Indigenous Spirituality and Governance

Published: 07 July 2006


Indigenous Spirituality and


Colin Nicholas

Paper commisioned by the Just World Trust (JUST) and the Konrad Adeneur Foundation (KAF). Published in Chandra Muzaffar (ed.) (2009), Arah Publications, Kuala Lumpur, pp. 17-26. A pre-publication copy was published in Indigenous Perspectives, Volume 8, No. 1, 2006, pp. 43-50.

Unlike the other authors in this volume, I must declare that, not being an indigenous person myself, I am not writing from my own religious perspective. Furthermore, because indigenous spiritualities differ, sometimes very widely, from people to people, and from location to location, I cannot assert that this rendition reflects a generalized form of indigenous spirituality. I am writing from my experience and knowledge of the Orang Asli, the indigenous peoples of Peninsular Malaysia, and of the Semai people in particular.

Indigenous spirituality is born of the land
Indigenous peoples are descendants of the earliest inhabitants of a specific ecological niche - their traditional or customary lands - in which they continue to live as distinct communities. They believe that the whole of their physical and supernatural worlds are imbued by spirits, both good and evil. While the latter bring harm, misfortune and disease, the benevolent spirits protect humans against all these. The good spirits can also heal illness, bring rain for crops, call fish and wild game, and bring harmony and fertility to the community.

The spirits are site-specific, co-existing with the indigenous peoples in particular geographical spaces or homelands. Within this traditional territory, indigenous peoples develop traditions and belief systems that are the basis of their social organisation, economic system and cultural identification.

Indigenous peoples do not seek to define indigenous spirituality; rather they are more concerned with the proper behaviour that is required for the harmonious and symbiotic coexistence of all the natural and supernatural elements in their world. For them, indigenous spirituality is about acknowledgement that they are equal beings with others - animate and inanimate, seen and unseen - in the created world.

Indigenous spirituality is location and people specific. Thus, the form and content of the spirituality varies from community to community and from environment to environment. It does not have structures beyond the community of people who subscribe to it. For this reason, indigenous spirituality never engages in expansionist missionary activity.

Indigenous spirituality and the community
The underlying philosophy of indigenous spirituality is that the blessings of the good spirits are important for personal and community well-being. And often, appropriate good behaviour on the part of individuals is all that is required to obtain these blessings.

Good behaviour simply means following and practicing the values and behaviour established by society and culture, participation in religious rituals and traditional practices, and proper respect for family, neighbours, and community. It is indigenous spirituality that shapes the social rules, taboos, rituals and belief systems that have an impact on the way indigenous people live their everyday lives - from what they eat (or cannot eat), the way they do everyday chores, organize themselves, marry, educate their children, treat illness, and bury the dead.

Failure to follow these behavioural guidelines often results in the good spirits withdrawing their blessings and protection. The result can be illness, death, drought, or other misfortune. Good behaviour, on the other hand, helps to maintain social harmony, prosperity and continuity.

The teachings about the content and form of indigenous spirituality governing behaviour are usually transmitted orally such as in storytelling or via myth-making, ritual and symbolic art. They are learned by participating in a specific cultural context rather than by the articulation of an abstract religious system or theology.

Indigenous peoples are thus steered to lead responsible and communal lives, not because of some intangible religious edict, but by actually practicing what their teachings require of them. The culture ensures this and their spiritual tradition cautions them that any deviation will cause harm not only to themselves but to others as well.

Indigenous spirituality, as such, brings the social, ecological, and spiritual contexts into alignment in a way that distinguishes, but does not separate, human communities, the natural world, and the realm of the spirit powers. In keeping with this spirituality, the overriding aspiration, then, of indigenous peoples is to ensure continuity and harmony -- continuity as a viable people and harmony between humans and humans, and between humans and nature.

Tenets of indigenous spirituality for governance
The fear of food shortages - the result of living close to the margin - made survival a primary concern of the indigenous peoples. Concepts which served to maintain social and distributive justice thus developed and were given potency by resorting to the supernatural realm. The basis of these concepts was common to all indigenous societies and revolved around three fundamental tenets.

Firstly, it is the acknowledgement that all living things, and not just humans, are an interrelated community (the Ainu of Japan call this 'ureshipamashor'). Secondly, there is an inherent 'essence' of being human (the South Africans call it 'ubuntu, botho'). And, thirdly, that humans have a responsibility towards all others whose wellbeing must always be ensured (the Semai of Malaysia call it 'tenhak').

Indigenous daily behaviour is not necessarily directly guided by these fundamental tenets. Rather, a system of taboos, rituals, rules and customs are incorporated into daily living such that compliance with them will ensure adherence to the fundamental tenets of indigenous spirituality.

For example, in Semai society there is a whole range of taboos that an individual is expected to abide by. One is penaliq where the mixing of food from different habitats is forbidden. This ensures that the community'�s food resources are not ever-exploited and that over-consumption is not a feature of Semai living. Terlaig is another taboo especially imposed on young children to ensure that they do not mock or harm other living beings, especially insects and small animals. To ensure that agreements (to go hunting, to meet at an arranged time and date) are kept, the concept of srrnlong is there. Breaking an arrangement without following the customs will place the other party in a vulnerable state, exposing him to injury or harm. And you are responsible for this, as the tenet of tenhak dictates. Similarly, hoin - not a taboo but a concept - requires that the other party's desires and wishes be considered paramount over your own and that they be satisfied to as best as possible.

