Tlahui-Medic. No. 25, I/2008

Orality and Indigenous Medicine of the Americas: An Epistemology of Ecological Awareness

Diplomado de Tlahui-Educa
Herbolaria, Temazcal, y Medicina Tradicional Mexicana
Diplomate in Herbalism, Temazcal Sweat Lodge, and Traditional Mexican Medicine

Estudiante/Student: F. J. M.
Febrero/February, 2008


Orality and literacy are powerful influences on human thought and consciousness and can have a significant influence on all aspects of the "mentality" of a culture. (Ong, 1982) In this paper I will focus on how orality influences the epistemologies (i.e. basis and methods of knowledge) of Indigenous peoples of the Americas and explore the connections between Indigenous American medicine and Indigenous American ecological thought, discussing the ways in which the intersubjective and holistic ecocentric perspective of Indigenous medicine can help to heal our entire planet. In this paper I will often use the phrase "Indigenous oral" (Abram, 1996) in my discussion in order to emphasize the connection between Indigenous cultures of the Americas and the influence of orality on traditional indigenous medicine which constitutes the focus of my paper. Although orality is certainly not the only influence on medical thought and the relationship of humans to Nature in Indigenous cultures, I feel that the influence of orality on these cultures is significant, and is in need of being studied because it is a neglected area of research in the study of traditional Indigenous medicine. The study of orality-literacy differences is also important because in our contemporary literate culture we are so immersed in literacy that it is difficult for us to understand or even imagine how people from oral cultures think. This paper will be written from an interdisciplinary perspective, bringing contributions from literacy studies, linguistics and philosophy to this discussion of this topic.

Some theorists in the field of orality/literacy studies have pointed out the politically empowering characteristics of the acquisition of literacy. The purpose of my paper is not to challenge this view (considering the obvious benefits of literacy for these purposes) but only to point out the positive values present within Indigenous medicine as an epistemology of Nature and ecological awareness-something which I believe is crucial in today's world. For a similar reason, the medical effects of traditional Indigenous therapies on individual patients will also not be discussed in my paper since that would treat a different topic. Nor do I intend to imply that Indigenous medicine of the Americas is the only type of traditional medicine that is influenced by orality-indeed there are many types of traditional medicine around the world that involve the type of thinking present in my discussion of medicine and epistemology of Indigenous oral peoples of the Americas. Furthermore, appreciating the value of orality does not require a rejection of science, but only the reaffirmation of the living planet Earth itself as the basis for our awareness. I feel it should also be stressed that what I feel is the positive ecological consciousness present in epistemologies of Indigenous Americans does not necessarily require the conversion to a particular religion or doctrine, but only the acquisition of a particular kind awareness or sensitivity to the sensing and sensitive natural world.

The Shift from Orality to Literacy

Orality represents a very particular way of knowing the world - very distinct from contemporary Western thought, which is under the influence of literacy. According to the scholar of orality-literacy differences Walter J. Ong (1982), orality is not a form of writing, and writing is not a form of orality. The two have unique and different characteristics. Oral thinking is deeply rooted in the life world and in the use of perceptual understanding and human senses to understand the surrounding natural world. In an oral culture there is no abstract separation of the knower from the known, no secondhand knowledge separated from context, no feeling of separation from other people, from the land, and from the nonhuman beings which share our planet. In oral cultures there is a wider dialog which people from literate cultures tend not to understand well, or not to take seriously, a dialog that is not with purely human text, but with the entire world itself in a relationship, using language of a more-than-human world, in a kind of "ecology of magic" (Abram, 1996). This type of thinking is found in all members of Indigenous oral societies, and in varying degrees in recently alphabetized Indigenous cultures (Ong, 1982). Although criticized by some scholars as deterministic and generalistic, the theory of the orality/literacy "great divide" on human consciousness can help provide useful insights into the discussion of how humans came to loose their intersubjective perceptual awareness rooted in the reality of the living natural world.

Observing, and learning from Nature was part of the ancient animist/shamanist tradition of the Americas. The processes of differentiation over time created Indigenous cultures that were unique in terms of language, organization, politics, society and economy; however there was always a common idea linking all these cultures. This idea was one of the basic foundations of Indigenous cultures, despite their variations. Indigenous Americans considered themselves as being as part of a larger reality that included humans, culture, and society together with Nature (Aparicio Mena, 2005b).

