Appreciating Indigenous Ways of Knowing

It’s time we reestablish our connection to a body of wisdom that values millennia of holistic experience and subjective observation.

Indig

Matter can’t be created of destroyed; it can only be transformed. It is a law of science. It is a tenet at the root of many religions around the world. It is at the center, the “piko,” of pele’s mythology.

Photo by Flickr/Alan L

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When I arrive at Keikilani’s cabin, to join the hālau (hula training school) on their trip to Hawai‘i Volcano Observatory, I find a group divided. Some girls are practicing chants in a back bedroom, others are lounging on the living room floor, immersed in video games. When Keikilani directs them all out of the cabin’s warm interior into the damp night air, one semisulking teen of the gaming sect shouts, “Aw, I was killing a zombie!” She recovers fairly quickly because, really, who needs computer-generated characters when a fire-breathing goddess awaits?

Keikilani counts the kids off into the cars of various kumu (teachers). I ride with Keikilani and one of the younger dancers in a small SUV with a silk lei hanging from its rearview mirror. As she drives, Keikilani tells us about a lava fountain she saw as a youth, a spewing cone that seemed to take cues from the paint splatter of Jackson Pollock.

“Which crater erupted?” her student asks.

“Pele!” Keikilani exclaims. “It was Pele’s crater! It shot 1,200 feet into the air! I hope you get to see something like that in your lifetime,” Keikilani tells her. Such eruptions are known to throw fine crystallized jewels and stuff that looks like ipu (percussive gourd) innards. The debris is referred to—even among hardened scientists—as Pele’s tears and hair.

The parking lot of the observatory, which overlooks Pele’s crater, is enveloped in vog when we arrive. The air is cool at 4,200 feet, and a low-hanging cloud feels like menthol vapor hitting the warm membranes of my mouth, my throat, my lungs. As we walk
toward the lookout point, a stone wall that’s a full mile from Pele, we spy the crater’s glow. It looks like the sun slipping into the earth at sunset.


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Mark Twain, after witnessing Halema‘uma‘u, wrote: “Here was room for the imagination to work ... You could not compass it—it was the idea of eternity made tangible—and the longest end of it made visible to the naked eye!”

“It’s getting redder and redder!” one of the girls shouts. “That’s so cool!” another says.

They are clustered around me, a shivering mass of hooded sweatshirts and flashlights.

“Look at my light!” “Zoom in!”

They point their flashlights into the foggy night and proceed to have a Luke Skywalker–style sword fight with the slender streams of light, white threads weaving through the night. Finally, the kumu clap their hands to bring the girls to attention. “If you’re chanting to the crater, where should you face?” one of them asks. Their haphazard formation changes and they fall into line so that their vocal cords will be directed toward the volcano. The girls slowly move into a tiny clump, some of them standing on a stone viewing platform.

“We’re seeing things we chant and sing and dance about,” Keikilani says. “So, let’s do the best we can.” Their chatter has dimmed to a whisper now, as mild as my voice has temporarily become.

“Just be quiet for a minute, first,” she says. “Just watch.” It’s what I’ve been doing for days.

The hālau and I gaze into the earth’s navel for a few minutes until, finally, it is time to sing Kīlauea back to itself. I am encircled by the tiny dancers when they begin, each voice building one on top of the other until they make a sound so large, so moving, that the two sightseers who’d been near argument about what f-stop they’d need to get a clear photo of the crater are rendered mute, as I have been.

There are no flashes of light from the crater, only the subtle reflection of molten lava in a cloud of sulfuric gas, a hint of all the complexity that lies beneath. Each line of the chant is a flow of smooth lava, new slipping over old, building, strengthening, taking them higher. It is a show of transformation, life longing for itself in molten stone and the soft tones of voices just beginning to come into their own.

Matter can’t be created or destroyed; it can only be transformed. It is a law of science. It is a tenet at the root of many religions around the world. It is at the center, the piko, of Pele’s mythology. The caterpillar becomes the butterfly. The infant becomes the young woman. The young woman, the mother. The forest becomes the barren lava field. The lava becomes the forest. The star stuff of our lost loved ones becomes the flower of the lehua, reborn every time the vog lifts.


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For many years, scientists didn’t appreciate Pele’s chants as anything other than entertainment. But in 2006, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) suggested that the orally transmitted story of a climactic battle between Pele and her sister was inspired by geological events in AD 1500. That year, the north coast of Kīlauea was covered by lava. “Such a flow is likely recorded in the oral tradition as Pele’s revenge for what she thought was a lingering romantic liaison between her lover, Lohi‘au, and her sister, Hi‘iaka. The subsequent collapse of Kīlauea’s summit is told as Hi‘iaka digging for Lohi‘au.”

