Download!Download Point responsive WP Theme for FREE!

The Wisdom of Indigenous People and Missiological Paradigm Shift: A Missioner’s Reflection



Fr. Edgar Javier, SVD,

Head of Department of Missiology in Institute of Consecrated Life in Asia (ICLA)



This paper is about indigeneity. More specifically, it is about indigenous wisdom. Amidst the many epochal changes taking place in our globalized world is the cry to go back to the archaic – that is, “to return to the old-fashioned and antiquated.”[1] These epochal changes have occurred and signalled a historical process described as “de-rationalization.”[2] Scientists are uncertain of their ability to know fully the world. Hence, the world cannot be known fully.

In this forum, return to the archaic is an approach that we will take in our quest for answers to contemporary issues and concerns that are affecting human and ecological survival and flourishing. These answers are engraved in the wisdom of indigenous peoples across cultures. In a world that is global, diverse, and plural is the sincere nostalgia or longing to go back to the primordial state of life. This longing is brought about by the emergence of the indigenous peoples in the global scene.[3] In postmodern times, they too have lessons to teach. Amidst scientific and technological advances, the indigenous peoples have wisdom to share. Indeed knowledge and wisdom do not only come from the center but also from the margins, from the peripheries.

The task given to me is to discuss “The Return of Indigenous Wisdom.” In developing this topic, we shall give answers to the following questions:

  • Who are the indigenous people?
  • Why go back to indigenous knowledge and wisdom?
  • How can we respond to the challenges of indigenous wisdom?


The World of the Twenty-first Century

The world of the twenty-first century is an exciting and challenging world. It is a complex and unpredictable world.[4] Human relations and cultural systems worldwide are being rearranged and restructured. To help us understand the world of the twenty-first century, Arjun Appadurai, points out that territorial border have become increasingly irrelevant. Although most people in today’s world still function within geographically defined communities, Appadurai marks out five global spaces or dimension in which transnational cultural flows occur. He identifies them as scapes (meaning something crafted, configured, or transformed by humans). These new scapes are:

  • Ethnoscapes: the fluid and shifting landscape of migrants, refugees, exiles, tourists, and other moving groups and people.
  • Technoscapes: the global configuration of technologies moving at high speeds across previously restrictive borders.
  • Financescapes: the global crossroads of currency speculation and financial transfer.
  • Mediascapes: the distribution of electronic media capabilities to produce and spread information, plus the large complex repertoire of narratives and visual images generated by these media.
  • Ideoscapes: ideologies produced by the state and alternative ideologies developed by non-state and counter-hegemonic forces, around which societies organize their political cultures and collective identities.[5]

Each of these “scapes” plays a significant role in the structural and systemic power of contemporary times. The world is experienced as increasingly characterized by ethnicity, technology, money, media, and new ideologies. The old geographical borders are giving in to the new borders or divides. These new frontiers are re-defining human relationships and cultural identities. The new scapes are rearranging and restructuring the world into a global village, or planetary society, or planetary city. In the global world, “diversity among global communities ranges from ways in which they understand and approach the fundamental needs of human life to ways in which they view gender, age, class, ethnicity, caste, religion, family and history.”[6] The new world is exciting, but it is also a very complex one.

The new world has its own global culture. Contemporary global culture is driven by flows of people, technology, finance, information, images, and ideology.[7] This has ushered in a global culture of consumption as business, technology, and the media have increased the craving for commodities and images throughout the world. [8]The idea that the world is now compressed in terms of time, space, and consciousness has acquired a degree of popular appeal in many people or societies. They argue that it is good: to have a common language to facilitate international exchange, and a shared ideology (with everyone having similar political ideals and religious beliefs) to lessen cross-cultural misunderstandings and conflicting viewpoints that have led so often to violence over the past several hundred years.[9]

On the other hand, however, there are societies that have distinctive worldviews that persist and continue to persist despite the strong forces of globalization that have impact on almost every society. This means that not all people “react the same way to the changes on their doorsteps”[10] that are brought about by the forces of globalization.