According to Ong (1982), the historical shift from orality to literacy has had an important influence on the way humans perceive the world, by creating a separation of the knower from the known, by removing context and the perception of the life world, and leading to modern Western analytic thinking. Indeed, nonhuman natural forces seem to have withdrawn both from language and from the senses in modern literate society. According to David Abram (1996) with the discovery and learning of written words, literate cultures lost something that had been integral to oral traditions. With the written word, language, the forest, the plants and animals fell silent and without meaning, and we have, in a sense, become strangers in our own land.

According to this theory of "Animism and the Alphabet", when the Greeks adopted and modified the Jewish alphabet and introduced letters to represent vowels (because the Jewish alphabet used only consonants) the last gap through which the natural world and a sense of the life world might breathe was closed off and the first fully phonetic alphabet came into being. The alphabet becomes entirely airtight and self-referential-without any need for interpretation and without any references to other life forms other than the human (Abram, 1996).

The continents of the Americas where Indigenous culture and medicine flourished were regions of orality-even though there were complex writing systems in the Mesoamerican region. The painted books that were used in Mesoamerica were basically oral texts, because they combined pictures with oral human speech/song and required interpretation of images, unlike reading the phonetic alphabet. These systems of orality-painting therefore served to maintain and support orality, unlike chirographic (writing-based) systems (León Portilla, 2003). Much as in Chinese script, these Indigenous American books (called codices) contained rich images which directly linked to the lifeworld, with plants, animals, and people in the environment being shown (Abram, 1996). After the Spanish conquest however, many of these Mesoamerican codices were greatly changed during the process of translation and cultural mixing so as to conform with what Ángel María Garibay (1953) termed "the luminous prison of the alphabet."

With the development of the first fully self-contained alphabetic writing system in ancient Greece, humans for the first time were able to be alone, and separate from others, and could relate to each other and reflect on the world without any reference to what is for the Indigenous oral peoples of the Americas considered to be the source of all life and meaning-- the mysteries of the Earth itself and a more-than-human field of meanings within Nature. The invention of the alphabet established a direct association between the sign and the vocal sound, for the first time completely bypassing the thing pictured. Because of this, the more-than-human natural world was no longer part of the semiotic, no longer a necessary part of the system. According to Ong (1982) contemporary Western culture derives from this meeting of human senses and alphabet in ancient Greece, and this type of thinking has infiltrated other cultures, even those such as in the Asian cultures which still continue to use a writing system that makes reference to the lifeworld.

According to Maurice Merleau-Ponty (as cited in Abram, 1996), an important figure in the field of linguistics and phenomenology (the study of phenomena as they manifest themselves to the experience) the direct, prereflective perception of the world is inherently synestheic (using all the senses together), and is participatory and animistic, disclosing the things and elements that surround us as expressive subjects, entities and powers. Each thing in the world, and each phenomena in the world has the power to reach us and to influence us, therefore, according to this view every phenomena in Nature is expressive. We all have the capacity to communicate with nature, and for nature to communicate with us.

The act of reading an alphabetic text involves a kind of synethesia that was once used for understanding plants and animals of the lifeworld. According to Merleau-Ponty (as cited in Abram, 1996), just as there is an optic chasm, there is a "chasm" between all the sense modalities where they continually couple and collaborate with one another. The act of reading an alphabetic text involves "hearing" what the writer wishes to convey to us by using our eyes. An interplay of different senses is also what enables the chasm of communication between the body and the surrounding world. Synestheic perception is the rule among all life on Earth, however literate people are largely unaware of it only because scientific knowledge shifts the center of gravity of experience to written text, creating a loop between writers and their self-contained words-a loop which has cycled upon itself without the presence of surrounding Nature.

There has been a historical progression from oral, perceptually saturated culture to a more rationalistic culture which emphasizes separateness which is under the influence of alphabetic writing. Western culture has moved away from an engaged, intimate, empathetic and participatory understanding of the world, leading to an impoverishment in awareness and perception, while among Indigenous oral peoples the primal understanding of the world is retained (Abram, 1996).

