November 2016

Stirring Indigenous Mind Back Into the Commons of Human Consciousness


Jack Loeffler


Just as the winds of autumn stir the air that surrounds us, that we breathe in and out, that we share with our fellow lifeforms, so does our collective consciousness swirl with waves of input from without. Modern media constantly reshapes our perspective from moment to moment, rarely allowing time for conscious reflection, or even stillness of mind, unless we take time out to refocus our attention. Otherwise our minds are in constant motion, endlessly fed input largely designed to persuade us to purchase what we have been convinced we need, or to vote for a political animal carefully re-sculpted and groomed to appeal to what we ourselves have been re-molded to believe is culturally acceptable.  Mind-wrought.


For millennia, we as a species have gradually come to perceive ourselves as Nature’s reason to be rather than integral to Nature’s flow through time and space on this tiny planet at large in a universe scaled to seemingly infinite macro and micro proportions.  We have been a distinct species for about 200,000 years—say 10,000 generations of humans at the rate of five generations per century. When our planet warmed up after an epoch of deep chill during the last Ice Age that we’ve dubbed the Pleistocene, we began to phase out of our hunter-gatherer lifestyles and commenced to ‘civilize’ ourselves. We gradually learned to till the soil and thus reshape our social and cultural proclivities. We have commandeered the commons to suit the presumed needs of our growing civilizations. Thus we have collectively savaged much of our planetary biotic community to the extent that we waver near the edge of continued existence. The acreage of our wildlands is waning at an extraordinary rate, exploited soon to oblivion should we not check our ‘civilized’ propensity to ravage the commons for commerce.


In a conversation with author and shepherd Wendell Berry, he had this to say:

“The longer I have lived and worked here among the non-commercial creatures of the woods and fields, the less I have been able to conceive of them as wild. They plainly are going about their own domestic lives, finding or making shelter, gathering food, minding their health, raising their young, always well adapted to their places. They are far better at domesticity than we industrial humans are. It became clear to me also that they think of us as wild, and that they are right. We are the ones who are undomesticated, barbarous, unrestrained, disorderly, extravagant and out of control. They are our natural teachers, and we have learned too little from them. The woods itself, conventionally thought of as wild, in fact is thought of and used as home by the creatures who are domesticated within it. In the second poem of 1995, I try defining wild in a way that still seems fairly satisfactory. But when in the eighth poem of 2009 I was finally able to write of our habitat here as ‘a living place of many lives complexly domestic,’ I felt I got past a major cultural obstruction.”


(Mr. Berry alludes to poems in his book, This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems 1979-2012, published by Counterpoint Press in 2013.)


What an amazing insight that it is we humans who have become savages in a world where fellow creatures have evolved in domesticity within their habitats. And yet this is the case. In so civilizing ourselves, we have filtered out our sensitivity to the needs of place and become interlopers in the commons that sustain our entire biotic community.            


Just what are the commons? According to my late great friend Rina Swentzell from Santa Clara Pueblo:

The commons is everything. It is the context that we live in. Again, when I talk about it, it’s the old Pueblo thinking. The community was always thought of as being whole. Everything was interconnected. There was always a center to it as well, and I was a center and you were a center. There were many centers as a part of the whole thing. And we think that a whole has one center. In a way it’s true. But with the Pueblo there are so many simultaneous things that can happen at once, which is all part of the commons, I think, because there are so many things that go on at the same time. The wind is blowing, the water’s flowing, and we’re actually walking around and talking. It’s all part of this idea of what we all share. It’s that notion of sharing.