Globalization has impact on almost all societies in the world, including or especially the indigenous peoples or traditional communities. In fact, globalization has caused the emergence of the indigenous peoples.[11] Since globalization is unstoppable and irreversible, we are compelled to ask: How can thousands of different societies, having existed for centuries, maintain their distinctive cultural identities and deal successfully with the multiple challenges hurled at them by the forces of globalization?

Globalization does run into resistance. This resistance is manifested especially in the rise of traditionalism and revitalization movements – that is, “the efforts to return to a life as it was or how people think it was.”[12] Indigenous peoples are offering the world of the twenty-first century alternative perspectives and approaches to life that are imbedded in their indigenous wisdom. In many parts of the world, however, indigenous wisdom is not given the respect and recognition that it deserves. In many instances across cultures, “the insights of indigenous peoples have been taken for granted.”[13] Little understanding is accorded to the thoughts and practices of indigenous peoples. Today, however, the picture is changing because of the global concerns that must be acted upon locally. Hence, this missiology forum is a tribute to all the indigenous peoples in the world. In particular, this paper is a contribution to the advocacy for the respect and recognition of the indigenous peoples in our globalized world.

Who are the Indigenous Peoples?

The term indigenous refers “to anything produced, growing, or living naturally in a particular region or environment.”[14] Since the proclamation and celebration of the Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (1994-2004), “indigenous refers to ethnic groups with obvious cultural, linguistic, and kinship bonds who are often so marginalized by modern nation-states that their inherent dignity and coherence as societies are in danger of being lost.”[15] Indigenous refers then “to people whose underlying organizational principle is a social relationship such as family, clan, band, tribe, or other social structures, rather than the religion or sacred belief system to which they subscribe.”[16]

Often times, these people are labelled as “primal” and “ethnic minorities.” During the colonial years, they were negatively described as “fierce,” “troublesome,” “wild,” and “barbaric.” Today, such negative terms are not acceptable anymore. The indigenous communities in the world are so diverse that broad generalizations and descriptions are inadequate.

The term that best describes the indigenous peoples today is diversity. It is a term that implies richness and wealth. This diversity is shown in the following areas:

  • diversity of indigenous lifeways,
  • in attitudes toward surrounding bioregions,
  • in attitudes toward the destructive pressures of globalization on indigenous homelands,
  • and in attitudes toward the right of indigenous peoples to express their own minds in public forums.

The indigenous peoples of the world have stood the harsh tests of time. A century ago, no one thought of them to be an active force in contemporary times. That was unthinkable. Many believed that they belonged to an earlier and, therefore, inferior stage of human history and so were doomed to extinction. History, however, has not turned out that way at all. While it is true that many tribal societies have been wiped out by war, disease, exploitation and cultural assimilation, it is equally true that native peoples today show a demographic strength and growth. It is estimated that indigenous peoples number at over 250 million worldwide. They are spread across more than 4,000 different groups.[17] Indeed diversity is a term that best describes these peoples.

More significantly, indigenous peoples have asserted their place in twenty-first century global culture, economy, and politics.[18] They have become a formidable force to be reckoned with today. This demands a sincere recognition of indigeneity as a relational field of governance, subjectivities, and knowledges that involves us all – indigenous and nonindigenous – in the making and remaking of the structures of power of the global community. The indigenous people cannot be left out of the global community.

A wide range of cultures all across the globe exists. The indigenous peoples see themselves as members of distinct nations by virtue of their birth and their cultural and territorial heritage – nations over whom peoples of some other ethnic background have tried to assert political control. An estimated 5,000 such national groups exist in the world today, as opposed to a mere 192 states formally admitted as members of the United Nations.[19] The indigenous peoples make up about five per cent (5%) of humanity’s population. Typically, they have suffered repression or discrimination by ethnically different, more powerful and almost always more heavily populated groups that have gained control over their ancestral homelands.

