A Philosophical Examination of Native American and Maori Cultures

The indigenous Polynesian and North American cultures are both comprised of unique and largely independent tribes; yet there exist broad, archetypal threads uniting the philosophies of each distinct subculture. Prevalent in both cultures is a strict code of “environmental ethics,” along with a custodial attitude toward the ecology’s continued sustainment (Callicott and Overholt 46, Patterson 33). Both cultures demonstrate animism—the idea at all elements of the physical world, both animate and inanimate, possess some type of life-force, awareness, and purpose (Callicott and Overholt 51-2, Patterson 36). Coinciding with shared animistic beliefs, both cultures stress an entirely non-individualistic worldview, with emphasis on the good of the whole over the benefit (or detriment) of the individual. I intend to explore Maori and Native American perceptions of time and epistemology through the examination of each culture’s shared ideals of non-individualism and ecological interdependence.

Familial and tribal hierarchy reflect the ideology of interdependence prevalent in both the Maori and Native American peoples. Callicott and Overholt note that “the concept of the Great Spirit and of the Earth Mother and the family-like relatedness of all creatures seems… to have been a very common, not to say universal, American Indian idea… likewise, the concept of a spiritual dimension or aspect to all things” (53). These indigenous societies lack the patriarchal tendencies of Judeo-Christian Europe, and entire tribes—comprised of dozens of families—are regarded as cohesive, familial structures. Shared contribution and adherence to duty are the most basal expectations of each individual, while the greater purpose of the collective is geared toward honoring the governing spirits and sustaining the physical land. One practice of the Australian aboriginals reflects this attitude concisely: “Each child’s umbilical cord is placed in a special tree, one for each child. What happens to the tree happens to the child—therefore the child has a responsibility to take care of the land” (Goode 23-4). Mono tribe member and archaeologist Ron Goode also writes:

“Our knowledge is based on a philosophy that says we are at one with Mother Earth and Creator. Our philosophy dictates our practice. Our gathering philosophy is our ecological policy. Gather what you need, leave some for the next gatherer, leave some for the animals, leave some for seed, leave some for the bush itself—no one wants to be left naked.” (26)

These beliefs are reflected in daily practices, with rules and rituals that govern hunting, gathering, farming, and social conduct within the tribe’s environment. Most pervasively, the sustainment of human life is not prioritized over the sustainment of the conceived universe (Perrett 258 and Patterson 35). Each tribe’s unique set of practices serve as demonstrations of their reverential and sacred regard for their world; they are also physical reflections of the theology and storytelling practices alive in both the Maori and Native American cultures.

The interdependent worldview shared by these societies does not end at the physical realm. The mythology and oral traditions of both cultures have had significant influence on the beliefs, rituals, and codes of conduct that regulate everyday life. Storytelling serves not only to connect people to the physical realm, but also the physical realm to the spiritual (Callicott and Overholt 53). Gods and spirits are believed to interact regularly and intimately with all inhabitants of the physical world. The Maori concept of wairuo (“two waters”) represents this idea—that the spiritual and the physical are “understood as analogous to two streams merging as a flowing river, with associated ebbs, eddies and currents” (Rameka 388). In many Native American tribes, the dreaming state is considered a higher or “truer” reality than the perceptions of the waking world; it is believed that, while asleep, one is able to temporarily shed their physical body and freely roam the spiritual planes (Callicott and Overholt 55). This indistinction between corporeal and incorporeal existence not only encourages each culture’s beliefs of animism—spiritual life imbued upon all things—but also influences perceptions of time and epistemology.

The Western view of time typically dictates the past as an inert collection of experiences; the present as the active, living moment in time; and the future as a nebulous cloud of unrealized possibilities and aspirations. The views within the Maori and Native American cultures represent non-linear perceptions of time and particularly contrast the Western view. The Maori have a common idiom: “Kia whakatōmuri te haere whakamua; I walk with backwards into the future, with my eyes fixed on my past” (Rameka 387). Rather than “facing” the future and leaving the past “behind,” the Maori see their past as the only truly knowable experiences from which they can direct their present choices. Experience and knowledge of the past is believed to continually shape and influence the present moment. Thus, the Maori carry their past and present at the forefront of their mind as they travel blindlyrearward—into the future. This is another example of the intuitive epistemology of these indigenous people. It is true that one cannot know the future with any certainty, and most, if not all, of an individual’s decisions are in fact guided by either previous experience or shared wisdom. It could logically follow that one would continuously reflect upon the past for guidance as they move into the uncharted waters of the future.

