Revisiting indigenous epistemologies of North East India


Artwork by Abhishek Chauhan.
Teaser Image Caption
Artwork by Abhishek Chauhan.

This article has a dual focus. It seeks to revisit the epistemology of the indigenous people in the Northeast but it also examines this issue in the context of Andreas Weber’s eclectic and profoundly insightful essay, which echoes the worldviews and cosmo-ecological thoughts of the various communities of the region. Like the indigenous people around the world, the storytelling tradition and ecologically sustainable practices have kept the people of the Northeast of India strongly connected to their land as also to their ontology and epistemology. The Northeast is a diverse mosaic of ethnicities and cultures and the various indigenous groups have preserved traditional knowledge through oral narratives, cosmological observations, and cultural and ritual practices. This knowledge has been passed on to generations through storytelling, both literal and metaphorical, song and dance as well as rituals.

Weber describes animism as the “cosmology of the indigenous people. While animism is widely prevalent in the North East, there are huge diversities in terms of the region’s deities, oral traditions, rituals and festivals, environmental ethics, sustainable agricultural practices and their taboos about certain plants and animals. Weber’s perspectives and insights about aliveness, ecopolitics and rules for behaving well in the society of being are very edifying but they also raise many questions. A whole new range of vocabularies and narratives for the Anthropocene epoch that Weber uses in his essay is still evolving. All the same, by not over-emphasising the solution, the essay doesn’t lose the sense of the narrative, even the reflexivity of the narrative.

If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound together with mine, let us walk together.

       --Lilla Watson, Indigenous Australian visual artist, activist and academic

Living in harmony with nature has been an integral part of the culture, traditions and lifestyles of most indigenous people across the world. Their traditional practices, religious beliefs, rituals, folklore, arts and crafts lead to harmonious inter-relationships among nature, ecology and cosmos. Such a lifestyle sheds light not only on the knowledge systems of the indigenous people but also on their cosmology, ontology and epistemology.

A large body of work on the indigenous people in Northeast India is primarily anthropological. Their cosmology and epistemology have not been sufficiently theorised, articulated and documented the way; for example, it has been done in the case of South American ‘pueblos originarios’ (natives, indigenous; in Spanish pueblos means village, originarios means original). The mythologies, stories, songs, rituals and cultural practices are often treated as mere ethnological data and treated as residuary and unscientific.

J B Fuller, chief commissioner of Assam, wrote in 1909 that “Assam at the far northeastern corner of India is a museum of nationalities”. B G Verghese described the Northeastern region as “another India, the most diverse part of a most diverse country, very different, relatively little known and certainly not too well understood”. The Northeast is a mosaic of diverse ethnicities, cultural forms and environmentally and life sustaining practices.

The local communities possess intangible cultural wealth and immense collective moral and cultural capital. To the people, forests, mountains and rivers are a repository of traditional knowledge and wisdom. Sadly, the so-called mainstream has exiled the local people to the fringes of conversations thereby perpetuating the stereotype of the native with no agency.

For thousands of years, the indigenous people have followed a lifestyle and cultural practices, which emphasise what social scientist Shiv Viswanathan calls “everydayness of coping”. Doing more with less is built in their way of surviving on the minimum. This “ethnography of coping”, says Vishwanathan, is a “lesson to us all”. Their life provides us with a compass of everyday knowledge and how the margins survive and safeguard their knowledge systems. A related aspect of such a philosophy, worldview and lifestyle has been a sense of the collective.

