Eco-aesthetics, Metaphor, Story, and Symbolism: An Indigenous Perspective

A Conversation
  • Gregory A. Cajete
  • Dilafruz R. WilliamsEmail author
Living reference work entry
Part of the Springer International Handbooks of Education book series (SIHE)


Discussions of Indigenous ecological knowledge and aesthetics are largely missing from mainstream education and environmental education. This chapter takes a unique approach to research and scholarship, one that is an emergent decolonizing methodology though it has long been used by Indigenous cultures: A conversation. In Indigenous cultures, oral language and storytelling are one of the oldest traditions. In keeping with the topic that is explored, Tewa scholar, educator, and artist Gregory Cajete and eco-educator Dilafruz Williams raised in India have come together to share through conversation the nature of eco-aesthetics, metaphor, story, and symbolism in Indigenous thought presented in Cajete’s writings of three decades. Our conversation method aligns with Indigenous worldview and upholds its relational significance. We discuss aspects of the Indigenous mythopoetic tradition as part of the traditional education practices of Indigenous cultures. We draw upon our lived cultural experiences and professional practices to elaborate upon the rich use of metaphor, story, symbols, and art to convey notions of eco-aesthetics in the teaching and learning process and the education of children. Our goal is to produce new levels of insight as we engage in this dialogue. Exploring the environmental, mythic, visionary, artistic, affective, communal, and spiritual dimensions of Indigenous education, we conclude the chapter with a discussion of how Indigenous ecological thoughts may be eco-aesthetically symbolized through contemporary art forms to show possibilities for childhood and nature interconnected.


Indigenous Myth Story Metaphor Learning Eco-aesthetics 


Who can tell stories, and, more particularly, who can tell stories that embody Indigenous knowledge and experiences? (Davis, 2004, p. 2)

In Indigenous cultures, oral language and storytelling are one of the oldest traditions (Archibald, 2008; Cajete, 2005; Denizen, Lincoln, & Smith, 2017; Kovach, 2017; Smith, 2013). In this chapter, we use a conversation format to discuss insights into eco-aesthetics from an Indigenous perspective, drawing upon three decades of writings, personal stories, and professional practices shared by co-author Gregory Cajete, a Tewa Indian from Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico. The stories are interlaced with co-author Dilafruz Williams’ East Indian cultural lived experiences and practices related to ecological education and garden-based education. Since conversation and storytelling have traditionally been accepted as form of scholarly methodology for decolonizing research (Kovach, 2010a), we foreground the chapter with an explanation of this process. Next, we explore the use of the term Indigenous. We highlight the significance of metaphor, myth, storytelling, and symbolism as holistic and integral to life from an Indigenous perspective (Cajete 1993, 1994, 1999, 2001, 2005a, 2015, 2017). Although discrete sections are enlisted to discuss these concepts, there is much overlap among them. While we touch on critiques of modernity and modern decontextualized education (Williams & Brown, 2012), in this chapter, we share our aspirations for insights that can be gained from a relational ontology (Cajete, 1994; Feldman, 1999; Porsanger, 2004; Smith, 2013), to guide eco-aesthetic education. Although the academic trend is to accept the term “Anthropocene,” we wish to move away from its colonial underpinnings and acknowledge that Indigenous Peoples of the world have had cosmologies that shaped alternative ways of being and living sustainably for millennia. The stance taken is one that elaborates upon and explains Cajete’s depth of experience as an artist, writer, and educator, to show the interconnectedness of childhood and nature. (We have chosen to not heavily self-reference Cajete’s work in the text and encourage the readers to review his original works listed in the References.)

In Conversational Method in Indigenous Research, Kovach (2010b) explains the use of conversation and story as legitimate forms of research that honors and upholds this process as a means of sharing Indigenous knowledge. She explains:

Indigenous knowledges comprise a specific way of knowing based upon oral tradition of sharing knowledge. It is akin to what different Indigenous researchers, the world over, identify as storytelling, yarning, talk story, re-storying, re-membering (Thomas, 2005; Bishop, 1999; Absolon & Willett, 2004)… I refer to this same approach as the conversational method…[which] is a means of gathering knowledge found within Indigenous research. The conversational method is of significance to Indigenous methodologies because it is a method of gathering knowledge based on oral story telling tradition congruent with an Indigenous paradigm. It involves a dialogic participation that holds a deep purpose of sharing story as a means to assist others. It is relational at its core. (Kovach, p. 40)

Antoine (2017) furthers the cause for decolonizing research: “The complex, dynamic, and multifaceted aspects of research mean there are many opportunities to raise one’s hand when research strays too far from including Indigenous voices and knowledges,” she writes (p. 114). She calls for “an activism beyond a simple nudging to encourage our colleagues to put an Indigenous agenda front and centre when it comes to researching Indigenous peoples, nations, and communities,” (Antoine, 2017, p. 118). Similarly, Denizen and Lincoln (2014), Kovach (2009, 2017), Kovach, Carriere, Montgomery, Barrett, and Gilles (2015), Smith (2013), and others have argued that conventional research and academic scholarship have ignored and discounted the customs, knowledge, and perspectives of Indigenous communities resulting not only in marginalization but also omission of Indigenous relational methodologies. Smith (2013) challenges the perceived observational neutrality of Western research that is the norm of the academy. In making a case for storytelling as legitimate research methodology, Kovach (2010a) counters the often inadmissible methods of oral histories and storytelling, and the ignoring of authentic voices of the Indigenous peoples. She reminds us that production of knowledge and academic inquiry are political. For Smith (2013), “stories are not entertainment, they are power,” (p. 92). If research were undertaken through decolonizing eyes, then Indigenous cultures would be honored and Indigenous agenda and voices would be at the front and center of scholarship. To decolonize research, we need to “push the academy,” urges Antoine (2017), by confronting the norms and conventional research practices:

Researchers rely on epistemologies and ideologies that legitimize particular ways of understanding the world and what counts as knowledge. What is perceived to be legitimate knowledge is determined largely by a small and relatively homogenous group of people who form the academy. (p. 116)

However, Indigenous experience and knowledge, “emerge from centuries of survival strategies and cultural systems that have sustained Indigenous communities, whether in pre-contact societies negotiating survival with each other, with the land, and with ancestors,” she claims (Antoine, 2017, p. 116). Our attempt in this chapter is to provide an Indigenous approach to sharing knowledge where the relational dynamic between the authors is central to the content that emerges. As Kovach (2009) writes, while “a decolonizing perspective may provide a critically analytical framework with which to identify the power dynamics of a research problem, an Indigenous perspective supports a relational conceptual model that moves beyond problem identification to action” (p. 16). The nuances of our own place-based lived experiences are deliberately interwoven into the text, since “without the grounding of place, knowledge becomes trivialized and fragmented into bits and pieces of memorizable waste,” (Kincheloe & Pinar, 1991, p. 5). In taking an unusual approach for this Handbook, we are taking a risk. We agree with Kovach (2009) that “current scholarly writing on Indigenous Knowledges takes place with academic sites that are not yet free of colonial narrative” (p. 79). Having a conversation with each other, we hope to produce “new levels of insight” (Feldman, 1999). In exploring together and sharing stories, our intent is to come to an understanding of ecological aesthetics. However, following the proposition of Kincheloe and Steinberg (2008), we are engaging in dialogue, not seeing ourselves as saviors. We begin our conversation with situating what we mean by the Indigenous.

