Read an Excerpt
The New Imperial Order
Indigenous Responses to Globalization
By Makere Stewart-Harawira
Zed Books Ltd Huia PublishersCopyright © 2005 Makere Stewart-Harawira
All rights reserved.
Of Order and Being
Towards an Indigenous Global Ontology
This chapter presents the central theme of this book. It provides the foundation for my claim that despite having been devalued, marginalized, disenfranchised and frequently submerged throughout the history of Western imperialism, traditional indigenous knowledge forms have a profound contribution to make towards an alternative ontology for a just global order.
The search for meaning, for the essence of 'man' and 'being', has occupied humankind possibly since the beginning of thought itself. In the disorder and uncertainty of the contemporary moment, the need for meaning is more potent than ever as identities, structures and subjectivities get reordered in the flux of rapid integration, disintegration and reintegration. As Touraine eloquently depicts this condition in his Critique of Modernity, modernity's separation of Reason and Spirit has in large measure given birth to 'the crisis of the new millennium'.
Responses to this crisis include the reconfiguration of civil society-state relationships. Another significant response has been the enormous rise of anti-systemic movements seeking the overthrow of current paradigms of power and global capitalism; Stavenhagen asserts that this development 'signifies another level, another reality, that of "ontological becoming", in the problematic of multilateralism and world order'. We are indeed in a moment of 'transformational timespace'. In Wallerstein's terms, we are required to engage in an exercise of 'utopistics', of deciding on the basis of 'substantive rationality' our overall goals for the future and the best means of getting there.
Ontology and Being
Robert Cox's response to the crisis of this time has been to call for what he terms 'a new ontology of social and political existence'. 'Ontology', Cox states, 'lies at the beginning of any enquiry.' The ontology Cox refers to here consists of the presuppositions that people make in thinking about, for instance, the entities and interrelationships that make up the system broadly referred to as world order. According to Cox, 'the ontologies people work with derive from their historical experience and in turn become embedded in the world they construct'. Historical experiences, however, are understood subjectively. Their interpretation is contingent upon the world view, the values (moral, spiritual and otherwise), the sets of ideas and notions of being and existence held by the subject, and it is in this philosophical sense that the notion of ontology is most contested.
In poststructuralist discourses in particular, 'ontology' is often seen to imply the notion of a 'fixed essence', a concept most notably disputed in contemporary philosophy by thinkers such as Sartre, who argues that the only reality by which man can be conceived as existing lies in 'how he acts and what he does', and Foucault, whose suspicion of ontologies as representing essentialist notions of universal truths lead him to declare that, rather than looking for universal truths, we should be looking instead at the functioning of power within Western society. In contrast, Heidegger argues that questions of being have ontological priority, yet these questions, he points out, have today been rendered empty and meaningless. Here Heidegger refers to his argument that the Western philosophical tradition has forgotten to interrogate adequately its own taken-for-granted meaning of being. Similarly, I suggest that in bringing us to acknowledgement of the plurality of histories and of the self, contemporary poststructuralist and deconstructivist discourses — in successfully dismantling modernism's 'grand theories' and the divide between 'self and 'other' — have deconstructed notions of truth and the meaning of existence to the degree that there has ceased to be any fundamental notion of the meaning of being.
Recent years have seen an increasing acknowledgement of the potential contributions to new ways of coexistence inherent in other civilizational modes. Similarly, the search for new ontologies may be seen as the motivation behind the revived interest in ancient Greek thought and in the hermeneutic interrogation of ancient meanings and world views as a response to the multilevel crisis of the contemporary world society. To date, however, outside of indigenous scholarship itself, within academic circles little serious attention has been paid to examining the possibilities inherent in indigenous ontologies. It is precisely this possibility that I hope to demonstrate. Thus in this chapter I seek to identify certain fundamental principles of the nature of being that are common to most indigenous ontologies and cosmologies, and to postulate these as a response to calls for a new ontology of social and political existence.