Alternately, the Native American perception of time is generally viewed as cyclical and regenerative. Again, this experienced-based knowledge feels quite intuitive when placed in the context of the “universal ethos” and animistic beliefs which are common of the Native American peoples (Callicott and Overholt47). Life in nature isundeniably cyclical: the rising and setting of the sun; the phases of the moon; the sprouting and wilting of crops; the shifting of the seasons; the shortening and lengthening of days; changing of the tides; the migration of animals; even the culling and regrowth of forests by fire—a sustainability practice common among many indigenous North American tribes (Goode 23-4). The continued observance of these naturally-occurring cycles in the physical world, combined with the theology of a single, unifying Great Spirit, instinctively leads to the cyclical perceptions of life and death which are quite common in the Native American culture.

Non-linear views of time also serve to bolster the non-individualistic worldview and universal ethos common within both cultures. A cyclical view of time, in conjunction with an animistic worldview, all but demands non-individualistic perceptions: if every understanding of the universe is based in unity with the Great Spirit or other cosmological power, then all elements of the universe must be treated with the same respect that the Great Spirit would be afforded (Callicott and Overholt47). This includes both past and future generations. Spirits of the Native American peoples are believed to act intimately within the land, touching all of existence, regardless of time (Perrett 255-8). Similar beliefs are held within the Maori culture: “Ancestors who have passed on, while existing within the spiritual realm, still remain in the physical, alongside the living… life is seen as a transitory process moving from body-to-body and generation-to-generation” (Rameka 388). This active and participatory acknowledgment of generations gone, along with those yet to come, encourages the individual to look beyond themselves, adhere to tradition and ritual, maintain social norms, avoid taboos, preserve the ecology, and ensure sustainment of the tribe.  

But how does this universal ethos—a stark contrast to the typically Western view of ecology—come to fruition? Both Maori and Native American creation myths typically assign some sort of human-esque personification to the elements of the natural world (Perrett 258, Alexander 385-6). The sky, earth, moon, sun, storms, waters, mountains, animals, grasses and trees; they are spiritually imbued, personified, familial relations of a greater, unifying cosmological entity (Patterson 34-5). These entities are alternately male, female, or instilled with the qualities of both sexes. This is another logical and intuitive assumption, as the majority of the elements in nature require the joining of two binary sexes in order to reproduce. Alexander notes that “the creation is the joint effort of a community, not often the work of one deity alone,” which further supports a worldview of interdependence and non-individualism (385). This “familial relation” to the gods then encourages views of interconnectedness, animism, and non-individualism within the people and their environment (Perrett 258). The gods and spirits are not distant, alien, untouchable beings; they are active, intimate, and unavoidable entities which live inside every element of the earth and are closely related to human beings.

This is an interesting contrast against the Judeo-Christian “sky god”; a singular, omnipotent male figure, utterly separated from the physical world, and believed to only interact—and interact quite abstractly—with those holy and worthy enough to be afforded his attention. Whereas the Maori and Native American cultures see the physical world as a holy realm, distinct but not in any way separate from the spiritual world, the Judeo-European attitude requires deliberate severance from the physical world. To “be of the world,” is a sin, and unity with the Father-God is only achieved after an ascension from our natural environment. Alexander argues: “The fundamental religious attitude is up, and focuses upon the idea of leaving the earth at death… Down is a metaphor for ‘bad’: the Fall, Hell, the ‘lower desires’ and the ‘lower animals’ are schematized in our moral vocabulary by this image” (384). This attitude supports the Western view of environmental dominance over dependence and entirely disassociates the physical world with any of the reverence and holiness so prominent within the Maori and Native American cultures.