Situating the Indigenous

Dilafruz Williams: You have written extensively about Indigenous education and ecology for the past 30 years. As a Tewa Indian artist and educator from Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico, in your writings, you honor the foundations of Indigenous knowledge in education. You do so by speaking specifically to your lived experience. I particularly admire your acknowledgment upfront in your writings that your narratives do not presume to be an “objective” treatise, but rather, a culturally contexted and “subjective” perspective of Indigenous ecological relationship (Cajete, 1994, p. 17). As a Pueblo Indian, and specifically as an educator and an artist dedicated to environmental issues, could you first explain what you mean by “Indigenous?” Why do you capitalize the term in your writings, as do several Indigenous scholars including Margaret Kovach (2009, 2010a)? Also, could you elaborate on its relationship with various other terminologies such as Native, Native American, and Indian American and why you choose to use the term “Indigenous”?

Gregory Cajete: Here, it would help to situate myself. I am Tewa from Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico. My ancestors have lived in this region of the Southwest for over 10,000 years, cultivating ways of life through interacting with this landscape. Relationship to land is predicated on history and interaction with place. By being rooted in this place, we developed a sense of being. We were immersed in growing food, collecting seeds, nurturing plants, all the while tied to the natural landscape. Growing up in that context, you are influenced by the soils, the elders, the communities. As a Tewa Indian, I grew up directly involved with and nurtured by my extended family and land that gave me a sense of generational, communal ties to place. I had authentic, intergenerational experiences and a sacred orientation to place (Cajete, 1994, 2000).

While these terms have been debated by Native scholars, I use the more inclusive, generic, and capitalized term Indigenous as an honorific terminology for the many traditional groups of peoples who have been identified with a specific place or region for millennia and whose cultural traditions continue to reflect an inherent environmental orientation and sense of sacred ecology derived from the long-term relationship with place (Cajete, 1994, p. 83). I use the general term Indigenous education to refer to the most inclusive description of culturally based forms of education that are not primarily rooted in modern Western educational philosophy and methodology (Cajete, 1994, p. 14). Another term such as American Indian is used when referring to the Native Indian people in the Americas with their specific histories and cultural traditions. The term Native American refers to the precolonial Indian inhabitants of the Americas. I use the term Native to refer to those who identify themselves with an Indigenous heritage. All the terms mentioned are capitalized to honor the peoples. The United Nations Declaration on the Right of Indigenous Peoples (United Nations, 2007) recognizes Indigenous peoples across the globe as inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures distinct from the dominant societies in which they live at present. For me, Indigenous is a preferred, more inclusive, term though I do refer to my own stories also as a Native American.

Dilafruz Williams: Exploring the interconnectedness of nature, culture, and aesthetics and initiation/education of children, from an Indigenous perspective, is our main task. First, let us discuss how being, reality, and knowing are conceived and interrelated? Using a decolonized framework, how do we know the world (Kovach, 2009)? As Caxaj (2015) reminds us, “The most familiar storied approaches to research in the academic world are based in a Western school of thought that may be at odds with, negate or minimize local Indigenous epistemologies and ontologies” (p. 1). Perhaps you could clarify what Western philosophers would call “epistemologies”?

Gregory Cajete: There is no word for epistemology in our language. As I have said elsewhere, there are bodies of understandings that can be said to include what this branch of Western philosophy would explore as the origins, nature, and methods of coming to know that give rise to a way of life (Cajete, 2000). Thus, for instance, there are as many Native epistemologies as there are Native Peoples. To understand how we come to know, it is useful to explore the realm of cultural ideals from which learning, teaching, and systems of education evolved (Cajete, 2000). I will use my own Native American context. Traditional Native education occurs in a holistic social milieu that upholds the importance of each individual as a contributing member of the community; this form of education is a cultural and life-sustaining process. The learning unfolds through mutual, reciprocal relationships between oneself and one’s community and the natural world. As learners participate in the life of the community, these relationships involve all dimensions of one’s being. The mirroring between knowing and educating is a two-way process. Indigenous epistemologies are nature-centered and education is not separate from how one lives in community. Participating in all aspects of life is key to this education.

Dilafruz Williams: Related to this, we know that Indigenous vision for life and education is informed by relational ontology in contrast to modern atomistic and individualistic ontologies. For Wilson (2008), “It is not the realities in and of themselves that are important, it is the relationship I share with reality. It is not necessarily an object that is important, it is my relationship with that object that becomes important” (p. 177). These relationships are often expressed through metaphors, along with stories, myths, and symbolisms that personify this relational sensibility, as you have elaborated in your writings. In the next section, providing examples would help clarify their embodied connections.

Metaphor, Story and Symbolism

We devote this section to the themes of metaphor, story, and symbolism elaborated by Cajete in his writings. First, we examine the relationship between metaphor and symbolism and then the connections between myth and story. Indigenous storytelling engaged all levels of higher order creative thinking and imaging capacities, developing a fluency of metaphoric thinking and mythic sensibility which served Indigenous people in their understanding of their own inner psychology and maintenance of their spiritual ecology.

Metaphor and Symbolism

Consider the Southwestern Indian symbol of the humpbacked flute player, sometimes called “Kokopeli” or ant man, which is a mythological symbol that represents the bringer of seeds, fertility, sexuality, abundance, the spreading of art and culture. The Kokopeli is a natural process symbol which is “pregnant” with meaning. As such, the symbol of Kokopeli is surrounded by many myths; these myths in turn abound with metaphors representing various dimensions of the procreative processes of nature. Each of these processes is encircled by a body of psychological, aesthetic, and cultural expressions. These expressions in turn are tied to realities which are observable and which form a basis for Indigenous teaching through myth (Cajete, 2017, p. 121). Our conversation turns toward an inquiry into symbols and examples of metaphors that guide learning and living.

Gregory Cajete: The use of metaphor as a teaching tool is an ancient strategy that has been adopted by virtually all the great teachers of human history. That it is an integral part of storytelling and mythology reflects the great capacity of metaphor as a means for conveying highly abstract concepts. Allegories, parables, riddles, visualizations, symbols, poems, rituals, and myths all provide specific expressions of metaphorical thinking. Metaphors are also highly flexible in their uses and can be adapted to virtually all cognitive levels, from child to adult. Our metaphors show the depth of relationships humans have with nature and how all beings participate in life. The most well-known phrase is: Mitakuye Oyasin, i.e., “all my relations” or “we are all related.” I come back to this again and again as do many others. It is a Lakota phrase that captures the essence of Indigenous knowing and educating because it reflects the understanding that our lives are truly and profoundly connected to other people and the natural and physical world. Pueblo elders often remind young people to live their myths by saying, “These stories, this language, these ways, and this land are the only valuable we can give you—but life is in them for those who know how to ask and how to learn.” The metaphor for this seeking is coded in the Tewa phrase: Pin Peye Obe, i.e., “look to the mountain!” Reconnecting contemporary Indigenous education to its mythic roots may metaphorically be viewed as looking to the cardinal mountains of thought from which our stories come and to which they return. This nature-centered understanding is reflected in how we educate. In traditional Indigenous education, knowledge is gained from first-hand experiences in the natural world and then transmitted and elaborated through ritual, ceremony, art, and appropriate technology. Education, in this sense, becomes education for “life’s sake.” Indigenous education is learning about life by participating and developing relationships with community – a community that includes not only people but also plants, animals, and the whole of nature (Cajete, 1994, pp. 116–119).