Here the ancient symbol of the double spiral provides the central metaphor or motif for my thesis and, indeed, for the nature of being. Within some Maori tribal traditions, the double spiral is known as takarangi, literally meaning chaos, and represents the concepts of preexistence and potentiality, concepts that are central to Maori cosmological understandings. In this sense, then, the symbol of the double spiral points to an ontological form and structure for world order that indicates solutions, I suggest, to the current disorder: a new/old way of thought and action embedded in the participatory forms of creation and existence of indigenous ecological humanisms. The symbolism inherent in the various representations of the spiral sits at the centre of Maori epistemologies and ontologies. The interrelationships of past, present and future, of time and space, of spirit and matter that are integral to Maori cosmologies and ontologies are profoundly represented within the symbol of the double spiral form. In Maori art forms such as carving, the placement of the double spiral pattern within meeting houses or on canoes signifies specific meanings all of which speak in various ways to the principle of being and existence within the different domains of being. In some forms, the spiral symbol represents the energy of pre-creation, of Te Kore, the potential of being. In other forms the spiral symbolizes coming into beingness, a progression from potential being, Te Po, towards actual existence, Te Ao Marama. In its representation as the seed-stuff of the universe from which existence comes into being, the three-dimensional double spiral also represents the relationships between the world of pre-creation, the world of pre-existence, and the world of existence. It is in its encapsulation of these meanings that the double spiral form provides a framework as well as a metaphor for this book.
In the necessarily brief discussion of indigenous, Maori and Waitaha ontologies that follows I have adopted the concept of ontology described by James Marshall as 'a branch of metaphysics which is concerned with a theory of what exists, or as a structure of reality, or as a categorical schema'. Pointing to Quine's argument that there is no such thing as non-relative fact concerning the ontology of a theory but that all ontology of any theory or theorists is relative, Marshall argues that 'different systems of ontology then propose different systems of being, or a range of objects which must exist if a theory is true'. There are certain broadly shared and fundamental beliefs about the meaning of meaning and the nature of interrelationships that are central to notions of indigeneity. While I acknowledge the essentialist nature of this endeavour, it can nonetheless be argued that these broad groupings of beliefs and values comprise what might be called an indigenous ontology of being. In privileging Waitaha cosmologies and ontologies, I acknowledge two points of critical importance. The first is that in universalizing certain aspects of indigenous belief systems, I recognize that ontologies are relative and that the particularities and historicality of indigenous peoples and nations, as with those of individual Maori sub-tribes, give rise to unique characteristics and differences, some of which are identifiable within variations in stories of origin, in interpretation, and in kawa or protocols. The second point connects to the fact that, with respect to indigenous cosmologies, the bulk of my personal learning and experience has occurred within the extended family structure of Waitaha and that the knowledge systems thus acquired have made an inestimable contribution in shaping my conceptualizations of the crisis of globalization.
The Nature of Knowledge
'Traditional knowledge', Dearborn River Metis scholar Carl Urion writes, 'is living knowledge.' By this he means that rather than being limited to a 'codified canon', traditional or indigenous knowledge is an expression of life itself, of how to live, and of the connection between all living things. Knowledge is regarded as having come from the Creator; hence knowledge is also understood as sacred. Urion describes indigenous knowledge as having four components: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. For many indigenous authors, one of the signifiers that differentiate indigenous and Western forms of knowledge is the holistic nature of indigenous knowledge. Cree educationalist Franke Wilmer comments on the profoundly different understandings of the nature and uses of knowledge in Western and indigenous world views. In indigenous ontologies, knowledge is both accumulated and applied in ways that involve the 'inner technologies' of heightened consciousness as well as technologies of biodiversity and ecosystem management. Seen as the highest attainment of human beings, the acquisition of these 'inner technologies' involving consciousness of both the inner and outer realities of existence has been intrinsic to indigenous peoples' existence and to their storehouse of knowledge. Cree scholar Willie Ermine refers to traditional Aboriginal peoples' insight into the presence of an immanence 'that gives meaning to existence and forms the starting point for Aboriginal epistemology', an insight derived from their exploration of the 'universe of being within each person'.
A number of authors critique the conceptualization of indigenous knowledge and Western forms of knowledge as being diametrically opposed to one another. Thierry Verhelst refers to indigenous cultures as containing the seeds for the birthing of potential alternative societies to 'the standardized and devitalized model that has spread over the world'. He cites the terms used by Indian philosopher Pannikar in his distinction between non-Western peoples and the 'European spirit' as 'anthropocentric' and 'cosmocentric'. For Verhelst, the appropriateness of these terms stems from the linear nature of post-Enlightenment Western conceptualizations of the universe as opposed to cyclic conceptions, the perception of humanity in a position of dominance, and 'the priority accorded to doing and having as opposed to a sense of being'.
