Reverence, Respect, and Reciprocity:
Cornerstones of Biocultural Diversity
Langscape Magazine, Volume 11, Double Issue
A just, equitable, sustainable world in which the biocultural diversity of life can thrive: that has been Terralingua’s vision for over twenty-five years now. It’s a vision that, I know, resonates with many. Yet, it’s also a vision that may seem dauntingly elusive today, given the long list of ecological and social ills that are pushing us in the opposite direction. In the face of all that, how do we maintain a positive stance? And how do we overcome the odds to bring about a bioculturally vibrant future?
In quest for answers, in this issue of Langscape Magazine we turn to the principles of Reverence, Respect, and Reciprocity. These three “Rs” have been intrinsic to the worldviews of Indigenous Peoples and local communities all around the globe. They also are the cornerstones of a biocultural worldview: one that sees people not as apart from nature and dominant over it but rather as a part of nature and interdependent with it. To coin a word to describe this, we are “naturelings”: children of nature and but a humble part of the great circle of life. If we recognize that nature is a life-giving force that sustains us and all other life forms on earth (“all our relations,” as Indigenous Peoples often put it), then we also realize that we have a fundamental moral responsibility toward both present and future generations to consider sacred, care for, and cause no harm to that life-giving force.
The stories between this issue’s covers make it clear that the response to our global predicament doesn’t lie someplace “out there,” removed from us; it lies “right in here,” in our hearts and minds. It lies in a radical shift from the disconnected lifeways that prevail today toward rejoining the circle of life. To be sure, both the assimilationist colonial project and the homogenizing force of globalization have attempted to erase the ancestral worldviews that embody that holistic vision. Yet, no matter how much harm such erasure efforts have caused, those worldviews have persisted and continue to be handed down today. And they’re there for everyone to embrace.
That’s why we titled the first section of this Langscape issue “Transmitting”: to highlight and honor both Elders and younger people who are passionately engaging in the vital intergenerational transmission of values — including the three Rs principles. The section opens with the powerful paintings and poem by the late Rose Imai, a one-of-a-kind Tuscarora artist and thinker. Her images and words portray both Rose’s anguish in learning about the discovery of unmarked graves of residential school children in Canada and her determination to meet evil with beauty, recognizing that “all life has value, it must be so to maintain and balance the whole” and that we must “propagate the conditions necessary for equality, respect, reciprocity to come alive.” Little did we know that her breathtaking cri de coeur would turn out to be her last testament. In failing health, Rose allowed herself to let go on April 22, 2022, the day after hearing that we had published her piece online. It had meant the world to her, we later learned, to share her vision through our magazine. In her memory, we humbly dedicate this issue of Langscape to her. May your indomitable spirit soar, Rose, just as your poetry and artwork do.
I believe that Rose would have been delighted to know that we chose to follow her piece with a traditional story retold by an eleven-year-old Ojibway girl, Nova Whetung, who heard it from her grandpa: a story whose moral, in Nova’s words, is “to respect and give thanks for all gifts that are given and to openly share your own gifts with all beings in our world.” At her young age, Nova is keenly immersing herself in her language and culture and absorbing her ancestral values — living proof that what was done to earlier generations of First Nations has not succeeded in breaking the link between the past and the future of Indigenous communities.
Half a world away from North America, in Denmark, Dea Sofie Kudsk writes a deeply touching ode to another indomitable Elder, her grandmother Bes Jørgensen. Bes spent her life in the most intimate connection with the land she farmed and loved — a connection so intimate, Dea tells us, that her grandma’s body “is made of soil.” Having inherited the farm once Bes became too frail to tend it, her writer granddaughter follows in her footsteps, summoning what she has learned from grandma, praying for more time to learn more. In an eerie turn of events, Bes, too, passed away just after hearing that Dea’s story about her would be published in Langscape. We wish to dedicate this issue to Bes as well, as a staunch holder and transmitter of reverence and respect for the land that gave her life.
We close this section by heading back to Terralingua’s home on the West Coast of Canada for my wide-ranging conversation with J,SIṈTEN John Elliott, a respected W̱SÁNEĆ (Coast Salish) Elder. His legendary commitment to the revitalization of his community’s language and culture has been instrumental to the W̱SÁNEĆ’s success in bringing back a spoken tongue that — as J,SIṈTEN’s visionary father PENÁĆ Dave Elliott used to say — is “the voice of the land.” Through examples and stories, J,SIṈTEN illustrates how a language can be molded by the gifts and teachings of the land (and sea) and can instruct and guide us to care for the place we call home.