Hah oh is a Tewa word sometimes used to connote the process of learning. Its closest English translation is to “breathe in.” Hah oh is a shared metaphor describing the perception of traditional Native teachings – process of breathing in – that was creatively and ingenuously applied by all tribes. While we do not have a word such as eco-aesthetics, as a whole, our traditional education revolved round experiential learning (learning by doing and seeing), storytelling (learning by listening and imagining), ritual/ceremony (learning through initiation), dreaming (learning through unconscious imagery), tutoring (learning through apprenticeship), and artistic creation (learning through creative synthesis). The legacy of traditional Native American education is significant because it embodies a quest for self, individual, and community survival and wholeness in the context of community and natural environment.

The understanding and application of the metaphoric thought process is invaluable both as a teaching strategy and as a thinking skill which can enable students to dramatically increase their creative thinking abilities. The intimate use of metaphor is especially evident in Native American mythologies. In these mythologies, metaphor provides the key vehicle for the presentation and elaboration of cultural truths, relationships, behavior, and personality traits deemed important in particular Native American contexts. This is especially the case in myths which relate concepts and ideal relationships to the forces of the natural environment and all the living things therein. Metaphoric thinking is closely involved with the process of imagining in creativity.

Dilafruz Williams: I can link your point about the importance of metaphors to my own writing about “living soil” as a metaphor to engage children on school grounds and in school gardens in meaningful ways for learning. This requires a shift from paving with asphalt and/or manicuring with grass the vast land mass surrounding school buildings. It is in the actual process of conversion of these lots by first exposing soil that its life-giving qualities can be appreciated and from which learning gardens grow (Williams, 2012). “In sight, in mind,” living soil surfaces as the frontier where nature, culture, and biology are intertwined, where humus teaches gratitude, where knowledge of de-composition becomes as significant as learning composition. As you state, Indigenous learning unfolds through mutual, reciprocal relationships formed in community and with Nature. Soil is home to plant, animal, and microbial life and is vibrant life itself, thus making it an exquisite entry point into teaching about relationships by breaking down ontological barriers that divide nature from culture, humans from nonhumans, and food from soil (Williams & Brown, 2012). A dynamic food web, living soil, I believe, exposes the fallacy of mechanistic understandings of life and calls upon us to re-member ourselves as part of the biotic community (Williams, 2012, 2018). Human cultures have had historical, spiritual, and sensual relationships with soils (Kumar, 2002; Shiva, 2008). Thus, paving over soil alters the human experience and psyche in deep ways. Terms such as earth and ground – while some of the oldest in human language – are etymologically related to soil. In addition, words such as humus, humility, and humanity are associated linguistically. Soil is intimately connected with human culture and history (Hyams, 1976; Montgomery, 2007). Through soil, we learn about the sacredness of life, as taught by diverse revered texts such as the Gita or the Bible. As a living entity, soil invites us into kinship and serves as more than a mere growing medium. Soils are a web of relationships, heaving with life.

Gregory Cajete: Indigenous people, in every place they lived, found ways to address these questions of survival and sustainability in profoundly elegant ways. They thought of their environments “richly” and in each environment they thought of themselves as truly alive and related. As I mentioned earlier, “All My Relations” (Mitakuye Oyasin) is the metaphor used by the Lakota in their prayers. It is a metaphor whose meaning is shared by all other Indian people. Its shared meaning stems from the fact that it is a guiding principle of American Indian “spiritual ecology” reflected by every tribe in their perception of Nature. For it is at once a deeply spiritual, ecological, and epistemological principle of profound significance. Guided by this metaphysical principle, American Indian people understood all living and nonliving entities of Nature as having inherent meanings which were important to honor. Based on this understanding, they symbolized their relationship to plants, animals, stones, trees, mountains, rivers, lakes, streams, and a host of other living entities. And through the seeking, making, sharing, and celebrating of these natural relationships, they came to perceive themselves as living in “a sea of relationships.” In each of the “places,” they lived they learned the subtle, but all important, language of relationship. It was through such a mindset, tempered by intimate relationships with various environments over a thousand or more generations, that Indigenous people accumulated and applied their ecological knowledge (Cajete, 1994, pp. 74–77).

Dilafruz Williams: I am reminded here of the significance of the “metaphoric mind” in your work.

Gregory Cajete: The metaphoric mind is the facilitator of the creative process; it invents, integrates, and applies the deep levels of human perception and intuition to the task of living. Connected to the creative center of nature, the metaphoric mind has none of the limiting conditioning of the cultural order. Its processing is natural and instinctive. It perceives itself as part of the natural order, a part of the Earth mind. It is inclusive and expansive in its processing of experience and knowledge. It invented the rational mind, and the rational mind in turn invented language, the written word, abstraction, and eventually the disposition to control nature rather than to be of nature. But this propensity of the rational mind also leads to the development of anthropocentric philosophy and of a science that would legitimize the oppression of nature, its elder relative, the metaphoric mind.

Dilafruz Williams: Indigenous knowledge is couched in the intangible quality of being in relationships, as you explain. Indigenous scholars Caxaj (2015), Kovach (2009, 2010a, 2017), and Smith (2013) are particularly critical of research and narratives that are based in Western schools of thought whose assumptions about the nature of knowledge are often different and devoid of context that you, too, have pointed out. Caxaj (2015) states that when the assumptions about knowledge “originate in settler/colonial practices,” that knowledge is incommensurable with several Indigenous standpoints” (p. 1). Similar to your viewpoint, she explains, “a focus on human agency on the world may construct a dichotomy of human and nature that is contrary to Indigenous knowledges that champion the interconnectedness and the relational aspect of the universe” (Caxaj 2015, p. 2). Congruent with your position and my own upbringing in India, Indigenous ontology of humans is manifested in a sacred relationship with the natural environment, one that is intimate and place-based, with knowledge and understandings passed from generation to generation. Taking this thought further in the next section, you can elaborate on your writings regarding the power of myth and story in the educational legacy of Indigenous peoples.

Story and Myth

Story is a primary structure through which humans think, relate, and communicate. We make stories, tell stories, and live stories because it is an integral part of the way of being human. Myths, legends, and folk tales have been a cornerstone of teaching in every culture. These forms of “story” teach us about the nature of human life in all its dimensions and manifestations. They teach us how to live fully through reflection on, or participation in, the uniquely human cultural expressions of community, art, religion, and adaptation to a natural environment. The stories we live by actively shape and integrate our life experience. They inform us, as well as form us, through our interaction with their symbols and images. Stories are “congruent with the relational dynamic of an Indigenous paradigm” (Kovach, 2010b, p. 43). In this section, we dialogue about this significant aspect of education and learning.

Dilafruz Williams: I was born and raised in India, where my parents and community practiced and lived the oral tradition. As children, my siblings and I were not read to at home; instead, we were told stories orally, often passed on intergenerationally. Stories had tremendous evocative power. This reliance on oral storytelling fascinates me as I look back, since I also had formal schooling influenced by the British colonial legacy with English as the medium of instruction and text books that were British adoptions. Yet, my fundamental beliefs and values were carved through the daily rituals of Indigenous myths that encouraged imagination. Sacred rituals, myths, and stories were at the core of how one form of learning took place, even as I was torn between two cultures: one sort of emergent with its “forward” Western pull, another deeply embedded in knowing the inner self through place and a sense of sanctity for all life. I was taught to seek meaning from nature as she was considered to be a wise teacher. We “operated” under a different cosmology in traditional culture, where spirit and materiality were inseparable; humility rather than human arrogance was the norm. There was clearly a different ontology guiding how we lived and learned even as we were ensnared by the modern monoculture of decontextualized and homogenized education that formal schooling offered. Analogous to my experience growing up, in much of your writing on Indigenous education, you discuss the role of ritual, mythology, and the art of storytelling as a means for cultivation of relationship to one’s inner self. In what practical ways do these encourage children and youth to “trust their natural instincts, to listen, to look, to create, to reflect and see things deeply, to understand and apply their intuitive intelligence, and to recognize and honor the spirit within themselves and the natural world” which, as you state, are critical to Indigenous understandings?

