This year’s International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, 9 August, looks at how the use of Indigenous communities’ knowledge about the environment can help confront global crises – most urgently, COVID-19.
But it’s not just facts and figures that Indigenous peoples can teach. Their stories, values and traditions go far beyond, exploring the depths of what it means to be a human within the natural world and the power that awaits when we’re in alignment with the rest of the planet, with other people and ourselves. Here are five books that can start to guide along this path.
The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World
Penned by an anthropologist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, The Wayfinders takes readers to Indigenous groups around the world and specific wisdom-holders therein, from a Nepalese Buddhist emerging from 45 years of solitude to voodoo-practicing Haitian communities to the Amazonian Anaconda peoples, who sit in longhouses for five consecutive days in ritual to reach different spiritual realms. Adventuring to the world’s remotest regions to learn the truths of the most storied Indigenous groups, The Wayfinders seeks to show that their legendary practices aren’t just sensational – they have survived for reasons that could help advance present-day society as well.
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge, and the teachings of plants
Robin Wall Kimmerer
Written from the foundational belief that plants and animals are powerful teachers, Braiding Sweetgrass looks at slices of nature through a masterfully beautiful double-lens of the scientific and the sacred. Kimmerer, a botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, explains the biology and ecological value as well as the moral and spiritual learnings that can come from some of our most favored species, from strawberries and salamanders to the book’s namesake Hierochloe odorata, which means “the sacred, fragrant holy-grass.” Through this, Kimmerer gives guidance on how to enter a more reciprocal relationship with nature, and how this can bring more gratitude, self-realization and times of beauty into our lives.
Leslie Marmon Silko
First published in 1977 by renowned publishing house Penguin, Ceremony is an established classic, regarded as one of the most powerful pieces not only of Native American literature but of American literature as a whole. The work of fiction centers around a half-Pueblo, half-white man named Tayo and his return home to a Laguna Peublo reservation after being a Japanese prisoner during World War II – a painful journey that leads him back into the ancient stories and beliefs of his people to find refuge, understanding and healing from despair. Silko, who was one of the first recipients of the MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 1981, helped usher in a wave of Native American literary art with this work, and in reading its mythological and spiritual dreamscapes that are as profound now as they were some 40 years ago, it’s clear why this book remains an essential read.
It’s the rare book that changes public discourse in such a way that if you don’t read it, you’re left behind. In Australia, Pascoe’s 2014 piece of non-fiction, Dark Emu, was one. Through immersing himself in the diaries, notes and records of explorers during their ventures into Aboriginal lands and cultures, Pascoe rewrote the history of Australian landscapes and how they were originally managed and domesticated, dispelling the notion of Aboriginal peoples being hunter-gatherers as a convenient myth. While the much-awarded book has served as a bible of sorts for young farmers and scientists looking for new ways to restore Australia’s degraded landscapes, it’s more than just a resource for practical information; it also contains the fundamental values underpinning Indigenous land management, weaving in teachings on what it means to live in harmony with the land, water and sky.
The Whale Rider
In a time when gender and racial equity is at the forefront of public discourse, this international best-seller from 1987 is particularly poignant. Telling the story of a young Maori girl of New Zealand’s Whangara tribe struggling to prove herself in the eyes of her great-grandfather, an aging chief lacking a male heir, Ihimaera’s emotional work of fiction is, at its core, about the development of inner strength through spiritual alignment with nature and understanding of one’s ancestral past. Accessible to readers of all ages, and having since been made into an award-winning feature film, The Whale Rider has succeeded in turning an ancient Maori legend and Indigenous wisdom into a page-turner as addictive as anything on an airport bookstore’s first table – a pinnacle, deeply resonating gem in the story category of triumph against all odds.