Do we believe that every person, including those who are different from us, has intrinsic worth? Do we believe that the animals we love as pets and the ones who live in the wild have intrinsic worth? Do trees, rivers, oceans, mountains have intrinsic worth? If the answer is yes, then what should our actions be towards all these things and towards life itself?
Those are some of the questions tackled in a recent book, Restoring the Kinship Worldview, which explores how indigenous knowledge can help humanity survive and thrive, now and in the future. Indigenous scholar Wahinkpe Topa and moral-development expert Darcia Narvaez offer deep, practical insights into how the indigenous worldview can help us shift our beliefs about our way of being in the world—and set us on the path to healing.
I interviewed them about how indigenous perspectives could help transform parenting, education, and society in general. Here is an edited version of our conversation.
Vicki Zakrzewski: How do you define “indigenous”?
Wahinkpe Topa: Indigenous peoples are inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures and ways of relating to people and the environment that stem from multi-generational occupation of a particular landscape that goes back to the pre-colonial era. They have retained social, cultural, economic, and political characteristics that are distinct from those of post-colonial, dominant societies.
Indigenous Peoples are distinct social and cultural groups that share collective ancestral ties to the lands and natural resources where they live, occupy, or from which they have been displaced. The land and natural resources on which they depend are inextricably linked to their identities, cultures, livelihoods, as well as their physical and spiritual well-being.
VZ: In your book, you quote Indigenous comedian Charlie Hill, who said:
White folks, you wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for Indian people. You came to this country, we taught you about democracy, we taught you how to fight the British so you could be free. So come to us now, we can fix this country. All the problems it has, we can fix it because we have the owner’s manual.
I felt like, in a very humorous and succinct way, this quote summed up your book: It’s an owner’s manual for how to live in a harmoniously human way, which you call the “kinship worldview.” And this idea is reaching very high levels.
In your introduction, you cite the 2019 United Nations Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services that says the indigenous worldview is a vital consideration to rebalance our life systems. You use the term “kinship worldview.” Can you describe what you mean by that?
Darcia Narvaez: In defining the kinship worldview, we built on anthropologist Robert Redfield’s realization that there are two dominant, competing worldviews: the current dominant worldview and the kinship worldview. The kinship worldview considers the world sacred, unified, and moral—those are Redfield’s terms. It’s a connected partnership worldview that is not about domination or self-centeredness or anthropocentrism, but rather about collaboration and unification across human groups, animal species, plant species, waterways, mountains, everything that’s alive. It’s about a sentient Earth. And now quantum physics and biology are confirming that everything is alive—the cell is the powerhouse of life. So the kinship worldview is getting back to that original understanding.
WT: And this worldview is proven sustainable. It worked for most of human history until we moved to a worldview that saw humans separate from nature. The 2019 UN Biodiversity report revealed that the Indigenous worldview is still responsible for preserving biodiversity—and it is no coincidence that 80% of our biodiversity is on the 20% of the land still controlled by traditional indigenous communities. And although the place-based knowledge and language of these communities is unique, they share a common worldview that belongs to all humans.
VZ: Wahinkpe Topa, you sent me a chart that compares the two worldviews. For example, the dominant worldview emphasizes rights and sees nature as dangerous; whereas the kinship worldview emphasizes responsibility and believes nature is benevolent. Can you say more about this chart?
WT: To begin with, the chart is not a rigid binary. As its preface describes, it should be studied as a continuum with the goal of seeking complementarity between the contrasting precepts.
I have found that well-intended individuals who recognize the problem of binary thinking—us versus them, right/ wrong, good/bad—see the chart with the binary dominant worldview. If you have a non-binary worldview, which the scholarship shows is typical to indigenous worldviews, then you look at polarities like the positive and negative of electricity. One’s not good and one’s not bad, but they can be out of balance.
And so if we look at this worldview chart this way, it’s a way to open dialogue. Historically the concept of worldview, a Western concept, stifled dialogue, as in the debates between religion and science. What we’re doing is opening dialogue by looking at the two worldviews, the anthropocentric one and the non-anthropocentric one, and all the values that fall under one or the other.
VZ: Your book states that the kinship worldview is a very ancient one, so how did we move from this kinship worldview to our current dominant worldview?
