Indigenous Spirituality and Worldview as an Alternative Approach in Thinking about the COVID 19 Pandemic

Annette Kemp (VU University) & Pim Martens (Maastricht University)

In the battle against COVID-19, a neglected but extremely knowledgeable voice is that of Indigenous or indigenizing religions.  These groups have both biological and spiritual insight that could contribute to the discussion around resiliency, behaviour adaptation, and contributing environmental concerns to the COVID 19 pandemic.  This value has been proven by their participation in global groups such as the United Nations and in religious gatherings such as the Parliament of Religions.  However, mainstream sources often lack the voices of Indigenous perspectives.  Part of the problem in exclusion of these groups is general ignorance about the knowledge bank held by Indigenous and indigenizing peoples.  Another part is ideology within many sectors who wish to suppress alternative thought patterns.

To introduce readers who may belong to the first issue—lack of knowledge—we will first attempt to define who belongs to these groups and what ties the groups together.  Then we will look at the COVID 19 pandemic to consider the causes of it, and how those causes may relate to the knowledge bank that has been built by those who are locally minded.  After that we will consider Indigenous/indigenizing ethics and discuss the implications of these ethics, and how they can be applied.  The second group—those who wish to suppress Indigenous/indigenizing knowledge—will not be treated in this article.  The history and development of that problem is too long and intricate to be addressed here.  For the reader who wishes to learn about that history, we recommend that they delve into research surrounding colonialism and the market system.

To begin, Indigenous people are the easiest to define and probably the most recognizable for most readers.  These are the first peoples of a place before imperial colonization occurred.  They are known as Native Americans in the United States, First Nations in Canada, Sami in Scandinavia, Maori in New Zealand, and Aboriginals in Australia—to name a few.  Each group and individual tribe have their own beliefs and rituals even within each general grouping, but there is at least one interconnecting feature of these people, and that is their understanding of and living with nature.  This important aspect will contribute later in our discussion, and we will return to it.

The second group is those who could be defined as indigenizing.  Unlike Indigenous people they are often not the first peoples of the lands they inhabit. Although, within the British Isles and Europe they may also be the biological descendants of First Peoples. However, many are descendants of colonizers or immigrants to lands inhabited by First Peoples.  These groups have found themselves disillusioned by universal systems or metaphysical religions and have instead turned to a spirituality that is Earth focused and locally based.  Similar to Indigenous people, their beliefs and rituals are individual and differs according to how they experience the tangible world around them. Within Western terminology their beliefs would be similar to the pantheism of Einstein or Spinoza, with the exception—for the most part—that these groups desire to practice spiritual rituals. 

As those wishing for an Earth based spirituality, indigenizing groups quickly encountered problems with this desire when they realized that the original local spirituality had also been colonized and largely destroyed. Some of the original ideas can be found in folklore, but this is not expressly stated and needs to be interpreted for the underlying spiritual message that had been hidden from the colonizing forces. Differing fields—such as archaeology, anthropology, and history—have helped to recover some information, but it has been a long and arduous process, and not always certain. Many practitioners distrust the interpretations since they too have been interpreted within a colonized structure.  Since most Indigenous religion is orally based, a text is not available to compare religious history with their findings.  The one exception may be the Brehon Laws from the Irish which gives a picture of medieval ethics in the Celtic world. Similarly, the dating of these records means that they too may have been influenced by the Christianity that arrived in the 5th century.

As a solution for this problem and in their desire to relearn the spirituality of place, many indigenizing groups naturally turned to Indigenous—and Hindu—spirituality for direction.  Indigenous people were chosen for their local knowledge, and Hinduism because of its ancient knowledge.  However, problems quickly arose.  Hinduism became a problem because the spirituality was not only not practiced locally or from their region, but had elements of hierarchy that clashed with the history of egalitarianism that existed in many historical accounts of their locality.  Even so, practitioners have kept much of what they learned from the framework and philosophy of Hinduism, such as the one and the many and understandings of the Goddess.

