Indigenous American philosophy

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Indigenous American philosophy is the philosophy of the Indigenous people of the Americas.

An indigenous philosopher is an indigenous person or associate who practices philosophy and has a vast knowledge of various indigenous history, culture, language, and traditions. Many different traditions of philosophy have existed in the Americas from Precolumbian times to the present in different regions, notably among the civilizations of Mesoamerica and the Andes.

Epistemology and Science[edit]

Epistemology refers to the study of knowledge, the ways in which a person acquires and processes information. Among Indigenous cultures, epistemology is understood differently and more inherently than how it is understood in Western philosophy. Native American epistemology is found primarily in theories, philosophies, histories, ceremonies and nature as multiple ways of knowing. Emphasis is put on the importance of language as one of the vital components of Native American epistemology. [1] It is through the unique symbolism and the close connection with nature, that Native Americans consider knowledge to be acquired. In relation to consciousness, rationality and other heavily studied psychological states, the inherent structure of the complex Native American language is necessary to understand in the obtainment of indigenous knowledge. [2] There is also a strong link between nature and the interpretation of knowledge within Native American culture. It is believed that the mind interacts with the environment in a very active, conscious way.[3] The process through which they interact with nature is through the necessary need for survival but also through a deep respect and understanding the land as a huge part of their identity. It is vital to understand how to gather medicine, predict weather conditions so as to effectively produce food, and how to navigate through the land in order to grow and thrive as part of an ecological dependent community. Native American knowledge is continuously adapting to the changing environment as the ecosystem evolves and this is how epistemology is understood to have such a strong root to nature.

Ontology of gender[edit]

Anne Waters has described a "nondiscrete ontology of being" in the context of gender.[4] With a different attitude towards labels, Waters argues that American Indian viewpoints are more tolerant[compared to?] to those that don't fit into a strict binary gender framework.[4]

Regional traditions[edit]

North America[edit]

North American indigenous groups North of Mesoamerica often lack written accounts; however, some oral traditions continued to survive colonization. A common symbol for these groups were the six directions. Many considered the directions east, west, north, south, up, and down to be sacred to their understanding of the world. Scholars suspect this symbol cements indigenous groups sense of place. [5]


Due to the lack of deciphered written records (but see quipu), Andean recorded history begins with the edge of living memory from the time of conquest by the Spanish, and thus includes only some Late Intermedia iod and Late Horizon civilizations, such as the Inca and the Chimú empires. Andean philosophy were greatly shaped by the concept of dualism, specifically a form known in Quechua as yanantin, or "dualism of complementary opposites". Coupled with the concept of masintin, meaning "the process of becoming yanintin", this dualism manifested itself in Andean art, gender relations, and even political administrative organization. Inca philosophy is the only Andean philosophical tradition for which we know of any direct records for. Inca philosophy was intrinsically bound together with religion, and was deeply steeped in the concept of dualism.[citation needed]


Perhaps the best documented philosophical tradition of the Precolumbian and early colonial era is that of the Aztecs, a Nahuatl-speaking people who established a large and sophisticated empire in central Mexico prior to being conquered by the Spanish. Mesoamerican thought and philosophy is notable for its extensive usage of metaphor to explain abstract concepts.[6][page needed]

The Aztecs thought of philosophy in more or less pragmatic and practical terms. A central feature of Aztec philosophy was the concept of teotl, a Nahuatl term for the animating force of the cosmos and an ever-acting and dynamic mover. Teotl in theological terms could also symbolize a type of pantheism.[7]


Among the Hopi, there is a concept known as hopivotskwani, translating roughly to "the Hopi path of life". It entails behaving with a peaceful disposition, cooperation, humility, and respect. Hopi philosophy teaches that life is a journey, to be lived in harmony with the natural world. Thus, the Hopi believe that following hopivotskwani will lead to positive outcomes not only in interpersonal relationships, but also in interactions with nature, for example ensuring sufficient rainfall and a good harvest.[8][better source needed]

As a rule, contemporary Pueblo peoples are very reluctant to share their traditional philosophical and spiritual worldviews with outsiders. This can be attributed to several factors, among them abuse of trust by early anthropologists and colonial Spanish intolerance for traditional Puebloan religions.[citation needed]

Brian Yazzie Burkhart[edit]

Brian Yazzie Burkhart, a Cherokee, has described his experience of the story of Coyote:

Coyote is wandering around in his usual way when he comes upon a prairie dog town. The prairie dogs laugh and curse at him. Coyote gets angry and wants revenge. The sun is high in the sky. Coyote decides that he wants clouds to come. He is starting to hate the prairie dogs and so thinks about rain. Just then a cloud appears.

Coyote says, "I wish it would rain on me." And that is what happened.

Coyote says, "I wish there were rain at my feet." And that is what happened.

"I want the rain up to my knees," Coyote says. And that is what happened.

"I want the rain up to my waist," he then says. And that is what happened.[9]

Eventually, the entire land is flooded. Coyote's mistake is not letting what is right guide his actions, but instead acting entirely on his own motivations. This is a reminder that one must be careful about what one desires, and must keep in mind the things around us and how we relate to them. Burkhart terms this the principle of relatedness:[10]

The idea here is simply that the most important things to keep in mind are the simple things that are directly around us in our experience and the things to which we are most directly related. In calling these ideas principles, I do not mean to give them special philosophical status. In American Indian thought, they are simply ways of being. These principles are merely abstractions from these ways of being. ... Principles in the traditional philosophical sense have no place in American Indian philosophy.[10]



  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ a b Waters (2003), p. 97. sfnp error: multiple targets (2×): CITEREFWaters2003 (help)
  5. ^
  6. ^ Miller (1997).
  7. ^ "Aztec Philosophy". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 24 December 2019.
  8. ^ "Hopi Indians".
  9. ^ Burkhart (2003), pp. 15-16.
  10. ^ a b Burkhart (2003), p. 16.


  • Burkhart, Brian Yazzie (2003). "What Coyote and Thales Can Teach Us: An Outline of American Indian Epistemology". In Waters, Anne (ed.). American Indian Thought: Philosophical Essays. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 15–26.
  • Miller, Mary Ellen (1997). An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya (1st pbk. ed.). Thames and Hudson. ISBN 9780500279281.
  • Waters, Anne (2003). "Language Matters: Nondiscrete Nonbinary Dualism". In Waters, Anne (ed.). American Indian Thought: Philosophical Essays. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 97–115.

Further reading[edit]