consideration is that the world is not going to think its way out of this predicament. To be sure, some thinking is certainly in order, but my view is that careful thinking about how to enact Indigenous ontologies will lead to less high theory and more political and economic action. The “ontological turn” that some in the environmental humanities demand can only be accomplished through the rematriation of Indigenous ancestral homelands. In short, environmental scholars do not enact Indigenous ontologies by studying them or teaching them to others, but by leveraging institutional resources to return the land to its aboriginal inhabitants.

Appropriations of Indigenous Knowledge

One place to begin is to consider what Indigenous ontologies are for. An inability to answer this question ebbs dangerously close to the old anthropological ways of approaching a community to observe its ways, write about it, and disseminate findings to non-Native learned societies. The literature on Indigenous ontologies tends to make value claims about how this knowledge is useful for grappling with the environmental challenges faced by settler cultures. For example, in Mapping Abundance for a Planetary Future (2021), Candace Fujikane frames her study of Kānaka Maoli land and water protectors as responding to the need for a “profound epistemological shift” toward Indigenous ways of knowing that attribute to lands “an ontology—a life, a will, a desire, and an agency—of their own” that can “help us grow a decolonial love for lands, seas, and skies…” (3–4). By way of personal example, Fujikane demonstrates how studying Indigenous ontologies can induct settlers into an alternative way of relating to the land. Fujikane calls this ontological hybrid “settler aloha ‘āina.

One worry I have about Fujikane’s method of cultivating spiritual relations with the land through the study and practice of Indigenous ontologies is a moral question about how these projects are accountable to Indigenous peoples. A striking feature of this literature, as Paul Nadasday points out with reference to TEK, is that it is mostly written by and for non-Native scholars. Since Fikret Berkes popularized TEK in his 1999 publication Sacred Ecology, now in its fourth edition, the literature on Indigenous lifeways, cosmopolitics, and land-based spiritualities has grown in volume and sophistication. But with rare exception—Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass and Jessica Hernandez’s Fresh Banana Leaves come to mind—Native and Indigenous scholars are not rushing to disseminate their cultural knowledge to non-Natives. The absence of Indigenous scholars writing Indigenous ontologies or TEK may seem surprising at first, especially when we consider the demand among non-Natives for this knowledge. But as Métis anthropologist Zoe Todd demonstrates, this literature has rarely been accountable to Indigenous peoples. The more we examine who writes the literature and toward what end, the more the lack of Indigenous authorial presence in this literature looks like a refusal rather than (just) a shortage of Indigenous scholars in the academy.

Enacting Indigenous Epistemologies

Another concern is understanding how exactly cultivating Indigenous knowledge transforms land relations. For starters, it is unclear whether Indigenous ontologies, rooted as they are in specific land relations, have the desired effect when generalized beyond their context. Since this literature comes from places all over the world, why would readers expect to arrive at understandings relevant to them? As Deborah McGregor (Anishinaabe) observes about the literature on TEK: “The process [of research] requires the knowledge to be ‘decontextualized,’ meaning that the approach and methods are geared to extracting knowledge from the holder and the holder’s context, and applying it elsewhere” (104). To use myself as an example, what good does learning about Kānaka Maoli (Indigenous Hawaiian) land relations do for me in xučyun (Berkeley, California)?

Language that travels easily from one context to the next is a language without land; it does not rely on specific land relations to survive.

Relatedly, how does reading about Indigenous ontologies or TEK help to bodily enact it? McGregor notes further that TEK “must be lived. It cannot be passed on through simple studying or memorizing facts as per the Western scientific system” (104). Textual civilizations, like the one from which the environmental humanities emerged, tend to believe that behaviors stem from worldviews, which stem from beliefs. Only following these assumptions does it make sense to pursue an epistemic shift by studying Indigenous ontologies. This theory of change predicates the new epistemic order on knowledge of the land, but this kind of knowledge is principally derived not by living on the land but by learning about living on the land.

Language that travels easily from one context to the next is a language without land; it does not rely on specific land relations to survive. Indigenous languages are not like this. As Graton Rancheria Chair Greg Sarris reminds us, Indigenous sacred text is the landscape itself. The knowledge that comes from it cannot be easily transferred from one context to another as western scientific knowledge is.[1] This knowledge does not originate in books, and it is doubtful that settlers can reproduce it in this way.

Beyond Epistemology

This leads me to one final question about how individual practices of study and self-cultivation could add up to the “profound epistemological shift” that political society requires, for it is a rarefied group of readers who are interested in Indigenous ontologies and who express this interest by reading books. But maybe: if enough professors in enough schools impress this work on their students, it would expose enough people to enough Indigenous ontologies to start an epistemic shift. There are many things that could be said about this theory of change. Suffice it to say that Indigenous scholars have written beautifully about how this kind of top-down, state-run education system continues to disenfranchise Indigenous Knowledge and actively prevents practices that treat the land as pedagogy.[2] Perhaps our epistemic failures are the result of our very practices of knowledge acquisition and transmission.

Prescribed burn by firefighters in Gran Canyon National park, May 2019. Via Wikimedia Commons.