The relationship with Indigenous people is much more problematic.  While Indigenous groups understood better than anyone else how to live with and interpret local habitats, many indigenizing groups were careless in taking over Indigenous rituals and spirituality as their own. Rather than interpreting what they learned from Indigenous peoples into their own local religions and rituals, they simply pretended to be Indigenous.  This callous appropriation opened wounds left by colonization when outsiders took resources, culture, and knowledge from Indigenous people while leaving them voiceless, impoverished, and violated.

 A new movement within indigenizing groups is the practice of learning from their own land and understanding the spirituality that arises from this knowledge—therefore the term, indigenizing.[1]  Learning from and with non-human nature is not only a reality, but a spiritual act for these groups. It is a growing field and practiced by many people who would define themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” It is also often paired with organized religion within those who wish for more non-human nature based thought in organized religion.  Most in this area still honor, respect, and learn from Indigenous groups, but are, hopefully, more aware of cultural appropriation and are careful to learn but not to steal.

 We write this history in order to define the parameters of the use and understanding of the knowledge of these groups.  Not as a new system to lay over our current system without thought or to steal their ideas without learning our own path.  Rather as a knowledge system that is fully developed and largely ignored.  Now that we have the boundaries laid around what group of individuals we will be discussing,  we will move on to the current COVID 19 pandemic and consider how it has occurred and what Indigenous/indigenizing knowledge could mean in its eradication.

COVID 19

The current crisis of COVID 19 can be considered from various aspects such as resilience, economic, political, or ecological justice.  Each of these areas have been sorely challenged by the implications of the pandemic, and each are important in their own right.  However, we will consider it from a causal perspective since this is the perspective best addressed from an Indigenous worldview and is the aspect most important to those who hold Indigenous values.  Additionally, there are warnings that this virus is not an unique situation, and if we do not address the root causes then we will be facing other pandemics in the future.  Therefore, considering and addressing the causes of COVID 19 contributes to the discussion in the other areas that we listed. 

 COVID-19 was not unpredictable.  It is the third outbreak of coronavirus in 20 years. Worldwide more and more animals are kept closely together in unsanitary or overly hygienic (antibiotics, etc.) conditions to satisfy the rising demand for animal protein from densely populated megacities. The need for space and raw materials perpetuates the encroachment on animal habitats such as rain forests, which, in turn, brings more humans in contact with more exotic animal species. Add to that frequent international travel – both human and animal –  which enables the conditions for zoonosis.

Within Western European zoonotic disease is also not unthinkable. The Netherlands, for example, is a densely populated country with a great deal of intensively farmed livestock: more than a 1.5 million animals are slaughtered per day, after having spent their lives at very close quarters. The population is very mobile within the country, and Schiphol is one of the busiest airports in Europe with visitors from nearly all countries in the world.

Scientists tell us that COVID 19 originated in wet markets in China.  This has been determined by tracking the viral path and its mutations.  This fact has been contested by those involved with the wet markets, but this seems to be political in rhetoric rather than evidence based research. On the one hand, China is a huge and very diverse country, so it is difficult to generalise about the whole country. On the other, they eat a much bigger variety of animals than Europeans do—although one could also say it is surprising how few varieties of animals Western Europeans eat. In any case, consensus still is that wet markets, on which many different species of animal are kept in close proximity, is where COVID-19 has originated. In wet markets, live animals are caged next to butchered animals.  Wildlife that has not been traditionally added into the human diet is sold for consumption.  Wild animals are also caged and held within the same area as live domesticated animals.  Additionally, bats house within the buildings where the wet markets are held and roam free.  Raw meat is not constantly refrigerated, and humans walk along all this.

 It is understood that this close situation led to the virus “jumping” from the animal species over to the human species and resulting in the virus crisis.  There has been theories that the bats  living in the wet market buildings have played a part as carriers since they have a higher metabolism and allow the virus to develop within the bat species without it killing the bats first.[2]  While the virus did not jump directly from bats to humans, it is considered that it jumped to the animals caged within the wet markets who then transmitted the virus to a human host.