Gregory Cajete: As an integral part of the teaching/learning process, serious consideration for myth and story is rarely given in most modern educational contexts. Yet children thrive on the mythical perspective, and there is evidence that the expression of childhood creativity is primarily facilitated by a mythological perspective. Myths mirror truths through a unique and creative play on untruths and imagination. Within traditional Native American contexts, myth and storytelling are regarded as tools toward true understanding. They are a primal way of presenting realities and truths. Models of behavior, the significance of ritual, the basic realities of human existence, and natural creative processes are presented in this form of coded communication. Storytelling and experience form the foundation for much traditional Native American learning and teaching. Stories give focus to and clarify those things which are deemed important. Experiencing through watching, listening, feeling, and doing gives reality and meaning to important Native American cultural knowledge. Combining story with experience, Native Americans are able to achieve a highly effective approach to education, basic to life (Cajete, 1994, pp. 116–118).

Myths perform four basic functions. The first is to kindle and represent a sense of awe combined with the realization of relatedness of human beings to the natural world and the universe. The second is to represent or relate a mythical history of creation, how things came to be, and how a pattern of relationship or a perspective of the natural world was first established. The third function lies in the structuring and representation of symbolically coded cultural knowledge. The fourth function revolves around the development of imagination and representational thinking as it involves living a myth through its reenactment and application of its precepts (Eliade, 1963, pp. 18–19). Through the process of telling stories, skills in listening, thinking, and imaging are creatively molded. Through experiencing, the skills of knowledge application, observation, and experimentation are enhanced. Myths offer a great diversity of expression among different Native American groups. Myths that have survived the test of time are often those whose message is both immediate and timeless, eternal realities as true in the present as they were at the creation of the myth. Myths can express their meanings through a rich and creative use of language in an oral tradition through the art of a storyteller.

Because many Native American myths relate the learner to paradigms of proper relationship to plants, animals, and all of nature, as well as to the consequences of a poor relationship to nature, they provide a place to begin a greatly humanized discussion of the general areas and underlying assumptions of modern science. Myths are themselves a holistic form of communication. They appeal not only to the intellect and imagination but also, through their enactment in song, dance, theater, oral recitation or art, to the entire human capacity for experience. Through myth, the Native American cultural relationship to the natural world is made to live in both mind and heart. In addition, myths provide a vehicle for explaining metaphysical realities and mindsets encountered that are extremely difficult to discuss or explain through any other means.

The importance of the mythological perspective is multidimensional. For instance, at one level myth, through the oral traditions of Native Americans, provides a way of communicating about nature that has seldom been surpassed by other modes of communication. Myths are used to transmit generations of “understandings” concerning the natural environment. Myth provides a way to explain and think about natural phenomena which goes beyond the mere physical description of the phenomena, a way to describe nature that combines actual observable physical characteristics with affective, psychological, and cultural perceptions. Northwest Indian cultural myths relate how a mythological being first taught them how to fish, the nature of the first fishery, and the way the people must relate to fish in order that they might perpetuate themselves and the fish upon which they are so closely dependent. Inherent in all Native American myths concerning the natural environment is a philosophy and the ethics guiding Native American behavior toward nature. The understanding, respect, and conservation of natural resources, the land and all of life, is reflected throughout Native American myth (Hughes, 1984, p. 5). For instance, there are Native American myths relating to the Earth Mother concept: These myths are universal among Native American cultures and include “Changing Woman” (Navajo), “Spider Woman” (Hopi), “Thinking Woman” (Keresan), “Sedna” (Inuit), and a host of other representations. Myths also provide a way to compare, contrast, or integrate two ways of perceiving natural realities, and in doing so stimulate real appreciation of the aesthetics of life. In the telling of stories, the content of myth and everyday reality are integrated within the content of the learner (Cajete, 1994, p. 196).

Dilafruz Williams: Oral traditions, such as mine and yours, have used stories for millennia to evoke a sense of place and a deep understanding of interconnectedness of all life. This also means connecting past with the present and encouraging imagination. Writing about orality, Kovach (2010a) explains that the conversational method and storytelling are used as a means for transmitting knowledge by upholding the relational and collectivist Indigenous traditions (p. 42). In India, too, Indigenous communities similarly pass on rituals, myths, stories, songs, dances, and drama, from generation to generation, orally. Knowledge of sacred groves, mangroves, or medicinal plants that were endemic was shared with a view to preserve health of place and people. There really was no universal formula on how to live unlike the present consumerist messages for conformity that pervade our lives. Diverse contexts required diverse responses and attentiveness. Interestingly, as Luisa Maffi (2001, 2005, 2007) and others have argued and shown, biological diversity and cultural and linguistic diversity are interlinked. We need to recognize and value the importance of biocultural diversity, to life. The cries of ecosystem fragility also call for a recognition of the harm of homogenization to cultural resilience. The problems of loss of diversity in language and perpetuation of monoculture emanate from dominant Western stories influencing our personal mind-sets and lives. We need to bring life to the center of the educational enterprise at an early age.

Gregory Cajete: Yes, the homogenized and sanitized stories of western monoculture are becoming pervasive throughout the world. In contrast, Indigenous storytelling engaged all levels of higher-order creative thinking and imagining capacities. Stories helped with developing fluency of metaphoric thinking and mythic sensibilities. Stories kept listeners aware of the interrelatedness of all things, the nature of plants and animals, the earth, history, and people’s responsibilities to each other and the world around them. Storytelling, like myth, always presented a holistic perspective, for the ultimate purpose is to show the connection between things. Through the cultivation of hearing, understanding and insight were enhanced by the stimulation of the imaging capacity of the mind. Storytellers fulfilled a vital role in the continuity of not only the tribal culture, but of the mindset concerning people’s relationship to the natural world. In this respect, the storyteller was the philosopher-teacher of tribal America. That the storyteller earned widespread distinction in Native American cultures is no accident. Traditional Native American storytellers were masters of the art of making stories real through a variety of rhetorical techniques, creative dramatization, and the skillful use of metaphor. The use of artistic symbolization, song, and dance were commonly employed by traditional Native American storytellers to add flavor and emphasis to their stories (Cajete, 1994, pp. 138–141).

In many respects, the role played by the storyteller is the forerunner of the more formalized and eclectic role played by the modern teacher today. Whether teachers realize it or not, every time they teach they are echoing an aspect of the storyteller’s art. Storytelling, whether about science, history, social science, language, literature, or art, is an essential dimension of the teaching process. Teachers must continue to learn about and express their innate potential in this area. All stories have multiple levels of meaning ranging from the very basic and straight forward to the complex and the metaphoric. Stories, especially those of the mythic variety, present philosophical, psychological, and ecological truths simultaneously. Such stories provide opportunities to analyze, explore, and develop new perspectives about Native American cultural knowledge of the natural world. There is an art to both the telling of a story and the facilitation of an experience. Both take practice. Dilafruz Williams: Our challenge is to give legitimacy to traditional stories. Margaret Kovach explains: “The nuances and complexities of an Indigenous paradigm may not be fully understood (or viewed as legitimate) by all members of the academy, but few would openly contest, at least in public spaces, that an Indigenous paradigm exists” (Kovach, 2010a, p. 42). In the context of contemporary education, we have to ask what metaphors are being used as a basis to shape and reform policies and drive educational practices? Often, market place analogies and business models are favored for their greater efficiency; these models are themselves predicated upon lifeless mechanistic metaphors that guide schooling as complex machines. Modernist educational orientations are grounded in: de-contextualization of learning, loss of curiosity for nature and its wonders, acceptance of mechanical and industrial scale, homogenization of curriculum and learning, privileging of abstract ideas, stimulation of only certain senses such as eyes and ears, and perpetuation of individualism and autonomy; these are incongruent with living systems. Founded upon mechanistic metaphors, contemporary educational reforms imagine schools as no more than complex machines and overlook the value of life itself. What is sorely missing is an understanding of the power of life-enhancing guiding metaphors, myths, and stories, as you have shared. How might their significance for connecting with nature and life be acknowledged?