In the next section, “Enduring,” we explore how Indigenous Peoples and local communities have persevered, in spite of their cultures having long been under attack. In his “postcard” from the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco, photographer and filmmaker İnanç Tekgüç shares a stunning portrait of an Amazigh woman, Zahra Ben Youssef, and the story of the courage and determination with which she and her family carry on their transhumant way of life in reciprocity with their environment. In southwestern India, G. S. Unnikrishnan Nair films the exemplary story of Kurichya farmer extraordinaire Cheruvayal Raman, who strives to conserve and share indigenous rice varieties, continuing his tribe’s tradition of respect for rice farming. At the opposite end of India, in the northeastern region, Suprita Chatterjee spends time with the Mising people, learning about their way of life between the edge of the forest and the banks of the Brahmaputra River and how they respectfully “make kin” with all life — including the forest elephants that often take an interest in their crops.
Writing about his country of origin, China, Thomas Hou gently urges us not to yield to the stereotype of that country as monolithic: China is, in fact, bioculturally megadiverse, and many of its ethnic groups have maintained beliefs and values rooted in reverence and respect for nature. Such beliefs and values, Thomas argues, have often led to notable, though poorly known, conservation outcomes, which people should learn about and from. In a similar vein, Liza Zogib and Sandra Spissinger-Bang of DiversEarth take us on a voyage that has led their organization to document over 500 sacred natural sites in the Mediterranean region — places that, considered special for spiritual reasons, have been protected and maintained with reverence, respect, and reciprocity, while at the same time sustaining and enriching the communities that care for them.
In this contemporary world that is as detached and fragmented as it is “wired,” the experience of establishing or re-establishing links with nature and with one’s cultural heritage can be nothing short of cathartic. Conversely, not doing so can leave us adrift and seriously jeopardize our well-being. This is the thread that runs through the stories in the following section, “(Re)connecting.”
In her intensely poetic and philosophical essay, Daniela Boccassini journeys from her birthplace in the Italian Alps to the western shores of Canada, and from there, having learned to swim against the current like salmon do, back to the source of her heritage — one exquisitely and wisely “attuned to our innate alliance with water and air, earth and sky.” In Australia, Michael Davis immerses himself in a transcendent experience walking through ancient cultural and spiritual landscapes that have been sacred to Aboriginal Peoples for millennia, and is filled with a sense of reverence, respect, and ethics of place. His photo essay pays tribute to the living heritage of these sites, forever etched in the rock faces and resonating in the silent echoes of the land. In Vancouver, Canada, four students from diverse backgrounds, led by educators David Zandvliet, Chantal Martin, and Hailey Moran, engage in environmental learning in a botanical garden. The students share their reflections on specific features and plants in the garden that intimately connect them to their life histories, cultural heritages, and sense of place.
A painting by Tsilhqot’in artist Barbara Derrick and a poem by Chinese–French Canadian translator and poet Chang Liu send the same message in complementary ways: our human lives are inextricably connected to and depend on trees. Trees are us, says Barbara; they are our Elders, says Chang. To forget that and not care for the trees is to put ourselves in mortal danger. To remember that is to recognize the need to honor and respect that which sustains us.
A writer and educator from the U.S. Southwest, Dawn Wink explores multilingualism through a special lens: waterlilies, as metaphors for mother tongue languages and their power to anchor story, wisdom, and heritage while also sustaining additional languages as offshoots from the same primary root. Severing the root of the mother tongue not only disconnects us from our primary cultural and ecological context; it also impairs our ability to learn other languages and to ground ourselves in other eco-cultural contexts. Young Ghanaian journalist and creative writer Abraham Ofori-Henaku understands that point quite well. Like many other youngsters in his country who aim to be “modern,” he originally shunned his native Akan language and traditional culture in favor of English and Anglo-American pop culture. In a quirky turn of events, he suddenly realizes he has “lost it all,” and embarks on a journey to reconnect to his primary roots and rebuild his respect for his country’s biocultural diversity.