The global impact of this initial transmission has been devastating to the human population.  History will record the human deaths and resulting worldwide economic impact of the virus as it moved to Europe and then the North American continent.  Countries have had various success in containing the virus, but at the time of this article, almost every country and continent in the world has been impacted by the virus.  Following closely on the heels of the “great recession,” COVID’s full economic impact as a result of countries “locking down” is not yet known at the time of this article.

However, it is the word “human” that is important in our comparison of Indigenous knowledge and COVID 19.  Before the virus impacted humans, most of the world had not heard of wet markets.  The circumstances that brought on the crisis were not new. Wildlife had long been caged in wet markets. The rise of COVID 19 was not a result of a change in new animal sales or how animals were treated.  The conditions of the wet markets were known by those in the global health industry and among a few others—certainly among tourists to China—but they only became a problem once the human species became infected.  Then the ethical issues around wet markets began to be questioned.  However, these questions moved quickly to human concerns and animal treatment was a secondary consideration, important only because it made a difference to human health.  The initial discussion around COVID 19 briefly skimmed over the causes and rapidly began to address human ethical questions such as the morality of self isolation, mask wearing, and visitation to lonely individuals such as the elderly.  These situations are often named as the most important reasons that the wet markets have now received serious criticism.  Ethical considerations such as treatment of animals or food choices have not really received a widespread hearing.

 For those aware of Indigenous/indigenizing ethics, this fact highlights the difference Indigenous knowledge brings to the table.  If Indigenous knowledge was a common discussion partner within our ethical thought, wet markets would not be an accepted practice, regardless of whether humans became infected by COVID 19.  This difference highlights how difference of perspective plays an important role in ethical formation.  In the next section we will consider this different perspective, and what ethics that are held by Indigenous/indigenizing groups speaks to the COVID 19 situation. However, it is important not to only argue over whether one ethic is better than another ( a Western approach), but the pragmatic results of held ethics  (an Indigenous/ indigenizing approach) is also an important consideration.  Therefore, we will not do an in depth comparison of Western ethics vs. Indigenous/indigenizing ethics; but rather, will highlight what Indigenous/indigenizing ethics can bring to the solution of the pandemic.

Values

As we begin, we think it is important to address an issue which those who value the inclusion of Indigenous knowledge are often confronted.  Proponents of a homogeneous ethical culture often charge Indigenous religions with romanticism or the wish to return to ancient times.  This belies the ignorance of the person leveling this accusation because Indigenous and indigenizing worldviews have not remained static since the 1700s—just as Western culture has not remained static.  They too develop as knowledge is gained or contested.  However, this occurs within their framework of knowledge just as it does in the Western framework.

Granted, Indigenous knowledge is ancient.  However, this does not mean static nor should being ancient preclude its value to knowledge acquisition.  Universities teach Roman and Greek philosophy which is also ancient, but is usually not condemned as romantic.  This obvious discrepancy in our acceptable ideas should help us to become aware of the biases that we may still carry from the colonial era which no longer serve us in our current environment.  Further, an awareness of our biases will hopefully remove—or at least make us aware of—those barriers we may unconsciously have erected as we look further at Indigenous ethics.

 For those aware of Indigenous values the most obvious ethic that is apparent in considering the COVID 19 virus is that of kinship.  Kinship is not only an Indigenous term since most cultures have an idea of kinship.  In English we have the phrase “kith and kin” to explain the extended familial relationships.  In other cultures kinship may embrace the idea of ancestors and those who have gone before.  Anthropology connects it with social connections and functioning within familial relationships.