DN: We’ve been around for about two million years, if we start with homo erectus. Over the course of human evolution, our brains grew bigger compared to chimpanzee brains, partly because of our cooperative child-raising, which also promoted our egalitarian orientation. But then civilization moved towards agriculture, domestication or enslavement of plants and animals, and we forgot how to live with the earth and, instead, started to move against it. The way we raise our children also changed.
VZ: Can you say more about this? What would a healthy childhood based on the kinship worldview actually look like?
DN: Communal child-raising based on a kinship worldview had a certain set of components that I call the “evolved nest.” Anthropologists have found that these components are common in nomadic foraging communities around the world.
We now know from neuroscience, clinical science, and developmental science that each of these components foster optimal brain development: your cooperative nature, your well-being, and your social and moral well-being. The evolved nest starts with soothing perinatal experiences—a mother who feels relaxed and supported during pregnancy, a birth that’s not traumatic and that’s not interfering with the timing of the baby, also, not separating mom and baby after birth, and encouraging breastfeeding. Breastfeeding for our species should last at least four years to build the immune system and the brain.
And then there’s a welcoming environment for mom and baby. The baby feels wanted and has a positive impact on their community. Babies are highly affectionately touched, 24/7. They need to be physically near a caregiver because they’re learning to breathe outside the womb and if they don’t get the proper care, they can stop breathing and will die without that help.
Then there’s self-directed free play with multiple-aged playmates, which is really important throughout childhood. And then there’s multiple adult caregivers, because babies need a lot of care. It shouldn’t be on the mom alone or the dad giving care—that’s not our heritage either. Nested care is provided by a community, a village of care. All these components, except for birthing and breastfeeding, are important for all of us throughout life. We all need to feel welcomed, have affectionate touch, to play with others.
WT: What I’ve found working with the younger population who were raised traditionally is that there was a sense of autonomy from very early on that saw how individual freedom was not self-serving but about the greater good.
VZ: Can you give a concrete example of what this would look like?
DN: I can give an example. Barbara Rogoff at UC Santa Cruz who has done studies of how children are raised around the world has been quite critical of the assumptions in the United States. She talks about “learning by observing and pitching in” as the way children are integrated into the community. Helping out, children are ready to do that from babyhood. They’ll want to help fold the laundry and they’ll make a mess of it, but they’re ready to pitch in and be community members. And in Mayan communities, where Rogoff does a lot of her work, they want that. They expect children to not do a good job at first, but to learn how to do good work over time. You don’t have to command them or coax them or punish them into helping because they’re ready to do it.
VZ: In the West, we operate with the assumption that puberty can often cause lots of turmoil and challenge within youth. In the developmental trajectory that you’re describing, does this change that assumption?
DN: The late UC Berkeley professor Diana Baumrind was famous for identifying three kinds of parenting styles: authoritarian, authoritative, and permissive. But she had a fourth one, harmonious.
In the harmonious one, there was high support and high permissiveness, and the boys were not aggressive like they were in all the other cases. They were happy, and the girls were happy and doing very well. This is the species-normal way of child-raising—letting the child make their own life course but the community is there with support. And so when they reach adolescence, because they’ve had so much support and they’ve tried this and that and they have a sense of confidence and living in the world, they’re ready for life and it’s a positive thing.
In indigenous communities, often they have a vision quest even earlier than adolescence so that they get in touch with the universe. It’s not just about me or our community, but more about learning that we’re living on a sentient earth and discerning your gift. What are you going to provide the community? How are you going to maintain the wealth that our ancestors provided to us and carry it on for next generations?
So, that would be the normal way for our species to reach adolescence. But when you have been toxically stressed in babyhood, there are gaps in your brain that sometimes don’t show up until adolescence. Then all of a sudden you’re anxious or depressed or suicidal because un-nested early life care is like building a house on poor foundations. When the storm comes, then you see the problem.
Education, too, is about self-transformation all the way along, day by day, year by year becoming a better member of the earth community, a more helpful member of the human community. Can you enhance the well-being of all the lives around you, including the sentient Earth?
VZ: The pandemic has given us an opportunity to transform our schools. However, I’m not sure how much of a transformation we’ll see if we don’t examine how our worldviews affect both humans and nature. What would our schools look like if they were grounded in this kinship worldview?