In the early 1970s, indigenous peoples began to organize self-determination movements, resisting acculturation[20] and challenging violations of their human rights. They established the World Council of Indigenous Peoples in 1975. In 2007, after many years of popular media campaigns, political lobbying, and diplomatic pressure by hundreds of indigenous leaders and other activists all around the globe, the UN General Assembly finally adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Declaration contains 150 articles urging respect for indigenous cultural heritages, calling for official recognition of indigenous land titles and rights of self-determination, and demanding an end to all forms of oppression and discrimination as a principle of international law.[21]

Why return to indigenous wisdom?

The indigenous peoples and their traditions are “creating a field of dialogue.”[22] A century ago, the idea that indigenous people as “an active force in the contemporary world was unthinkable.”[23] The native peoples today also show “demographic strength, even growth.”[24] They survived. This demonstrates that they are “capable of reinventing themselves”[25] despite the many influences from non-traditional communities. As many of them survived being wiped out by war, disease, exploitation, and assimilation over these last centuries, they have demonstrated that their indigenous wisdom played a significant role in their life. This wisdom “is praised and celebrated in songs, legends and ritual.” In this wisdom is the “overwhelming emphasis on notions of interrelatedness, mutual dependence, reciprocity, ecological balance, wholeness, the integrated web of life, and especially community.”[26]

Today we live in an age of great conflicts and petty hopes. Religions are thriving in many parts of the world today. Difference and pluralism are realities that have become glaring to all. They characterize the postmodern world. Opportunities for engagement with the postmodern culture are not wanting nor lacking. But the pace of cultural change in contemporary societies is very fast. The consequence is that the contemporary man/woman is accommodating what he/she has not shaped and is able to shape only in a limited way.

In this situation, indigenous cultures and traditions are offering alternatives or options. By culture is meant “a space in which one lives”[27] and by tradition is meant “the viable cultural wholes, or lifeways that have been continually transforming the indigenous.”[28] Such transformation occurs in their encounters with other indigenous and non-indigenous peoples as well. Culture and traditions constitute their indigenous wisdom, “a kind of peculiar truth that concerns all people.”[29]

Indigenous wisdom has gone public in the last decades. Since the world has witnessed and experienced the physical degradation and destruction of the environment, climate change, inter-ethnic contact, migration, and the process of making and re-making indigenous and global culture, indigenous thinking is teaching the world many lessons to learn from. For example:

  • humans are related to the environment;
  • he concept of person extends into the natural world;
  • indigenous ways of knowing the world are expressed in symbolic language of visions and mythic narratives;
  • the epistemologies of life are to be lived close to a bioregion; and
  • cosmological perspective of relatedness is to be linked to the larger whole.

These lessons are all geared towards human-earth interactions and human-ecological flourishing. After all, “we are Earth and that our destiny is indissolubly linked to that of the Earth and of the cosmos of which the Earth forms a part.”[30]

The world is now in an era in which traditional standards, groups, boundaries and identities are breaking down. This era is described as postmodern where established rules or standard are breaking down.[31] Globalization promotes intercultural communication, including travel and migration, which bring different peoples into direct contact. Yet, disintegration also surrounds us. Hence, the indigenous peoples are showing themselves as models for the search for social, cultural, and political rights. These rights are geared toward their quest for self-determination, which emphasizes

  • their cultural distinctiveness,
  • political reforms involving a restructuring of their societies, and
  • territorial rights and access to natural resources, including control over their economic development.

Hence, the indigenous peoples ensure the continuance of diversity. This is something to be reckoned with in promoting a more humanistic vision of life, a vision that respects human biological and cultural diversity.

Environmental forces do influence humans. On the other hand, human activities do influence the biosphere and the Earth itself. The 1950s-1970s witnessed the emergence of an area of study called cultural ecology or ecological anthropology,[32] thanks to the indigenous peoples. This study focuses on how cultural beliefs and practices help indigenous people adapt to their environments, and use elements of their culture to maintain their ecosystems. Many indigenous groups know how to manage their resources and preserve their ecosystem. They use their traditional ways to categorize their resources, regulate their use, and preserve their environment. Hence, the indigenous peoples are showing us not only to understand but also to find solutions to environmental problems. Ecosystem management can be learned from the indigenous peoples.

