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Regenerative Cultures – The Desire for Reconciliation, Returning Home and the Stories We Tell

Regenerative Cultures – The Desire for Reconciliation, Returning Home and the Stories We Tell

  • Suzana Cravo • Consultant & Founder of Kutsaca and the Reflorestar.org Platform

9 August was established as the International Day of Indigenous Peoples. This day was proclaimed in resolution 49/214, adopted by the UN General Assembly on 23 December 1994, and seeks to draw attention to indigenous peoples, estimated at between 370 and 500 million people worldwide (UN, August 2023).

The masterpiece that inspires this month’s article is a brilliant letter written by Bayo Akomolafe in 2016, which I think fits like a glove for this and so many other days of celebration that we institute – regularly in the Northern Hemisphere, often with good intentions, but which denounce our illusion of separation and a paradoxical look of superiority and desire for reconciliation.

First of all, let’s remember that indigenous communities are those who, even after the invasion and colonisation that has taken place on their territories, are determined to preserve, develop and pass on their identity, knowledge, heritage and territory – which are often disrespected, usurped and torn apart – to future generations.

Citing two official sources, the UN stated in August 2023 that “indigenous peoples live in all regions of the world and own, occupy or use about 22 per cent of the global land area (…), speak the majority of the world’s approximately 7,000 languages and represent 5,000 different cultures.”

On eurocid.mne.gov.pt you can read that “indigenous peoples are spread across 90 countries, making up 5 per cent of the global population and 15 per cent of the poorest, but culturally very rich. They have their own language and culture that distinguishes them from so-called ‘developed’ societies.

Environmental degradation, displacement as a result of conflicts and violence, illegal appropriation of their lands and natural disasters are all part of the reality for indigenous peoples who, on a daily basis, fight for recognition of their rights, the territories they inhabit, their resources and their unique way of life.”

We also have the valuable contribution of Tyson Yunkaporta, an Australian author and professor who is a leading name in this field and who, in co-authorship with other researchers, published the following definition in June 2020 in “Molecular Decolonisation: An Indigenous Microcosm Perspective of Planetary Health”: “Indigenous peoples are resilient peoples with deep traditional knowledge and millennia-old scientific thinking (…), they have diverse notions of resilience based on culturally distinct concepts that bridge the gap between the person, the community and the environment.”

We need to deconstruct this patronising and distorted narrative that refers to indigenous peoples as a kind of “endangered species”

However, the global discourse on climate change has identified indigenous populations as a highly vulnerable group due to the fact that they inhabit regions that are undergoing rapid change and the disproportionate burden of morbidity and mortality that this population already faces.

There is therefore an urgent need for indigenous self-determination and the formal recognition of indigenous knowledge, including molecular and microbial knowledge at the micro level, as a fundamental basis for planetary health.”

He added: “The current and emerging field of ‘planetary health’ is most often defined by the ways in which human beings impact and are affected by their environment. The notions of air and water quality, food security and increasing exposure to natural disasters and infectious diseases are seen primarily through an anthropocentric lens.”

And now we come to Bayo Akomolafe’s masterpiece: “I suspect, in fact, that this notion of indigeneity as a fixed identity, as a static state of affairs, as something to return to, is itself a product forged by white knowledge. And by this I mean that nobody knows what it means to become indigenous. Not even the ‘indigenous’.

To use language that everyone here will recognise, I’m going to call them ‘locals’. In my experience as a co-host with community leaders in the village of Mahungo, I often come across three types of public: those who want to “help the locals”, those who want to “mix with the locals” and those who are “fed up with the locals”.

There is a fourth type of public, who develop a more balanced and healthy relationship, which is usually the result of the experience and maturity of the first or second public, in which I also find myself. With those in the third case, there’s not much to do. Just pack your bags. But often they don’t even have the courage to do that, and so the bitterness and rebellion in their hearts is poison that we must protect ourselves from until we are able to develop a compassionate outlook. And it takes courage to extend this compassionate gaze to those who “exploit the locals”, who over time we realise are unfortunately infiltrated into every group.

And back to the masterpiece, because there’s more to dig into: “Let me tell you a little story that might be useful. A long time ago, some of your parents divided the world into two kingdoms – a kingdom of appearance and a kingdom of permanence. The echoes of this radical split at the heart of things still resonate today. We live in binarisms. Us versus them. Language versus reality.

Agent versus tool. Mind versus matter. Self versus environment. Free will versus determinism. Human versus non-human. Man versus woman. Public versus private. Consciousness versus the world. (…) In the context of this bifurcation, some things came to be seen as ‘originary’ or superior and others as ‘derived’ or inferior.”

“The rumours of this great split, of this radicalism out of play, infiltrated almost everything and we all became possessed by a desire for reconciliation. Of embodiment. Of returning home. We hoped that – like the saints – when we marched out, on some distant day of personal or collective rapture, we would get to know things as they really are. We would finally be in touch, and then we would be real.”