All these taboos and rules of behaving are adhered to in indigenous communities simply because the adherents believed in them and in the effects of the wrath and anger of the spirits should they be violated. However, concepts, rules and taboos do more for indigenous society than just ensuring good individual behaviour. They lead to practices, processes and institutions through which all in the community participate and determine the economic, political and social mechanisms that distinguish traditional indigenous societies as autonomous and self-determined, as egalitarian and sustainable. These conditions allow individuals in the community to articulate their interest, exercise their legal rights, meet their obligations and mediate their differences - contributing to what is fashionably referred to as good governance.

Thus the tenet of tenhak extends your responsibility to that of ensuring the wellbeing of all others (and not just your neighbour) over and above that of your own. Over-accumulation would therefore be frowned upon as it implies that some resources were kept back when it could have improved the lives of others. And because all things in nature are interrelated parts of the community, the indigenous spirituality requires that the environment and all things in it are to be protected and cared for.

A closer look at the rationale behind the various taboos and customary rules will reveal that the indigenous spirituality that oversees its form and purpose, abhors practices and behaviour that do not protect and care for the sustainability of nature and all things in it.

Over-consumption, treating living things (including humans) poorly, creating inequalities or allowing wide inequalities to exist, are all to detested and shunned. This, after all, is what the essence of being human means.

It follows then that the concepts determining individual and communal behaviour would also ensure that in the organisation of the community, there is equitable use and sharing or resources, that leadership is by consensus, that aspirations to accumulate and expand excessively are loathed, and that violence or the use of violent means to achieve a goal is not an option. Failure to live by it was to abdicate responsibility and deny the way of life.

Thus, for example, political leadership in traditional indigenous communities in the normal sense of the term is absent. Instead there is great respect for the elders because of their experience and the knowledge of the culture and the land. They are also sought and acknowledged because of their generosity and because they have proven their ability as keepers of the tradition. A traditional indigenous 'leader' is also likely to the communityls link with the spirit world.

Indigenous authority, as such, is not based on the democratic principles of representation and majority. Rather, indigenous leaders act as cultural intermediaries with mainstream society and are entrusted with a mandate from their communities and peoples. Decisions often took a long period of time because the principle of collective consensus was viewed by the community as an essential part of the decision-making process. Indigenous leaders had no authority to make independent decisions and act more as spokespersons of their people. All this stems from the nature and content of indigenous spirituality that provide the philosophical basis and practical guide to individual and communal living - to governance - in the traditional indigenous community.

Indigenous peoples, for their part, show their acceptance of the traditions and culture by believing in, and complying with, the gamut of taboos, rules, concepts and rituals that embody indigenous spirituality. They do this because, as we mentioned earlier, they are united in their common goal: achieving continuity as a viable people and attaining harmony between humans and with nature. It is not surprising therefore that with indigenous peoples particularly, children feature prominently in all their considerations. They do not want their children or their children's children to be deprived or burdened by their present action or inaction.

Did indigenous (spirituality-guided) governance work?
Traditional indigenous societies have been self-sufficient, self-governing, peaceable societies before the impact of the present-day dominant ones. While their degree of prosperity may not match our current standards, they were certainly autonomous communities exercising their right to self-determination in their specific traditional territories.

The indigenous governance system was one of self-identity and self-authority where regulation and control of society was internalised. Indigenous governance as such extended, but was not confined, to material and spiritual control of territories, relations with nature, spirituality and the sacred, as well as strategies for survival and the future. Religion, economics, politics and governance were all intertwined, despite the absence of a hierarchy to account to, or to answer to.

The centrality of the land in their material and spiritual existence also meant that people were obligated to act as custodians of the earth, a role they undertook with much direction from the guardian spirits of the land, and was thus interlinked with indigenous spirituality and culture. And although egalitarianism characterised communal life, the individual had significant personal autonomy with an equally strong obligation to the community -- simply because the family or the clan was the basic unit of governance and the welfare of the community depended on the strength of the individuals within it.

Traditional indigenous methods of governance as such primarily focused on maintaining and promoting the common good and were in place to deal with immediate issues facing the survival of the community. Similarly, harmony was a fundamental value because conflict would threaten the survival of the community. Penitence and forgiveness, for example, usually involved a long process of deliberation on a transgression, and was never by itself just a personal affair. They concerned, and involved, the whole community.

The relatively small size of the community however did allow for these values and practices to be realized. Nevertheless, traditional indigenous governance did work, and can still do so.

Contemporary challenges to indigenous governance
It if often said that the main cause of our global problems today is because of greed, excessive greed.

But greed is not the main cause. Greed instead exists because of the absence of the sense of being human, ubuntu botho, and the rebuff of the overriding tenet of tenhak causing individuals to no longer feel responsible for others, including those in faraway lands.