“Taken at face value,” the USGS reported, “the change tells us that the caldera formed immediately after a huge lava flow, exactly what we scientists have come to recognize only recently ... Had we been willing to believe Hawaiian chants about Pele and Hi‘iaka, and oral tradition, we would have known this 100 years ago.”

For all my life, I’ve subconsciously—despite my best efforts and strong belief in the power of narrative—accepted the euphemism of “telling a story” as a way of suggesting that something is a lie. There is danger in taking mythology literally, of course—as all sorts of fundamentalism can attest—but there’s also danger in ignoring the knowledge that mythological traditions have to transmit.

Joseph Campbell has said that when a myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it dies. But I wonder if Pele’s unexpected twist might not be an invitation to rethink and redefine myth in the modern age. I don’t think any of the poetry in Keikilani’s dance is lost by looking at the historical or scientific knowledge it might have to share. In fact, biocycling and infrasound and oli (hula chants) unexpectedly mashing together has awed me beyond measure. Biography, history, science, and myth are not always separate things.

When Keikilani’s girls tell the stories of Pele’s journey to her current home, they are revealing not only the spiritual knowledge of their home place in a storied, subjective way, but also the intimate physical realities that their ancestors faced. In chants—enlivened history—these realities are not at odds; they’re the same thing. They’re practical, experience-earned stories that relay information and issue warnings. They’re artistic
illustrations of the tellers’ innermost landscapes and knowledge. And this braiding of scientific and spiritual knowledge is not limited to Hawai‘i or Pele.

When the Fukushima nuclear reactors in Japan were first built, practitioners of Shinto—Japan’s indigenous spiritual tradition—mightily protested their location. It was not in keeping with the directives of the kami, spiritual forces that resided in the land. But they were built anyway. Because, really, what rational engineer is going to take advice from spiritual forces? But if the sites had been in accordance with Shinto understandings of kami, they would likely have eluded the 2011 tsunami’s grasp.

Scholars often refer to this sort of knowledge as the result of “indigenous ways of knowing.” It’s a body of wisdom that values millennia of holistic experience and subjective observation, whereas modern science often values controlled, objective data gathered in a shorter period of time. Both approaches are valuable, but it’s clear which has been more valued.

What future disasters could be averted if we were to honor Shinto, Pele, other ways of knowing that occur throughout the world, as well as our own visceral knowledge? How can we collectively take seriously traditional knowledge, or even each other, when we live in an age where we’re encouraged to discount personal observations, our gut reactions, ourselves?

When I learn of the Shinto warnings, dismissed because they were born not of repeatable, supposedly objective experiments but of spiritually bound communication with natural phenomena, I have a weird series of personal flashbacks that leave me reeling.

There’s the God-bump guy telling me about how he feels the spirit through bare feet and me thinking woo-woo. Then, me finding infrasound data that says basically the same thing and thinking wow.

There’s me, a couple of months ago, nervously dialing NASA to inquire about the Catatumbo lightning. Internally, nervously questioning: “Who am I, someone who barely passed a math course created for humanities majors, to call NASA?”

But in that conversation, there was a fissure made in how I perceive the world, though I couldn’t recognize it then, so unconsciously dismissive have I become of my own experience. It happened when one of the scientists, after revealing the high points of his groundbreaking studies, shyly inquired: “Can I ask you a question?”

“Of course,” I said, thinking: What would this expert, this satellite-savvy researcher, possibly want to ask me? And then this world-renowned lightning expert asked, about the most active lightning zone on earth, “What was it like there?”

To my knowledge, not one of the scientists I contacted about the Catatumbo phenomenon had ever felt the winds of Lake Maracaibo. They’d never watched the far-reaching behavior of lightning at the center of the lake. They’d never smelled the bubbles of methane rising from its murky waters or inhaled the sweet scent of concentrated ozone. What’s more, as far as I could tell, they’d never even talked to anyone who had. At the time, I found this odd. Now, I’m beginning to see it as an example of a larger trend.

David Abram once said, “The real truth, we have heard, is somewhere else; it is not in this world that our senses experience. Our physicists say that the real truth of things is hidden in the subatomic world. The molecular biologists now say that it is in the ultra-microscopic dimension of DNA ... These are all worlds to which we feel we’re beholden, but to which we don’t have direct access:  one needs very fancy instrumentation ... to get at them. And so we take our truth from the experts with the instruments, and we forfeit our own power, our own access to the real ... We hide ourselves from the most outrageous and mysterious truth of all, which is our ongoing immersion in this wild web of relationships.”