But surely, one might rejoin, writing and reading about Indigenous ontologies is a step in the right direction. Calling attention to Indigenous land relations can still help to raise awareness and valorize those practices. The issue with this literature and its gradualist theory of change is not that Indigenous ontologies are finally being noticed by non-Native readers. The main issue is what the literature does discursively, politically, vis-à-vis those readers. I have pointed out reasons to doubt whether reading, writing, and thinking about Indigenous ontologies leads to the practical effects settler cultures desire. This is what the literature doesn’t do. However, what it does is to misdirect would-be allies, while reinforcing the status quo. As “settler aloha ‘āina” demonstrates, studying Indigenous ontologies allows settlers to believe they are living toward alternative land relations epistemically without transforming those relations politically and materially. Settlers who merely study Indigenous ontologies, using Max Liboiron’s definition of settler colonialism, continue to “assume access to the land” (5). As Elisha Chi argues in her contribution to this series, masking land relations is a primary strategy by which settler institutions sustain their legitimacy.

In “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor,” Eve Tuck (Unangax̂) and K. Wayne Yang call out the way “decolonization” has become an “empty signifier” for any liberatory struggle and almost any strategy seeking justice. This metaphorical conflation of experiences of oppression not only erodes what makes Indigenous struggles distinct, but participates in settler moves to innocence, which “attempt to reconcile settler guilt and complicity, and rescue settler futurity” (3). Settler moves to innocence (such as “settler nativism,” which is the settler practice of locating an ancestral bloodline that “proves” aboriginal relations to the land) exonerate settler cultures from responsibility without having to forfeit privilege and power.

The literature on Indigenous ontologies seems to fit the description of a settler move to innocence. This literature calls settlers to enact an epistemic shift by reading about Indigenous lifeways. Settlers thereby include themselves in the “decolonization movement” without any material sacrifice or any analysis of their material relations with the land. Change is cognitive, not structural. Indigenous ontologies can be read about and embraced without any redistribution of power and resources.

Settler moves to innocence exonerate settler cultures from responsibility without having to forfeit privilege and power.

To be sure, new concepts are intended to lead the reader to new perspectives, and from there to new worldviews, behaviors, and political commitments. Finally, the new ontology, now firmly established in the reader, is supposed to lead to structural change. In practice, however, the “shift” probably ends the moment the reader puts their book down. Perhaps some concepts have a certain staying power, but soon, no doubt, the insistent nag of carbon-intensive daily life encroaches on consciousness again.

Tuck and Yang state unequivocally what decolonization means when we get down to it: the rematriation of Native lands. My own train of thought leads to the same conclusion. Restoring Native practices on the land without untangling the knot of settler colonialism and state is not possible. These structural features of the world will continue to shape both settler and Indigenous futures, leading to the same patterns of political violence and environmental despoliation. Of course, it is tempting to want to solve planetary problems through mere intellectual assent. It just isn’t realistic. There is, however, one way to enact Indigenous ontologies, and that is to give the land back.

Landback should not be contingent on Indigenous groups stewarding the land according to their traditions. But there is a large-scale cultural revitalization underway that is bringing land-tending practices out into the open (for example, good fire and other Indigenous-led restoration). Land can be returned with provisions for its cultural use, rejuvenation, and protection. As major landholders and custodians of massive wealth, universities can be leaders in rising to the call for #Landback. And non-Native scholars who champion Indigenous ways of relating to the land can finally hold their institutions accountable to Indigenous peoples by creating scholarships for Indigenous students, hiring Indigenous faculty, and lobbying for land trusts and other forms of moral, cultural, and economic restitution.

Cured of TEK and environmental high theory, I now ask Native groups what knowledge I can co-produce with them. I am never asked to study their practices and knowledge systems. This knowledge belongs exclusively to them. Instead, I am usually asked to investigate specific problems and opportunities to help them build capacity and achieve short-term political ends. In this small way, I am learning to advance Indigenous ways of being and relating to the land.

[1] On this point, see Keith H. Bassi, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache; Vine Deloria, Jr., God is Red: A Native View of Religion.

[2] Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples; Leanne Beasamosake Simpson, “Land as Pedagogy: Mishnaabeg Intelligence and Rebellious Transformation”; Shawn Wilson, Research is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods.

Jeremy Sorgen
Jeremy Sorgen (Ph.D. University of Virginia) is a scholar of religion, ethics, and the environmental humanities and postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at UC Berkeley. He uses community-based research to build capacity at the local level and inform environmental policy and decision making. In collaboration with California Native American Tribes, his current project examines Tribal Cultural Resource protection and intergovernmental consultation under the California Environmental Quality Act. With funding from the Social Science Research Council and the Henry Luce Foundation, he is leading a conversation series and special issue project on “engaged scholarship” in the environmental humanities.

Dr. Sorgen’s publications appear in the Journal of Environmental Ethics, the Journal of Religious Ethics, and the American Journal for Theology and Philosophy and his scholarship has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the German Academic Exchange Service, and the Andrew Mellon Foundation. His book project, at the intersection of environmental ethics and environmental justice, is called Field Ethics: Collaborative Problem-Solving and Environmental Action.

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