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  • People of Place, Ethics of Earth:Indigenous Nations, Interfaith Dialogue, and Environmental Sustainability*
  • Ann Marie B. Bahr (bio)

Native American thought, Native American cosmology, religion and science, Fourth World theology, Native science, animal studies, ecological ethics


The debate over the reality of global climate change is over, but the debate over how to motivate the changes in human behavior necessary to ensure environmental sustainability is just beginning. With more than four-fifths of the global population identifying as a member of a religious group,1 religions have an opportunity and an obligation to help guide the world toward sustainability. This work has already begun, with researchers working on easing (perceived or real) conflicts between science and religion, and interfaith activism on climate issues is beginning to attract attention.2

Because sustainability is a global issue, interfaith efforts seem best designed to address it. In a religiously plural world, no one religion is capable of moving public thought and action on its own, especially if religions with opposing views impede the progress. Furthermore, because the acceptance of sustainable lifestyles requires innovative measures that will work in a wide variety of social and cultural settings, the work of framing a vision of a sustainable planet and the policies for attaining it belong to those who are comfortable with religious, cultural, and ideological pluralism. Battles between religions, cultures, and ideologies impede the work that needs to be done. Nor can science alone substitute for interfaith work, because modern science is a source of objective knowledge and a seedbed of technological innovation, but it is not a source for holistic design, nor is it a source of the inspiration and ethical convictions that motivate human lifestyle decisions. Vision and motivation come not from science but from art and religion.

Religious dialogue has expanded from ecumenism (inter- and intra-Christian work) to interreligious, intercultural, and interideological forms of dialogue. However, as expansive as the terrain of dialogue has become, in its religious aspects, it has focused almost exclusively on what are called the “world religions.”3 There has been little attention paid to tribal/aboriginal/indigenous4 religions.5 However, with [End Page 66] the emergence of environmental sustainability as a problem that global citizens need to solve together (because we all share one planet with its interconnected waters, atmosphere, and food chains), it behooves us to take another look at the ecologically relevant ideas and practices of tribal cultures.

Secular activists and researchers, too, are often guilty of neglecting indigenous voices on sustainability issues. For example, a recent cultural history of what it means to live simply includes only one non-Western figure (Gandhi), and even he was Western-educated. There are no chapters on Native Americans or other indigenous groups.6

My purpose is to encourage indigenous representation in ecumenical and inter-faith dialogues that address sustainability issues. By way of introducing indigenous thought to those unfamiliar with it, I offer here a short introduction to three topics relevant to environmental sustainability: (1) The Cosmos: The indigenous view of creation challenges but also complements both modern scientific and Western religious cosmologies. (2) Native Science: In the past two decades, some Native American scholars have married a traditional understanding of the natural world with quantum physics, resulting in a relational, creative, inclusive, and ethical view of the environment. (3) Animals: Indigenous people eat meat, but they also view animals as relatives, teachers, and heroes.

Before proceeding to these topics, I will first discuss how and why indigenous peoples are unique, for it is their uniqueness that makes it difficult for them to enter into some of the common ways of framing sustainability issues. Indigenous nations differ in important ways from nation-states, and indigenous religions also differ in important ways from world religions. This needs to be understood before a mutually intelligible dialogue can proceed.

I. Why Are Indigenous Peoples “Different”?

A. Place-Bound

Every tribal religion is unique, as is every tribal culture. This uniqueness arises, in part, because of their deep connection to the physical and biological elements of their environment. Both their theoretical and their practical structures are designed to maintain a localized but concentrated web of relationships. These...