Wisdom of the Elders
By Peter Knudtson & David Suzuki
Allen & Unwin

Millenium Tribal Wisdom of the Modern World
By David Maybury-Lewis

Reviewed Modern Times, July 1992, p. 30.

In a prefatory note to Wisdom of the Elders, Knudson and Suzuki report that one of the central pieces of ecological folk literature, namely the 1854 testimony of the Duwanish leader, Chief Seattle, is in fact a recreation by several Euro-American hands between its first publication in 1887 and its poeticised version of 1969. The authors note that they had intended to open their book with the Chief’s “All things are connected” statement.

Recognising that the truth about the Chief Seattle speech might cast doubts on the authenticity of other account of traditional cosmologies, the authors seek to reassure their readers by recounting a first-hand verification of one of their principal sources. When Knudtson visited a Chewong community east of Kuala Lumpur he asked an elder named Beng if Signe Howell’s Society and Cosmos gave an accurate depiction of Chewong views. Beng corroborated Howell’s reportage because he had been one of her primary informants, as he had been for visiting anthropologists across several decades. Knudtson describes this encounter as “a rare opportunity to confirm personally the authority of a scholarly work”.

Beng owned an autographed copy of Howell’s study but we are not told if this “desperately poor” man could read. Even if he were fluent in anthropological English, his reliability as Howell’s informant is suspect because of his training by previous investigators. The Chief Seattle testimony had survived in the memory and writings of a succession of non-Duwamish people. Beng’s evidence would have been shaped by the expectations he developed about his interviewers. Knudtson and Suzuki pay no further heed to what is a rule-of-thumb among those marginal natives known as anthropologists. Instead, Wisdom of the Elders proceeds to rewrite the scholarly literature yet again, adding in the kind of poeticisations and special pleadings that corrupted the opinions attributed to Chief Seattle.

Evidence about the Chief Seattle material was presented at an international conference in 1984. Nonetheless, the news had not reached David Maybury-Lewis by the early 1990s for his Millenium television series and eponymous book, in which the Chief’s sagacity is invoked four times. That hangover is only one reason why “Millenarian” would have been a more apt title.

Although deprived of his Old Testament, Knudtson – who appears to have written Wisdom of the Elders – has not lost faith in the commandment that “All things are connected” and his book labours the obvious.

In so doing, three other questions are ignored: one, how are those connections made, for instance, dialectically or mechanistically”?: two, do the experiences and beliefs of the “First People” of the earth help us to understand such workings?; three, do “First People” possess a system of ideas which allows for all things to be connected?

In regard to the value of tribal attitudes, it is a nonsense for Knudtson to describe the Desana metaphor that brain cells are filled with a special honey as “lucid”. Equally stupid is Maybury-Lewis’s claim that quantum theory “sounds like a paraphrase of what the Aborigines call the Dreamtime”.

On the basis of the evidence presented in these volumes, the cosmologies of “First People” do not see all things as connected. On the contrary, they recognise the connectedness of those things they experience directly but then jump to the stars. Their universe is limited to the village well and the distant sky. Whatever is in beween those experiences is either ignored or devalued. On occasion, the “First People” define humanity as being their tiny community, applying the world “human” to themselves alone.

Both books assume rather than demonstrate that pre-modernised societies have lessons to teach the rest of us about how to save the planet and our species. The wisdom recounted is preponderantly from old men, not women’s knowledge. In one of few instances of female ecological consciousness, Knudtson fails to see any paradox in Kayapo women expressing “their abiding affection for their tiny any ally and kindred spirit” by colouring their faces “with paint mixed with the bodies of red ants”. And those poor mites don’t even sting.

When not attributing the power of human agency to inanimate categories such as “science”, Knudtson is blaming it and technology for the woes that affect us. The truth is that destructiveness is brought about because social orders select certain tools to achieve preferred goals. The tools can not be responsible for anything. In particular, it is wrong to blame technology and science for overpopulation when it is the wisdom of certain elders that prevents the application of technology and science to birth control.

In danger of being lost in the authorial jungles of non sequiturs are two valid claims, though each is more complex than the books allow. First, the destruction of human societies must be halted, and that is possible only if land and other resources are reserved for the use of “First People”. On this topic, the defenders of “Tribal Wisdom” will sometimes come into conflict with environmentalists, animal liberationists and feminists.

Secondly, some apprehension of the sacred is desirable if it means giving value beyond an individual’s here and now. The antonym for the sacred is the solipsistic. One danger is that the leftover religious connotations of “sacred” will allow it to be used to sneak back in a belief in spooks. That outcome might not worry Knudtson, Suzuki or Maybury-Lewis, who are to varying degrees already well down the god-bothering track.