In the whirlwind of technological progress, it’s easy to overlook the deeper issues plaguing our society. Despite the veneer of advancement, there is a disturbing rise in depression, anxiety, loneliness, obesity, inequality, chronic disease and other indices of poor wellbeing. Also suffering — as an extension of our societal problems — is the environment. Our current epoch has been so detrimental to the planet it has been given its own name — the “Anthropocene” — to define the hugely detrimental impact of human activities (including war weapons, mining, pollutants and modern agriculture) on the earth and its natural systems. You don’t have to be a sociologist to suspect that society has lost its way.

Yet, amid these challenges, indigenous cultures offer a beacon of hope, holding vital clues to how we can live peacefully and sustainably on the planet. Such cultures remain a vast treasure chest of knowledge and wisdom accrued over thousands of years on what matters most: relationships; caring for the natural environment; what it means to be human.

In Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World, Deakin University lecturer Tyson Yunkaporta challenges conventional notions of progress. He considers the irony of scientists searching for higher intelligence on other planets. “Beings of higher intelligence are already here. They just haven’t used their intelligence to destroy anything yet,” he writes.

Drawing from his Apalech heritage, Yunkaporta invites us to reconsider our understanding of intelligence, highlighting the wisdom embedded in the natural world, including what he calls our “non- human kin”. Our folly, he says, is holding literacy and technology up as markers of civilisation and dismissing the wisdom of the original “old people” of all nations who lived within the pattern of creation.

But accessing Aboriginal wisdom requires a major paradigm shift. “Western culture is not a culture,” he says. “It’s an economic model”. Based on growth, consumerism, individualism, self-optimisation and transactional relationships, it’s ultimately doomed. “Look at how development has ended up for your entire civilisation,” he says. “It has optimised its own capacity to scale at the expense of everything else.” He likens the western economic system to a cancer cell, growing at the expense of the rest of the body and ultimately destroyed along with it. “Everything we know in nature must strive to be its perfect self, but only to the limits of the others around it,” he says.

Restoring the web of life

Indigenous communities have long lived in harmony with the environment, serving as custodians of biodiversity for generations. This wealth of knowledge held by the “old peoples” was formally recognised by the United Nations in 2015 by the forming of the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform at the Paris Climate Change Conference.

The sustainable practices of indigenous cultures offer valuable lessons in stewardship and resilience, reminding us of our interconnectedness with the Earth. But documentaries such as Tawai: A Voice From the Forest illuminate a key limitation of indigenous voices — the ability of powerful global corporations to control and trash the planet. Producer of Tawai, Bruce Parry, documents the destruction of the natural forests of Borneo in Malaysia for “sustainable timbers” and the demise of the nomadic, hunter-gatherer tribe, the Penan, linked to the forests. We are all players in this. Parry points out that globalism allows us to purchase items irresponsibly without appreciation for the suffering and destruction they may have caused.

Moving away from the pitfalls of consumerist culture requires radically changing our mindset, Yunkaporta says. To access indigenous wisdom, he suggests studying nature’s intelligence — in weather patterns, the flow of water, ants and birds — and seeking the self within that can come into relation with the non-human entities in our world. By modelling the interdependent, connected systems we see in nature onto our economic, financial governance, human relations and other interactions and systems, we can begin to restore their health and, thereby, our own.

Health & harmony through natural systems

According to Yunkaporta, many modern afflictions, including depression, anxiety and spiritual malaise are products of an unhealthy system that separates the individual from their communities and land. This disconnect is particularly pronounced for indigenous peoples today. Yunkaporta argues that we yearn for a deeper connection with nature — to hear the birdsong and see the stars: “If your dog can’t live like a wolf, then your dog will be crazy.” The same goes for “domesticated people” he says.

He also critiques western wellness ideology, which, he says, encourages people to protect themselves from a broken outer world by closing themselves off. “You can’t be healthy in yourself until you’ve made your community, family, neighbourhood and your race healthy,” he says. “If you have an unhealthy relationship with your land and with your community, then you are unhealthy.” He advocates for a more holistic approach that respects the intricate balance of nature and acknowledges the interconnectedness of all living beings.

In Yunkaporta’s view, our wellbeing is intrinsically linked to our relationship with our environment — the land nourishes us and, in turn, we must nurture it. “The land is your body; your body is the land,” he says. “The system gives you what you need if you are moving with the flows of the land and the flows of the economy that emerges from your relationship with it.” This includes healthy food to eat, provided in the right season and in the right combinations with other seasonal ingredients so that nutrients are optimally bioavailable.

