Apples, Oranges and Onions

Duane Champagne
3/28/11

Not only is the content of indigenous cultures different from the cultures of nation-states, but the interrelatedness of community is also different. The cultural and organizational relations among indigenous peoples is one reason for their unwillingness to easily assimilate. The United Nations suggests that there are about 370 million indigenous persons in the world and they live in 5,000 distinct communities. There is no one simple cultural, political, racial, ethnic, or territorial form among the varied communities of indigenous peoples.

Many people say that indigenous communities are holistic, where political, cultural, economic, and kinship relations are tightly interrelated. The holistic theme also implies that indigenous peoples live within an animated universe where there are many spiritual beings such as plants, animals, the sun, moon, and other natural activities. In many indigenous worldviews, humans have soul or spirit, but so do many other beings. Humans are not the center of the universe, but are one group among many beings who inhabit the world and have goals and purpose. Because of the holistic character of indigenous worldviews, some people say that indigenous communities are like apples. The white part of the apple is uniform, and the apple is a whole, a community of spirit beings, including humans. How any indigenous community puts together its view of the holism and spiritual nature of the universe is quite unique. According to the apple view of indigenous community and cosmic order, there are many different apples, perhaps 5,000 different and unique holistic interpretations of the universe.

Some characterize modern Western civilization as complex, or compartmentalized into specialized activities by means of the functional specialization of political, community, economic, and cultural relations. For example in the United States, for most people religion is an activity that takes place in a church on Sundays, and is separated from political activities. In the Christian worldview, only humans have soul or spirit, and the rest of the universe is dead and mechanistic. There is no spiritual holism within the universe as a whole. Human social and political activity is primarily about relations between individuals and other nations. The specialized functional relations of modern societies are said to be more instrumentally efficient at producing wealth, harnessing the fruits of the earth, and managing large scale human populations. In comparison to the apple analogy for indigenous peoples, some say contemporary modern Western nations are more like oranges. An orange has many separate parts or wedges, but each is tied in the center to the others.

In a certain sense indigenous nations and modern nation-states are like comparing apples and oranges. However, many elderly indigenous persons do not use the apple analogy for indigenous peoples, but rather say that indigenous social order is much more like an onion. The onion analogy, at first sight, is puzzling. It refers to the complexities of indigenous life and community, although in different ways than the compartmentalized community of Western nations. The apple analogy implies that indigenous communities are too internally homogeneous. The onion analogy refers to the multiple layers of order and meaning found within many indigenous communities. Pueblo communities, for example, often see the universe in concentric circles starting with the unity of the village. Indigenous social relations can be seen as organized in layers starting with the individual or kinship group, which manages the layer of economic activity. Political relations are often ties to kinship and economically self-sustaining groups, which are often participant in a larger grouping of cultural or ceremonial relations, and then other layers of the non-human but living beings within the universe. For example, many indigenous groups live as local bands, where kinship ties, political leadership and primary economic activity take place in a village, band, or kinship group. Many different villages or bands or local groupings then share common cultural teachings with a collection of like groups, and participate in a round of ceremonial activities, but remain politically, economically, and territorially distinct. The onion analogy captures more of the complexity of indigenous communities, while the apple analogy focuses on the holistic dimension. Nevertheless, neither apples nor onions, are similar to oranges.

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