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Understanding Holistic Indigenous Cultures

A key to understanding indigenous cultures is that they are holistic in the sense that culture is not separate from human social life.

A key to understanding indigenous cultures is that they are holistic in the sense that culture—beliefs, norms, spirituality, and values—are not sharply separated from human social life or the organization of the universe. In many ways, indigenous cultures permeate the whole of life and define a way of life that often looks like a religious ethic from a Western point of view. This cultural holism is a defining characteristic that distinguishes Indigenous Peoples from contemporary modern worldviews and nationality.

For Indigenous Peoples, culture is usually tightly interconnected with territory, kinship, community, ceremony, government, personality, and cosmic order. The strong attachments of identity to ways of indigenous life are, in part, embedded with the fusion of indigenous concepts of culture, community, nation, land and government.

To a significant extent, indigenous resistance to assimilation is about preserving and living within a culturally holistic indigenous community. For Indigenous Peoples, separating culture from government, identity from land, and maintaining collective economic redistribution or exchanges are part of what defines indigeneity. Resistance to Western forms of compartmentalizing modernization takes the pattern of maintaining holistic concepts of social and cosmic orientations. The resistance in many ways is not a denial of Western society, but rather rooted in the holism or interrelatedness indigenous ways of life. For better or worse, the mere act of maintaining and practicing indigenous holistic life is often seen around the world as an act of rejection of the contemporary nation state and modern ways of life.

Western nations see the world as much more compartmentalized. Like an orange, rather than an apple with a unified core, or multi-layer onion with many concentric layers. In Western social relations, religion is increasingly separated from government, government separated from economy and community. The root component of modern Western culture is an individual, who makes choices about economic activities, what church to participate with, or how to vote in a national election.

I once had a conversation about culture with an academic colleague who graduated from a distinguished university. He argued that he didn’t see how attending concerts, or reading literature had any major impacts on social life. For him, culture was classical music, plays at the theater, discussing classics in literature, all of which only indirectly affected social, cultural, and economic life.

For Western society, religion is an individual choice, and generally one attended church on Sundays, but the rest of the week was devoted to work and family. In the Western view, culture has become fragmented and intentionally non-holistic. Modern abstract art, or even contemporary modern music has become individualistic, personal, anti-realist, and largely an escape from holism and nature. Like Christian religion, Western culture tries to move beyond or outside of nature, which is seen as imperfect, sinful, uncivilized, undeveloped, and in need of transformation.

National programs and policies for Indigenous Peoples have often tried to reform indigenous ways of life, and move them in the direction of the more compartmentalized and individualist patterns of Western society. Countless programs created to assist Indigenous Peoples have failed, in part, because the programs are inspired by the worldviews and values that reflect the cultures and interests of nation states, and do not conform to the cultures and values of Indigenous Peoples.

Indigenous holistic cultures embrace nature, live within nature, and do not try to transcend nature, but honor nature’s rules and ways of supporting life on earth as part of the cosmic order. Holistic cultural views does not mean that Indigenous Peoples will not change, but they will change in ways that are informed by their own cultural relations and values. For example, gaming in Indian country is a collective enterprise, with equal sharing of profits, and collective ownership of economic assets. Holistic cultures have been a great strength for indigenous continuity, but it can also be the basis for innovative patterns of enduring change.