This is not to say that research conducted via remote satellites and in the confines of laboratories isn’t important. Of course it is. It is lifesaving, awe-inspiring, enlightening. It is—to use one of Milton Garcés’ favorite words—awesome. But what if we also sought and valued scientific experiences and spiritual experiments? What if we could begin to, once again, trust our most intimate ways of knowing alongside quantitative inquiries conducted from a distance? What if the phenomenal, defined as that which is derived from direct experience, could be accepted as phenomenal defined as magnificent beyond belief?

I know. Easier said than done. But recent days have introduced me to the notion that geophysics might be a god language and goddess chants might be geology. What might we learn if we created intellectual environments that  encouraged scientists to value three-dimensional experiences—not just as data-gathering expeditions, but as visceral experiences that take all their knowledge and inborn, subjective senses into account as much as they do the abstractions on their screens? What might that curious-about-what-the-earth’s-hot-spot-was-really-like scientist have seen or heard or felt on Maracaibo’s waters that I did not? What might he be able to tell the rest of us about the curious global phenomena of lightning if he met the Catatumbo in person?

And, bringing it back to my oh-so-narcissistic navel: What does this all mean for me?

I can see now that the idea of removed rationality as more trustworthy and important than the phenomenal—that is, experiential knowledge, natural design, and my piko—affects me in some highly personal, unexpected ways: I have come to believe that I am a lesser authority in my own life. I have learned to distrust less-than-rational, nontechnical experiences, my own phenomenal knowledge. Because, to trust the senses—the mortal body—is to risk sounding crazy, especially, it seems, if you’re a woman.

She’s seeing things. She’s hearing things. She’s so sensitive. Read: She’s irrational.

And this I have internalized. Who am I to trust my body, my senses, my instincts? Who am I to know how to raise my child without consulting parenting books and up-to-date rearing studies? Who am I to try to find God outside of an institutionally approved, fully vetted doctrine?
Who am I to think I can pursue impractical dreams? Who am I to be taken seriously? Who am I to think I’m capable or worthy? Who am I to ... Who am I?

The very language we use to talk about our most intimate desires makes it seem as if we’ve been having a collective identity crisis. We want to believe in ourselves. We want to have faith in ourselves. It’s as if we’ve begun—in a networked world that connects us to each other in ideas but not in body, in a culture that pushes individualism yet shames us out of navel gazing—to question our very existence.

“Without hula,” Keikilani told me on the day we met, “you’re disconnected in the universe.” I’m starting to understand what she meant.

The Hawaiian word for identity is ho‘omaopopo. It is translated as “to understand.” It is through ourselves, our own experience, that we gain knowledge of the world. At least, for generations it has been. But in a world where we increasingly value the abstract and mechanical more than the spontaneous and creative, we are discouraged from valuing ourselves, our piko, our senses. We’ve come to see our perfectly patterned molecules, our bodies, as somehow antiquated and lesser-than, as if rationalized human engineering is superior to nature’s design. As if we’ve accepted that we’re just prototypes for soon-to-be-in-production, technologically superior robots.

As if our intellect is our only source of knowledge, the center of our abilities.

The medicalization of birth—a rite of passage, seen in most cultures as more spiritual, physical reckoning than pathologized procedure— shows just how deeply our distrust of visceral knowledge goes. Ina May Gaskin, perhaps the most famous midwife in the United States, once said in an interview, “There is an assumption that we humans are inferior to the other 5,000 or so species of mammals in our ability to give birth to our young. I have always found it hard to accept this notion.”

In Gaskin’s practice, the cesarean rate is 1.7 percent. The national average hovers around 34 percent.

During a late-pregnancy checkup, when I showed up at my OB/GYN’s office with a birth plan requesting no interventions unless medically necessary, the doctor on call said: “Look, it would be great if everyone could give birth in the woods, but most births require intervention.”

Not some. Most.

I cried on the way home. Even Matt, who tends to be exceptionally forgiving of tone, was disturbed by how the doctor spoke to me. That night, I wrote an e-mail reiterating that I wanted to give birth in a hospital, not in the woods, and that all I was asking was for my body— which had miraculously and thankfully been able to create life without medical intervention—to be allowed to bring that baby into the world without interference unless my child or I was in danger. What I didn’t know to say yet—what I was really getting at—was that I valued his knowledge, and I wished he valued mine, visceral as it was. It’s an e-mail I never sent. Who was I to question him?

