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Wisdom of the indigenous

We live in a small world. Thanks to blurring international borders and intertwined economies, it is as if the world has shrunk to fit into the palm of our hands. Social scientists call this phenomenon globalisation and it certainly has a long list of pros. But on the flipside, this phenomenon is diluting cultures and traditions. Even as the world faces a gradual but irrevocable loss of cultural diversity, the brunt of it is being borne by the indigenous communities.

In the name of economic development, their homes are encroached upon and their forests destroyed. Alongside fighting a losing battle to sustain their livelihood, indigenous communities struggle against discrimination, marginalisation and dire poverty in their day-to-day lives. That is not all. For a long time, the heritage of such communities has been taken for granted. Their rituals and practices have been brushed aside as superstitious and irrelevant. The intellect and wisdom of these tribes have been undermined by modern societies, even if inadvertently so. And now, several of their traditions, languages and ways of life are already lost or facing the threat of extinction.

On the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, Soulveda lists out lesser known contributions of indigenous communities to the world. We bring to the limelight their dying traditional wisdom that could be key to the sustainable future of mankind.

Forest Conservation

Perhaps, a major difference between a good majority of us and the people of indigenous communities is in our relationship with nature. While we destroy forests to erect corporate jungles, these tribes derive holistic wellbeing from living in the lap of nature.

Maybe that is why over 400 tribal communities, especially the Kayapo Warriors in the Amazon rainforest, vehemently defend their land from unregulated deforestation and logging. Ironically, until a decade ago, several studies portrayed these people as obstacles to conserving forests. One study titled Rethinking tropical forest conservation by the US-based The Woods Hole Research Centre now reveals satellite images that prove otherwise. Apparently, if it weren’t for these tribes, reckless clearing of forests would not have been halted. The images show that a good portion of forestland outside the tribe’s perimeter has been cleared out. But the Kayapo Warriors managed to defend and protect 14 million hectares of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest.

Yet another study conducted by Guatemala-based Asociación de Comunidades Forestales de Petén (ACOFOP), an organisation that strives to preserve the Mayan Biosphere, shows that allocating forestland to the Guatemala Mayan tribe has significantly helped decrease episodes of forest fires. It seems that these folks’ experiential knowledge of how to effectively prevent forest fires is better than what scientists and environmentalists claim to know!

“The modern world is slowly coming around to acknowledge the instinctive wisdom the indigenous communities have always had.”


Today, scientists and biotech experts have the technology in place to modify a crop’s genetic pattern to increase yield. There are also chemical fertilisers and pesticides that can speed up the growth of the crop. But on the flip side, these interventions may cause diseases like diabetes, asthma, even cancer that mankind has no cure for yet.

Interestingly, a survey conducted for a study Tribal Agriculture: Tradition in transition by Current Science Journal finds “unmatched agro-ecological management schemes” practised by the Wancho, Nocte and Tutsa tribes in the Indian Eastern Himalaya region. Without the use of pesticides or chemical manures, their conventional rotational farming has been found to give high yield. This method of conventional farming is now being studied extensively.

Similarly, American Indian tribes such as the Hopi, Navajo, and Cherokee are known to have used special farming techniques like terracing, crop rotation, and planting windbreaks to improve their soil quality.


With increasing awareness about the side-effects of allopathic medicine, scientists as well as entrepreneurs have set their sight on traditional medicine. A study Naturopathic medicine and aboriginal health: an exploratory study by Anishnawbe Health, Toronto has found out that naturopathic medicine “fits with the health care philosophies in Aboriginal communities, as it emphasises spiritual, mental and emotional aspects of health.”

Seeing enormous market potential, several companies from around the world have hence flocked to these regions and patented invaluable herbs and medicines without granting any recognition to the communities that discovered them. For instance, how many of us knew that the Canadian aborigines taught the European newcomers the cure for scurvy? According to the article Arginine, scurvy and Cartier’s “tree of life” by the University of California, the Canadian indigenous community called the St Lawrence Iroquoians boiled the bark and needles of pine trees to make a vitamin C tonic to treat European scurvy patients.

Similarly, American tribes discovered herbal remedies for flu and cough. For instance, lobelia is a herb used by Penobscot, Cherokee, and Wampanoag tribes for clearing nasal and chest congestion. Lomatium is yet another medicinal herb used by the Great Basin tribes. The decoction is said to cure head cold and respiratory infections.

Family and child rearing

Although we have the technology and the means to be more social and interconnected, we may have noticed that we are more disconnected than ever before. Increasingly, with both parents working, children are often brought up in day-care facilities. The study Strengths of Australian Aboriginal cultural practices in family life and child rearing conducted by the Australian government intensely examined the lives of the tribe Wurundjeri. Firstly, it found that the tribes’ kinship with one another enables them to share the roles and responsibilities of raising children. Secondly, grandparents and elderly family members make sure the kids are rooted to the culture. Thirdly, the tribe’s spiritual and religious practices help children build a strong identity.

For a long time, modernisation has side-lined indigenous communities’ age-old traditions and ways of life. Today though, the modern world is slowly coming around to acknowledge the instinctive wisdom the indigenous communities have always had. As the famous physicist Nikola Tesla once said: “All that was great in the past was ridiculed, condemned, combated, suppressed–only to emerge even more powerful and triumphant from the struggle.”

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