What does it mean to be indigenous to place?
Indigenous peoples around the world by definition have a strong connection to the land on which they live. The Maori of Aotearoa (New Zealand) for example, use the words “Tangata Whenua" to refer to the people of a particular piece of land; “of” being an important word here. One way of defining what it means to be indigenous is knowing the land you live on from birth intimately. Knowing how to feed, clothe and house yourself from it. Knowing where your mother’s mother’s mother’s mother harvested acorns in the same way you do today. It is a relationship with the land and a trust that it will continue to sustain your children’s children for generations to come, because it always has done. The Maori term, “Whenua”, referred to above, also means “placenta”, indicating that the land is seen, quite literally, as their lifeline.
These are aspects of an indigenous perspective. Yet in this era of global movement, post-colonialism and displacement these innate human expectations are no longer met. Very few Western adults today live in the place they were born and even the few remaining hunter-gatherers now live on marginal land with fewer resources than they would have enjoyed in the past.
The Ju/Hoansi San Bushmen are such a people. They have lived in the same part of the Kalahari desert for tens of thousands of years. I had the privilege of visiting a community of Ju/Hoansi in Namibia last year as part of The Old Way yearcourse and it was an eye-opening experience into what it means to really know your patch. The modern world has found its way to a small extent even into this remote desert, but this group still dwell in grass huts and gather food from the land by foraging and bowhunting. To shadow a bowhunter on the trail of a wildebeest over three days is to drop into an extraordinary sense of engagement with the landscape which has been all but lost in the modern world. I experienced a complete shift of perspective, seeing myself as just one species among many. My body and senses came alive in a way they hadn’t ever before, as if remembering that this is what humans have done for hundreds of thousands of years. It simply felt “right”.
To put it in perspective, we humans have made a living as tribal hunter-gatherers for 99% of our existence. Only 10,000 years ago, a blip in evolutionary terms, did we slowly, perhaps reluctantly, begin the transition to agriculture and sedentism that fuelled the exponential population growth and habitat loss we see today. For a million years the various human species lived much more harmoniously with the land, indigenous to place.
Indigenous peoples worldwide have suffered appalling trauma though violence and loss of land. As a white, a descendant perhaps of some of the perpetrators of these crimes against native peoples, the idea of using the term indigenous for myself feels inappropriate. Yet when I go back into my ancestry there will have been a point where my ancestors were displaced from the land they had dwelt on for generations. There is a yearning to belong again that I think is present in most humans today.
As a child I met that longing by playing in the woods with my friends, building huts, getting to know the birds and mushrooms, collecting conkers and gorging on blackberries. I had a detailed mental map of the 100 acres surrounding my home. Perhaps I was closer to a sense of indigeny then than I am today.
As the modern world crashed into my teenage years (even before the advent of social media!), I started to seek connection through adrenalin sports such as climbing, canoeing and mountain-biking. There was a sense of wanting to conquer nature rather than work with it and I effectively distanced myself from it by moving too fast, seeing it as just a backdrop to my adventures, or only being focused on getting to the top.
In my twenties I started a smallholding. All I wanted to do was dig in the earth, plant, tend and harvest the fruits of my labour, to be self-sufficient. We kept animals and built a simple straw-bale home. It felt good to be providing for my family in this way, but I still felt there was something missing. There were walls and domestic chores; far too many of them.
In my early thirties I went on my first bushcraft course and felt myself suddenly catapulted back to a time before the advent of farming, to the Mesolithic heyday of the hunter-fisher-gatherer. It was a fleeting glimpse of coming home, a feeling of true belonging. Making my first fire with a bow-drill that weekend was an incredibly profound experience. I took a moment to look up to the horizon and feel gratitude to the birch that was providing the materials for a fire I was about to kindle in the old way. In the moment that the tinder bundle burst into flames I felt an instant and visceral rope of connection to the ancestors who had first used this technique. A line stretching back perhaps 250,000 years.
With each sojourn into the woods or to the coast the sense of connection increased. My body was fully engaged and I was becoming more and more comfortable in my environment. I had begun consciously re-forging a connection with the land I love. Now in my forties, the longing I have is to really live it. Everyday.
How can practicing bushcraft help us remember our indigeny?
While it may not be feasible to drop everything and return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, there are some simple things we can do to begin to re-wild and help us meet the part of our psyche that longs for connection with the land and that will bring us closer to remembering our indigenous roots.
The essential piece is finding your patch. Then to start to pay attention. Nature is never far away, even in the city. Walk this patch everyday, taking different routes around it at different times of day or night and activate your senses. Like the Ju/Hoansi bowhunters, become alert to all the signs and changes around you.
The rest is up to you, but here are a few suggestions:
Track: each day look for an animal track. Ask yourself questions about how and why it got there, who left it and what they were doing. This will place you in the wider context of your patch, just one individual among many different species.
Forage: each day find at least one edible plant to add to your meals or to take home to identify. A seasonal food-map will start to emerge.
Listen: each day tune into the natural sounds to
get a sense of the other species in the area. In time patterns will emerge that you may start to be able to read.
Make: each month make something from natural materials you’ve gathered yourself. Cordage is a great one to start with.
Find a rewilding tribe: look for like-minded souls to regularly go out and practice with. Fix a day of the week or month and do whatever is in season from bilberry picking to mackerel fishing to wild swimming.
These small things begin to add up very quickly to form a deep knowledge of place and a sense of belonging within it, as part of a larger whole. This is indigeny.
The Old Way Yearlong course is an exploration into hunter-gatherer life-ways, re-wilding and indigeny based in Devon, UK, with a trip to the Kalahari learn alongside the Ju/Hoansi master trackers and their families.
Places are limited, so please apply early. 2020 dates and costs are available on the website and applications are open.
Contact us: www.theoldway.info/
Photo credit: Pete McCowen