“In that Pueblo context, then, the focus was always, what is it that surrounds me? Who and what surrounds me, and who do I work with and around all the time? But the primary thing is that we felt that it was the earth, the sky, the clouds, the wind and that incredible term that we have that for me says it all: it’s the p’oh-wa-ha, it’s the water-wind-breath—the thing that we’re feeling right now. And that connects, it moves through our entire world in such a way that it connects everybody and everything. That becomes the commons in a sense. It’s that real ethereal thing. What is that blowing through the window right now that’s giving us all vitality? That’s the flow of life. In the Pueblo it really was that thing that swirls around, that swirls, that moves, that creates that sense of commons. It’s the ultimate of what is common to every living being. What do we have with the trees, with the rocks, with all of that that makes our life what it is today?”


This is the best definition of the commons that I know of. It is an assessment of reality formulated from within the mind of a wildly intelligent woman who was indigenous to her homeland, a person who was domesticated to the wild from within an ancient culture deeply rooted within home habitat. Hers is a perspective to which I aspire. She spoke from within Indigenous Mind, a perspective shaped more by the flow of Nature through homeland than by a list of facts about the nature of homeland. She lived within what Fritjof Capra identified as “a systems view of life.” She was possessed of a refined intellect but allowed her natural instincts and intuitions to run free. And she took a dim view of the shrunken, conventional outlook of mainstream culture:


“Today, what we do is just talk about human community. It gets to be such a small thing, within the larger scope of things. And I think that that is the demise of our lives, of modern lives today. We keep making the world smaller and smaller until it is nothing but us. Just human beings. Out of context. Out of our natural context. Out of our cosmological context. We have become so small in our view of the world. Our world is simply us human beings. And that is a crucial thing that we need to get beyond, and move back again to seeing ourselves within context.”


Indeed, human consciousness is a commons unto itself. It is presently shaped and fed by the predominant cultural trends that seem to be spiraling in a vortex that is devouring itself soon to blink out of existence by virtue of over-specialization and lack of insight. In our over-abundant self-indulgence, we have grievously neglected the roots of our consciousness, our indigeneity to Nature. We are spawned by Nature, we are sustained by Nature, we are but a tiny part of Nature’s flow through time and space. We are rooted in Nature, but if we neglect that realization and thus alter our natural habitat to the extent that it expels our species, we shall have laid absolute waste to a form of consciousness that even now has a tremendous capacity for elegance.


Indigenous Mind is vital to collective consciousness. The perspectives of indigenous peoples who continue within their traditional regard of the flow of Nature through homeland as sacred are far closer to the mark than those of us who would secularize habitat for endless economic growth. Those of us who recognize that profound sense of the kindred with all living creatures—as well as the air, the water, the soil itself—are tapped into Indigenous Mind. These are sensibilities to be nurtured and honored, to be stirred back into commons of human consciousness.


The late cultural anthropologist Edward T. “Ned” Hall once shared with me his own perspective, based on a long lifetime of work among peoples of Indigenous Mind:


“The land and the community are associated with each other. And the reason they’re associated and linked, and the reason that people get their feeling of community from the land, is that they all share in the land. Ethnicity is looked upon normally as a liability, because people want to make everyone else like themselves. And this is something we’re going to have to learn to overcome, because ethnicity is one of the greatest resources, if not the greatest resource, that we have in the world today. What we have here are stored solutions to common human problems, and no one solution is ever going to work over a long period time, so we need multiple solutions for these problems. So ethnicity is like money in the bank, but in a world bank. Culture is an extension of the genetic code. In other words, we are part of Nature ourselves. And one of the rules of Nature is that in order to have a stable environment, you have to have one that is extraordinarily rich and diverse. If you get it too refined, it becomes more vulnerable. So we need diversity in order to have insurance for the future. Again, you need multiple solutions to common problems. The evolution of the species really depends on not developing our technology but developing our spirits or our souls. The fact is that Nature is so extraordinarily complex that you can look at it from multiple dimensions and come up with very different answers, and each one of them will be true. And we need all of those truths.”



Jack Loeffler is an aural historian, author and radio producer whose perspective includes bioregionalism and systems thinking. He has recently completed a 10-part documentary radio series entitled “Encounters with Consciousness.”



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