Indigenous American Philosophy
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. There are very few contemporary indigenous philosophers alive today.
Epistemology and science
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.
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
- Battise (2002), p. 17.
- Hester & Cheney (2001), pp. 319-34.
- Parry et al. (2007), pp. 625-66.
- Cajete (2003), p. 45.
- Arola (2011).
- Battiste (2002), pp. 1-69.
- Moore et al. (2007).
- Barnhardt (2005), pp. 8-23.
- Tedlock & Tedlock (1992).
- Burkhart (2003), pp. 15-16.
- Burkhart (2003), p. 16.
- Waters (2003), p. 97.
- Arola (2011), p. 556.
- Younker (2008), pp. 641-42.
- Moore et al. (2007), p. 117.
- Moore et al. (2007), p. 118.
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