For the past several hundred years, Western people have been encountering indigenous peoples through exploration and colonisation. In these encounters, the nature-culture division that is so central to Western thought has been a tool to justify conquering people and transforming ecosystems. In fact, many indigenous people claim, and often with much justice, that ecocide and genocide go hand in hand. In this view, the violent transformation of peoples and places is an intricate part of colonisation. Within the West’s nature-culture dualism, indigenous peoples have almost invariably been positioned as being part of or closer to nature. This position can be given a positive interpretation.
This is the view that these people– now, in the past, at all times– live less destructive lives, are more in harmony with nature. In its idealised forms, this is a view that is frequently criticised as a romantic simplification. It’s the so-called myth of the noble savage. However, research into indigenous peoples’ relationships with the non-human world show that there is, in fact, a great deal of truth to the idea that indigenous people managed to live sustainably, keeping themselves and the ecosystems on which they depended in a state of ever-shifting balance. Furthermore, research now shows that indigenous peoples’ philosophical thought supported long-term relationships of mutuality between humans and non-humans.
More commonly, however, the West’s conceptual positioning of indigenous people as close to or part of nature has been understood in a denigrating way. Following on from our discussion of Plumwood’s work on the mutually reinforcing nature of dualisms, it should not be hard to see how nature could function in ways that devalue some people in environments and appear to justify their domination by others. Where indigenous people have been seen as part of the flora and fauna, as they were in Australia for almost 200 years, this categorisation makes it logical to treat people as less than fully human. Thinking with Val Plumwood, we can see that a range of dualisms are at work here– not only nature/culture, but also civilised/primitive, progressive/stagnant, active/passive.
And at the heart of it is the enduring idea that nature exists to be transformed by human culture. Indigenous people were assumed in advance to be people who did not transform nature, who simply gathered what they needed. They were passive, not active in relation to nature. So for example, the British appropriation of the land in Australia was justified on the basis of terra nullius– that is, that it was previously no one’s land. In his journal entry of August 1770, Captain James Cook noted that “We never saw one inch of cultivated land in the whole country.” While Cook did interact with indigenous people, he was unable to recognise modes of active engagement that would, for him, imply ownership.
Dualistic thinking has held that indigenous people did not manage land because they were primitive, or part of nature, or technologically inadequate. Alongside the profound racism and eurocentrism of this understanding, the historian Bill Gammage
reminds us in his recent book, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, he reminds us that such colonial assessments of indigenous interactions with ecosystems were factually incorrect. For Gammage, indigenous management of what he terms the “Australian estate” was active, not passive, alert to season and circumstance, committed to a balance of life. His attention is focused on the use of fire as a tool for local, fine-tuned, multifaceted ways of engaging with plants, animals, and ecosystems. Gammage’s excellent insight needs further clarification. Many indigenous people query the whole management paradigm. Their argument is that all human beings are positioned on the inside of ecological systems, not outside in some sort of privileged cultural zone from which nature is managed.
They reject the nature-culture binary and the kind of knowledge and action it promotes. The result is that indigenous knowledge of how to interact with other creatures, with fire and seasons and floods and dry spells, is an interactive knowledge in which people learn from the world around them, taking lessons in mutuality with the aim of keeping things flourishing in their country. This approach to knowledge and action involves mutual benefit. To quote an indigenous woman from North Australia, April Bright, “it is part of our responsibility to be looking after our country. If you don’t look after country, country won’t look after you.”
In some, the well-worn dualisms of Western thought have played a crucial role in the violent transformation of peoples and ecosystems. They continue to obstruct our ability to achieve both social justice and environmental justice.