Capitalism is a great promoter of individual rights – the right to own, to sell and to keep. The indigenous people, on the contrary, believe in and practice a model that subjugates the rights of the individual to those of peoples, communities and nature. Rather than a source of sustenance, nature is treated by capitalism as a resource to be exploited for profit. The capitalistic developmental model is essentially extractivist. The minerals and other resources are located in the regions where the indigenous communities live. The extraction of these minerals leads to the destruction of local ecology and the ouster and displacement of the indigenous communities. The essence of such a philosophy is that the wellbeing can occur only in a community. The wellbeing is a built-in culturally specific idea of a community living in harmony with nature. In the worldviews of a large number of indigenous people across the world, the central idea, which underpins the meaning of ‘wellbeing’ is the balanced relationship between people and their community and natural surroundings. Real wellbeing is in harmonious co-existence. It is not income-dependent but promotion of people’s livelihood and environment. Buen Vivir and Ubuntu share similar visions. Buen Vivir, the cosmovision of the Quechua people of the Andes in South America, emphasises that ‘good living’ is not about individual, but the individual in the social context of their community and in a harmonious environmental situation. The essence of Ubuntu too is I am, because you are. In other words, we are all connected and that one can only grow and progress through the growth and progression of others. It thus goes beyond western dualism where nature opposes society and the individual opposes community. Culture is a central pillar of the lifestyles of the indigenous people. It shapes the belief systems, worldviews, epistemologies and cosmologies that shape human interaction with nature. Culture is nearly impossible to define. There are as many types of cultures as there are societies and communities. The range of meanings of culture is abundant. Its breath spans the spiritual and the physical to material and emotional features of society or group. In the particular context of the indigenous people, culture is the way of life for an entire society. According to the Harper Collins Dictionary of Sociology, culture “includes codes of manners, dress, language, religion, rituals, norms of behavior… and systems of beliefs”.

Anthropocene epoch

We may or may not be close to the “end of nature” but the Anthropocene epoch is already upon us. It is the upshot of human activities having transgressed critical planetary boundaries. The impact of human activity is so powerful on the environment, climate and ecology of the planet that it will leave a long-term signature in the strata record. In 2016, the world slipped into ecological debt having consumed more resources and produced more waste than nature could absorb and replace.

The Anthropocene forces us to not only alter our relationship with the planet but also re-contexualise how we deal with environment, life and livelihood. In these unprecedented waves of adversity, only the lifestyles and cosmology of the indigenous people provide us multiple layers of resilience.

The resilience is rooted in traditional knowledge and the indigenous people look to their traditional practices to adapt to adversities. Staying connected to family and community too is a source of their resilience. Through a culture of sharing and their ability to do more with less, there may be poverty among the indigenous people but there is no problem of squalor. Life may be hard but it is looked upon as an opportunity. It is this resilience that the indigenous people count on dealing with climate crisis. As the International Indigenous People’s Forum on Climate Change made a statement at the Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, “We reiterate the need for recognition of our traditional knowledge (which)…is our viral contribution to climate change adaptation and mitigation”[i].

This resilience is also reflected in the taboos on hunting and consumption of fishes, waterfowl and other aquatic animals during certain periods as also in the harvesting and consumption of certain plants among the Meiteis of Manipur and the preservation of sacred groves in Meghalaya[ii].

It is time to reflect critically upon prevailing development trajectories and chart new pathways that lead to outcomes that are economically, socially and culturally sustainable. Andreas Weber, author of the essay under review, too emphasises that we take “the worldviews of indigenous peoples seriously” as there is a lot “to learn from animistic worldviews”.

Cosmology of conservation

For thousands of years, the indigenous people of the Northeast of India have lived their worldviews and believed in a cosmology of conservation in which humans constituted one of many elements along with animals, birds, trees, clouds, mountains and earth. Humans were not seen as superior to other life forms or elements in this system and they had a responsibility to maintain the world they shared.

The organic cosmology has shaped an ecological ethic that continues to guide the indigenous people’s behavior and practices. Knowledge is passed on formally or informally among kin groups and the community through social encounters, oral traditions, ritual practices, song, dance and other ceremonies. The knowledge about human histories, cosmological observations, techniques of planting and harvesting and understanding of local ecosystems is passed on from generation to generation through phenomenological experience and everyday activities.

The indigenous people go around dragging a heavy body, the body of their ancestors and their history, tradition and knowledge. Each indigenous group in the Northeast contains the knowledge systems that are steeped in their history, tradition, relationship with local economy, with people’s lives and the way they understand the world around them. The indigenous people and communities have left an answer which can be helpful not only for our societies but alsofor the wider world[iii].

The traditional knowledge of the indigenous people of Northeast India is fast becoming a vanishing world. It remains largely undocumented, and with rapid socio-economic transformation, it runs the risk of dying out or being distorted beyond recognition. This knowledge encompasses the sophisticated array of information, understanding and interpretations that guide human societies in their interactions in varying fields – agriculture and animal husbandry, fishing, coping with diseases, explaining natural phenomena and strategies to cope with fluctuating environments.

