Susan Guyette


Understanding interdependence is basic to sustainable actions and the path to resiliency. In Indigenous cultures, worldview differences in concepts of aliveness often reach beyond people, extending to plants, rocks, clouds, water and soil—all part of a universe of sentient beings. The structure of Indigenous languages reflects this aliveness and a process-oriented view of life, often losing meaning in translation.


The phrase “all my relations” in Native American cultures reflects the regard of all species on an equal basis, and our intense relationship to them from origin and kinship. Animals are sacred and often imbued with special powers, kin in the web of life. Connection in nature is reflected in this worldview.


Using the word “the” before the word environment separates and objectifies people from the natural world. The “with” and “to” nature reference used by Western cultures also reflects “apartness” in world view; whereas, living “in” nature without being extractive requires eco-cultural knowledge abundant in traditional societies close to the land.


Pueblo scholar Gregory Cajete emphasizes the guiding thoughts of Indigenous worldview in his book Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence, as “Everything is considered to be “alive” or animate and imbued with “spirit” energy. Everything is related; that is, connected in dynamic, interactive and mutually reciprocal relationships. All things, events and forms of energy unfold and infold themselves in a contextual field of the micro and macro universe. In the practice of Native science, the more humans know about themselves—that is, their connections with everything around them—the greater the celebration of life, the greater the comfort of knowing, and the greater the joy of being.”


As we try to truly comprehend the pickle our species is experiencing ecologically and observe the fervor of Western science to analyze, grasp and try to solve the dilemmas of long-term survival, the research methods being used should be called into question. The methods of Western science fail to understand the nature of interdependence due to:

Weakness in hypothesis testing due to bias in the questions asked and how they are asked

An emphasis on quantitative rather than qualitative methods

Typically small sample sizes

Strong influence of industry in the financial support of research studies

Emphasis on short-term rather than long-term results

Failure to see the importance of restorative actions, and

Physical illness and environmental degradation as the end results, due to an emphasis on economically profitable outcomes.


Western science dissects and then seeks to understand the relationship of the parts, whereas, Native science understands that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts—the essence of interdependence. Spending many millions of dollars dissecting the current situation is not going to solve the environmental and resource challenges ahead. There is much to learn from Native science, for in traditional cultures with closeness in nature, the seasons remind us of an incremental “fine-tuning” in all aspects of life. Learning to live life by the seasons puts us in balance with life cycles. Only then can we act in accordance with a connected perception. Nothing stays the same; the natural world is always changing.



How do we lift ourselves out of this mess? Out of the toxic soup and technology traps? Paying attention by becoming conscious of being the human animal in nature is the only path. Increasing our attention is the only way to understand interdependence. Only then, when being in nature is valued, can the loss of biodiversity critical for our future be stemmed. Maintaining balance by recognizing interdependence requires wisdom rather than technological cleverness. The lessons from Indigenous world views are valuable to consider; the only way we are going to learn about nature is to learn how to be in nature.





Sustainability, in essence, is about interdependence. Mainstream discussions of sustainability address balance in three variables—cultural, economic and ecological relationships. These three are essential to harmony in caring for Mother Earth. What often is not seen is the role of culture as the cornerstone of the sustainability variables. Since humans exist within interrelated social and ecological adaptive systems, culture is therefore the pivotal factor guiding behavior. And, in a holistic sense, culture also includes the interrelated kinship, political structures, spiritual or religious beliefs, artistic traditions, as well as economic systems and land stewardship or care of ecosystems. Cultural values regarding being a part of nature underlie actions and care of the environment; considering sense of place with a cultural basis connects communities in nature.


Not putting people into the sustainability equation is sometimes an oversight in discussions focused on ecological inputs and outputs. Culture guides actions, whether related to traditional land stewardship practices or the formation of public policy. Sustainability must be seen as more than a matter of doing no harm; it must include restorative action. Our ability to adapt depends upon sustainability actions that are cumulative in everyday actions. All sustainability is local.


At the core of sustainability is the power of actions that have worked well over time and come from wisdom passed down for many generations. In some Indigenous cultures these are called the Original Instructions. Small, traditional communities perceive the destruction of the past 50 years in terms of environmental impacts, cultural loss and the need for immediate action if a lifeway imbedded with the wisdom of connectedness and conservation is to continue. And fortunately, the number of those in the mainstream seeking to learn more about diverse ways of relating to ecosystems, agriculture, land stewardship, family cooperation and community support networks is growing.