Orality and Intersubjectivity

In Western philosophy, Phenomenology may be the tradition that comes closest to Indigenous oral thought, since it was the tradition that most called into question the idea of a single, wholly determinable, objective reality. According to the phenomenologist and linguist Maurice Merleau-Ponty (as cited in Abram, 1996), humans are all born with the ability to experience and respond to the sentient Earth in a kind of dialog or interaction. For example, the act of breathing is actually in reciprocity with the air according to this view-"when I breath out and when I breath in the air enters me and I am not completely separate or autonomous with the air." The air in other words is not a passive entity but an animic force coming to me when I summon it. In other words, as the anthropologist and philosopher Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (as cited in Abram, 1996) states, "perception is participation." The human body is a kind of circuit which completes itself in the world. This requires a change in thought-in which perceptual reciprocity becomes the key to understanding our interactions with a living Earth.

In Indigenous oral cultures the tree bending in the wind, the cliff wall, or the clouds are not merely subjective, they are intersubjective phenomena, phenomena experienced by a multitude of sensing objects. The modern assumption of objectivity has led to an almost total forgetting of the lifeworld in the modern era, yet it is this lifeworld in which all human endeavors are rooted. This lifeworld is our immediately lived experience as we live it, prior to all our thoughts about it. It is present in our everyday tasks and enjoyments-it is reality before being analyzed and engaged by theories and science-and infact, theories and science could not exist without it. Whenever we seek to explain this world conceptually, we seem to forget our active participation in it. Striving to represent the world, we forget its direct presence.

In the field of linguistics, the majority of linguists follow the theory of Ferdinand de Saussure (as cited in Abram, 1996), which maintained that there is an arbitrariness between the vocal sounds and that which they signify, however there also exists another theory in linguistics that maintains that gesture, mimicry and onomatopoeia may have been at the origin of human language. In other words the genesis of language itself may have originated in preverbal communication between the human body and surrounding nonhuman Nature. We are embodied beings, and we learn language through our body, according to Merleau-Ponty (as cited in Abram, 1996). Many authentically Indigenous tribes use imitation of animal communication, ways of walking, and so on in order to better hunt and this type of knowledge is essential to their survival. There have been many cases recorded of hunters even communicating among themselves using animal languages. Therefore, according to this theory, it is not the human body alone, but rather the whole world of the senses all together that provides the deep structure of language, so in a sense the animate world speaks within us. Language is not a purely mental phenomenon but living, embodied, and constantly shaped though reciprocity and participation. The complex interchange we call "language" is rooted in the non-verbal exchange already going on between our "flesh" and the "flesh" of the world. Our senses express and respond to the living natural world and the living natural world expresses itself and responds to our senses. Experientially considered, language is not the exclusive property of humans. Language writes Merleau-Ponty (as cited in Abram, 1996) "is the very voice of the trees, the waves, the forests".

What have often been called "primitive languages" of "illiterate cultures" actually represent a reservoir of holistic knowledge that conserves a view of the world that is far richer and more inclusive than our own literate culture. Oral-indigenous cultures still maintain a profound awareness of the importance of the creative cosmos, the knowing body (which is a unified bodymind), and knowledge of place. The orality present in many of these cultures can include sounds that exist within its ecosystem, allowing not only intra-species communication but inter-species communication (Abram, 1996). Developments in interspecies communication suggests that "language" can be considered in a broader sense. Anthropology once defined humans as being unique because of the ability to use language. Now due to recent studies of animal communication, much of this belief is finally being eroded (Walker, 2001).

Orality, Traditional Medicine, and the Cosmic Equilibrium

In the Indigenous oral cultures of the Mesoamerican region, Nature is seen as forming a unity with a philosophical tradition based on harmony, interconnection, and equilibrium in the lifeworld. The duality of life and death are part of this unity. Health and illness are the result of equilibrium or disequilibrium of the elements that compose this underlying unity of reality and/ or its functions. Plants are not seen in this tradition as vegetables and nothing more, but as fully living beings, and a part of the Earth and Nature as a whole. For this reason they are believed to cure (or harm depending on use and relationship to them), and because of this, they have been used since ancient times to restore equilibrium-which is what Indigenous cultures see as health (Aparicio Mena, 2005b).

For people from a Western educational background, the study of medicine means to follow a Western mindset and to follow the path of science. For a traditional Indigenous person from an oral culture in Mesoamerica however, the use of direct perception and the senses in the lifeworld to understand Nature is a way of life. Plants, as with the rest of Nature is part of an "energy" or "ample reality", something which the writer Chica Casarola (as cited in Aparicio Mena, 2005b) termed "multireality [la multirrealidad]." The bodymind which is a part of nature, is a system that actively seeks homeostasis. For traditional Indigenous oral cultures in the Mesoamerican region, health is seen as the balance of energies and continuous adaptation and regulation of elements which compose the social environment, the natural environment, the cultural environment, and the spiritual environment, all in a relationship of interconnectedness. (Aparicio Mena, 2005b).

