An Observational Ecologist’s Acknowledgement of 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 inimitable Sonoran Desert, in what is today southern Arizona, on the traditional lands of the Tohono O’odham, Sobaipuri, Ndée (Apache), Comcaac (Seri), Opata, Yaqui, and Cocopah, among other native peoples who have inhabited and cultivated this region for millennia, even since before it was a true desert.

The Sonoran Desert’s varied habitats, including “sky-island” mountains, deltas, rivers, and alluvial plains, produced the American continent’s oldest agricultural civilizations, which cultivated native plants using advanced irrigation techniques for tens of thousands of years before the first Europeans arrived in the fall of 1493. Some of the more contested studies have even dated artifacts in the Pinacate volcanic region, just South of the US-MX border in the Mexcian state of Sonora, to 40k years – as long as Aboriginal Australians have lived on the Australian continent. 

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 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 today’s US, 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 exploitation of corporations operating in these areas, coveting everything from oil, to water, to uranium.

Despite their bitter struggles, however, Indigenous peoples and communities remain among the most resilient and active guardians of our planet’s landscapes and biodiversity. Today, around 80% of natural landscapes that remain relatively free from human impact on Earth are still in Indigenous hands, despite their wise stewardship being continually undermined by religious and cultural indoctrination and by corrupt and wasteful interests, namely urban sprawl, agriculture, livestock, fisheries, and mining. Indeed, there remains strong Indigenous support for a wide range of social and environmental causes, 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. Crucially, this must be done from a place of humility and respect. I feel it is crucial to foster more Indigenous-led decision-making and knowledge-restoration and sharing forums, especially when we consider that many of modern society’s best ideas are 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.

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.

Without appropriating them, I believe that, as individuals and as a global community, we can cooperatively and consensually leverage Traditional Knowledge, wisdom, and values, with guidance from the people who hold these things closest, to solve a wide range of our urgent environmental and social issues, such as climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution, and a critical lack of services and opportunities for the poor. This sense of hope comes from my own experience with the generosity and goodwill of Indigenous people, who have always been willing to share with me some of their wisdom and authority, even under difficult circumstances.

I welcome and encourage any inquiries, comments, and considerations, and will engage in respectful dialogue with anyone genuinely interested in the ever-evolving relationship between people and place, recognizing that the weaving of cultures through conversation is a continuous process, that like a sky-island brook, eddies and rushes, sinks and spreads, winds and meanders its way towards the sea of universal humanity. 


Alan Ruiz Berman