 Within Indigenous knowledge kinship is deeper than just human interactions though.  Indigenous knowledge does not have such a definitive border between human and non-human nature as Western thought, and therefore kinship embraces non-human beings as kin as well.[3]  There is a strong understanding that animals are relatives, and some branches of Indigenous knowledge include flora as kin.  Terms such as “brother,” “cousin,” “grandmother,” or “sister” are often used with the most familiar being “Mother” Nature.  While that term has been used in cute ways for advertising and description in non-Indigenous cultures, it is a serious term for Indigenous knowledge.  The Earth is seriously considered to be our mother.  John Mohawk explains, “The Mother Earth is a spirit.  She is an energy force that shows itself to us in matter, and we call this matter Earth.”[4]

This seriousness brings along with it serious consideration and treatment.  The mindset of kinship enables humans to enlarge their ethical thinking to treat non-humans with the same ethics that they treat humans.  Therefore, respect and care for Mother Earth is not a side thought or pragmatic consideration only considered as a tool for human flourishing; but rather, an extension of what it means to be a good and moral person.  A moral person practices Earth care in the same manner as moral Western humans practice care for their human mother.  In fact, within some Indigenous thought processes one cannot be moral unless they have good morals when it comes to treatment of the non-human world.

Within Indigenous thought the idea of caging wildlife in the wet markets would be unacceptable.  Not only for those who are caging the animals, but also for the consumers who are buying the product.  Additionally, caging live animals in small cages next to their natural enemies would be a violation of natural law.  Even caging domesticated animals in such a small space would be rejected because this behaviour does not show respect or kindness towards one’s kin.  Leaving animals in a space to watch other animals to be butchered is a cruel tactic that would also be considered immoral.  Just as we would not do that to our children, we should not do that to other kin.  Considering animals as interactive, intelligent, and family automatically raises barriers of treatment and moral consideration.  Indigenous thought naturally prohibits the treatment that animals receive in wet markets, and this has the pragmatic result of also protecting humans from viral diseases.

At this point discussion can become ridiculous and far fetched.  Many then proclaim that if all life is kin then human life can no longer continue because we would not be able to eat or use products.  This catastrophic thinking may be a tactic to win an argument, but it has no basis in Indigenous thought.  Most Indigenous people are not vegetarians, although some are.  One can imagine that if both flora and fauna are considered sacred, it is not a degree of morality to be a vegetarian.  Taking either a plant or animal life is equally serious.  However, there is an understanding within Indigenous/indigenizing thought that dictates and determines the ethics of food choices whether they are animal or vegetable.  There is a serious and somber understanding that life is a circle, and that there is a natural order to life.  It is understood that within this circle of life, each being has a part to play and flora and fauna play a part in providing for human life to continue.  Just as decay of wild animal bodies—or even human bodies—plays a part in fertilizing soil that then provides plants as food for other wild animals.

Indigenous thought understands the circle of life probably better than any other form of thought due to their constant observation of the natural world.  It is this knowledge that leads to a second ethic. That ethic is to take only what is needed and to use all that is taken.  From ancient time until now, all parts of what is taken was saved if its use was not immediate.  When subsistence hunting was the source of food products, little to nothing was thrown away.  Besides providing meat, the skin was used for clothing.  Sinew was used for sewing.  Bone was used for cooking or storage.  They knew what taking an animal life entails since they hunted and butchered the animal themselves, or they gathered fruits and vegetables directly from the plant.  This intimate knowledge and work made the event unique and led to understanding of the gifts as sacred.  It is this sacredness that brought the understanding that nothing should be discarded.  Even today in Eskimo cultures in Alaska the oil from seal hunting is used both as a food item and as a source for lighting.  If this seems strange to Western cultures, it may be useful to think of what we do with that which is sacred such as any wine or wafer left over from a Catholic Mass, or even our own historical artifacts.  The only difference is that Indigenous knowledge has an immediate knowledge of  the sacredness of gift giving.

