Indigenous American Philosophy

Indigenous American philosophy is the philosophy of the Indigenous people of the Americas. An indigenous philosopher is an indigenous person or associate who practices philosophy and has a vast knowledge of various indigenous history, culture, language, and traditions. Many different traditions of philosophy have existed in the Americas from Precolumbian times to the present in different regions, notably among the civilizations of Mesoamerica and the Andes. Indigenous American philosophy is part of Indigenous Ways of Knowing (IWOK), a field of knowledge based on the epistemological traditions of Indigenous peoples from around the world.

Epistemology and science

See also: Indigenous Ways of Knowing

Epistemology refers to the study of knowledge, the ways in which a person acquires and processes information. Among Indigenous cultures, epistemology is understood differently and more inherently than how it is understood in Western philosophy. Native American epistemology is found primarily in theories, philosophies, histories, ceremonies and nature as multiple ways of knowing. Emphasis is put on the importance of language as one of the vital components of Native American epistemology. It is through the unique symbolism and the close connection with nature, that Native Americans consider knowledge to be acquired. In relation to consciousness, rationality and other heavily studied psychological states, the inherent structure of the complex Native American language is necessary to understand in the obtainment of indigenous knowledge. There is also a strong link between nature and the interpretation of knowledge within Native American culture. It is believed that the mind interacts with the environment in a very active, conscious way. The process through which they interact with nature is through the necessary need for survival but also through a deep respect and understanding the land as a huge part of their identity. It is vital to understand how to gather medicine, predict weather conditions so as to effectively produce food, and how to navigate through the land in order to grow and thrive as part of an ecological dependent community. Native American knowledge is continuously adapting to the changing environment as the ecosystem evolves and this is how epistemology is understood to have such a strong root in nature.

Ceremonies play a key part in Native American philosophy.

Ceremonies play a key part in Native American philosophy.


Native American science and understanding is said to have a basis in perceptual phenomenology, meaning the philosophical study of phenomena. In this context, phenomenology refers to the examination of ones experiences to come to a personal world view. Something is believed to be true when it has been verified by experiences and provides explanations which assist in completing tasks.This worldview is dynamic as new experiences alter this worldview and add to it. There is no belief in a universal worldview which could explain all aspects of reality for a permanent set of time.

The world is viewed as infinitely complex and so it is impossible to come to a universal understanding of it. Therefore, Native Americans believe that useful knowledge can only be acquired through individual experience which, whilst subjective, is valid to that space and time. The method of interacting with the environment is never made fixed and instead, is carried through generations who continuously revise it and add to it. This creates a web of knowledge shaped by the individual experiences of a community.

The subjectivity of experience and circumstance means that each Indigenous community’s beliefs will be distinct. Indigenous people believe that experience can always present a better way of interacting with the environment. As a result of this understanding, no belief is viewed as being supremely valid when compared to another belief. A belief receives its validity from experience.Regardless of whether an experience is ordinary and extraordinary, they are both viewed the same and are equally useful for gathering knowledge. Everything is viewed as possible in the world as no universal laws are seen to govern how the world exists. Each person in their own environment and circumstance can derive their own beliefs which is completely valid and logical in their personal circumstance.

The principle of relatedness

Native American artifacts

Native American artifacts

Brian Yazzie Burkhart, a Cherokee, has described his experience of the story of Coyote:

Coyote is wandering around in his usual way when he comes upon a prairie dog town. The prairie dogs laugh and curse at him. Coyote gets angry and wants revenge. The sun is high in the sky. Coyote decides that he wants clouds to come. He is starting to hate the prairie dogs and so thinks about rain. Just then a cloud appears.

Coyote says, “I wish it would rain on me.” And that is what happened.
Coyote says, “I wish there were rain at my feet.” And that is what happened.
“I want the rain up to my knees,” Coyote says. And that is what happened.
“I want the rain up to my waist,” he then says. And that is what happened.

Eventually, the entire land is flooded. Coyote’s mistake is not letting what is right guide his actions, but instead acting entirely on his own motivations. This is a reminder that one must be careful about what one desires, and must keep in mind the things around us and how we relate to them. Burkhart terms this the principle of relatedness:

The idea here is simply that the most important things to keep in mind are the simple things that are directly around us in our experience and the things to which we are most directly related. In calling these ideas principles, I do not mean to give them special philosophical status. In American Indian thought, they are simply ways of being. These principles are merely abstractions from these ways of being. … Principles in the traditional philosophical sense have no place in American Indian philosophy.


Anne Waters has described a “nondiscreet ontology of being” in the context of gender. With a different attitude towards labels, Waters argues that American Indian viewpoints are more tolerant to those that don’t fit into a strict binary gender framework.

Differences to other philosophical traditions

American Horse Tribal Council 1903 (includes Red Cloud)- meeting of Native Americans.

American Horse Tribal Council 1903 (includes Red Cloud)- meeting of Native Americans.

The canon of Western philosophy (WP) is rooted in the Platonic understanding of truth (the form of the truth) being stable immutable and present, upon which philosophical investigations take place. On the other hand, Native American philosophy (NAP) holds that the stability for the basis of such inquiry in the native world is found not in absolutes, rather the consistencies in a complexity of the world. This concept of an absolute simplified starting point against finding similarities in a complex matrix is highlighted in particular in the different ways notes how NAP and WP analyse space and time. Typical WP views the world in sections: the universe is views as created ex nihilo (implying it had a definitive beginning and most likely with have a definitive end) and is depicted as violent (e.g. ‘the big bang’). Moreover, time is broken up into 3 simple sections that all acts can fit within: past, present and future, all of which have definable boundaries that actions in reality can go up to and occasional cross. Conversely, Cordova notes that NAP views space as being a concept that connects everything to our global environment and time as an endless continuous motion. The universe is considered as infinite and unbound; being in constant motion with no beginning or end and is balanced and stable despite occasional “temporary sadness.” Similarly, time does not belong to an absolute and bounded category in NAP, it is not a self-existing thing independent of human acknowledgement. Time is not even another dimension – it is nothing more than a human construct. Instead, it is, “merely a measure of motion … the sun, stars, and moon through the sky, of changes that are visible and can be predicted.”

See also

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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