Our species is blessed to have a surviving storehouse of Earth Community wisdom and experience that indigenous people have preserved despite the  of the institutions of Empire to eliminate it. Indigenous peoples lived close to Earth and were acutely aware that their security and survival depended on their deep bond to tribe and nature. As modern societies awaken to the reality that for all our technologies our future depends on reconnecting to one another and Earth, we are beginning to realize that we have much to learn from the indigenous wisdom and experience. We must join with indigenous peoples in a common effort to create a new Earth Community synthesis of indigenous wisdom and values with the capabilities of beneficial modern technologies.

My Teacher

Puanani BurgessPuanani “Pua” Burgess is a Native Hawiian Elder and cultural translator and a Western trained lawyer who bridges the two worlds of indigenous and modern knowledge and values. She has become one of my closest friends and teachers in her capacity as a board member of YES! magazine and a board member of the People-Centered Development Forum. See her reflection on the role and preparation of Earth Community Navigators.

A Language Barrier

During Pua’s June 2008 visit to Bainbridge Island, I video recorded a series of conversations with her exploring various dimensions of an indigenous perspective on Earth Community. These conversations generated striking insights into how the English language creates a perceptual barrier that limits our ability to see and value our connection to one another and the larger community of life. I was particularly struck by Pua’s statement that “I cannot think about these things in a deep way in English.”

The English language, which has become the global lingua franca, at once reflects and shapes an imperial mindset. The Hawaiian language is the language of an indigenous people inseparably connected to one another and Earth, By sharing her insights into the contrasting perspectives of these two languages, Pua helps us see a reality to which the cultural trance of Empire has long blinded us in the West.

Democracy of the Whole

Pua begins by reflecting on how concepts of Earth Balance and Living Democracy are summed up in the word pono, which evokes a sense of balance, justice, and hope—conditions that are inseparable within the Hawaiian perspective. A true living democracy as a democracy of the whole that seeks balance in all things. We of the Western mindset sometimes ask, who will speak for nature? Puananai calls our attention to the fact that nature speaks for herself. If we listen closely she speaks softly, but if we do not hear she can speak with a loud and powerful voice as we are now discovering.


Sharing Is More Than Equitable Distribution

In my conversation with Pua, I came realize that my Western mindset leads me to think about the equitable sharing of Earth’s resources in a rather formal legalistic way relating to inheritance and property rights. Pua thinks about it in terms of kokua, a Hawaiian word that evokes a sense of sharing based on need that contrasts rather starkly with a static concept of dividing into equal shares and calculated reciprocal exchange.

More Money than Water

To explain the differing Western and indigenous perspective on wealth, Pua describes how her law school text defined a resource as anything that can be commodified and given a monetary value. The Hawaiian concept of wealth, by contrast, is best expressed by the word ho’o wai wai, that roughly translates as the flowing life-giving waters. The contrast is stark. The Hawaiians measured their wealth in terms of life-giving waters and created a paradise on Earth.

We of the Western worldview have chosen to measure our wealth in terms of money, a purely human abstraction that has no living system counterpart, and we are making our world increasingly unlivable. The global spread of our preference for financial values over life values surely helps explain why we humans now have a global water crisis.

As a species we now have far more money than we have water. The people who have the money decide how the remaining water will be allocated, which in the absence of kokua, means that far too many of us get no water. This is but one expression of how our choice for money over life has put us on a path to collective suicide. In this video clip, Pua describes the contrasting perspectives.

Work Is Medicine

These contrasting value perspectives play out in our very different Western and traditional Hawaiian views of the nature and purpose of work. In our Western culture, work is merely a means of making money to allow us to buy things to meet our needs and fulfill our fantasies. In traditional Hawaiian culture work is a pathway to self-realization through service. It is essential to happiness and well-being and a powerful medicine for healing social, psychological, and even physical dysfunction. Pua describes a practical example of what this meant for the design of a backyard aquaculture project in her Hawaiian community of Wai’anae.