Because of its transitory and contextual nature, in oral cultures the visible breath is the spoken word, and this impermanence makes the word more valuable and more "living" to these peoples. Spoken words and ability to speak well are taken very seriously in oral cultures (Ong, 1982). Spoken words are seen to have powerful, magical qualities, and in these cultures words can be used for purposes such as healing. Some Indigenous cultures in the Americas believe that information about plant medicines may emanate from the plant itself, through dreams, visions, or the plant communicating with them directly (Buhner, 1996). Orality emphasizes intuitive and situational-based knowledge, and there is a great deal more influence from the unconscious mind and holistic thought (Ong, 1982).

Indigenous healers note that the human in making contact with plants, one must enter into the world of plants, and into a special sacred time, and not as a human who is "superior" and who knows everything, but as a seeker who has come to learn from the plant. Indeed, humans are considered to be dependent on the plants and the plants are the ones who are considered superior to humans. Many traditional healers have the belief that plants can talk to humans and that humans can talk to plants and that to talk with the plants (or any object) through mutual perception and communication and that this requires the accumulation of spiritual power. In Indigenous medicine there is a strong element of being able to converse with plants and between species to exchange information (Buhner, 1996).

According to Walter Ong (1982), song, because of its rhythm and emotional effect is very important in oral cultures since it serves as a mnemonic device in a culture that does not have alphabetic script. In Mesoamerica, the use of song is often mentioned when discussing the Calmecac schools, and it is likely that song was widely used in many other Mesoamerican educational contexts as well due to the characteristics of orality. Chirographic culture is fundamentally biased towards the visual, while oral cultures on the other hand, are more multisensory and with an emphasis on the auditory according to Ong. The idea of songs (music) with its poetic and emotive orientation is also keeping with the emphasis on the unconscious nature of oral thought. In Indigenous oral cultures, songs come from the elements, from the plants, and from animals. This means that in Indigenous oral cultures as in all oral cultures, people do not "study" in the Western sense, but are apprenticed. Apprenticeship in plant medicine in some Indigenous oral cultures for example, might require that the student spend long periods of time with each plant and learn its song. To complete the training, the student would be expected to sing the song of each plant being used. This can still be seen today in a number of contemporary Indigenous cultures.

In a world without alphabetic books such as in Indigenous oral cultures of the Americas there is also out of necessity a direct participation between the various keepers of knowledge. Among people who use the encyclopedia of plant songs in some of the Indigenous cultures of the Americas for instance, there is often the recognition of the power of another person's song and at times they might wish to obtain the song. If the owner of the song decided to sell it, an exchange would be agreed upon, and the owner would "teach the song, explain its use, and show a specimen of the herb to be employed with it." (Buhner, 1996)

The passing down to future generations of Indigenous oral languages through the tradition of the spoken word used in the lifeworld helps to ensure the spread of the ideas and concepts contained within these languages (Aparicio Mena, 2005a). According to Ong (1982), oral cultures tend to give greater emphasis to community and respect for elders compared with literate cultures because memory is fundamental to the preservation of knowledge-these are cultures that are deeply attached to tradition. Furthermore, reading is a solitary, individual activity, while in orality, this private space is nonexistent. It is important to note that much of the "New Age Movement" (which was developed within the Western context) has appropriated expressions of Indigenous oral thought to market a solitary individual's ambition of personal improvement-but this is not an authentic Indigenous viewpoint. In the true thought of Indigenous oral peoples, traditional healers do not work only for the self-help of individuals with their personal goals, but more importantly, on behalf of their entire communities' well-being and survival, with the word "community" interpreted in the widest possible sense to include surrounding environment of their area-plants, animals, and society (Walker, 2001).

Because the senses of an oral people are contextual, still attuned to the world around them, still conversant with the expressiveness of Nature, time is seen as cyclical and rooted to each living being. Time in such as world is not separable from the circular life of the sun and the moon, from the cycling of the seasons, the death and rebirth of the animals-from the "eternal return" of the greening Earth. In oral speech there is repetition due to the nature of oral memory, and because unlike alphabetic writing, orality cannot exist outside of the instant in which the word is spoken. Perhaps influenced by this, Indigenous peoples in ancient Mesoamerican believed that natural phenomena and human acts submerge themselves and become immersed with qualities peculiar to each place and each instant. Each "place-instant", a complex of location and time, determines in an irresistible and foreseeable way everything that happens to exist within it (Chevalier & Sanchez Bain, 2003).