WT: My daughter’s school would be an example. They are in nature every day. Now, obviously schools in urban centers don’t have that opportunity, so it’s not really fair to talk about my daughter’s program, which is in California up in the mountains. But if we look at how can this be done anywhere—there are still weeds growing up through the concrete cracks, pigeons in the street. There are occasional stars that you can see. There are ants and mice, there is yourself. Any dictionary definition of nature always says everything but humans. We’ve got to change that and get in touch with the air, the wind, whatever plants are in your house, and study them in a way that correlates with virtues, which correlate with the standards, which we’re not going to be able to shake off very fast. We need to bring in a non-human-centered worldview, which is the relationship of humans to nature and supernature.
DN: If I could establish a school system just out of air, I would go back to neighborhood schools and I would follow the Reggio Emilia approach, which integrates arts and place-based learning of where you are in the world with expression and play.
Even in the city, they will take the kids out to see the weather and predict it, and do the science of logical reasoning about that, but then also observe what happened, draw the weather’s effects and analyze whether it followed what they predicted. So they integrate the children into the Earth where they are. They don’t have to go somewhere else. And then I would bring in the neighborhood and the elders and the older kids, as we did in our Minnesota Community Voices and Character Education Project in Minnesota, to share and enjoy learning together in different ways.
It is also important to build presence with one another. In my college courses, I taught my students folk-song games and then we would go teach them to kindergartners. And what playing does is actually grow the right hemisphere because the right brain can be grown all throughout life if you’re in the moment socially having to adjust to the other—you are growing your empathy, your ability to take perspectives, and your self-control. This is very important if you were not nested in early life when the right hemisphere is scheduled to grow more rapidly but requires the evolved nest to do so.
WT: This art-based kind of approach really helps counter the English language, which is a noun-based, concretized, socially derived language as opposed to our indigenous, verb-based nature languages, which, sadly are being lost. We can be aware of this and ask, What’s a concept that we’re learning? What’s the noun? And then use drawings and paintings and music and song and our verbs to try to describe it without ever saying the noun. Bring in a traditional indigenous person, if you can, who still remembers the ways.
And because we’re not romanticizing things here, we have to be honest and say that in the United States and Canada, the loss of these understandings of the worldview is tremendous. My Navajo students tell me that probably 70% of the Navajo nation no longer remembers the things that we’re talking about. And so we’ve got to keep that in mind, as well.
VZ: In the chapter “Becoming Fully Human,” indigenous education expert Gregory Cajete is quoted as saying:
The Indigenous goal of living a good life is sometimes referred to Native American people as striving to always think the highest thought. Thinking the highest thought means thinking of one’s self, one’s community, and one’s environment richly, essentially a spiritual mindset in which one thinks in the highest, most respectful, and most compassionate way, thus systematically influencing the actions of both individuals and the community. It is a way to perpetuate a good life, a respectful life and spiritual life and a dynamic wholeness.
How do we help people shift from this dominant worldview to instead always thinking the highest thought?
DN: Well, the book is intended to do that, chapter by chapter. Try to shift your mind and immerse yourself in similar kinds of books.
We also recommend finding a sit spot outside in the natural world where you go back to over and over, so the animals get used to you, especially if you’re in a wild space. You will start to notice more and more and your senses will open up. Being present to the world in the now is fundamental. I did all sorts of things with my students to get them back in their bodies, out of their heads. How is your body feeling? We used all kinds of meditation, belly-breathing and such, for self-calming. Then used face-to-face playing—folks-song games—to foster social joy. And then we expanded communal imagination to get back into awareness that everything we do is affecting the whole world. Each of us is a fountain of vibrations affecting other things, similar to a rock in the puddle.
To get back to an awareness, to get to those places, you’ve got to let go of some of the trauma-induced experiences you’ve had. To be trauma-informed is good, but in my lab we talk about the wellness-informed pathway that starts with the evolved nest. When you keep the nest going throughout life, you’re going to be much calmer and cooperative because you feel like your needs have been met. You feel like you belong, like you can contribute, that you matter. You’re able to hear the community stories of how important it is for you to give your gift to the community, for you to be connected to the universe.
So, it’s a multilevel approach that’s needed to shift perspectives. And for everybody the path is a little different.