Today, food items can often be obtained without hunting for many Indigenous/indigenizing.  Still, the same ethic applies.  Not too much and nothing wasted.  This means that the idea of a plateful of steak would be an immoral choice.  No human needs a plate of steak—regardless of how many steak restaurants would convince us otherwise.  Food is also thought of as medicine in Indigenous thought and so an overwhelming choice of one food item over another would not be a moral choice.  A variety of food that builds the body and spirit would be the choice, and for this reason much thought is given to local food items and horticulture.  This consideration in relation to the wet markets, or even our own European and North American livestock living conditions, pragmatically means that there would be a reduction in the purchase of meat as well as a demand for respectful conditions for any meat production.  When the production of meat becomes a sacred event rather than only a commercial enterprise, carefulness and reverence would be a natural outcome.

 This idea of food as medicine paired with the understanding that all life is put on Earth to support life is included in many Indigenous festivals and rituals.  The animal who gives it’s life to the people to fed and clothe them is honoured. Thanksgiving is given to the animal who gives to the people.  This mindset of gratitude builds respect and provides a barrier to overconsumption or carelessness. Not to ensure that there is more for humans later—a pragmatic result—but because of a spirit of humility and thankfulness for the gifts of Mother Earth and the beings on Earth.[5]

This mindset of gratitude and caution in taking provides a spiritual aspect to the Indigenous approach to the world that differs from simple sustainability. Sustainability understands the world as ready to be used and conservation is necessary to be available to humans.  For most sustainability is not a spiritual value, although for those who have an Earth based spirituality it is often a practice within their spirituality. Indigenous worldview says that the world is sacred and must be approached as that which is holy simply for its sake and not for the sake of humans.  The pragmatic result is the same—sustainability occurs, but has a more intrinsic motivation than sustainability for future human use.

 The thought of future use is not missing in Indigenous thought, however.  A third ethic that we will address is the idea of seventh generation thinking. [6] For those who have a hard time wrapping their minds around kinship, seventh generation thinking is a good starting point.  Simply stated the ethic of the seventh generation means that one must think about the impact that their actions have on their sixth great grandchild.  If the impact is good, then the action is good.  If the impact is wrong, then the action is wrong.

To be honest, this is a difficult ethic since it is not always easy to consider what our impact will be in seven generations.  It is similar to the Western utilitarian ethic which considers the greatest good for the greatest amount of people.  Trying to decide this is always a long shot and carries many exceptions and influences that may not be foreseen.  Additionally, when we consider the technological jumps that have been made within the last seven generations, one may scratch their head as they try to consider what may lie in our grandchildren’s futures. 

However, the theory of the seventh generation is not as convoluted as utilitarianism can become.  The teaching is meant to teach people to think of the long term rather than short term thinking and to think about what they would want for their own family rather than becoming unattached from their actions due to their own mortality.  It may be impossible to know what the future will hold, but we can consider if we want to drive or ride our bicycle when we think about our grandchildren’s’ future and climate change.  Likewise, knowing that wet markets may create a virus that challenges our grandchild’s very existence makes us aware of today’s food purchases.  Purchasing compassionately raised meat—and limiting ourselves in how much we purchase—or paying for biodiverse products becomes less of an economic burden and more of a loving gesture for our offspring.  In this model sustainability is not about a cold market calculation of long term supply and use—which does nothing to motivate an individual’s ethical behaviour—but rather, becomes a question of love for our kin and a support of life nourishing behaviors.  John Mohawk explains this ethic as a spiritual directive in addition to an internalized love for our offspring, however.  He writes that “It is the Creator’s way that all are taught to direct their energies toward the well-being of the unborn generations.”[7]

Future Considerations

We are left with the question, then, of whether Western culture can hear and work with Indigenous thought structures.  If we believe the scientists of our universities, our patterns of thought and behaviour has brought us into grave danger.  The question should not be whether we can do it, but rather can we risk not learning from Indigenous/indigenizing knowledge?