Lakota scholar Vine Deloria Jnr provides a useful and important commentary on indigenous scientific knowledge and methodologies. Deloria identifies indigenous conceptions of knowledge as intrinsically connected to the lives and experiences of human beings, individuals and communities. He points out that whereas Western scientific knowledge draws conclusions by excluding some forms of data and including others, within traditional and indigenous systems of knowledge, all data and all experience are relevant to all things. In the Sioux traditions, for instance, the universe was a moral universe in which all knowledge and experience was drawn together in order to establish the 'proper moral and ethical road' or direction for human beings. Knowledge did not just exist in abstract form but was drawn from every gamut of individual and collective human experience. No experience, no piece of data was excluded or seen as invalid. All human experiences and all forms of knowledge contributed to the overall understandings and interpretations. The important task was to find the proper pattern of interpretation. Similarly, Maori knowledge is temporally and spatially located within a particular cosmological paradigm of existence and pre-existence through which the social fabric of Maori societies was continuously remade and regulated. Integral to this concept is the emanation of an accumulated body of knowledge that incorporates the historical experiences of Maori people and their interactions with each other and the world.
Western perceptions frequently interpret indigenous peoples' lack of mechanical methods for controlling nature as well as their information-gathering methodologies as evidence of the 'prescientific', precausal nature of indigenous knowledge systems, and an inability to conceptualize in an objective symbolic manner. Yet, as Deloria points out, traditional indigenous knowledge systems involve both highly abstract symbolic thought and measurable and observable data collecting. Indigenous scientific knowledge includes minutely detailed knowledge of the natural world and a comprehensive understanding of the smallest phases of change that occur in the natural world, as demonstrated in the extremely specific inscription of names by characteristics or phases of growth. Arihia Smith's work in exploring the diverse inscriptive traditional Maori names for insects and spiders, their place in Maori mythology and use in classroom texts is one of many examples. In her work, He Ingoa Ngarara, Smith identifies the way in which names are inscribed according to the activities or the characteristics of the creatures. For example, the caterpillar that merely eats its way around the edges of a leaf is known as awhato kai paenga, in contrast to the all-devouring caterpillar, which is known as awhato ngongenga roa. Similar examples abound in all indigenous vocabularies. This view of knowledge can be compared with Western scientific paradigms of knowledge that include and validate certain kinds of data and experiences and exclude others.
The Nature of Existence
A central principle of indigenous peoples' relational ontologies and cosmologies is the inseparable nature of the relationship between the world of matter and the world of spirit. In this view, the laws that govern the universe and determine and maintain the constitutive elements of material existence are fundamentally spiritual in nature. In Maori traditions, these worlds are woven together by Te Aho Tapu, 'the sacred thread', a concept that expresses the sacredness of all existence. Where the meaning of existence and the relationship between being and action are contested within existentialist and postmodern philosophical frameworks, Maori understandings recognize creation as a process of continuous action or coming into being, the impetus for which emanates from Kore, or Te Korekore, the world of potential being. In this process of coming into being, particular forms of sound and thought play an essential role. For Maori, as well as being a vehicle for the expression of human thought and language, sound has deep metaphysical and creative connotations that go beyond its use as the practical instrument of ordinary communication. The cadences of ancient songs, of ritual calls, of sacred chants, through which the world is sung into existence, the flesh is sung onto the bones, and the relationships are sung which bind all together within the cosmos, express what Knudtson and Suzuki refer to as bringing 'a measure of harmony to the Cosmos' and breathing 'life into the network of subtle interconnections between human beings and the entire natural world'.
The interactive nature of the relationship between the spiritual and physical worlds is articulated through indigenous narratives that are frequently interpreted by the Western world as myth. Discussing the medicine stories of tribal people in North America, Native American author Paula Gunn Allen refers to interchanges with supernaturals as 'the bedrock of native spirituality', affirming that while frequently called myths and conceived of as 'primitive spiritual stories that articulate psychological realities', these accounts detail actual exchanges and interchanges between humans and the supernaturals that occupy the same environment. Allen argues that while these accounts do 'inform consciousness' and 'connect with deep levels of being', their significance and their ability to inform and connect in these ways stems from the fact that they are real accounts rather than explanations of psychological states. As such, these oral narratives — like the rituals through which these relationships between the corporeal and spiritual are expressed, and which play a critical role in meditating the multiple states of existence — form part of what Allen refers to as a 'great body of articulated experiential knowledge' that underpins indigenous cosmological and ontological knowledge.
Excerpted from The New Imperial Order by Makere Stewart-Harawira. Copyright © 2005 Makere Stewart-Harawira. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd Huia Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.