We can see how in oral training such as in Indigenous medicine there is a clear contrast with the characteristics of literate thought, which according to Walter Ong (1982): (1) Distances the knower from the known (2) Is detached (from the writer) (3) Promotes exteriorization of thought (4) Encourages people to see themselves situated in time with linear categorical thinking.

Taxonomy, Rhetoric, and the Interconnection between Humans and Nature

Being from oral cultures does not mean that Indigenous peoples lack or have lacked detailed knowledge of the natural world. Indigenous oral peoples can often observe and know the plants of their world better than many Western botanists. They can often identify and name each plant in their territory in any stage of growth, from seedling to dead leaf. According to Bonfil Battalia (1989/1996) for example, Indigenous languages are far richer than Spanish in describing different parts of the corn plant and of corn in different stages of life. Some systems of plant identification are more complex and precise than those currently in use by Western botanists (Buhner, 1996).

Orality influences systems of classification - everything must be memorized, therefore systems of classification are by necessity very different from those in Western culture. This can explain why things similar in form and function are grouped together, for example in the Aztec medical classification of the human body. Oral discourse according to Ong (1982) is formulaic in style and these formulas are based on clusters which constitute the organizing principles of the formulas. Oral thinking is non-linear. In Alfredo López 's classic work The Human Body and Ideology: Concepts of the Ancient Nahuas (1980/1988) this can be evidenced in the Aztec terms that mention classes-like the one that includes all parts of the body that are striated (acaliuhca); those that include all tubes (acayotl, piazyotl, cocotl); the one that unites everything communicating with outside (tlecallotl), and the one that groups all curves together (coliuhca). As for criteria for defining functions, some of the 3 groups are "folders," "doublers," or "breakers" (nepoztecya, poztecca, necuelpachoaya, zazaliuhca, necuazaloliztli, cotozauhca, nepicyantli), with some specific differences: the parts of the body that seem to open and close an orifice (motzoliuhca), those used for throwing objects (mayahuia), those that protect a person (nepalehuiaya), those used in running (tlaczayatl) and those used out to carry out man's wishes (tlatecoaca). Here similar things are grouped together in clusters even if they are part of different bodily systems and located in different parts of the body.

According to Claude Lévi-Strauss (1962/1966) the mind of Indigenous oral peoples, "the savage mind" is totalizing. According to López Austin (1980/1988), in any society where mythical thought predominates, there is a tendency to equate the different taxonomic systems and to look for corresponding elements in different processes, natural as well as social. Various ideas are compounded together, and there is an attempt to seek equivalent meanings and parallelisms among different classification systems in an attempt to discover the supreme congruency and total order in the universe. The goal is to reach the great classificatory synthesis, the maximum cognitive and norm setting instrument of existence. The effort to project different taxonomic systems on one another creates links among elements from very different areas of classification, and the semiotic complexes are enriched by relationships produced by the supreme synthesis. In this way, a given color, a mineral, a plants species, a cardinal direction, an animal etc. may be classified as equivalents until a general classification system is formed, containing innumerable slots to which the corresponding elements of different taxonomic systems are distributed.

There are abundant Indigenous American examples of links between the different cosmic levels; origin myths speak of gods from whose dead bodies sprang different plant species, each one possessing to a certain degree, a resemblance to the corporeal area from which it came; the rising and setting of stars is equated to an identical course in man's gestation or to the germination of seeds; the names and parts of tree parts or the components of a house usually derive from those of the human organism, or the parts of the human body are matched to different levels of the universe while the divisions of animal species open into taxonomic fans. Interestingly, in Nahuatl, the name most commonly applied to the human body, considered as a whole, uses only the predominant element: "the whole of our flesh" (tonacayo). This same term is applied to the fruits of the Earth, especially the most important one for Indigenous North Americans-maize, thus forming a profound metaphoric link between human corporeal being and the food to which humans owe their existence in Indigenous societies (López Austin, 1980/1988).

