…an oldgrowth forest of the mind, a watershed of thought, an ecosystem of spiritual responsibilities —Wade Davis, speaking of indigenous language

Preamble Disparaged and brutally suppressed for the better/worst part of two hundred years, the Secwépemc – the Indigenous People of what is now south-central British Columbia, including my home valley – are now picking up the pieces of their traditional culture and fashioning it to a lifeway that stands in marked contrast to the lifeways of their colonial neighbours. The Secwépemc and their ancestors have occupied this land for at least eight millennia; and during that time, they have developed a land ethic that in English can be broadly described as kincentric. The following excerpts from an unpublished essay by BC scholar Nancy Turner briefly describe what that means on the ground.



n my work as an ethnobotanist and ethnoecologist in British Columbia, as well as learning about plants, their names, the ways in which they are harvested, prepared and put to use in so many ways, for food, materials, medicines and in spiritual ways, I have learned from Indigenous elders and knowledge holders about different ways of thinking about the world – different worldviews or philosophies – that influence people’s actions and relationships with nature. Sometimes these have been conveyed through stories, sometimes in the subtle ways people relate to the plants and animals they harvest and put to use, sometimes in the words they use and the places they talk about.

Purple by Yngvar Gauslaa
©Yngvar Gauslaa

To summarize, Indigenous Peoples do not recognize the barriers between humans and other life forms, or between so-called living and non-living entities, that we in the western European mindset have been instructed about. “Man” – and the assumed supremacy of Man – has been the pivotal and privileged force in the western worldview for many centuries, if not millennia. The following quote written nearly a century ago illustrates my point nicely:

All the efforts of the Dominion must be devoted to production and economy. The vast resources of Canada, to which the term ‘illimitable’ has been so frequently applied, because of lack of knowledge, must be turned to some useful purpose. Untilled fields, buried minerals or standing forests are of no value except for the wealth which, through industry, can be produced therefrom.

Contrast this perspective with the one shared with me by Kaigani Haida elder Woody Morrison some years ago: “The trees are your grandmothers. If you need help, if you are in trouble, go and sit by a tree and ask her to help you. She will give you the advice you need.”

This attitude of respect and appreciation for the gifts of the earth is central to the belief systems of Indigenous Peoples, or First Nations, in many parts of the world. Their approaches are grounded in hundreds – sometimes thousands – of years of direct relationships with particular landscapes and with the other life forms that reside in their home places.

Some time ago, the Indigenous restoration ecologist Dennis Martinez coined the word kincentricity, which is really short for kincentric ecology. In kincentricity, all of the other life forms and beings of the earth are recognized as our relatives or kin – a view now shared by biological science, which has shown that all life extant today has descended from a single mother organism. In essence we are all part of a big, extended family, with whom we share a common origin, and a common home, the earth.

First Nations people in many places foster a kincentric worldview in which other species are regarded as a part of our families, in the same way as our cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents. Indeed, the names for some of these other species indicate such a relationship. The Saanich ceremonial name for Sockeye salmon is “Honoured One”; for Coho the name is “Parent of your daughter-in-law or son-in-law,” for Humpbacks (Pinks), “Adopted niece or nephew,” and Spring, or Chinook salmon, Sister-in-law or brother-in-law”. These other species, plant-people and animal-people, are treated with respect – not least those that are hunted or harvested for human use.

If you need to use them, you need to ask permission. If you are going to harvest medicine, a tree for a canoe, or bark for a basket, you approach the plant with respect and deference. You ask for its help, explain what you need, and ask for it to serve your needs. On your part, the respect and appreciation you give is critically important. If you treat a plant or animal with disrespect, killing or harming it needlessly, or wasting what you have taken, things will go poorly for you. There will be repercussions, just as if you treated a person badly. This is what kincentric ecology is about.

Deceptively simple, kincentricity is nonetheless a very powerful concept, and to the extent we embrace it, we find our way to a completely different perspective on what is important in life. Whereas the predominant western worldview incorporates an assumption that humans are separate from nature – and superior to all other life forms – the kincentric perspective of many Indigenous people places humans as just one member of a huge supporting family, a family that includes hundreds of different kinds of beings, which at one time in deep mythological history could change or transform from one type to another, from plants and animals to humans, from humans to mountains, rivers, minerals and trees.

Taken together our kin are generous relatives indeed: they provide us with the food and materials we need and, in the case of the green plants, with the oxygen we breathe. They help to purify our drinking water, and provide many different services we too easily take for granted; and they can bring us much joy and satisfaction. By developing a truly caring and loving relationship with these different species, we can enrich our lives immeasurably. By getting to know them by name – any name you care to call them by – you can come to see them as more than just “things” or objects, to be used or gotten rid of at our whim.

This concept of kincentricity and empathy and respect for all things may seem peculiar to some, yet it is central to Indigenous cultures across North America and beyond, from Thailand to Scandinavia. Kincentricity brings a new – or rather an ancient – relationship between humans and other life forms – a more sustainable relationship in which we take responsibility for our actions and do not just take without giving back.

Next up: Neighbourhood Naturalists?