One major difference between Western and Indigenous cultural traditions is that Western social attitudes confine ethics and moral responsibility only to interactions among human beings, whereas Indigenous traditions assumed that ethics emerged from a reciprocal relationship between humans and various component of the natural world. This meant that the human ethical community incorporated all species and natural features of the land. This is essentially the same concept has emerged from the science of ecology, even though because ecology is part of the Western philosophical tradition, it struggles with considering humans as part of ecological communities, and places much less emphasis on reciprocity.

Recommended reading:

  • Chapter 2 in Indigenous Knowledge, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, by Dr. Raymond Pierotti (2010)
Presentation prepared by: Dr. Raymond Pierotti

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Discussion Questions:

What does the term "community" mean to you? 

In what realms do you think that ethics and politics should operate? Can you imagine ethics that include the responsibilities that involve nonhumans or even geographical features, such as hills or rivers?

What does it mean to see or consider something as "Other"? Is it possible to consider nonhumans as being more closely related to you than unfamiliar humans? How would this affect your view of nature?

What does it mean to be an immigrant?  If a culture has arisen in association with a place, is it possible to consider members of that culture to be immigrants?

What does the phrase "All Things are Connected" mean to you? How does this link to your concept of ethics and your understanding of the term "Other"?

What does the term "wilderness" mean?  Is it appropriate to consider wilderness areas only as places where no human live? What issues arise when "conservationists" want indigenous peoples removed from an environment or ecosystem so that it can be "protected" or "conserved"? Is this a 21st century version of colonialism. Click here to look at our material on Conservation Refugees

Do you think that all human cultures have an impact on their environment? Are these impacts always negative or can they be positive?  Discuss the traditional use of fire by Indigenous people as a way of shaping an environment or ecosystem?

How do epidemic diseases impact human societies? Why does it seem that plagues or epidemics often destroy cultural traditions?

How does having domesticated animals change the way people look at the world? Is it possible to treat some species as "chattel" while still retaining respect for nonhuman species that are not under human control?  How might the introduction of horses to Native American cultures have changed their attitudes towards nonhumans in general?

Calvin Martin has suggested that the introduction of epidemic diseases by European colonizers may have had such devastating impacts on Indigenous cultures that they felt that their relationship with the natural world and their nonhuman relatives were irrevocably changed. Do you think that such impacts can have altered Indigenous attitudes to such a degree that Indigenous people rejected some of their spiritual traditions and became destructive towards nature?