Human Journey

Listening to Our Ancestors: Biocultural Diversity through the Indigenous Lens

Text by Jon Waterhouse | Photos by Mary Marshall
National Geographic Explorers
Traditional community on the Giraffe River (Bahr-el-Zaraf) in South Sudan, 2011
This article first appeared in Langscape Magazine 6:2, Winter 2017, available from the magazine’s website The article can also be read on Langscape Magazine’s Medium site. Langscape Magazine is a Terralingua publication. 

We are now living in the digital era, when practically every component of our lives appears to be moving at an ever-increasing, unstoppable pace. In many instances it is clear that we humans are not capable of keeping up with the technology we are creating, even as access to information and knowledge is more abundant and easier than ever. So, as we barrel ahead with our hair on fire, I’m compelled to stop and ask: What are we sacrificing while focused so intensely on propelling ourselves further into the future?

When we stop to assess the current human condition, as well as the state of this planet we call home, isn’t it obvious that our eagerness to arrive at tomorrow is costing us much of what has sustained us and made us who we are today?

Sure, looking around the globe we can see the innumerable benefits of technological advancements. But when we stop to assess the current human condition, as well as the state of this planet we call home, isn’t it obvious that our eagerness to arrive at tomorrow is costing us much of what has sustained us and made us who we are today?

All over the world, cultures are mingling like never before, and countless opportunities to gain knowledge and wisdom from people different from us are presented with regularity and ease. Yet, as the world’s population increases, biocultural diversity is significantly threatened and has demonstrably declined. Instead of embracing the many benefits that this first-hand exposure to other ways of life presents, we are insisting that all citizens adopt a uniform existence and eliminate the traits and characteristics that set us apart.

Traditional Kwakwaka’wakw carving from Alert Bay, British Columbia. 2014

Personally, I believe this fact might appall our ancestors. Thinking of my own grandfather and his love for worldly knowledge (as evidenced by his vast collection of National Geographic and World Book Encyclopedia), I truly believe he would be thrilled to cross paths in his local grocery store or favorite diner with folks from various Asian, Russian, Latin American, or African cultures. And he certainly would not insist that they give up their traditions, assimilate, and live in the same manner as our family.

Yet, well-meaning but misguided representatives from Eurocentric groups and organizations are descending on Indigenous communities from Greenland to Australia and all points in between to offer “help.” They are bringing the concepts of Western education and opportunity to light for these people, whom they view as in need of “domestication.” But why? These Indigenous cultures have not only survived in their place for millennia — they have thrived. Sure, the arrival of development activities in their regions and onto their lands has taken a toll, as many corporate practices pollute, drive the extinction of species, and more. The problem of corporate infiltration in their regions or globally, however, will certainly not be mitigated by efforts that result in alienating people from their own places and ways of life.

Most devastatingly, and paramount to this discussion, we cannot overlook the hard fact that, over the last 500 years, we have witnessed imperialistic domination of non-Eurocentric human societies, which on the best of days demands cultural assimilation and on the worst complete subjugation or total annihilation. Again, examples abound: the U.S. Federal Indian Policies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; the ruthless rule of the Belgians in the Congo (1908–1960); the Rubber Baron Era in South America (1879–1912); the extermination of the Marsh Arabs in Southern Iraq by Saddam Hussein in 1991 — you name it.

Memorials to Haida Ancestors at SG̱ang Gwaay on Gwaii Haanas, Haida Gwaii, British Columbia. 2016

Even today, the list of human domination and atrocities against other humans goes on and on. Take the high-profile case of the 2016 occurrences at Standing Rock Indian Reservation, spanning across the border of North Dakota and South Dakota in the USA. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, joined by thousands of protesters, stood against the rerouting of the Dakota Access Pipeline away from the predominantly white community of Bismarck, North Dakota, and through their tribal reservation lands and main water source. The Indigenous people using peaceful protests and civil disobedience were pitted against a fully militarized state and federal force that was supplemented by private security contractors. The contrast in each side’s approach was stark: thousands of people protesting peacefully versus hundreds of heavily armed police reinforced by military armored vehicles, water cannons deployed in freezing temperatures, and attack dogs. The draconian response by the authorities against Native Americans protecting their homelands and future is a dark repeat of earlier wrongs and shows that we are still not willing to learn the lessons of the past.

Indigenous cultures have not only survived in their place for millennia — they have thrived.

Some of our lack of understanding and confusion about biocultural diversity finds its roots in the long-standing dismissal of Indigenous people as “primitive,” “savage,” and/or “unintelligent.” We must find it within ourselves to move past cultural bias to embrace their knowledge — knowledge that should not be viewed as in conflict with contemporary science, but rather as complementary to it. This ancient wisdom and perspective can offer guidance for the modern world to understand and accept the many benefits of biocultural diversity, propelling us to a level far beyond where we are today.

Traditional ways still followed today: an Evenk reindeer herder in Kostetem, Sakha Republic, Russian Federation. 2008

As an Indigenous person who has spent decades working with various small populations and cultures across the globe, I’d like to share a bit about Native American knowledge and wisdom specifically — and possibly surprise you with a few tidbits that you may not have known.