Gregory Cajete: Creating a classroom environment in which the Indigenous foundation of storytelling and story-making might once again flourish is a creative challenge whose potential benefit far outweighs the effort required to bring it into being. Storying is a natural part of all learning and what is required is learning how to facilitate and guide its development in students. Indigenous education has always been characterized by a process of “co-creation” between teachers and students. The enablement of storytelling within the classroom is indeed a “co-creation” in which teachers and students learn the discipline of storytelling through constantly finding, or making, stories and telling them. Empowering the creative process of storying in both teacher and students requires nothing more than once again becoming conditioned for it. Just as a distance runner conditions themselves for running by increasing their distance a bit each month and maintaining a proper diet and a balanced schedule of work and recreation, teachers and students can condition themselves for ever-greater capacities for storying. The following groups of activities are some of the possible ways to bring the creative conditioning for Indigenous storying back into being. First, creating opportunities to be in Nature and partake directly from the natural sources of life and creativity; gaining a perspective of past, present, and future through selected stories of one’s tribe and place; and recognizing and honoring our “teachers” that are with ourselves, in our relationships with others and the natural world. This triad represents the development of orientations and mindsets which facilitate the deeper and more creative exploration of story. Second, cleansing our vision through letting go of preconceived notions and other personal or social attitudes that we identify as being obstacles in our creative process of storying; exercising our creative imagination through creating and discussing all kinds of stories; and learning to envision a story from all sides to gain an understanding of it in all its dimensions and practice the skill of thinking “comprehensively.” This triad represents the basic kind of preparations needed to enhance the ability to comprehend a story with greater levels of clarity. Third, learning how to apply the lessons and understandings which come from storying to other learning and life experiences; learning the techniques of Indigenous storying making, story giving, and story getting all of which are centered in the social and interpersonal realm of community; and learning the communicative art of performing story in a variety of forms and settings which is the foundation of the participatory and celebratory experience of story. This triad forms the foundation for applying stories in an integrated experience of learning and teaching which is inclusive of other forms of art and educational content (Cajete, 1994, pp. 140–141).

Dilafruz Williams: In India, too, myths are grounded in symbolic images that have profound meanings. The lotus flower, for instance, symbolizes purity. One can think of similar symbols in the west, the most common being a dove symbolizing peace. The concept of “performing story” you mentioned earlier is a culturally specific ritual that can be linked with teaching and learning about culture. Among the Hindus, there are devotional dances, for instance. The celebratory aspect of stories connects well with our topic on eco-aesthetics. We can elaborate on this further in the next section on rituals and especially highlight what you mean by mythopoetics.

Mythopoetics and Ritual

Thinking and communicating “poetically” through the structures of myth is a natural expression of human learning. The tremendous influence of mythopoetic traditions becomes apparent when one tracks the rich array of oral forms used by traditional societies to their ancient sources. These traditions depended upon the spoken word for communication. Indigenous peoples through their use of various mythopoetic forms of communication applied strategies and orientations to learning that are important to revive and nourish in today’s education. Mythic poems were ritualized, performed, sung, or recited using a particular system of rhythmic structure which in turn required the application of creative and imaginative thinking processes and learning capacities. In this section, our conversation turns mythopoetics and rituals.

Dilafruz Williams: In the opening ceremony at the Carleton University Institute on the Ethics of Research with Indigenous Peoples, John Medicine Horse Kelly (2016) reminded all that “(f)or a long time society has asked us to learn their way. Now the time has come for you to learn our way.” Rituals have been a significant aspect of my upbringing in India where we were raised to become conscious about the more-than-human world, in fact a cosmocentric world. Could you elaborate on rituals and symbolisms with some examples of how they encourage learning the Indigenous way and developing a sense of eco-aesthetics? Given the disembedded and disembodied modern sensibility, we need to reconceptualize a new ontology, one where children and adults are seen as relationally constituted. Indigenous ontology provides insights here. The hierarchical and dominant role played by modern humans, as we have stated, arises from the fact that they are disconnected from nature. We need an alternative language, a different ontology. We need to understand the links among cultural diversity, linguistic diversity, and biological diversity as these are intricately intertwined. The challenge is that Indigenous perspective and knowledge systems cannot simply be imported into Western ontologies; they are highly contextual with integration of learning and living.

Gregory Cajete: The complex rituals associated with the growing of corn and the coming of rain in Southwestern Pueblo groups illustrate not only an ecological ethic, but also an understanding of the Pueblo relationship to the natural entities and the land itself. Every tribal group evolved their knowledge of nature around the central theme of humans as part of their environment, not its master. The so-called totems and spirits with which all Native Americans symbolized their relationship to their world have often been misunderstood. In reality the ecological relationships, the sacredness of nature, and the constant “seeking of life” are underlying mindsets focused upon in Native American ritual. Fetishes and other paraphernalia which are present in many Native American rituals were highly respected because they were symbols that represented the sacredness of the various forces of nature (Cajete, 1994, pp. 153–160). In general, Native American concepts of nature were not meant as explicit explanations of natural processes as are concepts in Western science. Rather, concepts such as animal or plant spirits, benevolent or malevolent forces of nature, and the mythological or ritualistic symbolic representations of nature were symbolic representations of essences and relationships which Native American groups have come to understand through generations of experiences within a given natural environment. These concepts and symbolic representations reflected a highly evolved resonance, a feeling for the natural environment which Native Americans shared so intimately that it was commonly accepted that it was possible for humans and other living and natural forces to communicate with and affect each other through their interdependencies and reciprocal relationships (Hughes, 1984, p. 28). As Hughes (1984) explains: “The Indian view of nature comes from deeper inside the human psyche than mere rational thought or intellectual curiosity, although Indians certainly have these too. But Indians regarded things in nature as spiritual beings, not because they were seeking some explanation for natural phenomena, but because human beings experience a spiritual resonance in nature” (p. 16).

Because of this resonant relationship with nature, Native American tribes developed ritualistic expressions around the recognition, celebration, and evocation of mutualism with the natural environment. Whether it was a Pueblo “Rain Dance,” the hunting of game, the planting of corn, or the healing of the sick, Native American rituals sought to maintain the harmony of these relationships and through this “seeking of life” gained a glimpse of the sacred whole of which they were a part. Native American ethics concerning the natural environment were geared toward the preservation and perpetuation of all life. Everything in nature was imbued with a spirit which was a part of the “Great Mystery” and, therefore, was also a part of oneself which had to be respected (Hughes, 1984, pp. 2–3). The “Great Mystery” breathed life into everything; therefore, all natural phenomena had the power to affect everything else. This was especially true for such elements as wind, water, fire, lightning, the sun, moon, stars, and certain birds, animals, and plants. In addition, everything in nature was viewed as having intrinsic value and therefore could not be exploited simply for the sake of exploitation without dire consequences. Traditionally, this understanding of mutual interrelationships was not merely a philosophical concept. Native Americans lived this interrelationship in their adaptation and interaction with the natural environment. In short, Native American cultural sciences were sciences based on experience and a high level of sensitivity and intuitive insight which is only now being explored in modern Western scientific philosophy.

