Indigenous Wisdom: A Review of "Alternative Worldview - Sharing Life: The Ecopolitics of Reciprocity"


The book highlights the existential threats posed by modern extractive capitalism, making it a must-read for anyone passionate about human-nature relations and preserving indigenous cultures.

The world is crumbling due to anthropogenic activities and we are prompted to reevaluate our interactions with the natural environment. With this background, the book Alternative Worldviews - Sharing Life: The Ecopolitics of Reciprocity (2020), edited by a renowned biologist and philosopher, Andreas Weber, documents and analyses the intricate and reciprocal relationship indigenous communities foster with the natural world. At the core, it offers animism as an alternative worldview to the crumbling occidental notion, or what Boaventura de Sousa Santos (2018) calls the ‘Western Cognitive Empire.’ It does not, however, limit the notion of animism to mere nature worship but expands its meaning to the perception that all beings exist and flourish through reciprocal interconnections. Drawing upon the mutual understandings and relationships indigenous communities share with nature, the book suggests reciprocity as a way for humans to share space with nonhumans as the key to living together. This is more than needed during the current ecological crisis.

This volume is an assemblage of twelve stories, artwork, poems and academic writings contributed by academicians, scientists, journalists, activists, politicians, artists and practitioners from northeast India. Thus, it offers a multidisciplinary understanding of indigenous worldviews, philosophies, knowledge and practices. Based on lived experiences and a common understanding of the importance of indigenous knowledge systems and practices, they present the rich wealth of indigenous epistemologies and encourage us to un-learn, de-theorise and re-assemble ourselves The book delves into how indigenous people maintain a reciprocal relationship with nonhumans by using their traditional knowledge system, which the West has disregarded as ‘primitive’ and non-scientific. In contrast, indigenous epistemes show us alternate viewpoints of our understanding of nature, protecting them and, more so, in the face of contemporary global challenges.

The content of the book is presented interestingly and captures the readers’ attention through the vibrant images of leaves to illuminate the indigenous worldviews and ideas. Through its innovative format - featuring page numbers and author names along the sides, alternating with chapter titles - the book breaks the conventional mode of academic publishing. Written with several empirical stories, the chapters are highly engaging.

Abhishek Chauhan

Evolving around the main essay “Sharing life. The Ecopolitics of Reciprocity” all contributions to this assemblage reflect a common understanding that ecology and biodiversity needs to be reclaimed – and constantly generated – as a process of lived and living realities in a system of reciprocal relationships.

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‘Sharing Life: The Ecopolitics of Reciprocity’, the main section of this volume contributed by the editor, Andreas Weber, theorises the concept of animism, followed and cherished for generations by indigenous groups and discusses the distinction between mainstream science and animism. Indigenous worldviews, as Weber points out, emphasise the relatedness of the world in equal terms between all beings - both animate and inanimate - which implies living beings are not separate from nature but are indeed part of the complete whole, highlighting a sense of mutuality and interdependence. The chapter calls for a notion of shared ecology and indigenous wisdom. Other contributors to the volume supplement and complement Weber’s conceptions of animism or indigenous worldviews. For example, Uttam Bathari narrates how the Kopili river, originating from the Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya and flowing through Dima Hasao and Karbi Anglong in Assam before draining into the Brahmaputra, is considered Mother Goddess and worshipped every year by at least three communities of Northeast India. The Jaintias, Dimasas and Karbis perform sacrificial rituals on this river to seek personal and familial well-being.

Linda Chhakchhuak sheds light on how indigenous lives and livelihoods revolve around the swidden system, popularly known as jhum in Northeast India. She calls jhum the ‘University of the Tribe’ (pg. 38), for it is through this practice that indigenous people learn the ‘secrets’ of the earth. Jhum is so intricately linked to the identity and culture of the people, she maintains, that its demise would mean the loss of the latter, too. Jayanta Kumar Sarma examines how the traditional knowledge system or indigenous wisdom translates to natural resource management and ensures the sustainability of ecosystem services. Livelihood activities of indigenous people, he notes, are planned and executed based on their understanding of the landscape, terrain conditions, watershed property, etc. Kaustubh Deka’s chapter shows how animistic worldviews and ethos of reciprocity have changed over time in Northeast India. Rocks, rivers and mountains, which were considered sacred and alive, are now becoming victims of modernity that advocates extractive capitalism, eroding the reciprocal relationships between humans and nature. Shrishtee Bajpai talks about the struggles of indigenous people in the face of capitalism which sees nature as a resource to be exploited and commercialised. Drawing from Maharashtra, Orissa and South America, he shows how the state and capitalist forces undermine indigenous notions of nature and exploit natural resources leading to ecological destruction and displacement of the indigenes.

In conclusion, the book offers a comprehensive and critical analysis of indigenous worldviews, knowledge systems and philosophies in northeast India and beyond. A reflection of this kind is uncommon, and the volume, thus, warrants attention and a wide readership. This will be an excellent resource for anyone interested in human-nature relations, knowledge systems, conservation and development in northeast India. It is a must-read for scholars of anthropology, sociology, environmental science, social work and development studies, as well as for practitioners and policymakers.   



Santos, B. S. (2018). The End of the Cognitive Empire: The Coming of Age of Epistemologies of the South. Duke University Press.