For instance, did you know that science and technology are nothing new to Indigenous Peoples? We have been practicing science and its applications to technology since time immemorial. The same can be said of the Indigenous approach to conservation and sustainability. Indigenous (or Native) cultures have always grasped the importance of understanding and nurturing every component of what sustains them, so to that end they have operated as scientists and conservationists by default. Whether in regard to developing the most effective methods for growing food, making tools, catching fish or game, building homes or canoes, or even managing the land, the concept of “research and development” has been an integral part of being Indigenous, simply out of necessity to survive. What we as contemporary society often tend to forget is that much of our modern technology originated within Indigenous cultures from all over this planet.

Many historical achievements of First Peoples around the globe have literally carried us to this very moment in time. Just to give you an idea, here are but a few of the items we use regularly that were conceived, created, or first discovered and harnessed by Indigenous cultures within Native America specifically: almanacs, aspirin, anesthetics, bullet-proof vests, calendars, canals, canoes, chaps (leather leggings), chewing gum. Oh. And chocolate. As you can see, I’ve shared only a few of the items from the very top of the alphabetical list.

A Sakha shaman at the “Flowers on the Tundra” celebration in Yakutsk, Sakha Republic, Russian Federation. 2016

So I often wonder: While we marvel at the great monuments of the past and at the complex design and execution required to create them, how can so many of us completely disregard the Indigenous science that brought them forth? We are awed by the pyramids of Giza and Teotihuacan, the temples of Petra and Machu Picchu, and countless others. The ancient fish ponds found in Hawai’i are impressive. Yet we ask: How could an ancient, primitive, non-European people have possibly been sophisticated or intelligent enough to accomplish these technological “miracles”? A few of us would rather give credit for these feats of technological superiority to alien beings or divine intervention.

Why is it so difficult to accept the ingenuity of ancient Indigenous cultures? Mayan astronomy, Polynesian wayfaring, Inca stone-shaping, and other examples of ancient Indigenous technology continue to baffle scholars and scientists. Yet, if we can marvel at these grand structures and skills of the past, developed by humankind through the ages, then why would we today ignore and reject the Indigenous knowledge, science, and understanding that gave rise to them and that has existed since time immemorial? Especially since this vast knowledge predates “modern science” by thousands of years and has passed countless tests of time.

Communicating with youth using their favorite medium: Instagram. Yakutsk, Sakha Republic, Russian Federation. 2016

Take the case of the concept of caring for future generations, a principle so important to Native Americans as a guide for the success of a society that it was codified in the Iroquois Great Law of Peace. In turn, as the U.S. Senate acknowledged in a 1987 resolution (U.S. S. Con. Res. 76, 2 Dec. 1987), that document served as a model for the U.S. Constitution. Unfortunately, no acknowledgement of the principle of responsibility to future generations was included.

The First Salmon Ceremony of the Pacific Northwest, which was witnessed and documented by Lewis and Clark in 1806, is the ultimate representation of conservation practices. It offered a clear picture of ideal sustainability efforts practiced within a community. Farther afield, the Olonkho epic tale has been instilling cultural methods, beliefs, and philosophies among Siberia’s Yakut people for centuries. Less well known but no less important is the 500-page Traditional Medicine Encyclopedia created by the Matsés people of the Amazon to record their ancestral medicinal knowledge. The Matsés created this document in their language and will not translate it, in an effort to protect its content from exploitation.

Evenk Elder Evdokia shares a moment with Jon in Zhigansk, Sakha Republic, Russian Federation. 2015

In each of these examples, like so many others, the message is designed to enlighten and inspire thinking beyond oneself. These invaluable accounts of human existence and survival illuminate one’s place in nature and within the diverse condition of the planet — a condition that, as humans, it is our obligation to preserve.

A vast library of untapped knowledge regarding our planetary system exists. It has been passed down through generations of Indigenous Peoples via oral traditions and ceremony, containing life lessons applicable and perfectly suited to our current state. In this regard, Indigenous knowledge and its applications to the preservation of biodiversity and biocultural diversity are essential. But again, if we ignore these facts rather than embrace them, we will enter a bleak future that will surely bear witness to an unspeakable loss of diversity of cultures, species, and knowledge systems.

This is a call to action. I ask that we all relax our current way of thinking and open our minds to the world of Indigenous knowledge. I can promise you that no harm will come from this effort, and the future will look much brighter when viewed through an open mind and heart.


National Geographic Explorer Jon Waterhouse is an environmental steward, Indigenous advocate, and storyteller. Driven by his belief that blending Indigenous knowledge with contemporary science is key to understanding our planet, he partners with members of often remote, voiceless populations, providing them with technology to collect and share their place-based science.

National Geographic Explorer Mary Marshall, an author and photographer, is passionate about empowering Indigenous populations around the globe. While she and her partner Jon Waterhouse work alongside Indigenous groups to monitor their water quality, she also provides them with the technology and training to tell their story, in their own words, to the audiences of their choosing.

Jon Waterhouse’s destiny was foretold the moment he pushed his canoe off the bank of the Yukon River and started to paddle. That incredible 2007 canoe trip, which he christened “the Healing Journey,” began with a simple request by the native elders and tribal leaders living in the Yukon River watershed to "go out, take the pulse of the river." Waterhouse’s journey raised awareness of the importance of environmental stewardship, combined traditional native knowledge with modern science, and helped rebuild intimate connections between Yukon communities and the natural world. The journey soon stretched far beyond the Yukon and led the Native American down rivers and through cultures in distant parts of South America, Russia, Greenland, Africa, and New Zealand.

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