Culture may be expressed in different ways among First Nations. From our work developing the Honouring our Strengths and First Nations Mental Wellness Continuum frameworks, we learned that there are principal, foundational beliefs and concepts commonly held in First Nations communities. These beliefs and concepts support a unified definition of Indigenous Culture and are shared here:
The most fundamental feature of the Indigenous worldview is the spirit. Within this reality the spirit is housed within an inclusive concept of body-mind-heart-spirit. In our life within this earth realm these work together, functioning as a whole. The spirit is always central and always works in relationship to the other levels of being. Spirit is in all things and throughout all things. In the Indigenous worldview we live in a spiritual universe and within a spiritual relationship. (Elder Jim Dumont)
Culture is the facilitator of spiritual expression. One’s spirit desires to live life to the fullest. A connection to spirit is essential and primary to wellbeing. Cultural interventions are therefore essential to wellness. Cultural interventions such as ceremonies attend to the whole person, while other interventions may have a more specific focus.
The Circle, more than any other symbol, is the most expressive of the Indigenous view of the world. The circle is primary to all of life and life processes. It is also of primary significance in relating to and understanding of life itself in all its dimensions and diversity. Human beings, amongst other beings, are in harmony with the life flow and grow to their greatest fulfillment when they, too, operate in a circular fashion. The circle, then, being primary, influences in every way how we see the world. The circle is synonymous with wholeness. Wholeness is the perception of the undivided entirety of things. To see in a circular manner is to envision the interconnectedness and the interdependence within life. The wholeness of life is the circle of life.
The circle reminds us that everything is connected and part of a whole. Day is followed by night. Winter is followed by spring, then summer and fall, year after year. If we look, we can see circular patterns in our own lives.
Harmony and Balance
Harmony is a central value of the Indigenous worldview, which pre-supposes that all of life consciously cares for one another, and while respecting the individual’s autonomy, strives to achieve and maintain an interrelationship that assures quality of life for the collective whole. Balance is a fundamental principle within the way that harmony in interrelationship works. The Indigenous person sees the world as always and naturally striving to maintain an equilibrium and symmetry – everything will ultimately try to achieve a balanced solution. The value of harmony works well within such a worldview because it assumes that people lean toward this same balance, and therefore, desire to be in harmony with one another.
The world is constantly changing, but it works towards harmony and balance. It’s just like when people sing in harmony. The different individual voices blend together beautifully. We learn to balance when we ride a bicycle. We live in harmony and balance with our family, friends and neighbours when we respect each other’s differences and care for one another.
All My Relations
All that is created consciously cares about the harmony and well-being of life; all things are regarded as persons and as relatives. Personhood not only applies to human persons. Plants, trees, animals, rocks, and visible and unseen forces of nature are also considered persons.
Because they are persons, they have the range and qualities of personhood that are commonly attributed in Western ideology exclusively to human persons. Once this is accepted, it elevates the prevailing view of other-than-human beings to a higher quality of being and moves the nature of relationship to an all-inclusive ethical level.
We are all related to one another as persons, and are responsible for maintaining good and harmonious relationships withinthe extended family of persons.
We are connected to all things – people, plants, trees, animals and rocks. We are all related to one another and need to look after each other.
Kindness, Caring, Respect
A key to understanding the Indigenous worldview is the recognition of the fundamental precept: the universe cares. The Creator cares for his creation. The Earth cares about her off- spring and all of earth-life. The beings within creation care about each other and about how they relate to one another within the interconnectedness and interdependence of the web of life. In that creation originated in this way, it sustains itself and thrives by means of an underlying
orientation toward kindness. The key to harmony in a life that is conceived as all my relations is respect. Respect is understood as the honouring of the harmonious interconnectedness of all of life, which is a relationship that is reciprocal and interpersonal. The Indigenous person is predisposed to have in his or her interest both the greatest good for the individual as well as the collective good.
Kindness and caring are gifts from the Creator that our spirit carries into this world when we are born. Imagine that. We are naturally kind and caring. When we nurture this gift through our relationships, we learn about respect.
We are all relatives because we have the same mother. In the Indigenous mind, the human person is of the Earth and from the Earth. Like all of the created world, the human being is part of the balance of nature and must find a special yet interconnected place within the created whole. A human being is related to all peoples of the Earth, along with all creatures, as we all call the Earth – Mother. The Earth herself is a living, breathing, conscious being, complete with heart/ feeling, soul/spirit, and physical/organic life, as it is with all the relatives of creation. Indigenous identity and relationship is defined by the land and the connection to the natural world.
Path of Life Journey
The experience of living in this world is understood as a journey of the spirit moving progressively through stages that are interconnected and continuous. In the same way, lives are connected intergenerationally as strings of lives connecting us to our ancestors and to those yet unborn.
Babies learn to crawl and then to run. We grow up and figure out what our purpose is in life and how we can contribute to the life around us. We grow old. We’re not alone on our journey because we’re connected to our ancestors who came before us and to those who are not yet born.
The original language is the most expressive communication of the spirit, emotions, thinking, behaviour and actions of the people. Language is the voice of the culture and therefore the true and most expressive means for the transmission of the original way of life and way of being in the world.
Culture is the expression, the lifeways, and the spiritual, psychological, social, material practice of this Indigenous worldview. Our native languages are a sacred gift from the Creator. So, language is more than just a way of communicating.