Acknowledgement; People & Place

Perhaps my greatest privilege, aside from food, family, and shelter, has been to travel far and wide, and to learn from Indigenous and other local peoples in places as disparate as Africa, New Zealand, and the Caribbean. Currently, I live and work in the Sonoran Desert, in what is today southern Arizona, and on the traditional lands of the Tohono O’odham, Sobaipuri, and Ndée (Apache), and nearby Comcaac (Seri), Opata, Yaqui, and Cocopah, among other Indigenous peoples who have inhabited and cultivated this region for millennia; indeed, even since before it was a true desert. The Sonoran Desert’s varied habitats, including “Cordilleran Sky Island” mountains, deltas, rivers, and alluvial plains, produced the American continent’s oldest agricultural civilizations, which cultivated native plants like agave using advanced irrigation techniques, for tens of thousands of years before the fall of 1493, when the first Europeans arrived on the American Continent. Some of the more contested studies have even dated artifacts in the Sonoran Desert to 40k years – as long as Aboriginal Australians have lived on the Australian continent. 

Whether they have been here for 10 or 40 thousand years, many of the original “Desert People” are present to this day, some just one lifetime away from a family member who kept a traditional lifestyle, in other words, one that was relatively unchanged from neolithic pre-history until the mid-1900s. I have even had the honor of meeting elders who spent their youth living their traditional ways, and who went without modern medicine let alone plumbing and electricity for most of their lives. These same elders can recall an era when they were legally and tragically murdered by the Mexican government in state-sponsored genocides that lasted into the late 1930s. In the US, Indigenous cultures, including ceremonies and ways of life, were illegal well into the late 20th century and were recently liberated by Indigenous-led civil rights movements that occurred alongside African American movements in the 1960s and 70s. 

I have been fortunate to have had many Indigenous friends and teachers, like Alfredo and Cleotilda Lopez of the Comcaac Nation in Sonora, Mexico – two venerated elders and culture keepers of the Sonoran Desert and Gulf of California.

In the United States today, we can all be proud to have Indigenous and Black leaders representing their communities at the highest levels of power. Nonetheless, our wider society has not been either willing and/or able to get at the root of the compounding crises of poverty, health, education, displacement, murder, abuse, and unemployment occurring in Indian Reservations and other long-beleaguered communities, or to stop the unwanted corporate exploitation of resources like trees, oil, gas, water, and uranium. Across the globe, meanwhile, around 80% of Earth’s natural areas that are still relatively free from human impact are in Indigenous hands, and under wise stewardship – though this is being continually undermined by religious and cultural indoctrination and corrupt and wasteful interests.

Threats to the world’s last natural places come from urban sprawl, agriculture, livestock, fisheries, and mining, and Indigenous people are on the front lines, often fighting with the same tools they have used for millennia, but increasingly with access to technology, funding, and political platforms. In the face of what can only be described as long and bitter struggles, Indigenous peoples and communities remain among the most resilient and active guardians of our planet’s landscapes and their biodiversity, and strong Indigenous support for a wide range of social and environmental causes is evident, from protecting Hawaii’s last sacred mountain-top to saving America’s most precious water sources. 

For all of these reasons and more, I feel it is important to not just acknowledge the continued presence of First Nations but also to engage with them and finally learn something from their cultures, values, and unique ways of life. I believe that, as individuals and as a global community, we can cooperatively and consensually leverage Traditional Knowledge, wisdom, and values, without appropriating them, and with guidance from the people who hold these ideas closest. Through this wisdom, I am confident that humanity can solve a wide range of urgent environmental and social issues – namely climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution, and a critical lack of services and opportunities for the poor.

We should recall that many of modern society’s best ideas were first Indigenous, including parliamentary-style democracy, a cornerstone of the Iroquois Confederacy, and many forms of sustainable resource and land management, from permaculture to controlled burning, to the concept of granting legal personhood to rivers and mountains. The main cause for my hope, however, lies in my own experiences with the wisdom, generosity, and goodwill of Indigenous people across the world. From the Comcaac to the Maori to the Masaai, I have found Indigenous peoples to be willing to share their knowledge, on the deepest authority of their spiritual guidance, even under the most difficult circumstances. Crucially, however, the sharing and adoption of Traditional Ecological Knowledge and values must be done from a place of humility and respect, for example by fostering more Indigenous-led decision-making and knowledge-restoration and sharing forums. This work is especially urgent when we consider the rates at which Indigenous languages are lost. 

The weaving of cultures through conversation is a continuous process, that like a sky-island brook, eddies rushes, sinks and pools, winds, and meanders its way towards a sea of universal humanity. Observational Ecology is a platform for starting conversations, and for making space to both share and listen to Indigenous perspectives, as well as those of other residents with long traditions in the desert southwest, such as ranchers, Gulf of California fisherfolk, and members of other majority and minority communities, and I welcome and encourage any inquiries, comments, and considerations about our ever-evolving relationship between people and place.


Alan Ruiz Berman