Theoretical Grounding

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) issued a Warning to Humanity (1992), and cited that humanity's ability to address global ecological threats and achieve sustainability will require a major transformation in patterns of behavior at all levels and domains of human activity. The UCS Warning and call for dramatic behavioral change can be interpreted as a call for new forms of culture. The concept of culture is invoked to capture the holistic nature of human systems, from the more visible and tangible aspects of observable behavior to the invisible and abstract, such as values (Schein, 1992; Triandis, 1972) and basic assumptions (Schein, 1992), which underlie behavior. Drawing upon the models of culture as articulated by Triandis (1972), Schein, (1992), and Erez and Gati (2004), we can understand culture as a system of shared meaning that is (a) historically adaptive for the group, (b) perpetuated through learning processes among members, (c) characterized by observable artifacts and behavior, and espoused values, and basic assumptions. (d) a multi-level construct from individual to global, and (e) subject to change through top-down and bottom-up dynamics.

Focusing on cultural worldviews, the more abstract and less visible dimensions of culture, differences are noted between the dominant western culture from some of the generalities that can be made of indigenous cultures (Trimble, 1976; Winter, 1996; James, 2000; Booth, 2003). Fundamental aspects of the western worldview have been implicated in giving direction to the patterns of behavior that account for the unsustainable trajectory of human society (Korten, 2006; Capra, 1996; Meadows, 1999; Cajete, 2000; Skolimowski,1981; Winter, 1996). Prior to contact with the European world, indigenous peoples throughout North America had formed cultures that were highly adaptive to place; their needs were met without compromising the capacity of the respective place to continue providing for those needs indefinitely (Cajete, 2000). Their ways of life were formed by, and informed, a way of thinking and value system that stands in contrast with the dominant mentality of modern society, particularly in terms of a stronger environmental ethic (Booth, 2003; Cajete, 2000; Winter, 1996; Trimble, 1976).

Krech (1999) challenges, however, the idea that Indian ways of thought and behavior are characterized by a strong environmental ethic. The arguments by Krech serve to help differentiate American Indians from the contemporary definitions of environmentalists as "nature lovers" and the romanticized visions of living without impact on the landscape. Yet, evidence from Booth (2003) and others (e.g., Cajete, 2000) speaks to the fact that beliefs and practices widely present among Native Americans served to moderate deleterious effects on the landscape (for further discussion see p 37 of full proposal). Undisputed is that with European contact came a great deal of change: those that survived experienced dwindling options for maintaining traditional ways of life and were subject to assimilation (e.g., Neihardt, 1932). Today, considering the realities documented by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005), indigenous people also face the risks and uncertainties posed by threats to global and local ecosystems that they are embedded within and rely upon (e.g., Houser, et al, 2000).

Recognizing that the Western-worldview and behavioral strategies, which have historically served Western society as functional and adaptive, have created a set of circumstances that endangers us all, this project seeks to contribute to an effort of developing new cultural forms that act in harmony with the larger environmental context. Perhaps the directionality of cultural change can be reversed, and aspects of Native worldviews can supplant the particularly hazardous aspects of the Western-worldview.

Towards this end, this project has engaged contemporary indigenous leaders who have been influenced by both their respective traditional world-views and Western world-views. As contemporary leaders, these individuals may help shed insight on critical aspects of our thinking that we must attend to if we are to be successful in meeting the challenges faced today.

Read more about the theoretical grounding of this project: Dissertation_Hall_2008.pdf (see pp. 8-27)