Why Preserve the Wisdom of Indigenous People?

Traditional knowledges present lessons in resilience and survival.

Posted May 19, 2018

There are many who don’t recognize the value in preserving indigenous cultures, languages, or even people. In this view, progress is about continued growth and choosing the new over the old. It’s the belief that the next steps in development are advancements over the old; that we are engaged in this evolutionary experiment in which the process of evolving is to embrace the latest advancements, and eschew what has come before. In addition to the harm and destruction this has on indigenous populations, there is also little awareness of how ancient lessons or “traditional knowledges” are very relevant to our resilience and our survival.

But let’s look at one of the most exquisite examples of evolution – the human brain – to discern what really makes sense.  As a neuroscientist I have always been in awe of the capability of our brains to sense, evaluate, and respond to a myriad of issues – all at the same time. How amazing is our brain in its complexity and power? Researchers at the Okinawa Institute of Technology in Japan in collaboration with Forschungszentrum Julich in Germany used open source simulation software known as NEST with the use of the fourth fastest supercomputer in the world, known as the K computer at the Riken research institute in Kobe, Japan. They were able to create an artificial neural network of 1.73 billion nerve cells connected by 10.4 trillion synapses. Yet this is just a fraction of the 80-100 billion nerve cells we have, or about as many stars as there are in the Milky Way. This supercomputer configuration took 40 minutes with the combined muscle of 82,944 processors of the K computer to achieve just 1 second of biological brain processing time.

But the most important fact about this most amazing and powerful force in the universe is that the more recent advancement of our brain, the neo-cortex, did not replace earlier brain developments or structures, but instead sits atop and integrates with the more primitive components of the brain. And when mammals evolved, the mammalian brain developed on top of the more primitive reptilian brain. The survival mechanisms that were already established remained in place. And when the primate neocortex developed, our brains retained the excellent advancements that took place during the evolution of mammals. The lesson is that some evolutionary developments are superb in their adaptation, and you don’t want to throw them out.

Similarly, traditional knowledges of ancient tribes have been derived through trial and error behavior and an exquisite “tuning in” to the environment over thousands of years. These lessons are invaluable and needed today more than ever. They show us how to live in relationship to our environment as well as each other. These are important lessons of adaptation and survival. But it is estimated that by 2115 up to 90 percent of the world’s 7,000 remaining indigenous languages will have died out. As Paul Havemann points out, many of these encode unique knowledge and traditions that will disappear.1

In fact, in the evolutionary process, it’s possible for development to go too far or take the wrong path. When this happens, species vulnerability or outright extinction can result. There are countless examples of species that become so successful that they overpopulated their environmental niche. At that point the evolutionary forces rain in the excess. Right now, for example, our ability to create “stuff” as George Carlin used to say, is creating oceans of plastic, and holes in the ozone layer of the atmosphere. We are going through the greatest reduction of biodiversity in the history of the planet that has been called the “sixth extinction”.2 Biodiversity is at the heart of population resilience, just as flexibility is at the heart of your individual adaptability and optimal functioning. These results of our success create a greater vulnerability in our species and Mother Earth.  And as I note below, they have taken a toll on the health and well-being of all individuals.

Connection and reverence for the environment

Pope Francis recently said that “the poorest of the poorest of the poor is Mother Earth.” And he referred to how disrespectfully we treat our planet. We can see the destruction all around us if we look. The levels of toxicity in the water and the air put our health at risk. The growing climate change is whipsawing weather patterns causing great destruction. 

Part of "traditional knowledges" is how to be in exquisite connection to the environment. It recognizes that we are all a part of the environment and therefore must live in harmony with what surrounds us. This sense of connection is physical, emotional and spiritual. Plants, animals, trees, mountains are revered as part of One World. We are all in it together. This is very different than the modern notion of conquering and lording over the environment – a pattern that creates separation.

Mental and emotional health

There are two fundamental value systems that can organize one’s life, commonly referred to as “Survival of the fittest” and “The Golden Rule.” The growing complexities of life, the loss of a sense of community and reduction of various social support systems have resulted in a greater feeling of isolation and foster a focus on survival. The Western approach generates more stress as we feel the need to get ahead of others. This competitive drive, as compensation for the lack of connection, creates additional stress. This survival focus keeps one’s nervous system activated in the stress response resulting in greater autonomic dysregulation.  We see the impact of stress in the increase in diseases of life style, both physical and emotional.

Here again, there are lessons to be learned from the indigenous life style and communities – the traditional knowledges. Community is fostered through ritual, common goals and more of a sharing economy.  The caring for others translates into a greater sense of security.  When people see others engaged in caring it encourages them to follow similar behavior.

When a member of these societies is in emotional trouble there is less of a tendency to pathologize and more effort is made to keep this person in connection. This perspective is highlighted in the movie “Crazywise” that will be presented at the Seventh Annual Garifuna International Indigenous Film Festival for the Preservation of Indigenous Cultures.3  It asks the question, “what if a psychological crisis was seen as having the potential to be a positive transformative experience, instead of a broken brain?”

In our current industrial environment we witness people disregarding and disrespecting others.  This causes a similar violent or negative reaction or sometimes it results in a numbing of affect.   By creating more of a sense of community, each individual member of a tribe feels more taken care of and protected.  This support engenders reciprocal positive and caring behavior.  The result is that people live more by the Golden Rule – treating others as they would like to be treated – instead of survival of the fittest.

My wife, Freda Sideroff, created the Garifuna International Film Festival3 to highlight the plight of and contribute to the preservation of her Garifuna Culture. It has expanded to the preservation of all indigenous people and cultures. It is important to recognize that this effort not only helps these communities that are spread throughout the world, but also preserves important ways of living that support sustainability, personal health and healthy communities.  We have much to learn from the traditional knowledges that are as relevant now as ever before.

One Caveat

While the message of this essay is the importance of traditional knowledges and that we can all benefit from these lessons, indigenous people would be quick to tell us that our typical ways of learning won’t work here. We want to deconstruct what we see and remove the morsels of information and then insert them into our own life and community. They would tell us that the lessons can only be internalized through experience and immersion not intellectual knowledge. If their world view is about the interconnectedness of everything, relationship is most important.  In other words, the more you can let go of your perspective and explore an empathic connection with these ancient cultures, the more likely you will be positively impacted. That’s true resilience.

Stephen Sideroff is a psychologist in private practice, on the faculty in the Department of Psychiatry & Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA and the author of The Path: Mastering the Nine Pillars of Resilience and Success and director of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Ethics.


1. Paul Havemann; Lessons from indigenous knowledge and culture: learning to live in harmony with nature in an age of ecocide. http://minorityrights.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Lessons-from-indigenous-knowledge-and-culture.pdf

2. Kolbert, E., The Sixth  Extinction, New York, Henry Holt & Co., 2014

3. www.GarifunaFilmFestival.com  Presenting film, music, dance, photos, panel discussions and fashion from indigenous cultures around the world.  At the Electric Lodge, Venice, California May 25-27 and June 2-3, 2018.