“Whenever we think of indigenous people and landscape, we either invoke Rousseau and the old canard of the "noble savage,” which is an idea racist in its simplicity, or alternatively, we invoke Thoreau and say these people are closer to the Earth than we are. Well, indigenous people are neither sentimental nor weakened by nostalgia.
There’s not a lot of room for either in the malarial swamps of the Asmat or in the chilling winds of Tibet, but they have, nevertheless, through time and ritual, forged a traditional mystique of the Earth that is based not on the idea of being self-consciously close to it, but on a far subtler intuition: the idea that the Earth itself can only exist because it is breathed into being by human consciousness.
Now, what does that mean? It means that a young kid from the Andes who’s raised to believe that that mountain is an Apu spirit that will direct his or her destiny will be a profoundly different human being and have a different relationship to that resource or that place than a young kid from Montana raised to believe that a mountain is a pile of rock ready to be mined. Whether it’s the abode of a spirit or a pile of ore is irrelevant.
What’s interesting is the metaphor that defines the relationship between the individual and the natural world. I was raised in the forests of British Columbia to believe those forests existed to be cut. That made me a different human being than my friends amongst the Kwagiulth who believe that those forests were the abode of Huxwhukw and the Crooked Beak of Heaven and the cannibal spirits that dwelled at the north end of the world, spirits they would have to engage during their Hamatsa initiation…
…Now the problem is that even those of us sympathetic with the plight of indigenous people view them as quaint and colorful but somehow reduced to the margins of history as the real world, meaning our world, moves on.
Well, the truth is the 20th century, 300 years from now, is not going to be remembered for its wars or its technological innovations, but rather as the era in which we stood by and either actively endorsed or passively accepted the massive destruction of both biological and cultural diversity on the planet. Now, the problem isn’t change. All cultures through all time have constantly been engaged in a dance with new possibilities of life.
And the problem is not technology itself. The Sioux Indians did not stop being Sioux when they gave up the bow and arrow any more than an American stopped being an American when he gave up the horse and buggy. It’s not change or technology that threatens the integrity of the ethnosphere. It is power, the crude face of domination. Wherever you look around the world, you discover that these are not cultures destined to fade away; these are dynamic living peoples being driven out of existence by identifiable forces that are beyond their capacity to adapt to…
…And in the end, then, it really comes down to a choice: do we want to live in a monochromatic world of monotony or do we want to embrace a polychromatic world of diversity?
Mrgaret Mead, the great anthropologist, said, before she died, that her greatest fear was that as we drifted towards this blandly amorphous generic world view not only would we see the entire range of the human imagination reduced to a more narrow modality of thought, but that we would wake from a dream one day having forgotten there were even other possibilities.“
– Wade Davis