An Interview with Greg Cajete



Susan Guyette



We are all related, sharing Mother Earth, interconnected in the intricate web of life—species to species. One depends upon the other. In the Native view, these complexities are reflected in everyday life. Greg Cajete, Pueblo scholar, director of Native American Studies at UNM and author of Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence, explains the Native perspective regarding animals and why this is vitally important for the 21st century.


SG: What brought you to these perspectives on Native Science?


GC: I became interested in “Indigenous Philosophies of Nature” as a result of my studies in bio-ecology, animal behavior and American Indian storytelling as a part of my research, design and implementation of a high school science curriculum that integrated art, science and the cultural histories of Native American peoples. This approach is important, to address the alienation that many Native students feel in regard to Western science. This work began in 1974 when I was the science teacher at the Institute of American Indian arts in Santa Fe.      


SG: How does the Native worldview of our relationship with animals differ from the American mainstream?


GC: Traditional Native perceptions of animal nature represent a type of thinking and attitude dramatically different from those of Western science. In the Native way, there is a fluid and inclusive perception of animal nature that makes less of a distinction between human, animal and spiritual realities. These realities are seen as interpenetrating one another. This is a view held in common with evolving descriptions of reality in quantum physics.


To the Western mind, the associations Native cultures make regarding animals may seem illogical, but they are indeed comprehensible and logical within the context of each Native cultural worldview. In Native science, associations and relationships of Native people to animals have their own internal logic. The way Native people traditionally classified animals had an “aptness” based on their value, their use as food and their relative role in the reality of the natural environment that both Natives and animals inhabited.


The integration of these relationships was accomplished through the structures of the tribal worldview. For example, acknowledging the sacred directions recognized a conceptual and physical sphere of relationship to nature and its animals that formed the Native foundation for understanding. In all Native traditions, the sacred directions are a conceptual, mythic and spiritual structure for reflecting upon the symbolic meaning of animals in the cosmology of Native cultures.


In the past, there has been a tendency to oversimplify native spiritual expression and miss many of its inherent and subtle meanings. These subtle meanings are often presented in the way Native cultures relate to animals, since animals are always associated with other Native concepts of power, dream, vision, guardian spirit, master or mother of game, and animal soul. The belief that animals have souls is deeply embedded in traditional Native view of animals. Each animal is seen to possess certain special qualities and powers that they may share with humans if they are properly treated. In the Native view, animals were far from being considered inferior; rather, they were in many ways superior to humans. Given this perspective, animals inspired the lifeways of Native cultures.


In the beginning of time, Native myth contends that humans and animals could communicate with each other. Animals cared for humans, helping them find food, water and shelter. They even sacrificed themselves when needed to help humans survive. They would assist humans in knowing when to prepare for the change of the seasons or the coming of storms. This intimacy with animals came to an end when humans began to be disrespectful of their animal relations. Humans, it is mythically related, began to abuse animals, kill them without need, steal the food they had stored for winter, and arrogantly mistreat them in various ways.


SG: What is Native American respect for animal species?


GC: Humans’ relationship to animals and our participation in their world bring forward our innermost instinctual selves, the highest in the order of our biological senses and being, and the core element of our consciousness. Traditional peoples around the world have incorporated this sense into their relationship with animals, as they see all animal species as having equal rights to life and a place on Earth.


We who live in contemporary cultures have largely disassociated ourselves from our natural instinct for affiliation with other forms of life. The once-sacred Earth community that nurtures human life has become “outside,” a place filled with malevolent natural forces that must be controlled or otherwise guarded against. Fear, control and exploitation of the “outside” or the other as enemy is deeply embedded in the psychology of Western society.


To this end, much of modern science and technology has been mobilized to guard against or to war against the other, be it a mountain, a forest people, a religion or the world of insects. From ideas in books and films, through education, government and science, the message and therefore the practiced belief has been one of fear and the need for domination and control of nature—its plants, animals, insects, and even its microorganisms. We have been conditioned to act, think, and project prejudicially toward animals, and as for the insects, we lack both the emotional and intellectual appreciation that would bring forward any true appreciation for their role and importance in the natural order.


SG: What can American culture learn from the Native American worldview of animals?


GC: Native cultures have much to teach non-Native cultures from their inclusive view of life—about listening to the “noise of the infinite in the small.” All animals—including insects—are necessary for the ecological functioning of the biosphere and the survival of all living things. The known benefits of the honeybee, earthworm, silkworm, ladybug, various beetles, ants and spiders balance out their perceived harmfulness to humans.


An entire species may be condemned to extinction if humans deem behavior or appearance unacceptable. This is the prevailing modern Western cultural attitude toward animals. In many ways this attitude has also characterized Western attitudes toward Indigenous cultures that have traditionally afforded kinship to the entire animal world.


For Native people, knowledge of animals was important to all aspects of their lives. Learning about animals was a lifelong task integrated in every aspect of tribal life. Practical knowledge included characteristics of animal behavior, anatomy, feeding patterns, breeding and migration. All of these expressions of relationship to the animal world provided rich teaching in a variety of experiences that Indigenous people understood in both practical and philosophical ways. They applied these in a direct process to help each individual “become fully human.”


SG: What is your message to the world for survival in the 21st century?


GC: We have little awareness that globally there is the equivalent of a biological “holocaust” in play, and that every day the Earth experiences the extinction of hundreds of microbiota, plants, insects and animal species. The biodiversity of life is dwindling, and with its loss we lose profound modes of natural spirit. In ignoring the health and viability of the biological web of life upon which we depend, we incur a real but largely hidden danger; in the life of the land on this planet lies our human lives. We ignore these relationships at our own peril.


There are two quintessential interdependent issues facing people in the 21st century, and both are fundamentally about relationship. The first is how we are going to deal with the environmental crisis, or how will we relate in a proper, sustainable way to plants, animals and the Earth. The second is how we are going to deal with each other in a proper, respectful way that acknowledges our common interdependence. Biological diversity and cultural diversity are both issues of relationship.



Gregory Cajete, Ph.D., a Tewa Indian from Santa Clara Pueblo, is also the editor of A People’s Ecology: Explorations in Sustainable Living; and the author of Look to the Mountain: An Ecology of Indigenous Education and Ignite the Sparkle: An Indigenous Science Education Model.





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