Dilafruz Williams: In the context of eco-aesthetics, how do indigenous mythopoetic traditions provide guidance for our modern times?

Gregory Cajete: The tremendous influence of mythopoetic traditions on the development of global childhood education becomes apparent when one tracks the rich array of oral forms used by traditional societies to their ancient sources. These traditions depended upon the spoken word for communication rather than the visual word which dominates modern education today. Globally, Indigenous Peoples, through their use of various mythopoetic forms of communication, applied strategies and orientations to learning that are important to revive and nourish in today’s global education (Rothenburg, 1985). Modern people, for the most part, have become “mythically blind” and suffer all the consequences stemming from such a “handicap” because their natural poetic sensibility has been “schooled” out of them.

Thinking and communicating “poetically” through the structures of myth is a natural expression of human learning which has been evolving for the last 40,000 years. Mythopoetic orientations are apparent in most children before they learn how to read. Indeed, children at this “illiterate” stage of their life show amazing metaphoric thinking and storying skills reflecting their natural poetic nature. In modern education’s mad dash to make children (and for that matter Indigenous people) literate, it fails to recognize or honor a powerful dimension of a natural human way of knowing and understanding. The hidden message is “stop being children and stop being Indigenous.” It is ironic that today so many modern people lament the loss of this primal human sensibility and strive in so many ways to recapture it through participation in some “thing” creative, Indigenous, or mythological (Cajete, 1994, p. 131).

Print, literacy, and the written story are very recent developments in human history – even in the history of Western societies. They, never-the-less, evolved from “illiterate” mythopoetic roots which cannot be denied in spite of the negative connotation that Western “civilized” cultures have promoted with regard to “illiteracy” as a sign of being uneducated, uncivilized, and primitive. The study and honoring of oral traditions and “orality” in children offers essential insights into the nature of natural learning. The human “oral” orientation to education offers techniques as well as windows into the world of Indigenous education. A better understanding of oral-based learning revitalizes old yet highly effective techniques for learning while opening up new dimensions which have been forgotten or have become dormant with the development of the printed word, literacy, and modern education’s focus on making everyone literate (Egan, 1987).

Dilafruz Williams: What then was the nature of the mythopoetic tradition and why must it again become an important element of childhood education?

Gregory Cajete: Mythic poems were performed, sung, or recited using a particular system of rhythmic structure which in turn required the application of a different set of thinking processes and developed a different kinds of learning capacities than today’s modern schooling. The Aztec tradition of “flower and song” is one Indigenous example of a mythopoetic tradition of education in which teaching, learning, and reflection were founded upon chanted stories, poems, or prayers. The Aztec poet, philosopher/priest, would compose poetic storied chants or teach the divine songs, the mythic tales, and poetic verse which embodied the essential thoughts and content of Nahuatl religion and philosophy. He would then chant these stories and poems to students who would reflect on or internalize the essential messages which they contained. Later, as they became experienced in this oral system, students would compose poetic chants of their own to present to each other and their “tlamatinime,” their poet-teacher. In essence, the “flower” was the thought, the feeling, the insight, the wisdom, and knowledge that was considered of importance as a teaching. The “song” was the vehicle which transported and transformed the “flower” of knowledge and made it live through the breath of the chanter and in the hearts of the listeners (Portilla, 1963, p. 140).

Indigenous mythopoetic traditions are essentially educational. Indigenous mythopoetic perspectives were founded upon an awe for the “Great Mystery” (that unknown spirit that permeates and animates everything, everywhere); the development of a strong, wise, and pure heart; an abiding respect for one’s tribe, traditions, and law; and deep sense for the relationships and connections between all things. Tribal myths transferred these basic teachings through enlivened images and metaphors which embodied an expansive view of people in relationship with each other and a multiverse full of potential and possibility. Tribal myths encompassed every “thing” within a context which was spiritual yet irreverent, serious yet humorous, logical yet illogical. The messages conveyed through these stories had the power to heal and bring resolution to conflicts because, at its core, poetry illuminates, transforms, and mirrors the heart and soul of both the individual and the People. The presentation of these messages went beyond just words to include sounds, dance, music, games, gesture, symbol, and dream. In this way, thoughts, teachings, and emotions were amplified. Every word, every act, had meaning and energy. This allowed specific Tribal myth and poetry to become part of a larger context of situation and human expression, thereby making the presentation of myth and poetry a true expression of the “sacred” breath within humans and all living things. The mythopoetic realm of teaching and learning is not a relic of the past as might be construed from the designation of the arts and theater in the curricula of so many American schools. Rather, it is an educational necessity for enabling the kind of “new” imagination so desperately needed in today’s sterilized and homogenized approach of modern education. Modern educators must admit to the fact that non-European, traditional cultures around the world exhibit a level of complexity and sophistication of thought which equals and many times surpasses modern perceptions of what it means to educate. Many ingrained modern biases and preconceptions of the “primitive” which have been conveyed and conditioned through the hidden curriculum of modern education must be examined. This is especially true of the mythopoetic traditions of Indigenous America. The negative connotations associated with the word “primitive” must give way to a more enlightened understanding of the complexity and richness of “primal” traditions of myth, poetry, and storytelling.

In contrast to the usual conditioned modern perceptions of “the primitive,” oral traditions and Tribal art forms are as individually oriented as they are collectively determined and contexted. It is a fallacy that traditional cultures and their oral traditions do not change, or that creative self- reflection is not a part of the traditional formula. I am not naive to think that orality alone defines Indigenous thinking. Indigenous oral traditions have always been integrated with drawing, arts, and practical education. It is the perpetuation of injustice to think that Indigenous people have not reflected equally as hard about the nature of language, myth, art, culture, aesthetics, ethics, and philosophy as Western scholars. If anything, the mythopoetic traditions of Indigenous people reflect that in reality there is no such thing as “primitive” in the way in which Western education has traditionally conditioned people to perceive it. The tendency of Western education to divide myth and poetry from music, dance, and relationship to nature, community, spirituality, history, and even politics reflects an illusion of Western thinking (Cajete, 1994, p. 133).

Dilafruz Williams: In the following section, we can highlight how art serves to advance creative expression.

Art and Expression

The human “need” to express through art has its roots in the deep reaches of hunter/gatherer origins. Art, as a human thinking and expressing process, is intimately connected to human consciousness. As a facet of such a “consciousness,” Indigenous art presents a reality that is at once specifically unique, yet humanly universal. In addition, the process and product of Indigenous educational philosophy is intimately expressed through the various Indigenous art forms, a unique way of perceiving the world. Expression of Indigenous art presents what is inherently real about the Indigenous experience and understanding of the world – past, present, and future. Indigenous arts show the possibility, the many different “windows” from which to view the world, and each window, and the doorway which accompanies it, opens upon another possibility of human experience which has an equal level of validity. In this section, we explore these connections.

