By Odette Auger, Windspeaker Buffalo Spirit Reporter
Challenge to Civilization Indigenous Wisdom and the Future is Dr. Blair Stonechild’s final book in a trilogy that explores the theme of Indigenous spirituality as key to our collective survival.
First hired in 1976 by the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, now the First Nations University of Canada (FNUC), Stonechild is a professor of Indigenous Studies at the institution. He is a member of the Muscowpetung First Nation in Saskatchewan.
The trilogy, published by the University of Regina Press, also includes The Knowledge Seeker Embracing Indigenous Spirituality, and Loss of Indigenous Eden and The Fall of Spirituality. Within these books is 50 years of learning at FNUC, explains Stonechild, who says he was “really privileged to learn from so many Elders over the years.”
The Knowledge Seeker, published in 2016, shares Elders’ teachings of “where we came from, why we're here and how we're to behave,” Stonechild says. It’s an award-winning tale of the Indigenous-run education movement and the urgent need to teach Indigenous spirituality.
“The problem was, it didn’t serve the purposes of colonization,” Stonechild told Windspeaker.
“Some people questioned whether or not this whole thing about Indigenous spirituality was something that was still relevant and whether it was something that should be taught in universities, because they thought, ‘what use is this?’”
That led to the second book in 2020, Loss of Indigenous Eden, which describes “civilization” as an ideology of human dominance, technological advancement and economic pursuit that has led to destructive consumption, a damaged relationship with the natural world, and disrespect for spirituality.
Civilization, a western concept, springs from the desire to dominate and exploit, writes Stonechild in the final book. Rooted in the idea of human superiority and the exploitation of nature, it is different from colonization, Stonechild says.
“The concept of colonization basically says, ‘look at these evil Europeans who have come here to take our resources’. Whereas civilization goes a step beyond that. The root of colonization is civilization,” he says.
“Civilization began when mankind began to rise up against nature and take control of it,” Stonechild says, and “the light bulb went off in my head. That's the point of departure,” between Indigenous and non-Indigenous systems.
“It's fundamental to our teachings that we are not apart from, superior to, nature,” Stonechild says of the Indigenous worldview.
“We are here as guests of the Creator. And we're here to learn to live in harmony with the rest of the creation and to learn proper relationships,” Stonechild says. “To not abuse the land, but rather to continue to be stewards of it; basically taking care of the Creator’s property who's allowed us to experience it in order to learn.”
But, “the problem with our mainstream way of living is that it doesn’t encourage us to, or even give us time to, think about spirituality,” said Stonechild. “We’re totally preoccupied with what we have to do for our jobs or where we are going to get our next money from.”
He said the first step in spiritual awakening is “being aware of the fact that we are spirit beings occupying physical bodies in a temporary journey.”
“We're not encouraged by society to think about these things. It's counterproductive to their economic and cultural way they set up society,” Stonechild says, “because spirituality makes you think differently about why we are here and how we should be behaving.”
Starting our days by thanking the Creator for being able to experience this physical life is a good place to start, says Stonechild, with the “understanding the Creator allowed us to be here and learn. We have to respect it. We have to be thankful for it.”
He said referring to Indigenous societies as “ancient civilizations” is incorrect. Challenge to Civilization corrects the timeline, teaching the history of the world from an Indigenous perspective.
Stonechild says “ancient” civilizations in the past 6,000 years, such as ‘ancient Rome,’ or ‘ancient Egypt’, are “relatively recent developments” and should be described as the “recent past.”
This is more accurate, says Stonechild, since Indigenous societies span 200,000 years. He explains that Indigenous societies didn’t have that desire to “rise against nature,” so scholars are mistaken to label Indigenous societies as “civilizations.” Stonechild coined the term “ecolizations,” to distinguish and emphasize that difference.
“Ecolization,” writes Stonechild, is a state in which humans recognize that they are not the central purpose of creation, remain grateful for the opportunity to experience physical life, and continue to obey the Creator’s “original instructions.” The term refers to a state in which there is harmony with both the supernatural and natural worlds.
This doesn’t mean humans were infallible. It means they had access to “transcendental ideology, ceremonies, and healing strategies that enabled them to remain on the ‘Good Path’.”
The notion that Indigenous societies were primitive and simply earlier on the same path towards industrialized, extractive approaches to profiting from nature is not true; Stonechild says 97 per cent of the 200,000 years of modern humanity have been Indigenous societies.
“It's not that Indigenous people did not value rational mind and reasoning. We've shown that through the various advances we've made in all kinds of areas, like mathematics and astronomy and architecture. But we did not do something until we had gone through spiritual protocols or spiritual consultation.”
Stonechild believes that reconnecting with Indigenous spirituality is essential for addressing issues like climate change and creating a more balanced and sustainable world.
One of his mentors was Saulteaux Elder Danny Musqua, who Stonechild interviewed in 2012 and 2013 as part of a research project. Stonechild says Elder Musqua recognized the decline of humanity but invited him to trust in the teachings “that we are spirit beings having a physical experience” and how that relates to reincarnation.
Reincarnation is a universal teaching in Indigenous societies, globally, and was even once part of the Christian tradition too, before being “expunged, probably because they wanted to control people more,” says Stonechild.
He said the theory of evolution is not an Indigenous concept. “As a matter of fact, it's only about 200 years old,” he notes.
“I mean, if you take a look at what [evolutionists] were saying, they were saying humans evolved from apes. Therefore, we also have sort of the base motives—jealousy, fear, —and all that kind of stuff the animals have, which I think is an unfair thing to say about animals in the first place.”
“Nevertheless, they explain it's inevitable that we are greedy, why we are violent, and so on and so forth. But what I see is, when I recall the old people and when I've met Indigenous people from the other parts of the world, these are the nicest, most generous, most non-violent, most truthful people you can ever meet.”
Stonechild said it’s a way of saying there's no hope for us. We have no hope of escaping that physical inheritance and that's why there are wars and greed. “But to me, that whole story really just justifies civilization.”
Taking cues from Elders’ teachings is to remember “Indigenous stories do not talk about coming from animals. We talk about coming from the stars.”
In Challenge to Civilization, Stonechild writes about us coming as spirits and occupying human bodies as vehicles for our earthly experience.
“So we're like the master consciousness of these bodies,” he says.
“My Elder mentor Danny Musqua used to say, that's one of our biggest challenges. We need to control these bodies. And we did that through our spiritual disciplines, ceremonies, values and healing practices.”
While there is a matter-of-fact recognition or even a ‘goodbye to humanity surviving the destruction brought on by civilization', Stonechild reminds us of what his Elders taught him about rebirth.
“Rebirth takes place in all types of forms. There's a rebirth of animals. There's a rebirth of humans. And I would also argue that there's also the rebirth of human-like civilizations.”
Stonechild’s last book in his trilogy is dedicated to the “uncivilized peoples of the world– past, present, and future.”
Challenge to Civilization is an invitation to take our awareness of the Anthropocene to the next step, recognizing not only that there is a better way, but that there always was the Good Path, the only viable path.
Challenge to Civilization is available for pre-order for shipping this month: https://uofrpress.ca/Books/C/Challenge-to-Civilization
(Editor's note: In this article, Dr. Blair Stonechild talks about Indigenous peoples as spirit beings coming from the stars. In our interview with Elder Deliah Twig about the painted designs on tipis, she talks about the designs at the top that represent “the night sky, the spirit beings, the stars, the universe.” You can find that lesson here: https://windspeaker.com/buffalo-spirit/elder-lesson-about-designs-painted-tipis)
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