Healing the harm caused by disconnection from and suppression of the link to language, culture, and land and moving in a healthy direction require a conscious effort at renewal and revival. We highlight such efforts in the “Regenerating” section. As the world struggled to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, linguist and biocultural diversity champion David Stringer was struck by stories of resilience in Indigenous communities. We feature an excerpt from a panel he organized to discuss opportunities that arose in those circumstances for cultural regrouping and reaffirmation of ancestral values of solidarity and reverence, respect, and reciprocity with the natural world. The photo essay by Clare Dowd, Isabel Carrió, and Leah Struzenski of the Creative Action Institute documents another community revival project. In the Peruvian Amazon, Bora women artisans’ centuries-old practice of weaving with fibers from the chambira palm has come under threat by deforestation, overharvesting, and community rivalry. Gathering to discuss solutions, the women rekindle their reverence for the palm and commit to work together to revitalize the tradition.
Likewise, Native American communities in the U.S. Southwest are regenerating traditional agricultural practices and restoring food security and sovereignty. Arty Mangan of the Bioneers interviews A-dae Romero-Briones of the First Nations Development Institute about these efforts and the need to decolonize the prevailing narrative about agriculture by acknowledging Indigenous stewardship of and respect for the land. A similar movement has arisen, Kana Koa Weaver Okada tells us, in the ethnically and culturally distinct southernmost islands of Japan. People in Okinawa Prefecture are bringing back agriculture as a sacred activity, restoring traditional foodways, and protecting native crops, while revitalizing languages, traditional knowledge, and ceremonies. And in Australia, two First Nations men, David Doyle and Mark Lock, and a non-Aboriginal woman, Sophie Zaccone, come together to “yarn” about their shared reverence for Country and develop a common vision for reinvigorating it through collaborative projects that aim to restore traditional knowledge and use of plant foods and medicines.
Ultimately, if nature is our teacher, we must learn to listen to it and absorb its lessons of reverence, respect, and reciprocity. “Listening” is the focus of the last group of stories. Philippa Bayley and Neville Gabie introduce Living-Language-Land, a project that highlights diverse ways in which Indigenous and minority languages express people’s relationship with the land and invite us to listen. The main message comes from the Innu language of Québec, Canada: project contributor Missinak Kameltoutasset tells us about a word in her language that conveys our belonging to the circle of life — the teaching that “the earth doesn’t belong to us, but rather, we belong to her, bearing in her our own distinctive roots.” Ethnoecologist Gary Paul Nabhan embarks with the Comcaac people of northern Mexico on a quest for eelgrass seeds — a sea grain that has fed this Indigenous community for centuries — and listens to the story of the deep relationship between the Comcaac and the underwater seagrass prairies in which the roots of their culture and histories are embedded.
In a found poem that weaves together words and phrases from ethnobotanical writings, biologist and poet Lee Beavington summons us to overcome “plant blindness,” learn plants’ names and their vital roles in the web of life, hear their whispers, and listen to their wisdom. And listening to plants — indeed to the whole chorus of a rainforest — is what a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous musicians does in the Colombian Amazon, then creating music that resonates with it. Colombian artist Diego Samper introduces us to his Wild Symphony project with an evocative photo essay and a haunting film. The Wild Symphony, Diego explains, “is an invitation to listen to the living forest and to remember that we are still connected to the Wild, that we are part of that unique living being that covers our planet like a pulsating skin.” Diego’s words perfectly complement Missinak’s, which I quoted above. Together, they sum up the theme of this issue better than I could ever hope to do.
Finally, in the “Web Extra” story, Purabi Bose — a social scientist and filmmaker of Santhal Adivasi (eastern India) descent on her mother’s side — brings up a crucial point in her quest to understand what allows biocultural diversity to survive and thrive. There are no alternatives, she argues, to the principles of reverence, respect, and reciprocity for sustaining biocultural diversity; but in turn, the key factor for the three Rs to be sustained is yet another R, Recognition — recognition of the identity, dignity, and self-determination of all peoples by the state, society at large, and the people themselves.
I close on that resounding note, with deep thanks to all the world’s Elders who have been carrying the torch of recognition up high and to all the young people who are picking up the torch and moving forward with it into the future.