Dilafruz Williams: In your writings, you have shown how Native art is not done for mere individual expression. Rather, art such as pottery, sculpture, carving, clay painting must have context and are cultural expressions. For instance, sand-painting is a ceremonial art tradition among many cultures, where meaning emanates from its ritualistic and performative context. In India, I grew up learning to make colorful patterns, known as “rangoli,” on the earthen floor especially in courtyards. This art was not done alone; it was a collective undertaking mostly made by girls and women as a form of celebratory art, with motifs and patterns passed on from generation to generation. Rangoli is still a vibrant floor art (Tadvalkar, 2015, p. 173). If you were to visit India during certain festivals such as Diwali or Pongal, you would find the decorations widespread. It comprises often of geometric designs, floral and animal designs, agricultural motifs, or impressions of deities. Colored sand, red brick powder, vermillion, turmeric, and other natural colors and dyes are used along with the foundational white powder which is often pounded rice or wheat flour. Flower petals are also used. Usually rangoli as art captures the flora and fauna of the local region; thus, the artistic renditions are often place-specific. The art is impermanent. The materials used are compostable. But more importantly, the art of rangoli is ceremonial and ritualistic (Tadvalkar, 2015, p. 180). Art evokes deeper meanings, as you have eloquently captured over the years. Totem poles are packed with meaning. How does Native art emerge from and develop relational sensibility? In what ways does this art represent lived experiences along with “holistic view of life and cosmology through symbols that convey a deeper meaning of culture, honors traditions,” as you write. And how does this relate to Indigenous peoples viewing themselves as part of nature, not apart from it?

Gregory Cajete: Traditionally, there was no specific word for “art” in Native American languages. Native American cultures viewed the creation of art as a natural way to communicate their perceptions of nature and their feelings and interrelationships with different natural entities within their environment. Familiar images within nature were incorporated into designs of Native American art. Nature provided the Native American artists with inexhaustible content for creative expression. All Native American art forms – from pottery, jewelry, and weaving, to stone sculpture and architecture – provided mediums for expressing their maker’s perception of natural phenomena. Clouds, birds, animals, fish, wind, water, sun, moon, insects, plants, and spirits represented mutual relationships among all things. Each traditional art form required the learning and mastery of particular types of technology. For instance, certain forms of pottery such as that of the Rio Grande Pueblos of New Mexico require great skill and a substantial knowledge of the nature of various kinds of clays, slip and pigmentation characteristics, preparation and firing techniques. Weaving, basket-making, and architecture all required great skill and a high level of knowledge of the nature of the materials used. Expressions of “resonance” with the natural world required the application of material technology, creativity, and problem-solving skills, with the same kind of processes used to calculate, for instance, the movements of the sun and moon, the development of healing techniques, and successful hunting practices, all of which required the application of a basic understanding of natural entities.

Dilafruz Williams: We have been discussing Indigenous perspective in its own rights, not to champion it to fit into other ontologies. Given that we are addressing learning and eco-aesthetics what would you say to posthumanists? To those who might want to indigenize the Anthropocene? How would your perspective/ontology fit with contemporary science, technologies, arts, theory?

Gregory Cajete: From my perspective, posthumanists can learn a great deal from Indigenous thought which focuses on the imperative of human relationship with and participation in the life processes of the natural world. Indigenous education must be seriously studied. Educating and enlivening the inner self in participation and resonance with the natural world is the primary imperative of Indigenous education embodied in the metaphor, “seeking life.” Inherent in this metaphor is the realization that ritual, art, myth, vision, and learning the art of relationship in a particular environment is what ultimately facilitates the health and wellbeing of individual, families, and communities. Education for wholeness, by educating for a level of harmony between individuals and the natural world, is an ancient foundation of educational processes for all cultures (Cajete, 1994, p. 209).

Dilafruz Williams: You have developed a detailed foundational perspective of Indigenous education and learning, in Look to the Mountain: An Ecology of Indigenous Education (Cajete, 1994). Within the context of our discussions, it would be fitting next to elaborate on this perspective and how a sensibility for an interconnected view of childhood and nature might emerge.

Indigenous Education

In this section, we describe the cultural and life-sustaining process of Indigenous education as we develop insights into the community of shared metaphors and understandings specific to Indigenous cultures yet, reflective of the nature of human learning as a whole. In essence, an exploration of traditional Indigenous education is an exploration of nature-centered philosophy. Traditional Indigenous education is an expression of environmental education par excellence. It is an environmental education process which can have a profound meaning for the kind of modern education required to face the challenges of living in the world of the twenty-first century. It has the potential to create deeper understanding of the collective role as “caretakers” of a world which we as modern humans have been largely responsible for throwing out of balance.

Gregory Cajete: The legacy of the traditional forms of American Indian education, for instance, is significant because it embodies a “quest” for self, individual, and community survival and wholeness in the context of a community and natural environment. Indigenous education is really “endogenous” education, that is, it is an educating of the inner self through enlivenment and illumination from one’s own being and the learning of key relationships. Therefore, the foundations for Indigenous education naturally rest upon increasing awareness and development of innate human potentials through time. Based on this orientation, American Indians and other Indigenous groups used ritual, myth, customs, and life experience to integrate both the process and content of learning into the very fabric of their social organizations thereby promoting wholeness in the individual, family, and community.

Dilafruz Williams: In your writings on traditional forms of Indigenous education, you have made a case for seven foundations of education that are intimately inter-related. You write that they relate to each other in such a way that exploration of any one foundation can guide you into the very heart of the Indigenous education experience.

Gregory Cajete: Extending the metaphor of environmental orientation and process inherent in the sacred directions to education, we may speak of seven elemental yet highly integrated kinds of thought that form the foundations on which the vehicles and contexts of Indigenous education rest (Cajete, 1994). These orienting foundations may include the Environmental, the Mythic, the Artistic, the Visionary, the Affective, the Communal, and the Spiritual. In traditional life, these foundations are so intimately interrelated that they act relativistically at all levels of their expression. In every sense, they contain each other in such a way that exploration of any one foundation can take you into the very heart of the tribal education experience. However, a complementary balance occurs in the interplay of these foundations. This balance can be illustrated by the interaction and interpretation of foundations that play within the environmental and spiritual fields of experience. An ebb and flow of interactive realities characterizes the play among these foundations of education. Dilafruz Williams: Providing an in-depth description of each of the seven elements will show how aesthetics also comes into play in Indigenous education. You have written that these elements are like the living stones, the Inyan (a Lakota term), that animate the expressions of Indigenous education. Here, you could highlight your observations about the sacred view of nature, and how, in your view, interrelatedness and reciprocity are essential to framing education.

Environmental Foundation

The Environmental foundation forms a context through which the tribe observed and integrated those understandings, bodies of knowledge, and practices resulting from direct interaction with the natural world. This foundation connects a tribe to its place, establishing the meaning of tribe members’ relationships to their land and the earth in their minds and hearts (Cajete, 1994). To say that American Indians were America’s first practical ecologists is a gross simplification of their deep sense of ecological awareness and state of being. The environmental foundation of tribal education reflects a deeper level of teaching and learning than simply making a living from the natural world. For American Indians, as with other nature-centered Indigenous cultures around the world, the natural environment was the essential reality, the place of being. Nature was taught about and understood in and on its own terms. Relationship and its expressions in all aspects of life formed the basis for a profound process of education. Based on the environmental foundation of tribal education, tribal people and their environment established and perpetuated a mutual and reciprocal relationship. Nature was used for sustenance; however, the use of material technology was elegant, sophisticated, and appropriate within the context of traditional society (Cajete, 1994).