There are countries that are attempting to merge the two thought cultures.  Ecuador was the first country to write the rights of Nature into its constitution—largely due to the work of her Indigenous communities.  Now that law recognizes nature as a rights holder, Western thought is required to work with Indigenous thought to pave a way towards the future.  According to Hugo Echeverria, an environmental attorney, this means Ecuador is paving the way to build constitutional law that incorporates all rights holders and will impact how society develops in this area.[8]

Even though Christopher Stone, also an attorney, called for rights for nature in his 1972 article entitled “Should Trees Have Standing,” it has taken years for this to be incorporated into a legal system.  Its passage is due to the work and advocacy of the Indigenous communities in Ecuador that is based on their spiritual, rather than instrumental, approach to all of life. 

Other communities and countries are following in that many are beginning to hear and understand what their Indigenous communities are arguing.  Canada is another country that has recently begun to incorporate Indigenous thought into their policy making, although they are not yet as progressive as Ecuador by writing it into their constitution.[9]  Moreover, the battle on fossil fuel extraction is an ongoing sore spot between Indigenous communities and the Canadian government.  Still the recognition of another form of knowledge creation is encouraging.

Conclusion

In this article we have attempted to introduce Indigenous/indigenizing spirituality and worldview as an alternative approach to thinking about the COVID 19 pandemic.  Rather than addressing the resulting symptoms of dis-ease to the virus, we have argued that a different approach to the causes is necessary.  Since the system of ethics in Western thought is largely anthropocentric and therefore not as useful in addressing biological situations,  we introduced three Indigenous ethics that address the known causes of COVID 19.

Combatting the idea that Indigenous/indigenizing worldview is too romantic for a post-modern world, we introduced two nations whose policies are currently incorporating Indigenous thought.  One has included rights of nature—a result of held kinship ethics and morality—into their legal constitution.  This indicates that Indigenous thought is a valid system for our contemporary problems and lived experiences.

As a final note, it is important that we dialogue with Indigenous people to learn how their knowledge can help us in the current COVID 19 pandemic, but more so, that we learn so we can strategically recognize those practices that endanger life and, in doing so, prevent further pandemics such as COVID 19. From the above argumentation it could be assumed that a beginning point is greater respect for nature which would include moving away from industrial livestock farming, deforestation, wet markets, etc. While not covered in this article, these actions would also help address climate change,  which has and will bring its own detrimental impact on living beings, including humans.


[1] To better understand Native teachings on indigenizing, see:  John Mohawk, Thinking in Indian: A John Mohawk Reader, Jose Barreiro, ed. (Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 2010).  Here Barreiro records Mohawk’s argumentation as, “The culture of Native nations was built around the knowledge of how to survive in an environment,” xv.  A discussion within Western culture can be found in: Graham Harvey, Indigenizing Movements in Europe,  (Sheffield, Equinox, 2020).

[2] A source for further reading can be found at https://www.bats.org.uk/about-bats/bats-and-disease/COVID-19-and-bats, obtained 08/07/2020.

[3] A quick description can be viewed at: Native American Prophecy, youtube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-XagZt80bTs, beginning point 4.27, obtained 09/07/2020.

[4] Mohawk, Thinking in Indian, 7.

[5] A good and interpreted example of this is the Thanksgiving Address that is read at Haudenosaunee gatherings before proceeding with meetings.  This is not a prayer, but an actual address to the recognized kin and shows both how Haudenosaunee view each being and their gratitude for it.  https://americanindian.si.edu/environment/pdf/01_02_Thanksgiving_Address.pdf, obtained 09/07/2020.

[6] Great Peacemaker, Gayanashagowa (Great Law of Peace), Gerald Murphy and Jon Roland, eds. March 25, 2013, Kindle file.  For an example of current practice, See:  http://7genfoundation.org/7th-generation/, obtained 09/07/2020.

[7] Mohawk, Thinking in Indian, 3.

[8] Hugo Echeverria, Ecuador:  Recent Developments on the Rights of Nature, Eventbrite Zoom Conference, June 11, 2020.

[9] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-canada-politics-climatechange-idUSKBN20O2EZy, obtained 27 July, 2020.

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