Humans and natural cycles are inseparably linked in Indigenous culture, and medical thought reflects this holism. For example, according to Chevalier & Sanchez Bain (2003), a hot-cold dichotomy involving concepts of balance, cyclic movement, and heliotropic growth is central to the Mesoamerican concept of medicine and pervades the ways in which people think about their relationships to the land and the entities that surrounds them. The Indigenous medical system of health (which is perceived as balance) is based on a hot/cold dualism, however this dualism is not limited only to the human organism, but also to the health of plants cultivated in the cornfield. It is not possible to study Indigenous medicine if it does not include the complete study of the holistic world view of Indigenous peoples and the dynamic connections between humans, plants, and spiritual forces as they affect illness.

According to Ong (1982), use of metaphor, similitude, and repetition (as in poetry and song) is an important part of everyday orality, and elevates speaking to an art form. In the Nahuatl language according to Abbot (1987) metaphor and similitude and repetition are infact one of the most fundamental features of this language. The Huehuetlatolli, or "Ancient Word" which was compiled by Bernard de Sahagún in the years immediately following the Spanish conquest of Mexico, is considered a key text that contains excellent samples of Indigenous oral rhetoric used in various life situations, including medical situations. According to Abbot (1987), Bernardo de Sahagún's work is one of the most complete accounts of the rhetoric of preliterate oral cultures. Garibay (1953) mentions that paired metaphors are typically found in the same sentence in Nahuatl Indigenous rhetoric and are used to convey the same thought which is something which he calls "difrasismo." Aztec rhetoric is brief, aphoristic, and repetitive. According to Ong (1982) the psychodynamics of orality can be characterized as being structurally additive rather than subordinative, stylistically copious and redundant, and stylistically conservative. This is in keeping with the need in oral cultures to memorize knowledge in order to conserve it by means of repetition and providing large quantities of strong imagery to what is being told, as well as making the constant repetition more palatable and more interesting by use of metaphor. This use of metaphor in oral cultures also can mean that a sense of interconnectedness or linking of ideas between many different kinds things.

Bonfil Batalla (1989/1996) mentions that that indigenous languages in the Mesoamerican region still continue to guard, protect, and pass on to future generations who speak these languages the Indigenous oral culture of ancient times with its cosmology and world view. Every culture can be seen as a unique experiment in the human encounter with the nature of reality, an experiment conducted over extremely long lengths of time. Therefore the loss of any language represents the loss of unique information about the nature of the universe that may have taken thousands of years to gather. In other words, language and cultural epistemology are closely connected. However, much as natural diversity is being reduced and homogenized to support the goals of the global economy, so too is linguistic and cultural diversity (Buhner, 2002).

Scientific Reductionism, Holism, and Life on the Planet

Western Medicine, a product of the self-contained alphabetic mindset, is based on a belief in complete anthropocentrism and in scientific reductionism. Indigenous oral epistemology however, as we have seen, comes out of a different perception of reality, one which is profoundly influenced by oral holistic thought. That reality is encoded in the Indigenous American concept of "Mother Earth" and conveys the idea that the Earth is a single living being. This awareness seems to be present in all Indigenous societies. (Buhner, 2002). Indeed, Mircea Eliade in his work Shamanism and the Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (as cited in Aparicio Mena 2005a) speaks of a "pachamamaism" present in all the Indigenous cultures of the Americas and believes that we can see the traces of a single ancient shamanic ideological system stretching from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego."

This belief in "Mother Earth" still survives in the syncretic consciousness of most Mexicans today-with the element of identification with the creative forces of Nature clearly as the Indigenous link. Furthermore it is not surprising that the Indigenous American Sweat Lodge (which is returning to popularity in contemporary Mexico) symbolically represents the womb, and at the same time, the Earth. According to the Mexican writer Guillermo Marín (as cited in Aparicio Mena, 2005b), in the ancient Mexican tradition, the Earth is not an object to be exploited and dominated, but rather is seen as a dearly loved mother, the mother of humanity and indeed of all life, a mother who is close to her children. According to Alfredo Lopez-Austin, complex cultures developed with powerful state ideology and systems of control in Mesoamerica, yet Mesoamerica has been said to be the only major world "civilization" that remained basically animist in its world view (López Austin, 1980/1988). According to Marin (as cited in Aparicio Mena, 2005b) in Mexico there is a feeling of deep love between humans and the Earth.

