Indigenous Permaculture: An operational framework

Woodbine Ecology Center was created to address a basic question: How do we learn to live together in this place? It doesn't take very protracted observation to figure out that, as a society, we have focused much of our energy in teaching our children how to fear each other and how to exploit the natural world. The combined, and related, social and ecological crisis that we are facing is simply the product of that design. If we are to find new ways to be with each other and with the natural world, then it makes a lot of sense to start looking at how people and cultures have lived, and continue to live, in this place since time immemorial. To truly re-create sustainable communities, we must look at the sustainable communities that were here before us as well as the reasons and process through which many of those communities have been severely damaged or outrightly destroyed.

For us, indigenous peoples and cultures and their values that many still hold, are not only a historical curiosity but a living part of our everyday work. Indigenous peoples have been an active part of the formation and operation of Woodbine since day one. Woodbine has also actively included people whose ancestry and cultural upbringing originates from other lands. The Woodbine community hails from many different places. We are indigenous peoples, descendants of slaves, indentured servants, gentry, refugees, and voluntary immigrants. Regardless of how we, or our ancestors, came to this place, we find ourselves—people of all colors and nations—here to stay. This is now our home and the home of our children and great-great grandchildren. What brings us together is our common vision of a better place for our children and future generations, our desire to build a world where we are, again, a part of the natural world.

One of the prisms through which Woodbine strives to address this vision, is permaculture. As the “cutting edge of a 10,000 year old idea” permaculture offers one of the most exciting possibilities for re-learning how to become native to our places and how to integrate traditional ecological knowledge with modern science.

At Woodbine we explicitly use the term indigenous permaculture to define and describe our practice and application of permaculture. We are neither the first, nor the only, to use this term and in our research and interactions with others who practice indigenous permaculture we have found that there is no clear, single definition of the term. Given that permaculture itself often defies a single definition, this should not be very surprising. However, we believe that words have meaning, that they are sacred and that when we use them we give birth to our reality. As such, we provide here a brief synopsis of our own, constantly evolving, understanding of indigenous permaculture and what it means to us. This is not meant to be an authoritative or exclusive definition of the term. Rather, we humbly offer our own framework to the larger indigenous and permaculture communities, hoping that it can foster some greater discussion, clarity, and understanding of our practices.

Our understanding of indigenous permaculture revolves around five basic principles:

  1. The recollection and recognition of, and respect for, indigenous contributions.
    For us this means more than giving lip service to generic indigenous contributions. We strive for active, respectful and reciprocal contact and collaboration with indigenous communities in our places and work to learn about traditional ways of being, always careful to not engage, consciously and unconsciously, in cultural appropriation. We recognize and cultivate leadership of indigenous peoples in their communities as well as our diverse organizations. We commit to share our own knowledge and to give back to indigenous communities.
  2. Traditional Ecological Knowledge has always been specific to a place and culture.
    All indigenous and traditional ecological knowledge systems have been specific to a place and have been transmitted across generations through cultural mechanisms, including storytelling and ceremonies which are specific to the places they originated from. While it is useful to understand some of the general principles common to most systems of indigenous knowledge, it is also important to develop a strong understanding of and appreciation of the specific cultures within which these systems come alive.
  3. Decolonization of our minds, our language, our work, and our communities.
    We live in a colonial society and are the products of historical colonial processes. This is not simply something that occurred in the past and we can now all happily move on with our lives. These processes are very much alive today and indigenous communities continue to be under direct and indirect attack. Much of the mining of fossil fuels as well as of the rare metals such as lithium and neodymium which are supposed to fuel the new green revolution takes place in indigenous territories. In order to come together as indigenous and non-indigenous people and build a better world for the next seven generations, we must recognize this history and commit to transforming its legacy. For us, this means an explicit commitment to stand with communities under attack, and to work with them to defend and restore their culture and traditions, as well as help them assess and incorporate new technologies and skills in a culturally appropriate way. It also requires a commitment to become aware of our full history and decolonize our language, our work, our processes and to challenge eurocentrism and white privilege in our organizations, communities, and permaculture at large.
  4. Being and becoming native to this place.
    Permaculturists are fond of saying that we are all indigenous, or that we all come from indigenous roots, but the reality is that being native to a place does not happen overnight. To quote Luther Standing Bear, “[m]en must be born and reborn to belong. Their bodies must be formed of the dust of their forefathers' bones.” We recognize that there are significant differences between being native by having been raised in a culture and community that is part of this place since time immemorial, and striving to become native by learning how to live in a place as part of it. We also recognize that permaculture and its call for “protracted and thoughtful observation” offers an excellent set of tools and practices that we can use in our journey to become truly native to our places.
  5. Eco-cultural restoration.
    The preservation and restoration of natural places requires the preservation and restoration of the cultures that have lived in those places since time immemorial. It is not accidental that some of the places in the world where bio-diversity is the most threatened are also places where indigenous languages are endangered. We are also working towards the reintegration of  humans and nature by challenging many of the distinctions so prevalent in the West, between the domesticated and the wild. This is where we disagree with one of the permaculture aphorisms, “stay out of the bush, it is already in good order.” Indigenous cultures have often not only lived in the “bush” but have also played an active role in maintaining and enhancing its “good order.”

It is not possible to articulate all permeations of these principles in such a short space, but we do hope that we can inspire some thought and discussion around them. In the future we will present in more detail some of the indigenous permaculture projects that we are involved in and share the lessons and experiences that we are gaining from our application of these principles. We are also organizing an Indigenous Permaculture Convergence at Woodbine, April 22-24, 2011. We are bringing together indigenous community activists and leaders, permaculturists and anyone who is practicing or interested in indigenous permaculture, to learn from each other and share our experiences as we continue to create a better future for all of our children. We invite you to join us at the Convergence as well as participate in our ongoing development of these principles.

For more information please contact us.

* A version of this article has been published in Issue 75 (Spring 2010) of Permaculture Activist.

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