Though the Western cultural view still typically perpetuates a classically Greek attitude toward nature—mechanical, unconscious, and wholly distinct from human existence—the modern, scientific view of the world falls more closely in line with the attitudes of the indigenous cultures explored throughout this paper. We now understand that the ecosystem of our world is vastly interdependent; we have witnessed and recorded the consequences of rampant colonialism, deforestation, poaching, extinction, over-farming, pollution, and the depletion of much of the earth’s natural resources (Goode 23-8, Callicott and Overholt 50). And though the Western attitude generally touts itself as utterly logical and scientific, our cultural attitude has yet to catch up to the mountains of empirical evidence available to the world. We continue to regard our environment as disposable, unchanged, and persistent in the wake of our rampant destruction.

In sum, there is a wealth of knowledge to be gleaned from cultures once debased as “savage” or “inhuman”; cultures which we now understand to have held a more scientifically sound and appropriate attitude towards our Earth than our “civilized” European ancestors. Mysticism aside, there is no denying the role that each species–plant, animal, mineral—plays within their ecosystem; there is also no denying the detriment that our individualistic and dominant Western attitude has had in reshaping the planet. Goode writes: “What are global warming, climate change, drought, dustbowls? These are terminology for a humankind out of sync” (27). These indigenous people, nearly erased in the insatiable Western appetite for dominance, likely hold the keys to restoration of our once-wild lands.

Annotated Bibliography

Alexander, Thomas. “The Fourth World of American Philosophy: The Philosophical Significance of Native American Culture”. Transactions of the Charles S. Pierce Society, vol XXXII, no 3, EBSCO Publishing, Summer 1996, pp 375-402.

Thomas examines the mythology of various tribes of native people across all of North America, tying the storytelling and oral traditions of the peoples into the emergence of their philosophical standpoints. He contrasts beliefs of indigenous Americans with the imported European Judeo-Christian ideals, and the various branches of philosophy that have emerged from that theology.

Callicott, J. Baird and Thomas W. Overholt. “Traditional American Indian Attitudes toward Nature”. From Africa to Zen: An Invitation to World Philosophy, 2nd ed, edited by Robert C. Solomon and Kathleen M. Higgins, Rowman & Littlefield, 2003, pp 45-66.

Callicott and Overholt draw stark contrasts between philosophies of indigenous Americans and European colonizers, focusing particularly on ethics and environmental responsibility. The lore, cosmology, and theology of Native Americans is used to trace the lineage of traditionally Native American worldviews.

Goode, Ron W. “Tribal-Traditional Ecological Knowledge”. News from Native California, California State University at Chico, Spring 2015, pp 23-28.

Goode, a Native American of the Mono tribe, explores the impact of colonization on the management and sustainability of indigenous lands, and explores the modern philosophical and cultural significances of an interconnected worldview.

Patterson, John. “Respecting Nature: The Maori Way”. The Ecologist, vol 29, no 1, ProQuest, Jan/Feb 1999, pp 33-8.

Patterson looks at the natural world philosophies of the Maori people and the potential impact adopting such protective and harmonious standards could have on modern culture. He closely ties his arguments into the Maori idea of all things containing mauri, or life force.

Perrett, Roy W. “Ngā Whakaaro Māori: Māori Philosophy”. From Africa to Zen: An Invitation to World Philosophy. 2nd ed, edited by Robert C. Solomon and Kathleen M. Higgins, Rowman & Littlefield, 2003, pp 255-68.

Perrett examines numerous facets of both past and modern Maori philosophy, tracing its origins to the myths and traditions of Maori ancestors. Additionally, Perrett points to the influence those ideals have had on the social and political landscape of New Zealand.

Rameka, Leslie. “Kia Whakatōmuri te Haere Whakamua: ‘I walk backwards into the future with my eyes fixed on my past’”. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, vol 17, no 4,Sage Publishing, 2016, pp 387-98.

Through Maori myth and cosmology, Rameka explains Maori philosophies of time and epistemology. She also examines the impact that non-linear time perception has on other areas of Maori life, such as personal responsibility and the familial structure.

Copyright E.J.R. Webster, 2016, all rights reserved.

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