“Indigenism has the unfortunate dignity of bearing the weight of these civilisational and onto-epistemological expectations. Just like ‘nature’. Like the artists and theologians of the Enlightenment in their search for pure foundations, we have learnt to speak of ‘nature’ as if it were an uncontested place of arrival. A place devoid of conflict.

A place of psychedelic assemblages of harmonious fractals. A paradise – where you can explore a green field of trees, bend a branch backwards and somehow escape (by virtue of being in paradise) the ricochet effect and the scar on your skin. This ‘nature with a halo’, or nature as essentially ‘good’, blinds us to the many ways in which ‘nature’ deconstructs itself.” (Dear White People, Bayo Akomolafe, 2016).

I have many interesting stories about this wandering between the fascination with the indigenous and the ancestral, revived by neo-paganism and the consequences that the shock of their contrast, aka (dis)illusion, can provoke. The subject is vast, complex and profound, but I believe the essentials are already on the table for reflection.

We need to dismantle the romantic gaze that the hero-saviour of the West brings and that those in the third case (fed up with the locals) are naturally tired of, as well as deconstructing this paternalistic and distorted narrative, present even in official bodies, which refers to indigenous peoples as a kind of “endangered species”, often illustrated with bright colours on their faces and feathers on their heads, in habitats that are more natural than those in parks to which they go on paid tours.

There is also no place of original purity to return to. No place of eternal happiness. Nor any trophy that is out there, in another (person, place or thing). However, reconciliation – this deep desire to return home (or paradise) isn’t just internal either, as the Personal Development experts sell it. It happens inside and outside, simultaneously and subtly.

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It’s a collective process, systemic, interdependent and potentially intricate with daily life and place(s). But there is an invitation to acknowledge, respect and honour (acknowledge/honouring), which is crucial for reconciliation to manifest itself. Now, it is not by exploiting, repressing, denying or neglecting that I acknowledge, honour and respect. But neither is it by appropriating, consuming, extracting and collecting – knowledge, experiences, practices, rituals and traditions – that places and their communities are respected and honoured.

The sharing of knowledge, the invitations to ceremonies, rituals and others that I prefer not to name here, made by the locals, only extend to a few and, if accepted, must be honoured. They are not mere experiences to record in selfies and enrich our collected exotic portfolio. The illusion of “escaping the ricochet effect and the scar on the skin”, which Bayo illustrates so well, easily dissolves when we are confronted with the colossal and ancestral forces that our immaturity or naivety is unaware of.

Returning to the exotic vision of the indigenous man with a painted face and feathers on his head, pure and vulnerable, who needs our protection, it is also serious that we – the terminal consumers of information and “truths” that Professor Maristella Barenco describes so well in her research work – continue to have (and believe in) this distorted and obsolete view that separates us from and elevates us in relation to others (Humans, Non-Humans and More Than Humans).

Even fashionable sustainability and its sustainable development goals often position us as separate from nature and “doing right” by it, so as not to cause further damage to ecosystems, to protect it, to stop disorder and to punish those who misbehave, perpetuating an anthropocentric, arrogant and elitist paradigm.

We, the enlightened West, are thus responsible – and divinely appointed – for fighting evil, protecting the vulnerable and saving the planet. When in fact we need to reframe our outlook, our way of relating to life.

To think about and co-create, together, living systems that increase systemic vitality and contribute to the prosperity of all – humanity and living beings (on the phases between “business as usual” and regenerative cultures, we recommend Daniel Whal’s valuable contribution in “Designing Regenerative Cultures”, page 57).

Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a bit like Children’s Day, Women’s Day, Earth Day and so many others. Whilst on the one hand it’s important to remember their/our rights and the battles fought and won (increasingly in question, again), on the other, it shows us how much our good intentions are based on distorted assumptions, denouncing the lack of justice, equality and fairness that runs through us and so often perpetuating unsustainable or even degenerative ways of life.

However, the path that has been travelled should not be underestimated. There are indeed important initiatives to defend and preserve peoples’ heritage and rights. There is political and biased discourse, but there is also courage and the will to change. There are figures, reports and work to show, but there is also relevance in the emphasis given each year to specific audiences – women, young people – and to relevant themes – climate change, human, non-human and more-than-human health, migration, among others.

And, above all, there has finally been clear support in recent years from the UN for the involvement of indigenous leaders in global dialogues and decision-making, given their crucial knowledge for the preservation of cultural and biological diversity, which is “deeply rooted in sustainable development and can help solve many common challenges of our time” (António Guterres, UN Secretary-General).

But in practice, and beyond the celebrations, measures and fine speeches, the issues to reflect on are simple: “a humanity that does not recognise that the river that is in a coma is also our grandfather” (Ailton Krenak, in “Ideas to postpone the end of the world”) is alienated and forgotten.

The well-known Brazilian indigenous leader believes that indigenous resistance must come from not accepting the idea that we are all the same. And we need this strength of resistance (and wisdom) to preserve the sovereignty of life.

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