The belief in the fundamental importance of the natural world is one of Indigenous America's most profound dimensions and contributions to humanity according to Bonfil Batalla (1989/1996). It is impossible to understand any aspect of any Indigenous American culture without understanding this. In Indigenous American culture unlike Western culture, the natural world is not seen as an enemy, nor is it assumed that greater human self-realization is achieved through greater separation from Nature. To the contrary, a person's condition as part of the cosmic order is recognized and the aspiration is toward permanent integration which can be achieved only through a harmonious relationship with the rest of the natural world (Bonfil Batalla, 1989/1996). For Western-educated people, under the influence of literacy however, this type of thinking has been rediscovered to some extent only recently with the maverick scientist James Lovelock's work which he called the "Gaia Hypothesis." Lovelock, examining the Earth's ecosystem, noticed that it was self-regulating, and began to think of it as a single physiological system. As Lovelock states (as cited in Buhner 2002):

This top-down view of the Earth as a single system, one that I call Gaia, is essentially physiological. It is concerned with the working of the whole system, not with the separated parts of a planet divided arbitrarily.

Buhner (2002) states that Western culture puts thinking above all else (Decartés "Cogito Ergo Sum" which, in simple terms can be described as "I think therefore I am"), a theory which maintains that only "thinking" beings are of value. This has led to a vision of the universe lacking any intrinsic value of its own apart from human use. Rather believing in having animal counterparts and plant teachers in the sensing and sensitive surrounding natural world, as in Indigenous oral thought, humans are considered completely separate from other creatures, and indeed people who are considered inferior have often been considered "closer to the animals" or "less than human" according to the type of thinking based on this paradigm. Feelings and sensory perception have been removed from what is considered "valid discourse" about the natural world. And there is no feeling of cosmic debt to the natural world. Humanity has adopted increasingly limiting epistemologies which effectively separate humans from other beings. The mechanistic denial of relationship and process as fundamentally constitutive to our being has delivered Western culture to the point that only separateness, fragmentation, and human-made constructs seem real. The adoption of philosophies based on scientific/medical reductionism, has taken the anti-Nature paradigm even further, resulting in surrounding Nature being seen as something alien to humanity, and as a force that needs to be controlled, exploited, and desecrated. Humans feel exempt from Nature's laws and the consequences of human actions. The result is that humanity destroys Nature, with its phytocommunication systems and animal communication systems, while at the same time destroying itself. This kind of anti-Nature perspective has never been part of Indigenous oral cosmology, and has recently come under criticism from proponents of the "deep ecology" movement (Buhner, 2002).

Recently, deep ecologists have been discussing the concepts of Biofilia and Biognosis as intrinsically valid ways of knowing the world. Biofilia according to Edward Wilson (as cited in Buhner, 2002) is the innate feeling or caring for living life forms or systems. "Reading" Nature in this way can eventually lead to Biognosis which is the direct in-depth knowledge of Nature that cannot be reduced to a collection of bits of accumulated information. It is an ecocentric way of understanding the world which empathically understands the interconnection and interdependence of everything that is the sentient universe. It is an awareness of the balance of a self-organizing, self-healing system. According to Buhner (2002), the dominant, reductionist, "universe as a machine" ideology of today has led to the suppression of this type of thinking in all fields, and all aspects of life, including the suppression of the traditional medicine of Indigenous oral peoples.

Medicine of Indigenous Oral Peoples and the Environment

In the Indigenous world-view, many illnesses are explained by the intervention of powerful forces. These forces act to punish conduct considered unacceptable because it constitutes a transgression of norms insuring harmony between human beings, and the harmony between humans and Nature. (Bonfil Batalla, 1989/1996). According to the Mexican writer Guillermo Marín, it will indeed be Nature itself that will force humans to appreciate the ancient Indigenous epistemology of Nature, once global warming and other changes caused by human transgressions against Nature begin to make themselves be noticed (G. Marín, personal communication, July 10, 2007).

It is ironic that many of the things Western medicine is doing in order to cure diseases and make human beings feel healthier are actually polluting the environment and causing many of the diseases in the first place. Contemporary Western allopathic medicine, detached as it is from the world of wild plants and from wild Nature as a whole is responsible for a wide range of environmental problems.

