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Old becomes new: Traditional knowledge shapes sustainability thinking

A desert canyon with green shrubs under a bright, cloudy sky
July 19, 2013

Simon Ortiz stood in the soft light of the museum library and began speaking in his native Keres language. 

Srah-dzeh-nee maah meh gah-dzee’putee, eh maah meh khaimah-tse skuh-waa-tsee’puuh. Our language is very necessary and essential, and very truly we need it. 

Keres is the indigenous language of the Acoma and six other Pueblo communities in New Mexico. It is a cultural tradition that bonds these seven Pueblos to their place, to their land. 

Dai-sthee-stuutah-ah. Dai-stuh stuudeh-muuh. Dzah dzee-guwaah-eeskah-steeyuukai-eetyah. From here, we are. From here, we emerge. We do not have any other way of belief.  

For Pueblo peoples and other indigenous cultures, life emerges from the land. Western culture might interpret this symbolically – Mother Earth provides. But Ortiz makes the point, amidst a roomful of scholars and practitioners, that his people regard this belief as literal. Land – earth – is the material origin of people and all forms of life. 

Tsaiyah weh-meh uuyuugai’yee dzah. This is the first knowledge or understanding to have. 

Ortiz, a Regents' Professor in the Department of English, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, is an indigenous poet and writer of Acoma Pueblo heritage. 

He was one of a dozen experts gathered at the Amerind Museum in Dragoon, Ariz. for a New Directions in Sustainability and Society seminar. The event was one of a series of related events focused on how knowledge can lead to understanding and action; each seminar will result in a book, featuring contributions from the invited speakers.
Traditional ecological knowledge

The April event focused on Traditional Ecological Knowledge. What can indigenous cultures teach us that adds to our body of sustainability knowledge, and how can we appropriately translate that knowledge to action?

For Ortiz, the answer lies with the generations upon generations of indigenous peoples whose first understanding is of land as the originator of life. 

Indigenous people, he says, have grown to understand that they can only live beneficially if they interact closely and intimately – collaboratively – with the land. There must be reciprocity. Humans must give, not just take. 

But the conversation did not end there. Seminar participants discussed indigenous knowledge of nation-building, of consensus-building, and of how traditional knowledge can help negotiate relations with a dominant culture that often does not intrinsically value nature and the interconnectedness of ecological systems. 

The participants also discussed food as a metaphor for many sustainability problems. They circled around ideas of food sovereignty, food security, food diversity, globalization and international trade agreements.

Conversations also touched on ecology and humans’ place in the ecosystem, from ecological changes, to controlled burns, wildfires, animals, biomimicry, preservation of water, pesticides, land grabbing, slavery, eco-feminism, ethics and extinct tribes.

Ethics of relating to the world

Ultimately, the seminar focused on finding a new way of relating to the world using old ways of thinking and knowing. It was an inspiring gathering, and each participant contributed a unique and valuable perspective to the conversation. 

The seminar, with contributions from the experts who participated in the event, will be part of a book series, to be published by Cambridge University Press. The series’ editors include Norman Yoffee of the Amerind Museum and Chris Boone, interim dean of ASU’s School of Sustainability

“We really want this book to set the tone for the rest of the series,” says Boone. “For this seminar, we invited scholars and practitioners from the U.S. and Canada, with a focus on solutions, and the resulting dialogue was inspiring. The goal of this book – of the entire series – is translating knowledge to sustainability action.” 

“It was an amazing conversation, with wonderful contributions,” says Dan Shilling, former executive director of the Arizona Humanities Council and co-director of the traditional knowledge seminar, along with American Indian Studies professor Melissa Nelson of San Francisco State University.

“One thing that was common to all the participants,” Nelson says, “was an understanding that sustainability is closely related to people’s relationship to the land. At root, it is a moral issue. This will be the path forward.”

Ehmee tse haatse nee-yah heh-yah stuh-deh-eh. Because of land, it is possible to live.