How can we respond to the challenges of indigeneity?

The question is: “How can we respond to the challenges of indigeneity? We propose the following responses: (a) reconceptualization of indigeneity, (b) enhancement of cultural synergism, and (c) acknowledgement of our common kinship.

Reconceptualization of indigeneity. Indigenous peoples were associated with a romanticized past but marginalized in the present. They are still dealing with the dynamics of being categorized by other. They are, at the same time, also seeking to define themselves within and against indigeneity’s dense web of symbols, fantasies, and meanings.[33] Implied here is the need to rethink the notion of indigeneity. But how might indigeneity be reconceptualised? “A vital starting point,” it is suggested, “is to recognize that indigeneity emerges only within larger social fields of difference and sameness.”[34]

Indigeneity must be looked at through its relation to what it is not, to what it exceeds or lacks. This means that indigeneity is contingent to the non-indigenous. Indigeneity connotes difference. Hence, the colonial and neo-colonial articulations of indigeneity such as “pagan” “primitive,” and “uncivilized” must be removed from the lexicons. These terms are European inventions, products of their evolutionary epistemology. In the global community, the indigenous must define themselves. Self-definition is one of their inalienable rights. It must not be taken away from them. Hence, the reconceptualization of indigeneity is primarily their task. Non-indigenous can only expedite and facilitate the process.

Enhancement of cultural synergism. Dialogue is a happy term. It signifies the very essence of the human being. The human being is essentially a dialogical being because of language.[35] Language is the key to understanding culture. It is the key to intercultural communication. Culture is the sum-total of human activity. It is a central aspect of human existence. It encompasses the total way of life of a particular people – both indigenous and non-indigenous. It comprises the ideas, habits, skills and knowledge that are learned, shared, and transmitted from one generation to the other. In this era of globalization, cultural synergism is the most reasonable alternative for handling ethnic antagonism and tribalism.[36]  By cultural synergism is meant “the capacity of cultures to enrich one another qualitatively and quantitatively by opening up and talking with one another as opposed to talking to each other. This is based on the assumption that no culture can exist in isolation.

Every culture needs perfecting or completion. This is best expressed by the old saying that goes this way: “the whole is both better and greater than the sum of its parts.”[37] This perspective would resolve the contradiction between cultures. It creates a condition in which mutual affection and dependence of cultures is realized. Autonomy and the need of completion go hand and hand. Hence, the enhancement of cultural synergism between and among cultures – both indigenous and no-indigenous – must be promoted.

Acknowledgement of our common kinship. Indigenous peoples have survived because of human-earth interactions. By assimilating information from the world of nature, they were able to reinvent themselves. This was made possible because the indigenous peoples acknowledged their kinship with all creatures of the earth, sky and water. This was an active principle in their life and existence. Luther Standing Bear, a

Lacota writer, says: “”Kinship with all creatures of the earth, sky and water was a real and active principle. For the animal and bird world there existed a brotherly feeling that kept the Lacota safe among them… The old Lacota was wise. He knew that man’s heart away from nature becomes hard; he knew that lack of respect for growing, living things soon led to lack of respect for humans too. So he kept his youth close to its softening influence” (Land of the Spotted Eagle). Indeed, we humans are only one of the many species created by the Great Spirit. We have to promote and preserve our common kinship with all created species.


Interconnectedness is a fundamental fact of human and ecological existence, nurturance, and flourishing. The sign of the time that can bring hope to today’s global village or planetary society is the collective awareness expressed in the cry ‘A different world is possible!’ – ‘A different planetary village is possible!’