Indigenous and ancient cultures have long been repositories of medicinal plant knowledge, offering gentle and effective remedies for various ailments. Systems such as Traditional Chinese Medicine, western herbalism and Native American medicine continue to provide valuable insights into holistic healing practices that prioritise harmony with nature.

Fostering community, belonging and identity

In the post-Covid world, there is a growing recognition of the importance of building strong communities and nurturing meaningful connections. Research indicates that quality relationships are essential for our wellbeing. However, in a capitalist society, relationships are often commodified, seen as “social capital” to be leveraged for personal gain. In this profit and loss ledger of social relationships, some are poorer than others, and we’re liable to reject those that don’t serve our needs. “Each individual is fetishising their own biological and demographic profile, and this balance sheet of advantages and disadvantages adds up to how much social capital you have,” Yunkaporta says. “Each person has become a brand unto themselves.”

The concept of reciprocity is central to many indigenous cultures, where giving to others is seen as a means of elevating oneself and creating interconnected networks of support. In his book The Wayfinders, anthropologist Wade Davis explains how in indigenous Polynesian society, social capital, status and prestige were gained through helping others. Giving takes on new meaning when we view ourselves as a connected system rather than individuals.

In Tawai: A Voice From the Forest, the Penan explain that they share everything. Their egalitarianism and togetherness, as documented by Parry, has produced one of the happiest (but now sadly threatened) cultures on earth.

Embracing cultural traditions and rituals

Cultural traditions and rituals play a crucial role in fostering a sense of belonging and continuity across generations. Whether it’s the ancient practice of hunting and gathering in the forest or the centuries- old tea ceremonies of Japan, these rituals serve as anchors and preserve moral values in a rapidly changing world.

Yunkaporta encourages us to reclaim and embrace our cultural heritage, recognising the value of these traditions in maintaining social cohesion and wellbeing. Traditions, like eating a meal together at the dining table, endure because they work – whether by keeping us healthy, connected to family or something else.

You don’t have to be Aboriginal to tap into cultural traditions, Yunkaporta says. We all have our “own deep indigeneity” that we carry from our ancestors. He describes western culture as “a remarkable, startlingly diverse collection of many cultures, and many ways of being human that are just perfect.” The problem is that we’ve been removed from them, he says. He blames this on the industrial revolution and globalism, which has created mass nations of millions serving the same industrial machine. “Western culture is, I think, a terrible thing to impose on people, you know, this uniform, singular culture and race that dominates the planet, when most of the people in it do not match that.”

Despite the forces of globalisation and industrialisation, we still have residual cultural rituals we can tap into. “When you’re blowing out candles on a cake, that’s coming from a land-based, ancient cultural relation,” he says. “Embrace it. Find it.”

Spirituality and meaning

Indigenous cultures around the world have rich spiritual traditions that honour the interconnectedness of all living beings and the natural world. The indigenous Māori, for example, had their own creation stories and gods overseeing different aspects of life such as the ocean, agriculture, fertility, healing and the weather. It was believed that the natural elements and all living things held their own energy or life force connected to all other things.

While these beliefs may not always align with modern scientific understandings, they continue to provide solace and guidance to countless individuals. Spiritual beliefs and practices, according to modern happiness studies, promote our sense of meaning, belonging, purpose and resilience to the ups and downs of life. They also encourage helpful attitudes and actions such as hope, gratitude, self-worth and pro-social behaviours.

We must not over-glorify the past or be blind to harmful religious or cultural practices, but by reclaiming positive aspects of our spiritual heritage and drawing strength from the wisdom of our ancestors, we can help to heal our communities and our planet. We may be alienated from this way of living, but every one of us is descended from ancient cultures that thrived through spirituality, social and nature interdependence.

One reviewer of Tawai: A Voice From the Forest wrote: “I wasn’t expecting to come out from seeing the film with a sense of being lost … lost because of the way we are losing this world, of what we are doing to our planet, to each other.” In an age marked by environmental degradation and social upheaval, reconnecting with our spiritual roots may offer a path towards healing and reconciliation. By honouring the wisdom of indigenous cultures and embracing the values of community, reciprocity and stewardship, we can forge a more harmonious relationship with the natural world and with each other.

Article featured in WellBeing 210

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