Story telling

The importance of story-telling in preserving the knowledge systems can’t be overemphasised. As T S Eliot says, “We have lost knowledge in information and wisdom in knowledge”[iv]. Story telling is necessary for earthly survival. Nothing is just a story. Only through stories can the invisible, the inarticulate and the silent beings speak to us and re-imagine the traditional wisdom and knowledge that have great resonance in our everyday lives about nature, environment and livelihood among others. The past thus reaches out to us. Story telling is both prayer and elegy, which transmits histories, memories, traumas, hopes and dreams of the indigenous people.

The people of the Northeast have been handing down useful lessons from one generation to another. Much of these are part of oral traditions. As Sitakant Mahapatra says, the oral tradition “covers the world of knowledge and is the only pragmatic way of socialisation, learning and transmission of knowledge[v].

The tradition of story-telling facilitates this transfer of knowledge. Traditional storytelling privileges holistic interconnectedness, reciprocity, spirituality and knowledge transmission.

A familiar criticism of the body of work that Green theorists have produced is that it is dystopian in its diagnosis and utopian in terms of its prognosis. The essay by Andreas Weber titled, Sharing Life.  The Ecopolitics of Reciprocity, doesn’t fall in that category. It is a sparkling essay and his concepts are massively forceful. He offers a whole new range of vocabularies and narratives for the Anthropocene epoch. The essay offers a useful guide and a powerful antidote to the dangerous oversimplification of the complex issue.

Defining and contextualising a plethora of new terms and idioms would have been helpful in view of a multiplicity of positions within radical ecological thinking. Though challenging and at times abstruse, Weber’s essay is highly relevant for academics and practitioners alike, which will help unpack the fast changing language and vocabulary for the Anthropocene epoch. Weber’s analysis of the “enlivenment” concept and the strategies for sustainability in the Anthropocene very well capture the Zeitgeist, however much of the vocabulary relating to the Anthropocene will continue to acquire new meanings and connotations for a long time to come.

This eclectic and profoundly insightful essay covers a wide range of issues like ecological good, family of being(s), commoning for kin, animism and animistic thinking in the Anthropocene, self-colonisation of the West, rules of aliveness, ecopolitics and rules for behaving well in the society of being.

Weber links the coronavirus outbreak to “the destruction of habitats”, mass consumption of “animals from rare species” and “human encroachment on what is not human. Leading American scientist Thomas Lovejoy also supports this view saying the pandemic is “not nature’s revenge, we did it to ourselves[vi].

As Weber rightly maintains, animism is the “cosmology of the indigenous peoples”, which underlines the “reciprocity among beings – human and non-human persons”. In a cosmos of relationships, “reciprocity is required in order to thrive”.

Animism is widely prevalent in the Northeast of India, which has gone through stages of animism, polytheism and monotheism. In Arunachal Pradesh, where animism is practiced widely, there is tremendous diversity in the nature of deities, spirits, festivities, rituals and oral traditions. Therefore, projecting the indigenous people as some Western scholars often do as “ecological sentinels” or “unsung heroes’ only perpetuates the colonial clichés. This is where self-colonisation of the West, as Weber emphasises, becomes extremely important.

The westerners need to learn “how to behave as individuals within the larger context of the collective life”. Weber calls it “unbraining”.

No one could disagree that the animistic worldviews of indigenous people can be precious for the current crises faced by the Anthropocene epoch. But his analysis raises more questions than answers.

What might it mean, in practical terms, to follow the example of animists, indigenous or otherwise? Is it possible to become an animist or is such a desire a symptom of (post) modernist anomie, an ecological romanticisation of indigenous cultures or what has been called ‘fetishisation of fetishism”? There is also no clarity regarding the redistribution of personhood in a way that undoes notions of bodily and territorial sovereignty. What does it mean to ascribe legal personhood to a river and what contradictions arise when indigenous people utilise the state’s judicial bodies in order to protest dispossession and protect the land?

Weber’s essay is one of the most damning accounts of environmental degradation, which is the result of our lust for excess. His perspectives and insights are highly instructional, edifying but also transformative. The indigenous people in the Northeast of India may find his major conclusions echoing their worldviews and cosmo-ecological thoughts. The essay may help generate generalisable insights about trends and principles regarding the perspectives of the indigenous people and validate their ontologies and epistemologies.

