Blogs >> Learning from indigenous traditions in Latin America by Jonathan Dawson

Learning from indigenous traditions in Latin America by Jonathan Dawson

I have recently returned from a teaching gig in an ecovillage in Colombia. This was the economics week of the Gaia Education sustainability programme that is distilled from good practice in ecovillages around the world – an altogether moving and transformative experience.

In the realm of sustainability, Latin America is teeming with creative energy at present. As the Washington Consensus crumbles, the continent is finding space for creativity and experimentation that it has rarely if ever previously enjoyed. In my next blog, I want to look in greater depth at some of the more innovative social and ecological experiments to emerge out of the continent in recent years and the interesting paradoxes, dilemmas and opportunities that they present to today’s cadre of radical leaders.

This current blog will be more personal, exploring how the unbroken lineage of Latin America’s indigenous traditions is contributing to a quite distinctively powerful educational ethic. Let’s look specifically at the week of economics teaching I shared with 50 or so students a few weeks back. This included many elements broadly recognisable to any student of economics: lectures, PowerPoint presentations, discussion groups and design studios devoted to applying the principles and concepts learned in the classroom to real-life contexts.

In addition, however, the week included a series of ritual-based activities with deep roots in ancient indigenous traditions. These included a sweat-lodge, a purification ritual common to many indigenous peoples in the Americas and beyond involving copious sweating in a small, enclosed, domed structure, aimed among other things at developing gratitude and humility.

One lunchtime was spent ‘singing to the water’, a ritual involving walking barefoot through the forest gathering petals that we then scattered on the surface of the water source – a small lake at the heart of the community – while singing our gratitude to it. Ours was one such event among many around the world happening at the same moment

Another ritual involved each member of the learning community giving imaginative voice for a couple of minutes from each of four perspectives in response to the multiple crises and dislocations we are witnessing in ecological and human systems: their own heart’s voice, the voice of a human in a less privileged position in the human family, the voice of a member of another species that is affected by the crises and the voice of an unborn human child – speaking not about these other beings, but as far as we could from empathic identification with them.

The rational Western mind rebels easily from such ‘irrational’ practices. The idea, for example, that there could be any merit in singing to water would be met in many quarters by nothing short of derision. I think such an attitude is entirely misplaced. In his wonderful The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram invites us to judge the ultimate truth of the stories that our civilisations generate in terms of how well they enable us to live over the long term within our respective ecosystems. By such a measure, he suggests, the stories of indigenous civilisations that tend to provoke condescension among we ‘moderns’ may ultimately be much truer than our own that have generated a culture of isolation, meaninglessness and ecological devastation.

The ‘truth’ of indigenous stories and rituals resides in the power of symbolism, metaphor and myth, our most powerful communicative tools. Does one have to believe in water gods or spirits to gain from the scattering of petals and singing to the lake? Absolutely not – as embedded in the ritual is an embodied opening to the beauty and power of water, and of the damage we have wreaked upon it, that is a thousand times more powerful and immediate than remaining seated in the classroom merely considering the data and formulae that is the currency of rational thought.

Does speaking empathically in the voice of another species or an unborn child change the world materially in any way? In my experience, this simple exercise has the capacity to effect a depth of transformation in the identity of students, the quality of their relationships, and their capacity as effective change agents that no amount of facts and stories, rationally communicated, is capable of achieving.

Does enduring extreme heat in a tight, constricted place while singing with others generate humility? Emphatically yes – vastly more so than sitting and reading stories of the lives of even the most saintly sages.

It is precisely because these rituals work that they have survived for millennia.

Is this an argument against the power of reason? In no way! It is rather a celebration of a growing recognition within the realm of education that there are many ways of knowing – and that we need to draw upon and cultivate all of our faculties – our hearts and our hands as much as our heads. The indigenous traditions of Latin America provide an unbroken lineage, a great storehouse of wisdom teachings as we embark on this journey of whole-person teaching and learning.

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