Philosophy 44 - 3.1.3 Indigenous North American Philosophical Thought

Work on Native American philosophy has expanded in recent years, as philosophers, many of them Native American themselves, have engaged in collective research on Native American thought. This work has included the development of academic societies and journals devoted to the topic. Like many Indigenous African peoples, Native American peoples did not rely on written documents to preserve their history and culture but instead preserved knowledge through oral tradition. These oral traditions included rituals, ceremonies, songs, stories, and dance. What is known about Native American philosophy comes from this oral tradition as well as the experiences and thoughts of contemporary Native American people.

Any attempt to define Indigenous North American philosophical thought is further complicated by the fact that thousands of distinct societies have existed on the continent, each with their own ideas about how the world was created, what are the basic elements of reality, what constitutes the self, and other metaphysical issues. There is a rich expanse of philosophical views to synthesize—and for every possible generalization, there are exceptions. Still, some generalizations of Indigenous North American philosophy are true more often than not. One such generalization is the perception that the creative process of the universe is akin to the thought process. Another is that more than one being is responsible for the creation of the universe—and that these beings do not take on anthropomorphic forms (Forbes 2001).

Additionally, there are a number of characteristics common to Indigenous North American metaphysical concepts. Many Native American peoples, for example, emphasize balance, complementarity, and exchange between the different entities that make up the world. For instance, the Diné see breath as a fundamental force in nature, with the exchange of the internal and the external passing through all natural processes. Similarly, the Zuni note that twins, such as the twin Evening Star and the Morning Star—both of which are actually Venus – share a complementary and mirrored existence, serving as a reminder that there can be multiple manifestations of the same thing in nature. Additionally, concepts such as gender identity are understood as animated, nonbinary, and non-discrete, such that gender may develop and change over time (Waters 2004, 107). These generalizations point to a Native American metaphysics that is based on animate processes that are complementary, interactive, and integrated.

North American Indigenous peoples also have views of the self that differ from the European tradition. The Pueblo possess a sense of personal and community identity shaped by both place and time. Known as a transformative model of identity, this social identity is understood to spiral both outward and inward through expanding and retracting influences over a certain area of land (Jojola 2004). Extant petroglyphic spirals show the migration of a clan outward to the boundaries of its physical and spiritual territory as well as the inward journey homeward. These journeys also reflect a temporal component, as they were coordinated with the cycles of the solstice calendar. Such metaphysical understandings are reflected in the tendency of many Native American cultures to build moral and ethical concepts on the idea that human beings are fundamentally social rather than individual—a “we,” not an “I.”

Cliff face displaying designs created by carving out a portion of the surface, revealing lighter-colored rock beneath. Designs include two connected spiral shapes, a hand, and a bird.
Figure 3.3 These petroglyphic spirals created by the Ancestral Pueblo represent both physical and spiritual journeys. The boxy spiral shown here likely represents the path that many Southwestern tribes believe they took when they emerged from the earth. Many contemporary scholars identify this with the geographic feature of the Grand Canyon. (credit: “Anasazi Indian Petroglyphs (~600 to 1300 A.D.) (Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, USA) 1” by James St. John/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax