The power of many stories

Hope, even though challenging, is found only with fellow human beings in an environment where our choices are self-defining and self-creating.

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

The Power of Many Stories is a conceptual reflection reciprocating to Andreas Weber’s invitation to think, explore and imagine together in a dialogical discourse that questions the Western Cognitive Empire and its impact on humanity. While upholding Weber’s openness to embrace inclusion and to put into praxis indigenous worldviews and values, this reflection is mindful of how colonial and neo-colonial forces have hijacked, subjugated and diverted indigenous thought processes and worldviews from their natural path. Despite the existing dichotomy of humanity, this reflection elicits the idea that Western Cognitive Empire and Indigenous Worldview need to engage and eventually partner in a mutual process of self-decolonisation. By harnessing critical solidarity, the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples can make a paradigm shift to one that is reciprocal, shared, sincere, dignified and respectful. The Power of Many Stories is an ongoing dynamic that brings to public expression notions of ‘shared language’, ‘self-decolonisation’, and a ‘shared ecology’ where these multiple stories will be interwoven into a vibrant web that reflects the deeply interdependent, interconnected and interrelated nature of humanity.

 A prelude – talking about talk

 The modern world, as we understand it, has for the most part been dominated and monopolised by a single narrative. Derived from one cultural worldview and as victors of war, the “European model” has sought to project itself as a representation of a “universalised language” and “sole possessor of all solutions to the challenges of our time”[i].

The institutionalisation of this dominant worldview created and shaped power structures and systems such as the “Westphalian World Order”,[ii] globalism and militarism. This, in turn, perhaps made it possible to sustain what Andreas Weber calls the Western Cognitive Empire in his essay “Sharing Life.  The Ecopolitics of Reciprocity”.

Weber’s essay is an anti-thesis to the dominant narrative that questions the existing framework and value systems. It is an invitation to think and explore together in a dialogical discourse. He upholds the existence of the many ‘other’ narratives – particularly the indigenous worldview – and emphasises their value in engaging with the web of life. Whether this engagement will persuade the dominant narrative to reciprocate by undoing and decolonising itself through a journey of unlearning, rediscovery, understanding and healing is critical to this inquiry.

The broad conceptual outline that Weber presents demonstrates an openness to embrace inclusion, which is both refreshing and liberative. I wish to contribute to this dialogue by reciprocating to Weber’s invitation. By bringing multiples voices[iii] that represent a spectrum of thought processes from Naga[iv] society, my reflection seeks to explore notions of shared language, self-decolonisation, and a shared ecology. Somewhere along this process, I believe, the different perspectives engaged in this dialogue will criss-cross to form a spider’s web. Every strand is distinct and as important as the entire web itself. One is not complete without the other.

The indigenous worldview does offer an alternative to the dominant culture and particularly how power is organised. However, it needs to be acknowledged that forces of colonisation, subjugation, exploitation, repression and marginalisation have ensured that indigenous peoples, their worldviews, thought processes and patterns of social organisation are negated and diverted from their natural path. In most cases, they have been relegated to the past, which ensured that they did not evolve with each generation. This has effectively caused them to be frozen in time.

Neichü Mayer, development consultant and author, laments how colonisation has changed the concepts of ecological balance[v]. She says human greed, aggression and manipulation has disturbed the fragile ecosystem. In fact, most indigenous peoples around the world will relate to the incisive observation of Nicholas Dirks where in post-1857 British India, “anthropology supplanted history as the principal colonial modality of knowledge and rule”[vi].

Colonial or Western anthropology continues to define the existence of present generations of indigenous peoples, their worldview, their aspirations, their culture and their sense of being. This anthropological lens has stifled the indigenous struggle for rehumanisation. It is absolutely essential not to romanticise, exotify or make any cultural assumptions about any group of people.

For indigenous peoples to regain and rebuild all relationships they need to engage in a process of what the Kenyan scholar, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o called “Decolonising the Mind”[vii]. Mayer calls for the recovery of indigenous stewardship, wisdom and experience to enable healing in their lands and restoration of its ecology[viii]. This will include exploring a shared language. The Western Cognitive Empire and indigenous worldview need to realise their futures are intertwined, and that they need each other to decolonise and liberate themselves. By harnessing critical solidarity, they can chart a new discourse towards a shared ecology.

A shared language

The pathway to a relational paradigm with ecological participation and sustainability needs engagement with the existing ‘language’ that governs human affairs and all of its relationships.

The present ‘language’ stemming from the Western Cognitive Empire is derived from a dominant culture, clothed in exclusive legal language. This discourse, by erasing the historical experiences of all other non-European cultures, ensured that values, ideas, thought-processes and aspirations that give meaning to indigenous peoples are missing from the ‘language’. By selectively negating events, activities, processes and narratives of indigenous peoples, the dominant ‘language’ ensures that “Europeans are the only ones with the authority [...] and the solutions they find are said to have universal significance”[ix].

‘Language’, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o says, is central to a people’s definition in relation to the world. It serves as a means of communication and a carrier of an evolving culture[x]. ‘Language’ is the “collective memory bank” of a people’s experience in history, and, hence, “the domination of a people’s language by the language of the colonising nations was crucial to the domination of the mental universe of the colonised”[xi]. This in turn feeds the structures of oppression and policies of domination, exploitation and subjugation of others[xii].

Weber’s “convergence of indigenous thinking and current ecological research” needs to consciously evolve in an interplay of a ‘shared language’ and ‘self-decolonisation’. The link between language and decolonisation is lucidly revealed by Frantz Fanon. He reminds us:   “Decolonisation never takes place unnoticed, for it influences individuals and modifies them fundamentally. It brings a natural rhythm into existence, introduced by new men [and women], and with it a new language and a new humanity”[xiii] .

The act of changing language is part of the process of changing the world,[xiv] and is crucial in recognising and developing a shared language. It invites humanity to a new way of perceiving and understanding the concrete conditions in which dehumanisation prevails[xv].

This invitation must lead to a decolonising methodology where the indigenous worldview and Western Cognitive Mind engage in dialogue. And, eventually a pathway will emerge offering an evolving synthesis – ‘a shared language’. Such a process needs to respect indigenous peoples’ self-definition. Akhum David Longkumer, activist and researcher, asserts the world needs to “first learn to accept the reasoning of the indigenous people on their terms and not tinted by ossified thinking”[xvi].

Nepuni Piku, Naga rights activist and farmer, who has been deeply engaged on indigenous peoples issues reminds us that, “The territories of the indigenous peoples today are the last remnants of humanity’s cultural and biodiversity realms”[xvii]. Longkumer points out that the indigenous peoples understand themselves as custodians of the commons. Their very existence, he adds, implies the feasibility of alternative ways of organising social and economic life that reproduce themselves without threatening the ecological balance[xviii].

Yet, it is also true that there is not one single unified indigenous perspective. In fact, even among the Nagas there exists a spectrum of viewpoints. Aheli Moitra, journalist and researcher, reminds us that a shared language “may work as a decolonising framework for ecological balance and sustainability” only when it incorporates and trusts the multiple voices and processes[xix]. Such inclusions, she feels, will help keep power centres away from applying facile comparisons between different kinds of places and peoples which lead to untenable solutions[xx].

Creating a shared language is fundamental for self-decolonisation and rehumanisation through which the people can imagine and interweave the future of a shared ecology together. Arien Jamir, a young lawyer and artist, emphasises: “A shared language is essential for decolonization, but decolonisation is a prerequisite in order to have that space to create a shared language”[xxi]. It goes hand-in-hand, he says. Longkumer, meanwhile, amplifies that a shared language must be informed by the shared-lived realities and should be unafraid of emancipating the disadvantaged[xxii].

In essence, a shared language evolves when a dialogue of worldviews appreciates and acknowledges the various knowledge systems and values required for building a shared ecology. It is a process where different worldviews learn from each other, and recognise they belong to a broader community of peoples.

Self-decolonisation and a shared ecology

‘Self-decolonisation’ and a shared language’ are integral to a decolonising framework that enables a ‘shared ecology’. The ‘self’ in self-decolonisation brings to public expression the question of identity and self-definition and how it is being exercised in relation to others. Self-decolonisation, therefore, does not occur in isolation, but is a relational process with fellow human beings and nature.

Like most indigenous peoples, land for the Nagas is intimately inter-woven into their identity, culture, spirituality, freedom and way of life. “Our territories and forests are to us more than an economic resource. For us, they are life and have an integral and spiritual value for our communities. They are fundamental to our social, cultural, spiritual, economic and political survival as distinct peoples,”[xxiii] Nepuni Piku reminds us. It involves human action to interact with the world through indigenous peoples’ collective wisdom, tradition, history and worldviews[xxiv].

Fundamentally, decolonisation means to be in relationship with the land by taking ownership with a “deep sense of stewardship”[xxv]. Eying Hümtsoe, a theologian and educator, affirms that a “decolonised framework is essential for ecological participation and sustainability” by “valuing all humans and dignifying all creatures”[xxvi].

Piku asserts that indigenous peoples are vital to the spectrum of the ecological biodiverse and not outside of it. He reminds us that ecological balance implies respecting a people’s unique way of life and allowing self-determination to flourish, free from acculturation and exploitation. He cautions against ignoring the dynamics of the symbiotic relationship between humans and nature. “When we arrogate to control nature as a force within our control, we make the mistake of destabilise the equilibrium existence of ecology,”[xxvii] Piku states. This, controlling nature, he says, is exhibited by the dominant western worldview.     

How do Nagas and fellow indigenous communities engage the “colonial and neo-colonial influence of dominant institutions,”[xxviii] which are impacting their lives and culture? While indigenous communities cannot go back to the past, they need to evolve by finding ways to recover and reconnect with the indigenous values, spirit and symbols of its new ‘self’.

Arien Jamir feels Nagas of the past could maintain ecological balance because their mental condition and value systems were different. He adds, “The idea of mass-manufacturing, profit making, ‘greed,’ conquest, seems to have been absent” and they lived in a more “natural world”[xxix]. Hence, decolonisation, Jamir senses, needs to be “restoration of values” and “rekindling relationship with nature”[xxx].

The mutual processes of ‘self-decolonisation’ and a ‘shared language’ need to be a conscious praxis with an honest decolonised collaboration between the Western Empirical Empire and the world of indigenous peoples. It does not mean uniformity or preserving one or the other, but rather creating a new space in which different worldviews peacefully co-exist and are respected[xxxi]. Like an umbrella, Jamir explains. 

The umbrella assumes the outline of an evolving ‘shared ecology’, which is foundational to achieving a ‘shared humanity’. The entire ecological system is interconnected. It stems from the value that the earth’s resources need to be co-shared equitably by sharing responsibility and standing in critical solidarity as stewards and partners in the commons. 

Conclusion – a reciprocal process

For too long, the relations between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples have been undignified and lack respect. Andreas Weber’s essay offers a way to engage, explore, critique, dialogue, imagine and to create a means of planting seeds of respect, sincerity and trust. In this context, respect implies a “reciprocal, shared, constantly interchanging principle which is expressed through all aspects of social conduct”,[xxxii] values and attitude in forming a shared ecology.  

In the present novel coronavirus (COVID-19) world we have all been reduced to numbers and statistics. And yet, the COVID-19 pandemic can be seen as the impetus for change of all humanity. It is providing an opportunity for self-examination, which can lead to new collective consciousness and serve as the common ground to become a unifier upon which our lives and relationships pivot. This present period is a good time to emancipate the language of exclusivity to one of inclusivity with complementary equitable participation.

It is with hope that this dialogical process will continue to reflect and dialogue across cultures and worldviews. After all, hope, even though challenging, is found only with fellow human beings in an environment where our choices are self-defining and self-creating. Eventually, hope as praxis needs to interweave the many stories into a web that is interdependent, interconnected and interrelated.

                            “All peoples are descendants of the forest.
                                        When the forest dies, we die.
We are given responsibility to maintain balance within the natural world.
                When any part is destroyed, all balance is cast into chaos.

                    When the last tree is gone, and the last river is dead,
                then people will learn that we cannot eat gold or silver.
                 To nurture the land is our obligation to our ancestors,
                        who passed this to us for future generations.”

              International Meeting of Indigenous and Other Forest-Dependent Peoples
on the Management, Conservation and Sustainable Development of All Types of Forests

                                             at Leticia, Colombia, December 1996.

Endnotes


[i] Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms. Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers Ltd., & London: James Curry Ltd., 1993, p. xvii.

[ii] Richard Falk says that the Westphalian World Order emerged as a result of the Peace Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which is the benchmark from which the modern system of sovereign states has emerged. In effect, “Westphalia,” Falk says, “contains an inevitable degree of incoherence by combining the territorial/juridical logic of equality with the geopolitical/hegemonic logic of inequality.” The Westphalian World Order was a “European regional system for most of its operative period, gradually developing a global outreach that attained its climax in the colonial era.” It identifies with “state-centric, sovereignty-oriented territorially bounded global order” and “hierarchically structured world, shaped and managed by dominant or hegemonic political actors.” Richard Falk. “Revisiting Westphalia, Discovering Post-Westphalia.” The Journal of Ethics. ISSN 1382-4554, 2002, Vol. 6, Issue 4.

[iii] I requested six persons (3 women and 3 men) to respond to questions around shared language, decolonisation and indigenous ecological framework. These individuals are from diverse experiences and backgrounds with varied life experiences in Naga society. Their responses are woven throughout this reflection.

[iv] Transcending all colonial constructs, the Naga from a Naga perspective is a generic term for an indigenous community of “village-states” that is conscious of its collective political identity. While each “village-state” has its own language, culture, social and political system, they have, by way of historical, geographical and political forces evolved to consciously represent their “common public character” through an active self, namely, Naga. Aküm Longchari. Self Determination: A Resource for JustPeace. Dimapur, Nagaland: Heritage Publishing House, 2016. According to A.S. Shimray, the Nagas live in the present administrative state of Nagaland, the Naga Hills of Manipur, in North Cachar and Mikir Hills, Lakhimpur, Sibsagar, Nowgong in Assam, in the northeast of Arunachal Pradesh [Longding, Tirap and Changlang districts], in the Somra tracts and the Nagas in Burma who occupy areas from the Patkai range in the North to the Thaungthut State in the south, and from the Nagaland state border in the west to the Chindwin river (and beyond), in the east. A.S. Shimray. Let Freedom Ring: Story of Naga Nationalism. New Delhi: Promilla & Co., Publishers, 2005, pp. 30-31. The Naga people have been engaged in a political movement for self-determination. N.K. Das says that the Naga national movement is considered to be “one of the oldest unresolved armed conflicts in the world.” He further adds that, “the Nagas and many other tribes of north-east India claim that their territories did not form part of the lawful territory of India at the time of the transfer of power from the British crown.” N. K. Das. “Naga Peace Parleys: Sociological Reflections and a Plea for Pragmatism.” Economic & Political Weekly. Vol. XLVI, Issue 25, 2011, p. 70.

[v] Neichü Mayer is a Naga woman who is based in Israel with her family. She is a development consultant and author of the children’s book Sitapaila and is fascinated by the interaction between animals and children. Neichü responded to questions for this reflection on June 22, 2020.

[vi] Nicholas B. Dirks. Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; 2001.

