Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Society from an Indigenous Perspective

Recently a friend of mine, who also happens to be a member of the Aymara community from Bolivia,  introduced me to her culture's way of thinking of life. I think what she said would be very useful to share here.

The indigenous people conceive of four communities: (1) the community of humans, (2) the community of the spirits, (3) the community of nature, and (4) the community of the ancestors. These four communities should exist in balance. But when we use any one of them as an object, when we use them as an instrument for our own end, then we produce imbalance, and societal problems.

She gave monoculture as an example of this imbalance. When we don't respect the natural plant diversity found in nature, then we cause problems by exhausting the soil too quickly. Europeans, using over-exploitative farming techniques, rendered their land fallow by the 1800s, so much so that they had to import guano from South America in order to replenish the soil. The Europeans' dependence on guano led to desperation and conflict: both Bolivia and Peru fought and lost wars, orchestrated by European powers, over control of the guano trade.

I see in this four communities idea a powerful framework for synthesizing the contributions of different schools of social thought. Some thinkers have emphasized the objective—that is, the role of economic and the political structures. Others have emphasized the subtle and the subjective, questions of identity, and belonging, and spiritual fulfillment. Others still have emphasized the need to ground social organization in philosophical terms, in terms of justice and the rights of humanity. The four communities framework can embrace all these approaches. It has room for both the overt wrong in slavery (using humans as objects, and disrespecting the first community) and the wrong in appropriating history for selfish gain (which would be, I think, an example of using the community of the ancestors as objects).

This framework also provided me with another takeway. In it I see how dependent we are on the nourishment and sustenance from all the four communities. We rely on our human community to raise us and support us; we rely on the  spirit community to anchor us in a sense of purpose, to give our life meaning; we we rely on nature to provide us with a hospitable habitat, resources for our use, food to eat; and we rely on the ancestors to provide us with wisdom. We like to think of ourselves as independent and self-sufficient, but we're not.

Learning about this perspective has been a salubrious breath of fresh air to my thinking, just because it's so different.


  1. Fantastic post, Suzanne really enjoyed it as well.

    Note please, however, my dear friend, that "salutory" is not a word :)

  2. Thanks, Adam! Also, nice catch -- I meant to say "salubrious" instead.