Indigenous Psychologies from Around the World
Indigenous worldviews are missing from western psychology.
The Indigenous worldview (Narvaez, Four Arrows, Halton, Collier & Enderle, 2019) is still apparent in many non-industrialized communities (Descola, 2013). Whereas Western scholars have long assumed that humans act on nature to force it to reveal its secrets, the Indigenous perspective is more relational, assuming that a receptive orientation to the natural world will lead to revelations to the individual or group. In contrast to collecting facts and information, perceptions of relationships are more important than building concepts and understanding; respectful action is more important than ‘making your mark on the world.’
Dr. Vine Deloria, Jr., is still considered the premier American Indian scholar, renowned for his explanations of Native American cultures. Deloria (2009) noted that Carl Jung considered Western European psyches, in comparison with those from other parts of the world, to be superior because of their divorce from nature which was needed to make human progress. Those who maintain an Indigenous worldview are more likely to think that the “human progress” that has been made against nature and natural systems is a devolution rather than progress (Christen, Narvaez & Gutzwiller, 2017). The confidence and trust in more-than-human nature is striking to those who hold the Western worldview.
What is missing from Western psychologies, according to Indigenous practices around the world? The following are samples of Indigenous psychological views from different parts of the world based on the review by Nuria Ciofalo (2019).
Native American/American Indian
In his 2009 book, C.G. Jung and the Sioux traditions, Vine Deloria, Jr. describes Lakota Sioux traditions. Traditionally, healing is done in ceremonies that include earth awareness. The healer and the to-be-healed use a sacred earth space to help the individual restore balance in harmony with the universal life force as well as with one’s human and more-than-human community members. The healer calls upon these wider forces to assist in the healing.
Although vision quests are part of an adolescent’s move into adulthood, they are also undertaken by adults routinely for guidance or health. Fasting is part of the preparation and experience. It is expected that the quester will have a vision or experience that provides concrete guidance for life’s path forward. Shamans use fasting, trance, and drumming as sacred experiences that promote states that bring about healing.
Western scholars have derided fasting, assuming that it causes faintness and hallucinations. Deloria describes the opposite: those who take up a vision quest feel energized, with sharpened perception.
Africa hosts thousands of different ethnic groups with varied traditions. Ubuntu is a widely understood description of a full human being: they are capable of respecting their and others’ humanity through such qualities as humaneness, gentleness, hospitality and generosity.
In his book, The Wisdom of Africa (1999), Malidoma Patrice Somé describes his Dagara culture, including Optimal Theory (Somé, 1999). Optimal theory describes health as tapping into a unified life energy. Alienation occurs when a person perceives themselves as a separate self, often influenced by culturally external criteria.
As with the Native American views described above, relationships with more-than-humans, including animals, spirits and ancestors are involved in community and individual wellbeing. Key aspects of health include “harmony with the universe and the liberation of the Spirit” and the groundedness of the individual in collective existence (Ciofalo, p. 20). Stories and art objects support spiritual and community connection.
Children are considered “newly born spirits” who attune easily to grandparents “who are getting close to the Other World while the newborns have just arrived from it” (Ciofalo, p. 19). Elders hold critical cultural wisdom and are better able to connect with the sacred—the spirit world and ancestors. The community is responsible for helping the child perceive their purpose in life, to hone their gifts and give them back to the community.
Although Westerners have regarded an indirect style of communication as dishonest or deceptive, cultures like that of the Philippines use it as a way to avoid embarrassing others, and to exhibit modesty and humility. At the center of Filipino values is kapwa, shared kinship. Those who are healthy display pakikipagkawa, treating others as interconnected fellow beings in the creation.
Similar to the Filipino orientation traditional Mexican wellbeing involves maintaining an affiliative personality, demonstrated in simpatia, positive agreeableness and avoiding interpersonal conflict. The harmonious orientation extends to ecosystems. Individuals do not work for themselves but for the good of the group.
Roots of this orientation are apparent in the Popol Vuh, an orally transmitted “book of the people,” which was written down beginning in the 16th century, that recounts the mythology (beliefs presented in metaphorical terms) and history of the K’iche’ people, a Mayan people of the Guatemalan highlands. An excerpt that inspires and reflects Indigenous psychology of the region today is the following:
Only those who are their own selves in this world can complete their own nature.
Only those who can complete their own nature can complete the nature of others.
Only those who can complete the nature of others can complete the nature of things.
Only those who complete the nature of things are dignified enough to help nature in its task of life growth and sustainability.
Only those who are dignified enough to help nature in its task of life growth and sustainability are equal to Sky and Earth.
(Chanabor, Chanabor, Vazquez, & Diaz, 2019, p. 153)
In Mexican psychology, the primary focus in life is love, not power (Loving, 2006).
The commonalities across these indigenous views is a sense of spirit in all and oneness with all. Modern animism reflects the same orientation:
“Animists are people who recognize that the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human, and that life is always lived in relationship with others. Animism is lived out in various ways that are all about learning to act respectfully (carefully and constructively) towards and among other persons. Persons are beings, rather than objects, who are animated and social towards others (even if they are not always sociable)” (Harvey, 2017, p. xvii).
Through colonization, the splitting of self from nature has been forced on peoples around the world as a means of civilizing them. Stepping back and honoring Indigenous psychologies means embracing decolonization and embracing “plurivisions and solidarity with the struggle for cultural and ecological justice”; it means understanding “the perverse impacts that colonization, coloniality and neoliberalism have had on indigenous communities” so that emancipatory community wellbeing can be promoted instead (Ciofalo, p. 33).
Caso Niebla, J. (2012). Voces de la psicologia Mexicana [Voices of Mexican psychology]. Annual meeting of the Sociedad Mexicana de Psicologia, Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico.
Chanabor, M.C., Chanabor, C. C., Vazquez, J.M.M., & Diaz, E.D. (2019). Uk’Ay K’ax (El Canto de La Selva—Song of the Rainforest). In N. Ciofalo, (Ed.). Indigenous psychologies in an era of decolonization (pp. 153-185). New York: Springer.
Christen, M., Narvaez, D., & Gutzwiller, E. (2017). Comparing and integrating biological and cultural moral progress. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 20(1), 55-73.
Ciofalo, N. (2019). Indigenous psychologies in an era of decolonization. New York: Springer.
Deloria, V. (2009). C.G. Jung and the Sioux traditions. New Orleans, LA: Springer Journal Books.
Descola, P. (2013). Beyond nature and culture (J. Lloyd, trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Harvey, Graham (2017). Animism: Respecting the living world. London: C. Hurst & Co.
Loving, R.D. (2006). An historic-psycho-socio-cultural look at the self in Mexico. In U. Kim, K.S. Yang, & K.K. Hwang (Eds.), Indigenous and cultural psychology (pp. 315-326). NY: Springer Science & Business Media LLC.
Narvaez, D., Four Arrows, Halton, E., Collier, B., Enderle, G. (Eds.) (2019). Indigenous Sustainable Wisdom: First Nation Know-how for Global Flourishing. New York: Peter Lang.
Somé, M. (1999). The healing wisdom of Africa: Finding life purpose through nature, ritual, and community. New York: NY: Penguin Putnam.