What does sustainability mean, and how can we live sustainably? In their famous 1987 report, Our Common Future, the United Nations' World Commission on Environment and Development defined sustainability as that which "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Yet long before this definition became popular—hundreds, and in many cases thousands, of years earlier—many indigenous peoples around the world had already developed complex relationships with their environments that were sustainable in just this way. These relationships are well-documented by researchers and offer us important insights on how we can live sustainably today. In case after case, we find that such relationships are built upon at least two foundations: knowledge of, and respect for, the non-human world. The taqwsheblu Vi Hilbert Ethnobotanical Garden is a place to study the relationships between plants and people in our region and cultivate our own sustainable relationships with these local plants.

Through long residence and extensive experimentation, First Peoples of the Northwest Coast have developed and preserved a sophisticated understanding of their local lands and waters and the non-human beings that inhabit them. But knowledge alone is not enough for sustainability, as the environmental abuse and waste in technologically advanced industrial societies so clearly demonstrate. Among First Peoples of this region, knowledge has been guided and complemented by a respectful, ethical relationship with the non-human world. Listen for example to Kim Recalma-Clutesi's description of the practices and beliefs of her Kwakwaka'wakw and Nuu-Chah-Nulth relatives, as quoted in ethnobotanist Nancy Turner's The Earth's Blanket:

"All of our rituals, taboos and ceremonies revolved around the careful gathering of what the great Nature provided us, and we honored each life, whether it be plant, animal or marine, by using it and not wasting it, being careful not to overharvest… to carefully cultivate and enhance the resources so they would be there for use by our grandchildren… We believe that all life, whether it be animals, plant or marine is sacred and is as important as human life. We are but one small part of the big picture and our food-gathering practices and ceremonies remind us of that."

Turner also describes Christine Allen, a Secwepemec elder who enjoyed picking berries into her nineties and "never ate them without first extending the handful of berries towards the sky and pronouncing with feeling, 'Kwukstamcw, Kwukstamcw, Kwukstamcw' 'Thank you, Thank you, Thank you.'"

Or as Suquamish elder Martha George puts it in the video documentary Come Forth Laughing, "they took what they needed and that's all. There's nothing wasted. That's quite important among the Indians: that you should respect the earth."

Since this combination of learning and reverence has proven to encourage sustainable behavior, it is no surprise that similar ideas are being embraced by contemporary environmentalists. In his recent environmental history of Seattle, Emerald City, Matt Klingle quotes legal scholar Charles Wilkinson's definition of an ethic of place as that which "rests upon the recognition that humans rely on the subtle, intangible, but soul-deep mix of landscape, smells, sounds, history… that constitute a place, a homeland." According to Klingle, an ethic of place recognizes that "true citizenship depends on valuing humans and non-humans alike… and that ethical obligations encompass not only the people of a given place but also the animals, plants, and elemental forces that comprise the non-human nature surrounding us."

As Turner concludes, "Perhaps one key to sustainable living is for all of us to become rooted to a place and, if we don't have them at first, to evolve our own stories about our relationship to our special places and to the trees and other life forms that live there. We need to commit ourselves to those environments and to their well-being in any way we can. Knowing and caring about places is probably the very best thing we can do for our selves and for the earth."

References (See also the Ethnobotany page )

  • Anderson, E.N. Ecologies of the Heart. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996
  • Berkes, Fikret. Sacred Ecologies (Second Edition). New York: Routledge, 2008
  • Deur, Douglas and Nancy J. Turner, eds. Keeping it Living. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005
  • Menzies, Charles, ed. Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Natural Resource Management. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006
  • Nelson, Richard. Make Prayers to the Raven. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986
  • Suttles, Wayne. Coast Salish Essays. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988
  • Turner, Nancy. The Earth's Blanket. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005
  • Come Forth Laughing: Voices of the Suquamish People. The Suquamish Tribal Cultural Center, Oral History Project. 1984