The challenges to indigenous spirituality - and, it follows, indigenous governance - are several and disparate. They include the usual fiends of modern globalized society: individualism, consumerism, globalization and commercialization.

The intrusion of these new values onto traditional indigenous society has two significant effects on indigenous spirituality. One, because religion, nature and livelihoods are habitually regarded as commodities, the mainstream society regards indigenous spirituality and indigenous societies as backward civilizations drowning in superstition and paganistic rituals, and as obstacles in the path of modernization. Partly as a result of ignorance, partly out of arrogance, indigenous spiritualities are treated by the outsiders with condescension and scorn. Indigenous spiritualities are also not recognized as true religions on par with the other mainstream religions.

Two, as a consequence of such treatment of indigenous spirituality by outside factors, indigenous peoples themselves have a low regard of their own traditions and spirituality and as such succumb to the temptation to abandon them for new mainstream ones.

Furthermore with their lands not secured from expropriation and appropriation by others, indigenous peoples become separated from their traditional territories, the very ecological niches that gave rise to their specific indigenous spirituality. Divorcing indigenous peoples from their traditional lands is in effect asking them to leave their location-specific spiritual traditions behind. This seemingly 'superstitious' logic is captured well in the words of a Mexican native healer, Leandis, when he explains,

"If we didn't do the ceremonies, it wouldn't mean the plants wouldn't bloom that year. It would mean we would stop having that respect and giving that praise. Then we stop having food to eat because we would lose respect and cut down the rainforest, pollute the water, and destroy the balance. That is the real truth behind this message."

Response of the Indigenous Spirituality
Indigenous peoples have had to contend with the expansionist designs of the other world systems and religions. Sometimes these designs are initiated and supported by the state, making it very difficult for small, frequently isolated communities to counter these threats.

Indigenous peoples affected by such threats generally fall into two categories: those who rejected their indigenous spiritualities in favour of the modern systems and now want to reassert their indigeneity; and those who have always kept and practiced their indigenous traditions and spiritualities, and still want to do so.

For the former, the recovery of traditional aspects of the indigenous spirituality is seen as an important step towards reasserting their indigenous origins. Some do so for the sole purpose of identifying with their birth-origin, others for the birth-rights that come with being indigenous in particular situations. Unfortunately, such recovery of tradition and spirituality is largely confined to ritual acts and symbolism, not to the fundamental core of the indigenous spirituality. For this group, the resort to the revitalization of indigenous spirituality is a proxy fight for their rights, especially the right to their land.

The fight for their traditional lands, nevertheless, remains a common feature of all indigenous peoples. For most, however, it is borne out of the realization that their culture and their spirituality - and, it follows, their identity as a specific people - are directly linked to a specific ecological niche viz. their customary or traditional land. The dispossession of indigenous peoples from these lands effectively implies divorcing them from the basis of their indigenous spirituality.

Thus, the protection of indigenous traditional lands goes hand-in-hand with the recovery, assertion and observance of their indigenous spirituality. For this, some indigenous peoples are willing to give up their lives. Others seek the usual avenues available to them, including resorting to the courts.

The irony is that it is the very nature of indigenous spirituality - to be peaceful, accommodating, non-aggressive, non-opportunistic - that is their biggest bane. Keeping true to their indigenous traditions often means that they are no match to the others (governments, colonials, developers, entrepreneurs, for example) whose own operating rules and religious traditions do not restrain them from taking advantage of the situation and so further marginalize the indigenous person.

The Future Role of Indigenous Spirituality in Governance
The aim of good governance is to bring about the transformation of society along desired political, economic, ecological, social and spiritual goals. Politically, this would involve the genuine democratic participation of all individuals; economically, it is the shared ownership of the means of production; ecologically, it is the wholeness and interrelatedness of humankind and nature; socially, it is the restoration of community belonging and co-responsibility; and spiritually, it is maintenance of harmony and wellbeing between fellow human beings and between human beings and nature.

People and their environments are apparently not the focus in governance anymore. The present human and environmental crisis is, after all, the direct result of human over-consumption, human disruption of natural cycles, and human simplification of ecosystems -- all being allowed to occur because there is no accounting to a higher ideal or a higher spirituality.

If good governance is not being practised today, perhaps a corrective should be sought in the libraries of the other worldviews and other traditions than those currently being subscribed to. Certainly, for governance to be considered good in practice, its philosophical basis should be spiritual in inspiration. That of the traditional indigenous spirituality can offer an alternative; or at least an alternative way of considering the problem, just as the indigenous knowledge and management systems pertaining to the environment have come to be accepted as viable alternatives to existing systems.

The key to spirituality-inspired indigenous governance, however, remains that of the small, localised community. Perhaps in this regard we should move towards allowing people to govern themselves via their local governments or in their autonomous areas. For a start, we need to keep entities small, sustainable and consensual. Indigenous peoples have proven that this is possible.

Indigenous peoples have much to give to humankind about living in harmony and equilibrium with other humans and with the environment. They are willing to share this knowledge, this understanding of the purpose of living, but will not embark on activities to propagate them in an evangelical way.

Indigenous peoples know they have something good, something workable, and they are willing to share this � if only we are willing to accept them.

7 July 2006