[vii] The phrase “Decolonising the Mind,” meaning and implication is inspired by the Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. For details read, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers Ltd., & London: James Curry Ltd., 1993.

[viii] Neichü Mayer in her response to questions for this reflection on June 22, 2020.

[ix] Marimba Ani. YURUGU: An African-Centered Critique of European Cultural Thought and Behaviour. Trenton, NJ & Asmara, Eritrea: Africa World Press, Inc., 1994, 10th Edition 2000, p. 21.

[x] Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers Ltd., & London: James Curry Ltd., 1993, pp. 4-16.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Paulo Freire. Pedagogy of the Oppressed: New Revised 20th Anniversary Edition. New York: Continuum Publishing Company 1970, Revised 1993, 2000.

[xiii] Frantz Fanon. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press, 1963, p. 36.

[xiv] Paulo Freire. Pedagogy of Hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 1992, pp. 67-68.

[xv] Aküm Longchari. Self Determination: A Resource for JustPeace. Dimapur, Nagaland: Heritage Publishing House, 2016, p. 116.

[xvi] Akhum David Longkumer is a Naga human rights activist and research scholar in the areas of development macroeconomics and political economy in New Delhi, India. Akhum in his response to questions for this reflection on June 22, 2020.  

[xvii] Nepuni Piku has been involved in human rights and indigenous peoples’ rights for more than 25 years. He was Secretary General of the Naga Peoples’ Movement for Human Rights, and also served as Executive Secretary of International Alliance of Indigenous/Tribal Peoples of the Tropical Forest (IAITPTF), London. Along with human rights work, Nepuni is a keen farmer who responded to questions for this reflection on June 21 and July 4, 2020. He is based in Dimapur, Nagaland.

[xviii] Akhum David Longkumer in his response to questions for this reflection on June 22, 2020.

[xix] Aheli Moitra is a senior journalist and research scholar from Nagaland. She is currently pursuing a research study on Indigenous Religion(s) in Norway. Aheli in her response to questions for this reflection on June 22, 2020.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Arien Jamir is a practicing lawyer and also an artist. The youngest son of a first generation resident of Dimapur, Nagaland, Arien, composes caricatures of socio-political issues in Naga society for newspapers and other publications. Arien in his response to questions for this reflection on July 5, 2020.

[xxii] Akhum David Longkumer in his response to questions for this reflection on June 22, 2020.

[xxiii] Nepuni Piku in his response to questions for this reflection on June 21 and July 4, 2020.

[xxiv] The Morung Express Editorial of May 1, 2017, written by Aküm Longchari. “Self-Definition, Land & Culture”. https://morungexpress.com/self-definition-land-culture (Last accessed on July 7, 2020).

[xxv] Eying Hümtsoe is a theologian and educator and the principal of Baptist Theological College, Pfütsero, Nagaland. She responded to questions for this reflection on July 5, 2020.

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] Nepuni Piku in his response to questions for this reflection on June 21 and July 4, 2020.

[xxviii] Nepuni Piku says, “From a primordial animism belief system to a contextualized Judeo Christian belief system, from a Morung way of community learning towards a modern standardized education system, from a multi-cropping self-reliant agro based economy system towards a more intensified monoculture cash crops plantation economy dependent consumerist culture.” All these, he says, “are taking place in the midst of the contestation of claims between the asserting indigenous Naga claims and imposition of governing structures over the indigenous institutions under the rule of the dominion state powers.” Piku in his response to questions for this reflection on June 21 and July 4, 2020.

[xxix] Arien Jamir in his response to questions for this reflection on July 5, 2020.

[xxx] Ibid.

[xxxi] Ibid.

[xxxii] Linda Tuhiwai Smith. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London; New York: Zed Books; Dunedin, N.Z.: University of Otago Press; New York: Distributed in the USA exclusively by St. Martin’s Press, 1999, p. 120.

This contribution is part of Alternative Worldviews.