Changing Planet

Indigenous Cultures Team Up to Apply Ancient Wisdom to Today’s World

The vast wilderness in the photo above may seem to evoke some ancient time before man’s incursion into nature. But these open lands and deep ravines of the Firth River watershed in far northwestern Canada have been known and inhabited by people for thousands of years. And there are still small villages there today. The “ancient world” isn’t gone. It’s a vital part of our world today.

The Past Isn’t Just Prologue

Much of what we think of as the “modern world” isn’t necessarily “what’s happening now”, but what among the things that are happening are thought of as recent improvements over older ways of doing things, as though the “modern world” has replaced the “ancient world” and is the only way things are being done today.

The problem with that picture is that plenty of the ancient world still exists, and is still used by people to work productively and live satisfying and meaningful lives.

While many urbanized cultures turn almost exclusively to the modern world for direction and inspiration, and feel that the future will bring new answers to our existing problems, indigenous cultures especially in more natural surroundings are increasingly pulling from both the modern and the ancient worlds, seeing the “ancient world” not as something to move away from, but as something that continues to offer perennially useful examples, guidance, and solutions to problems.

One place this is particularly the case is also in northwestern Canada, where the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council is combining ancient values and beliefs about humanity’s relationship with nature, with scientific techniques for the surveillance and analysis of the health of the area’s waterways.

Bringing Everyone Together

This week, National Geographic Explorer Jon Waterhouse is up in Mayo, Canada, helping the YRITWC to lead a conference of indigenous leaders from across North America, Peru, New Zealand, and elsewhere, gathering to “make important decisions about watershed protection” and water rights in Canada and the U.S., and to form a worldwide “Network of Indigenous Knowledge.”

The idea is that these traditional cultures have much to contribute to each other and the wider world concerning conservation, social issues, and more, but that their voices individually are often drowned out. Teaming up, they hope to become a greater part of international dialogue and culture.

As Jon wrote in a post earlier this year, “This network will ultimately combine the collection of modern scientific environmental data with Indigenous knowledge from Indigenous societies around the globe, creating an accurate, informative and colorful picture of the condition of our planet.”

Follow Along

Throughout and following the summit, watch for posts from Jon and other participants to learn more about the ways indigenous cultures of today are continuing to pull inspiration and guidance from ancient values and traditions, and apply them to help address the most pressing issues affecting people and cultures today.

NEXT: More From Jon Waterhouse


Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. He is currently beginning a new role as communications director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history.
  • Martin Edwin Andersen

    As one of his last acts in office my boss, in 1992 Senate Majority Whip Alan Cranston (D-California), asked that the Congressional Research Service do an extensive study of the value of traditional remedies and Native peoples’ rights to a just compensation for their tribal knowledge. Their report was truly foundational in the fight for recognizing the intellectual property rights of indigenous communities around the world.

  • Gene Warneke

    Recent evidence from various sites throughout the Americas demonstrates that Native American cultures modified their landscapes in large-scale and mostly sustainable ways. The arrival of European-Asian diseases wiped out these peoples to such extent that when Europeans reached interior continental regions many years later their modified landscapes had already begun wholesale re-modifications.

    Yosemite Valley is one small example. Its Native American managed meadows have mostly disappeared due to the encroachment of trees. The Amazon is another example. Native cultures there planted fruit-bearing trees throughout vast tracts of forest to ensure they would have year-round food supplies for their large cities- large cities only recently being discovered.

    Unfortunately, too much of their landscape management wisdom has been forever lost. Anthropologists are hard at work attempting to re-discover and understand how Native Americans cultures practiced sustainable land management.

  • Carina ward

    Hi was very interested with genetic sampling, I myself have a very varied bloodline and I can’t wait to get back my DNA profile. My question is, is that why isn’t the indigenous people of Australia mentioned as they are the oldest known culture in the world? And do you have many Aboriginal Australians do the project?
    I am of Aboriginal descent myself along with other cultures.

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