For example, pharmaceutical products, which are not a normal part of diet, nor a food previously encountered in evolution are a major source of pollution. Pharmaceutical companies produce large quantities of pharmaceutical waste, and even when the waste is treated, the pharmaceutical substances often remain. Most pharmaceuticals are designed to resist breakdown and to persist so that they can carry out their metabolic regulatory activities without interference from the human body. Unknown to most people, enormous quantities of pharmaceuticals and their metabolites are even contaminating the environment through their own bodies by means of excretion, where they are proving to have powerfully negative impacts in ecosystems, and these quantities are increasing everyday. Most pharmaceutical waste is not biodegradable and goes on producing chemical effects forever. Most that does biodegrade is regularly replenished by the need for continual dosing or by new medical prescriptions for new people. Many waste products stay in their original forms for months, years, or even centuries, and many pharmaceuticals concentrate in the stored fat of all creatures and effects on nontarget animals are usually unknown. In addition to pharmaceutical waste, there is waste from personal care products, infectious medical and pathological waste, and waste from chemotherapy and radioactive substances. Hazardous waste from medical treatments may work itself into the environment even from cemeteries.

Another example of a major problem is the use of antibiotics. Due to the germ theory of contagion, germs and microbes have become considered enemies even though they form part of the natural balance of the Earth. Antibiotic waste from antibiotic use is a part of pharmaceutical waste and many anti-biotics (literally "against-life") do not discriminate in their activity--disrupting the entire ecosystem. In the long run, the massive use of antibiotics suggests the possibility of the emergence in the near future of infectious disease elements more potent and deadly than any in history due to the natural development of resistance.

Traditional plant medicine used by Indigenous oral peoples on the other hand, are ecological, in keeping with their ecocentric world-view. Plant medicines are ecological because they do not require expensive factories to make them, they do not discharge pollutants into the environment, have far fewer side effects (internally and externally), are sustainable, renewable, come from within local ecosystems, and the knowledge of their use is diffused in the cultures that use them.

This is not to imply a complete and total rejection of Western medicine in favor of Indigenous Medicine-infact it is usually Western medicine that rejects Indigenous Medicine, and not the other way around, since indigenous medicine is holistic and inclusive by its very definition and nature. However an important philosophical point is revealed-just because humans are doing something to alleviate human suffering does not mean that we are exempt from the ecological consequences of doing it. Traditional indigenous medicine is different from Western medicine because it unselfishly takes into account the perspective of the plant and of the entire ecosystem, and not only the perspective of human beings. They literally are able to understand the plant's point of view-the world perspective of the living organism itself together with the ecosystem. Humans today are struggling due to problems caused by a wrong value system - an unintegrated value system. According to the Nature writer David Orr (as cited in Buhner, 2002), the highly technical language of today's medical "experts" is useful for describing fragments of the world, but not how the world fits into a coherent whole - leading to environmental catastrophe. Language becomes increasingly artificial, and words and metaphors based on intimate knowledge of soils, plants, trees, animals, landscapes, rivers and oceans have declined. Humans have forgotten the wildness and sacredness of the world, and the natural ability to interact with, to learn from, and to communicate with the surrounding living world in a sustainable way-indeed this is what is stolen from us through contemporary schooling practices and indoor-based Western culture (Buhner, 2002). Dominant schooling practices today teach belief in scientific and technological progress without noting the many side-effects, and this is paradigm is accepted uncritically by large numbers of people who only see what could be gained without seeing what is lost. The linguist and social critic Ivan Illich mentions how the current medical and educational systems control and mold people into narrow-minded "experts" that the contemporary economic system requires for itself, and discusses how members of contemporary society need to be "deschooled" in order to really learn (1970).

Homero Ardijis, the Mexican ecologist mentions how the twin evils of ecocide and ethnocide have disrupted the cultures of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas (Aridjis, 1992). Today many languages and oral traditions are dying and we see that of the roughly 5,000 languages now spoken on our planet, only 150 or so are expected to survive to the year 2100. Language everywhere (much like what is happening in the natural world) is being narrowed and whittled down to conform to the limited objectives and needs of the dominant world culture and the hegemony of the contemporary global economic system (Buhner, 2002).


I believe that to understand traditional Indigenous epistemologies of Nature coming from non-Western Indigenous oral cultures, it is necessary to put aside the idea that there is only one valid way of understanding the world (the chirographic-based Eurocentric Western epistemology), and to accept that the epistemology of the "Other" can also have its validity and its use. Oral cultures and their healing traditions have been pushed aside in favor literate ways of seeing the world. Yet there is much that can be learned from these cultures. Indeed, healers from Indigenous oral cultures are of great importance in today's world because they see the pattern that connects, and because they have a functional sense of basic unity. The perspective of Indigenous medicine can be important for the healing of the planet itself.


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