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]

Ceremonies play a key part in Native American philosophy.

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3]


Native American artifacts

Native American science and understanding is said to have a basis in perceptual phenomenology, meaning the philosophical study of phenomena.[4] In this context, phenomenology refers to the examination of ones experiences to come to a personal world view.[5] Something is believed to be true when it has been verified by experiences and provides explanations which assist in completing tasks.This worldview is dynamic as new experiences alter this worldview and add to it.[6] There is no belief in a universal worldview which could explain all aspects of reality for a permanent set of time.

The world is viewed as infinitely complex and so it is impossible to come to a universal understanding of it.[7] Therefore, Native Americans believe that useful knowledge can only be acquired through individual experience which, whilst subjective, is valid to that space and time.[8] The method of interacting with the environment is never made fixed and instead, is carried through generations who continuously revise it and add to it.[6] This creates a web of knowledge shaped by the individual experiences of a community.

The subjectivity of experience and circumstance means that each Indigenous community's beliefs will be distinct. Indigenous people believe that experience can always present a better way of interacting with the environment.[5][8] As a result of this understanding, no belief is viewed as being supremely valid when compared to another belief.[7] A belief receives its validity from experience.Regardless of whether an experience is ordinary and extraordinary, they are both viewed the same and are equally useful for gathering knowledge.[9] Everything is viewed as possible in the world as no universal laws are seen to govern how the world exists. Each person in their own environment and circumstance can derive their own beliefs which is completely valid and logical in their personal circumstance.

The principle of relatedness[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.[10]

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:[11]

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.[11]


Anne Waters has described a "nondiscreet ontology of being" in the context of gender.[12] With a different attitude towards labels, Waters argues that American Indian viewpoints are more tolerant to those that don't fit into a strict binary gender framework.[12]

Regional Traditions[edit]


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 Intermediate Period 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.


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.[13] 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.[14]


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 harmoniously 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.[15] 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 be early anthropologists and colonial Spanish intolerance for traditional Puebloan religions.

Differences to other philosophical traditions[edit]

American Horse Tribal Council 1903 (includes Red Cloud)- meeting of Native Americans.

The canon of Western philosophy (WP) is rooted in the Platonic understanding of truth (the form of the truth) being stable immutable and present, upon which philosophical investigations take place.[dubious ] On the other hand, Native American philosophy (NAP) holds that the stability for the basis of such inquiry in the native world is found not in absolutes, rather the consistencies in a complexity of the world.[16] This concept of an absolute simplified starting point against finding similarities in a complex matrix is highlighted in particular in the different ways notes how NAP and WP analyse space and time. Typical WP views the world in sections: the universe is viewed as created ex nihilo (implying it had a definitive beginning and most likely with have a definitive end) and is depicted as violent (e.g. 'the big bang'). Moreover, time is broken up into 3 simple sections that all acts can fit within: past, present and future, all of which have definable boundaries that actions in reality can go up to and occasional cross.[17] Conversely, Cordova notes that NAP views space as being a concept that connects everything to our global environment and time as an endless continuous motion. The universe is considered as infinite and unbound; being in constant motion with no beginning or end and is balanced and stable despite occasional "temporary sadness."[18] Similarly, time does not belong to an absolute and bounded category in NAP, it is not a self-existing thing independent of human acknowledgement. Time is not even another dimension - it is nothing more than a human construct. Instead, it is, "merely a measure of motion ... the sun, stars, and moon through the sky, of changes that are visible and can be predicted."[19]



  1. ^ a b Battiste (2002), p. 17.
  2. ^ Hester & Cheney (2001), pp. 319-34.
  3. ^ Parry et al. (2007), pp. 625-66.
  4. ^ Cajete (2003), p. 45.
  5. ^ a b Arola (2011).
  6. ^ a b Battiste (2002), pp. 1-69.
  7. ^ a b Moore et al. (2007).
  8. ^ a b Barnhardt (2005), pp. 8-23.
  9. ^ Tedlock & Tedlock (1992).
  10. ^ Burkhart (2003), pp. 15-16.
  11. ^ a b Burkhart (2003), p. 16.
  12. ^ a b Waters (2003), p. 97.
  13. ^ Miller, Mary Ellen. An illustrated dictionary of the gods and symbols of ancient Mexico and the Maya (1st pbk. ed.). Thames and Hudson. ISBN 0500279284.
  14. ^ "Aztec Philosophy". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 24 December 2019.
  15. ^ "Hopi Indians".
  16. ^ Arola (2011), p. 556.
  17. ^ Younker (2008), pp. 641-42.
  18. ^ Moore et al. (2007), p. 117.
  19. ^ Moore et al. (2007), p. 118.


  • Arola, A. (2011). "Native American Philosophy". The Oxford Handbook of World Philosophy. Oxford Handbooks.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Barnhardt, R. (2005). "Indigenous knowledge systems and Alaska Native ways of knowing". Anthropology & Education Quarterly. 36 (1): 8–23. doi:10.1525/aeq.2005.36.1.008.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Battiste, Marie (2002). "Indigenous Knowledge and Pedagogy in First Nations Education: A Literary Review with Recommendations" (PDF). National Working Group on Education. Ottawa, Canada: 17.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • 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.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Cajete, Gregory (2003). "Philosophy of Native Science". In Waters, Anne (ed.). American Indian Thought: Philosophical Essays. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 45–57.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Hester, L.; Cheney, J. (2001). "Truth and Native American epistemology" (PDF). Social Epistemology. 15 (4): 319–334. doi:10.1080/02691720110093333.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Moore, K.D.; Peters, K.; Jojola, T.; Lacy, A. (2007). How it is: The Native American philosophy of VF Cordova.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Parry, M.L.; Canziani, O.F.; Palutikof, J.P.; van der Linden, P.J.; Hanson, C.E. (2007). Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Cambridge University Press. pp. 625–666.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Tedlock, D.; Tedlock, B., eds. (1992). Teachings from the American Earth: Indian Religion and Philosophy. W.W. Norton & Company.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Waters, Anne (2003). "Language Matters: Nondiscrete Nonbinary Dualism". In Waters, Anne (ed.). American Indian Thought: Philosophical Essays. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 97–115.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Younker, Jason (2008). "Review of How It Is: The Native American Philosophy of V. F. Cordova by V. F. Cordova, Kathleen Dean Moore, Kurt Peters, Ted Jojola, Amber Lacy". Oregon Historical Quarterly. 109 (4): 641–642. JSTOR 20615918.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)

Further reading[edit]

  • Waters, Anne, ed. (2003). American Indian Thought: Philosophical Essays. Wiley-Blackwell.