When I went into labor—two weeks after doctors thought I should—it progressed slowly and irregularly. My doctor, a younger associate, told me that he would usually recommend Pitocin—a drug that offers unnaturally large jolts of synthetic oxytocin—to hurry things along. I asked him to let my body work on its own and he agreed that it would be safe to wait and see what it was capable of doing. But why was Pitocin recommended if it was safe—and statistically less likely to result in a cesarean section—for my labor to proceed without it?

I feared pain. But I knew that—in labor, unlike in situations of injury or illness—pain most often means that things are going right. I knew that studies have shown that getting an epidural was likely to lead to a cascade of interventions that were more likely to require the scalpel-slicing of my uterus. I had trained to give birth like a pregnant woman in boot camp. I’d done visualization exercises, walked a mountainous mile a day in an unprecedented period of exercise. Yet one of the nurses, after I’d asked her to stop her repeated offers of pain medication, told me: “I can’t stop asking because I just hate watching someone in pain when there’s something I can do about it.” How disembodied are we, as a culture, when someone who hates seeing people in pain thinks nursing laboring women is a suitable profession?

After nearly 21 hours of labor, nurses told me that hospital protocol suggested that they begin preparing for a c-section, because of a “lack of progress.” I held up my finger, indicating that I’d like the nurse to wait as I rode through a contraction, a surfer on one of my own body’s pain waves. When I regained my composure, I asked if ten more minutes of labor would be medically safe. She consulted with my off-site doctor, who agreed that it would be. Why was a c-section—surgery that is scientifically documented to present a three-fold danger of maternal death—suggested if my medical practitioners deemed ten more minutes of natural labor safe for both me and my son?

I didn’t know why or how, or who or what might happen in those ten minutes, but I knew that—despite the irregular, abstract patterns on the monitors I’d been hooked up to as a precautionary measure—Archer was coming. He came. He came so fast that my off-site obstetrician almost missed the birth. “Could you just not push,” the nurses said at one point, hoping that the doctor would get there before my son did. As if I had any say in the matter. As if the convulsions of my body were the doing of my rational mind.

As if my intellect was my only way of knowing.

All the nurses from the maternity ward were gathered in my room by that point. These were women who had attended hundreds of births among them. They had been with me through all stages of labor while my doctor consulted by phone. I couldn’t open my eyes. But I could tell, even through the otherworldly pain of my body turning itself inside out, that those women were thinking: Who are we to deliver this baby ourselves?

What good are medical or technological or any sort of modern advances if we don’t have faith in experiential knowledge to guide us? Too often we confuse technology with science, utilizing tools where we would be better off focusing on observed wisdom. How many times have I distrusted my visceral knowledge, the wisdom of my experience? Intuition—a form of knowing that bypasses rationality—has  long been thought to be a pseudoscience. But what if—as Pele stories might advance science faster than science can advance itself—intuition is phenomenal, sensory knowledge that works in a higher gear than intellect?

It seems we’ve fallen away from our phenomenal wisdom, that gained through our primal—and by primal I mean perfectly designed—senses and ways of knowing that have been building, layer upon layer, for millennia. Body wisdom isn’t something that exists in the romanticized past; it is a perspective of presence. What I thought, was. What I see, is.

In hula, this sensory self, this awareness, is acknowledged and appreciated. And there are advanced millennia of ancestral knowledge at every dancer’s back—science and spirituality mingling in dramatic ways. In hula, every individual is honored as being part of a sacred whole, every dancer experiencing a Jerry McGuire–style, you-complete-me embrace from the universe. But me? I’m out here, umbilical cord cut, flailing, looking for experts to validate my intuition, my knowledge, my spirit, myself. At least, that’s where I’ve been.

Hula is not my tradition, but it is showing me that I am part of a divine completion, and knowing this somehow makes me feel whole, holi. It is in the spirit of aloha, oneness, that I intuit divinity. We do not live outside or inside of nature. We are nature. We are not separate from each other—something the Hawaiians recognize by calling even non-relatives auntie and uncle—and our fates are intertwined, always.

I know this, of course I do, but I am beginning to experience it. I’m beginning to live out what I mean when I say, as I so often do: I’m spiritual but not religious. Religion is limited, whereas spirituality encompasses the world. My understanding of divinity is fluid, not fixed. But I haven’t been trusting myself to properly bear witness to the universal everything-ness that plays out around and in me every day. I haven’t been paying attention to the many becoming one before my very eyes, through my eyes.

What I thought, was. What I see, is. And it is phenomenal.


Leigh Ann Henion has contributed her writing to many publications. Excerpted from her new book PHENOMENAL: A Hesitant Adventurer’s Search for Wonder in the Natural World, and reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Leigh Ann Henion.