Mythic Foundation

The Mythic foundation rests on the archetypal stories that describe the cosmology in the language and cultural metaphors of a tribe. This foundation explores the guiding thoughts, dreams, explanations, and orientations to the world. In short, this foundation represents the tribe’s worldview and, through the process and structure of storytelling, presents the script for teaching, learning, and participating in the stories that guide a people. Ultimately, all education is the expression of some sort of storytelling, as we discussed earlier.

Visionary Foundation

The Visionary foundation rests on the deep psychological and spiritual experiences at the individual level that lead to or result from a tribe’s practices, rituals, and ceremonies. Such practices and contexts provide a framework for individuals and groups to teach and learn through exploring their inner psychology and their collective unconscious. American Indians applied the visionary foundation to directly access knowledge and understanding from primary sources deep within themselves and in the natural world.

Artistic Foundation

The Artistic foundation contains the practices, mediums, and forms through which we usually express the meanings and understandings we have come to see. Art allows us to symbolize knowledge, understanding, and feelings through image, thus making it possible to transcend a finite time and cultural wrapping. Art itself becomes a primary source of teaching because it both integrates and documents a profound process of learning. Art was such an integral part of American Indian life that the various Indian languages have no words that translate exactly to mean Art. The closest direct translation to English refers to making or completing. The Artistic foundation also acts as a bridging and translating foundation for the Mythic and Visionary foundations. That is, the Artistic mediates the other two.

The Mythic, Visionary, and Artistic foundations form a natural triad of tools, practices, and ways of teaching and learning that, through their inter- action and play, form a fourth dimension for deep understanding of our inner being. Remembering the metaphor of the Sacred Twins, we may say that this triad of foundations springs forth from the twin that represents the teaching, learning, and innate knowledge of our inner self. It might be called the Winter Twin or the deeply inward aspect of Indigenous education.

Affective Foundation

The Affective foundation of tribal education forms a second context that contains the emotional response to learning, living, growing, and understanding in relationship to the world, ourselves, and each other. This is the foundation in which we establish rapport with what we are learning and why we are learning it. It reflects the whole gamut of our emotion as it relates to the educational process. It is the seat of our primary motivation and the way we establish personal or group meaning for our learning. It is the foundation through which we cultivate our intention, choice, trust, responsibility, and heart for learning. And like the Artistic foundation, the Affective foundation acts as a bridge between the environmental and communal foundations. It mediates our feelings for our place and our community. For American Indians love for one’s land and people have always been a primary motivation for learning and service to one’s tribe.

Communal Foundation

The Communal foundation forms a third context containing the responses and experiences that reflect the social and communal dimension of tribal education. The life of the community, as well as the individuals of that community, is the primary focus of tribal education. The community is also the primary context – through the family, clan, or other tribal social structures – in which the first dimensions of education unfold for all human beings. All humans after all are social animals who depend on each other directly not only for their mutual survival but their identity. The Communal experience is the seat of human cultures; as such, there is not one thing in human life that it does not influence. The Communal experience and the inherent process for teaching and learning in tribal cultures are tied through history and tradition to some of the oldest and most instinctually human-contexted mediums of education. The structure, process, and content of teaching and learning resulting from traditional American Indian tribal and communal experience were and continue to be inherently human, highly contexted, situational, highly flexible, and informal. Learning and teaching are going on at all times, at all levels, and in a variety of situations. For American Indian tribal education, the community was and continues to be the schoolhouse.

Spiritual Foundation

The Spiritual orientation of tribal education may be considered as both a foundational process and field through which traditional American Indian education occurs. For Indigenous peoples, Nature and all that it contains formed the parameters of the school. Each of the other foundations of tribal education is exquisitely complex and dynamic contexts through which a kind of thought develops from a unique yet creative process of teaching and learning. The Affective, Communal, and Environmental foundations form the other triad of tools, practices, and way of teaching and learning that complements the understanding of the first triad. This might be called the Summer Twin or the highly interactive and external dimension of Indigenous education. In traditional American Indian life, the context in which these foundations interact is the Spiritual-Ecological, the seventh orienting foundation of knowledge and process. It is the Spiritual that forms not only the foundation for religious expression but the ecological psychology that underpins the other foundations. A value many American Indian people share is that they must preserve their stories, languages, customs, songs, dances, and ways of thinking and learning because they sustain the life of the individual, family, and community. The stories in particular integrate the life experience and reflect the essence of the people’s sense of spiritual being through time and space. For the mythic stories of a people form the script for cultural processes and experience. Culture is the face; myth is the heart; and traditional education is the foundation for Indigenous life. And all cultures have Indigenous roots that are bedded in the rich soil of myth from which the most elemental stories of human life spring.

Conclusion: Look to the Mountain

Dilafruz Williams: To conclude, our conversation leads me to my cultural reminder that myths, stories, performances, and the art are all about engaging relationally whereby we learn more about ourselves in the process. It would be appropriate to conclude this conversation with one of your art creations. Perhaps you could shed light on how this art weaves the concepts you have elaborated upon here. As well, do you have some final thoughts that can summarize the topic related to eco-aesthetics and learning?

Gregory Cajete: Environmental relationship, myth, visionary traditions, traditional arts, tribal community, and Nature-centered spirituality have traditionally formed the foundations of American Indian life. These elements formed a context for discovering one’s true face (character, potential, identity), one’s heart (soul, creative self, true passion), and one’s foundation (true work, vocation), all of which lead to the expression of a complete life. A primary orientation of Indigenous education was that each person was in reality his or her own teacher and that learning was connected to each individual’s life process. One looked for meaning in everything, especially in the workings of the natural world. All things of Nature were teachers of humankind; what was required was a cultivated and practiced openness to the lessons that the world had to teach. Ritual, mythology, and the art of storytelling combined with the cultivation of relationship to one’s inner self; individuals used the family, the community, and the natural environment to help realize their potential for learning and a complete life. Individuals were enabled to reach completeness by being encouraged to learn how to trust their natural instincts, to listen, to look, to create, to reflect and see things deeply, to understand and apply their intuitive intelligence, and to recognize and honor the spirit within themselves and the natural world. This is the educational legacy of Indigenous peoples. It is imperative that we revitalize its message and its way of educating for life’s sake at this time of ecological crisis (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

Asking. (Painting by Gregory A. Cajete)

To bring a metaphoric kind of closure to our conversation, I would like to offer an image (Fig. 1) that I believe conveys the spirit of our dialogue about eco-aesthetics, learning, and the hopes for the education of all future children. As an artist, I like to explore my concepts and ideas about Indigenous education through artistic images and constructions that convey the essence of an insight that I think is important. One such image is the painting that I used on the cover of my first book, Look to the Mountain: An Ecology of Indigenous Education. This acrylic painting is inspired by the tradition of Huichol Indian yarn painting and represents the first act in the journey toward understanding, that of Asking. Looking to the “inner” form of an archetypal mountain, the human form asks for and receives understanding, with the trickster, in the form of a spider monkey, and four kokopeli witnessing the vision of understanding. As the flower and song of the human touches the face of the Great Mystery, the human connects to a great Rainbow of Thought and Relationship which brings illumination and true understanding of the ecology of relationship and the inherent truth that We Are All Related!


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Native American StudiesUniversity of New MexicoAlbuquerqueUSA
  2. 2.Leadership for Sustainability Education, Graduate School of EducationPortland State UniversityPortlandUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • David Rousell
    • 1
  • Dilafruz Williams
    • 2
  1. 1.Manchester Metropolitan UniversityManchesterUK
  2. 2.Portland State UniversityPortlandUSA

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