Mirroring Nature

In Indigenous worldviews, technology is not a product, it is a process, and, therefore, alive.

ONE DAY, WHILE OUT IN THE FOREST collecting firewood for her family, a little girl named Kwezens, who is all of seven years old, spies a red squirrel sucking on a maple tree. After observing the squirrel for a while, Kwezens drills a hole in the tree trunk and uses a piece of birch bark to collect the sap. It tastes sweet. She collects some more and takes it home to her mother, who uses the sap to stew meat, discovers how delicious the boiled down syrup tastes, and informs the rest of the village about it. Later, Kwezens shows the villagers her clever sap-tapping technique.

That is how, a touchstone Nishnaabeg story goes, their people first learned to tap maple sap to make syrup and sugar, which became important parts of their diet and economy. Later, Native Americans passed this technique on to European settlers.

This maple syrup origin story (one of several in the Nishnaabeg oral tradition) holds within it a wealth of information about the worldview of the Nishnaabeg, a group of culturally related Indigenous peoples (also known as Anishinaabe or Anishnaabek) in what are currently called Canada and the United States. It speaks of the Nishnaabeg’s focus on observing and learning from the land and water and animals, whom they view as teachers and relatives, and of how their technologies are based on mirroring nature.

artwork depicting a child gathering sap
artwork depicting a child running
artwork depicting a child tasting while a person cooks over a fire
artwork depicting a child pointing at a tree in a wood

While Indigenous peoples, their ways of knowing, and their cosmologies are diverse, extensive research has shown that many of them have similar foundational principles that allow for careful generalizations. In that spirit, it would be safe to say that Kwezens’s story also tells us something about Indigenous philosophies and technology and how they differ from Western ways of thinking and the technologies that such thinking has brought forth.

The English word “technology” in Western philosophy can be understood as having an intimate relationship to the root word “techné,” which is generally defined as a way of doing something. Thus, technology — understood as the study of ways of doing things — is a rather broad category. In the ancient period of Western philosophy, the Greeks debated the boundaries of techné with some, such as Democritus, emphasizing that certain human techniques or ways of doing (e.g., house building and weaving) were informed by the close observation of how swallows and spiders build their nests and webs (what we call “biomimicry” today). Others, such as Aristotle, downplayed the prominent role of nature by emphasizing the role humans had in exceeding or going beyond what nature demonstrated and/or provided.

While the debate on what technology is and how technology should be used continues to this day, it is the Aristotelian view that dominates Western Euro-descendent thinking. And that view is informed fundamentally by an understanding of humans as not only separate from the natural world, but also as superior to nature. The allegiance to this idea has led to particular forms of structuring human societies where control over nature, and extraction and destruction of resources, is understood as a preferred way of interacting with the world.

For example, in the Western “world” we build homes out of sync with the environments we live in and we outfit them with climate control management systems fitted to our desires; we buy out-of-season produce shipped in from thousands of miles away; and we pull gas, oil, and coal from the ground to power the houses, ships, trucks, trains, and more to keep this whole system running.

We have come to accept these activities as normal, but they are actually an outcome of technologies we have chosen to design and implement that facilitate a distance between our natural environments and ourselves, that prioritize our desires as the primary end of technological enhancement.

The variety of teachers in Indigenous thinking and Native science includes the entire natural community.

This general level of alienation has increasingly become a preferred outcome or goal of technological innovation in the West, in the sense that our desires move toward more control of and less interaction with nature. Indeed, it is our attempt to control nature that, in large part, has led to the “unforeseen” consequences Western humanity has wreaked on the environment at a planetary scale.

Indigenous philosophies, on the other hand, tend to have a more egalitarian worldview that prioritizes chaos instead of control, and connection and reciprocity instead of separation. As Tewa educator Gregory Cajete points out in his book Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence: “Unlike the Western scientific method, Native thinking does not isolate an object or phenomenon in order to understand and work with it, but perceives it in terms of relationship. An understanding of the relationships that bind together natural forces and all forms of life has been fundamental to the ability of Indigenous peoples to live for millennia in spiritual and physical harmony with the land.”

Kwezens, for instance, invented a new technique after careful observation of the squirrel’s activities. “She relies upon her own creativity to invent new technology,” writes Nishnaabeg scholar, writer, and artist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson in her essay, “Land as Pedagogy.” “She learned both from the land and with the land.”

Indeed, the variety of teachers in Indigenous thinking and Native science includes the entire natural community. Plants are teachers, nonhuman others are teachers, and so on. Lessons are often conveyed in ways that keep the contextual origin intact, which is important for preventing ideas of human exceptionalism and absolute control.

This learning from and with the living and non-living world is the basis of most Indigenous science and technologies, whose value Western thinkers and scientists have only recently begun to acknowledge. The long-term lack of awareness could in part be because so many Indigenous techniques and technologies are place-based and are often so seamlessly integrated into the local environment that we fail to notice them.

Take, for instance, the fire-managed landscapes of much of North America, which were for so long perceived by European settlers as “untouched, pristine” wilderness. Or the water-harvesting zings — snow and ice melt capture ponds — crafted by the Ladhakis high up in the Himalayas that made agriculture possible in the otherwise dry and barren landscape. Or the hand-built, rock-walled “clam gardens” of coastal British Colombia — intertidal terraces that provide ideal homes for butter clams and other edible shellfish that have been used for millennia by the Kwakwaka’wakw and other Indigenous peoples to significantly increase shellfish productivity and food security. This low-tech maricultural strategy indicates a deep understanding of local ecology that predates modern resource management practices by at least 3,000 years.

But perhaps the main reason many of these techniques and technologies are not known to Western science is because Western scientists do not ask Indigenous knowledge keepers about their ways of knowing and doing. As a matter of fact, these types of knowledge and technologies were usually not considered to be knowledge or technology per se from the Western purview.

Fortunately, that outlook is slowly changing. In recent years, researchers from various fields, from ecology to climate science, have started paying close attention to what’s being called “traditional knowledge” — a living body of knowledge based on observation and experiential learning, passed on from generation to generation within Indigenous communities, often via oral traditions like story-telling and song.

What this body of knowledge is teaching us is that often the most effective, and least destructive, technologies come from slow, careful, and meticulous attention to nature and that they are best developed and implemented locally, where the ecology of relationships — the give and take, the feedback loops — can be carefully observed and experienced. It is teaching us that we humans have much to learn from the natural world, precisely because we are not separate from it.

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