The practical suggestions about how to interact with the persons that constitute the ecosystem are very significant. The essence of “different ecological practice” to take only what you need is Gandhian. Gandhi too had famously said, “Those who don’t know when enough is enough will never have enough but those who know when enough is enough already have enough”[vii].

Johan Wolfgang von Goethe has said, “When ideas fail, words come in very handy.” Andreas Weber’s case could be just the opposite. His ideas are great and extremely relevant for the time. But his use of complex terms and concepts may create a sense of la langue de bois, the language of evasion, in some quarters. Weber looks like an excellent pathologist but not so good physician. He has diagnosed the crisis correctly. But he seems to be prescribing unaffordable remedies.

Weber’s essay is a powerful manifesto screaming for action. It is also a timely resonance for a new era of pandemics and climate crisis. While he wants western thinkers to undertake a “journey of unlearning” and to “open up to what it is not”, his essay, in his own words, should be seen as an “open query” and an “attempt at self-decolonisation”. But “healing”, as he says, “is the process itself, not the end of it”. True, some wounds never heal. But deepest wounds can’t heal until they are expressed.


[i] Cited in McLean, Kirsty Galloway, “Land use, climate change adaptation and indigenous peoples”, United Nations University.

[ii] For detailed analysis, see Gupta Abhik, “Environmental ethics in the culture of Meteis from North East India”, in Asian Bioethics in the 21st century, Eubios Ethics Institute.

[iii] This is part of the leitmotif of the India Office of the Heinrich Böll Stiftungs ongoing work in the North East which the WorkSpace working group is currently grappling with.

[iv] Taken from the opening stanza of T.S. Eliot’s Choruses from the Rock.

[v] Mahapatra, Sitakant, 1993. Beyond the World: The Multiple Gestures of Tradition.Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publication. P. 111

[vii] Kumar, Satish (1996): Gandhi's Swadeshi: The Economics of Permanence, in Mander, Jerry and Goldsmith, Edwards (eds): The Case against the Global Economy and for a turn toward the Local, San Francisco: Cierra Club Books

Suggested Readings

  1. Borona, Kendi (2018). Reclaiming Indigenous Knowledge Systems. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 
  2. D’Souza, Leela (2007). Cultural History of Ancient India: Diversity, Syncretism and Synthesis. Selhi: Rawat Publications.
  3. Gadgil, Madhav and Ramchandra Guha (1995). Ecology and Equity: The Use and Abuse of Nature in Contemporary India. New Delhi: Penguin.
  4. Ganesh, Kamla (2005). Culture and the Making of Identity in Contemporary India. New Delhi: Sage Publications. 
  5. Kopenawa, Davi and Albert Bruce. Translated by Nicholas Elliot and Alison Dundy (2013). The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman. Harvard University Press.
  6. Kumar, Satish. (1996). Gandhi’s Swadeshi: The Economy of Permanence, in Mander, in Jerry/Goldsmith, Edwards (eds): The Case against the Global Economy and for a Turn towards the Local. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
  7. Martemjen (2017). Biodiversity Conservation, Indigenous Knowledge and Practices: A Naga Perspective. Notion Press, Inc.
  8. Misra, Udayon(1988). North-East India: Quest for Identity. Guwahati: Omsons.
  9. Prakash, Ved (2007). Encyclopedia of North-East India. New Delhi: Atlantic.
  10. Shiva, Vandana (1997). Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge. South End Press.
  11. Vatsyayan, Kapila. (1992). ‘Ecology and Indian Myth’ in G. Sen (ed) Indigenous Vision: Peoples of India, Attitudes to the Environment. New Delhi: Sage.
  12. Verghese, B G (1997). India’s North-East Resurgent: Ethnicity, Insurgency, Governance, Development. New Delhi: Konark.
  13. Winkelman,Michael (2010). Shamamism: A Biopsychosocial Paradigm of Consciousness and Healing. Praeger.
  14. Veltmeyer, Henry and Edgar Zayago Lau (2011). Buen Vivir as an Alternative to Sustainable Development. Routledge


This contribution is part of Alternative Worldviews.