Resilience, the capacity to adapt to changing conditions, is central to sustainability. Belief that a community is able to draw upon existing strengths—cultural, economic, and in relation to the natural environment—connects the past and present to the future.


The concept of resilience originates from the discipline of ecology. Resilience is the property that allows the functions of an ecosystem to persist in the face of disturbance. Biodiversity increases the ability of interdependent ecological and economic systems to maintain functionally under a range of environmental conditions. This capacity to adapt is valuable for perceiving the interdependence of cultural and ecological systems. Balance or harmony is needed for resiliency.


Conserving the uniqueness and diversity of life is essential for resilience. In relation to ecological resilience, ecologists recommend reversing the trend toward large-scale and intensive monoculture. Resiliency increases with small-scale, flexible networks. Networks build strength over time; the value of cultural networks enhances the sustainability of community support systems by increasing the sustainability of a local system.


Resilience is characterized by the capacity to redirect. Culture, always adapting to change, balances the dilemmas of new innovation and preservation. Retaining time-honored traditions that work well and incorporating them into new technologies requires rethinking how we deal with change, culture by culture.


I am hopeful for our ability to adapt. It will take resilience. It will take a conscious waking up. Our ecosystem is where we live, not a city or street address. Just as the impacts of global warming have been difficult to predict due to the interdependence of the parts to the whole, so may a turnaround be difficult to predict. Mother Earth may respond more quickly than we can know, with better care. Engaging quickly is the key to resiliency. Seeing our place in the natural connection is central to a positive future.


The end of economic growth as we know it and a turning to the spiritual, ecological path will be central to resilience. In Indigenous communities, this is often referred to as “making the old ways new again.” Several New Mexico tribes and an increasing number of individuals are recognizing the need to revive their agricultural traditions to create sustainable communities. This requires creating a safe food supply for tribal members, a return to the traditions surrounding a healthy diet, seed saving to continue the high nutritional benefits and regional adaptation of ancient varieties and reinforcing the spiritual aspects of caring for plants, people and Mother Earth.


Many local tribal projects are fostering change in this way. To mention a few: the Red Willow Farmers’ Market and other farm projects at Taos Pueblo; gardens at Picuris Pueblo; Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute at Santa Clara Pueblo; Pojoaque Pueblo Farmers’ Market and agricultural projects; Tesuque Pueblo Farm Project; the Santa Ana Garden Center; Ramah Navajo Foods; Diné be lina—Navajo; Sedillo Cattle Association (Laguna Pueblo); Farm at Isleta Pueblo, and traditional gardening projects at Zuni Pueblo. The Traditional Native Farmer’s Association ( has been offering summer workshops and actively supporting tribal agricultural revitalization efforts. Native Seed Search, based in Tucson, is involved with many tribal seed-saving projects, and the New Mexico Acequia Association has worked in association with tribes on agriculture and water issues.


Sustainability, considered at the deepest level, is about cultural survival. We must be mindful with every step. Walking lighter upon the Earth happens in a gradual accumulation of small, conscious actions.




Susan Guyette, Ph.D. is Métis (Micmac Indian and Acadian French) and a planner specializing in cultural tourism, cultural centers, museums and native foods. She is the author of Planning for Balanced Development, co-author of Zen Birding: Connect in Nature, and the author of several texts for American Indian Studies.



You may also be interested in Susan Guyette’s book:



by Susan Guyette, Ph.D.


BearPath Press

To be released September 2012

ISBN 978-0-9858788-0-1


CULTURAL TOURISM OF THE FUTURE will foster authenticity and learning experiences through small-scale, linked enterprise networks. This book presents a practical, value-based planning and development method for cultural tourism coming from within the community context, emphasizing the three sustainability variables—culture, economy and ecology. Through planning and sustainable practices, tourism can generate resources for earned livelihood and cultural retention, as well as resource protection.


Sustainability is possible through a worldview that respects cultural values and natural cycles, rather than a lineal, profit-based economic perspective. The approach taken emphasizes a cyclical process of community-based evaluation and redirection to maximize benefits and minimize impacts from tourism. Indigenous methodology points the way.


Chapters include: Indigenous Methodology; Understanding Tourism; Winning With a Regional Approach; Beginning the Planning Process; Community and Visitor Surveys; Analyzing the Market; Completing the Tourism Action Plan; Interpretive Centers; Cultural Centers & Museums; Creating Jobs; The Tourism Enterprise; Increasing Sustainability; Conclusion: Cultural Resilience.




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