“For the first time in the long history of humankind,” Geffré argues, “human scientific mastery and technology is such that the very future of the human species and the planetary village, our earth, is in our hands. Either we have the wisdom to modify ongoing processes or we shall all perish.”[38] Harmonious life in society is not enough. Ongoing existence of an authentically human and ecological life on earth is our goal. “The improbable is possible,” says Edgar Morin, the French philosopher. If so, then we have to mobilize the infinite resources of human liberty to reverse the fatal course of human and Earth’s history. Indigenous wisdom has much to teach us.

[1] Philip Babcock Gove, ed., Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language (Springfield, Massachusetts: Merriam-Webster Publishers, 2002).

[2] Maximus Fernando, “Epochal Change: The Return of the Archaic,” Religious Life Asia 14, no. 1 (January-March 2012): 10.

[3] See Conrad Phillip Kottak, Cultural Anthropology: Appreciating Cultural Diversity, 14th edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011), 386.

[4] William A. Haviland, Harald E. L. Prins, Bunny McBride, and Dana Walrath, Cultural Anthropology: The Human Challenge (Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 2011), 392.

[5] Arjun Appadurai, “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy,” Public Culture 2 (1990): 1-24.

[6] Fay Patel, Mingshen Li, and Prahalad Sooknanan, Intercultural Communication: Building a Global Community (London: SAGE, 2011), 11.

[7] See A. Appadurai, Globalization (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001).

[8] Kottak, Cultural Anthropology, 382.

[9] Haviland  et al., Cultural Anthropology, 390.

[10] Ibid.

[11] See Kottak, Cultural Anthropology, 386-388.

[12] Haviland et al., Cultural Anthropology, 408.

[13] John A Grim, “Indigenous Traditions and Deep Ecology” in David Lands Barnhill and Roger S. Gottlieb, eds., Deep Ecology and World Religions: New Essays on Sacred Ground (Albany, New York State University of New York Press, 2001), 36.

[14] Ibid., 37.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Michael D. Palmer and Stanley M. Burgess, eds., Religion and Social Justice (Malden Massachusetts: Blackwell, 2012), 347.

[17] See the Website of Survival International ( for more information.

[18] Marisol de la Cadena and Orin Starn, “Introduction” in Marisol de la Cadena and Orin Starn, eds. Indigenous Experience Today (Oxford: Beg, 2007), 1-2.

[19] Haviland et al., Cultural Anthropology, 409.

[20] “Acculturation refers to changes that result when groups come into continuous first-hand contacts – changes in the cultural patterns of either or both groups.” See Kottak, Cultural Anthropology, 378.

[21] Haviland et al., Cultural Anthropology, 409.

[22] Grim, “Indigenous Traditions and Deep Ecology,” 36.

[23] Cadena and Starn, “Introduction,” 1.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Grim, “Indigenous Traditions and Deep Ecology,” 37.

[26] Ernst M. Conradie, An Ecological Christian Anthropology” At Home on Earth? (Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate, 2005), 31.

[27] Miroslav Volf, A Public Faith: How the Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2011), 90.

[28] Grim, “Indigenous Traditions and Deep Ecology,” 37.

[29] Volf, A Public Faith, 102.

[30] Leonardo Boff, “Earth as Gaia: An Ethical and Spiritual Challenge,” Concilium 3 (2009): 25.

[31] Kottak, Cultural Anthropology, 383.

[32] Ibid., 373.

[33] Cadena and Starn,  “Introduction,” 2.

[34] Ibid., 4.

[35] M. S Sujimon, “Person and Community: Right and Duties – From an Islamic Perspective” in William Sweet, George F. McLean,Tomonobu Imamichi, and O. Faruk Akyol, eds., The Dialogue of Cultural Traditions: A Global Perspective (Washington, D.C.: The Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, 2008), 89.

[36] Francis Gikonyo Wokabi and Stephen Omondi Owino, “Ethnicity and Globalization” in The Dialogue of Cultural Traditions: A Global Perspective (Washington, D.C.: The Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, 2008), 157.

[37] Ibid., 163.

[38] Claude Geffré, “The God of Jesus and the Possibilities of History,” Concilium 3 (2009): 70.


<Peace on Asia>, Seoul : WTI 2013