Indigenous Peoples’ Spirituality and the Land

By Rev. Yangkahao Vashum

In the tribal society, the land is owned by the community in general. For example the land tenure in Naga society is well reflected in the report that follows: In Nagaland, each tribe had a well demarcated territory within the villages inhabited by that tribe were located, with well-defined boundaries. Though the practice of each tribe differed, the village land was generally classified as (a) common village land, (b) clan land, (c) individual land, and (d) morung land.

The village council was responsible for the management. Clan land was mostly jhum land owned by a particular clan certain areas, usually terraced land were owned by individuals. Some portion of the village land was designated for morung where the young boys slept there. 1) Similar system is also found among the Khasi-Jaintias of Meghalaya. The land is classified into Ri Kynti (clan land) and Ri Raij (community land). 2) The principle behind this land system is to ensure that no one in the village is made landless and poor. In the past, landlessness and beggars were unknown to the tribal society.

The cited report is expressive of the land system among the tribals in the Northeast India in general. In most cases, it is the community or the village that owns the land. The village chief holds the nominal ownership of the land. 3) The village chief is normally assisted by the village council, the people’s representatives. However, the ultimate power rests in the hands of the people as a whole, who empower the chief and the council to carry out the tasks on behalf of the village.

Although the land is in the hands of the people, like the Hebrews, the indigenous believe that “the earth and everything in it belongs to God.”(Ps.24:1). The Creator is the ultimate owner of the land. Therefore, land is a gift of God to the people. Secondly, for the indigenous people, land is life. Land is central to their lives. Their whole life activity revolves around the land and its surroundings. It is central to their identity, history, spirituality, economy and their very survival. Land is life because the land has her own distinct life; the land is never a dead object. It is a living entity endowed with spirits. “In a non-literate society the land is their scripture through which they read about the spirits and God and create myths and songs.” 4)

Thirdly, the importance of land to the indigenous people lies in the fact that even the Supreme Being is understood in relation to the land. A number of the Northeast Indian tribes including the Aos, Sangtams and Chang Nagas call their Supreme Being, Lijaba. Li means “soil” and Jaba means “enter”, meaning “the one who enters” or “indwells in the soil.” 5) It is the belief of the people that Lijaba enters into the earth with the seeds and rises up again along with the crops. Hence for the people, the blooming flowers, trees bearing fruits and rice signify the presence of the Creator. Thirdly, the tribal people’s notion of time and history are related to the land. Their yearly calendar and agricultural activities are based on the cycle of the earth. All the festivals, dances and songs of the people are connected with land.

Moreover, their religious activities are all centered on the land. R. R. Shimray poignantly puts it, “Every mountain, every range, and every ridge has a legend and every peak a tale to tell.” 6) Fourthly, tribals believe that it is the land that owns the people and not the other way round. The people know that it is the land that gives them their identity. Land is therefore highly respected. Fifthly, people’s ethical life is again closely related and based on the land. As long as one lives on this earth, one is expected to live an honest and truthful life. Honesty, truthfulness, sincerity and faithfulness are highly valued virtues among the tribal people. First, they believe the Supreme Being is everywhere and knows everything.

And so they live in the constant awareness of the presence of the Supreme Being. Secondly, they also believe that land is older than human beings and therefore the land is wiser than the humans. One of the tribal wisdom says: “The land never lies; do not lie to the land.” Swearing in the name of the Supreme Being and the land is like an anathema. Only for resolving serious cases such as land or boundary disputes, when every possible effort fail, people resort to swearing in the name of the Supreme Being by eating a lump of soil. Normally, the one who gets sick or dies prematurely is declared the guilty one.


1) Planning Commission, The Report of the Working Group on the Land System Among Tribals in the North Eastern India, May 1984.

2) R.T. Rymbai, “The Traditional Ecological Concepts of the Khasi-Pnars,” in The Tribal Worldview and Ecology, Tribal Study Series no.2, ed. A. Wati Longchar and Yangkahao Vashum (Jorhat: Tribal Study Centre, 1998), 16.

3) There are tribes like the Kukis of Manipur and the Sumis of Nagaland where land holding is in the hands of the village chiefs.

4) Thanzauva, Theology of Community, 130. For a detail discussion on tribal concept of land refer to Yangkahao Vashum, “Theology of Land: A Naga Perspective,” in The Tribal Worldview and Ecology, Tribal Study Series no.2, eds. A. Wati Longchar and Yangkahao Vashum (Jorhat: Tribal Study Centre, 1998),69-94.

5) A. Wati Longchar, “A Creation-Poem of the Ao Nagas: A Theological Exploration,” in The Tribal Worldview and Ecology, Tribal Study Series no.2, eds. A. Wati Longchar and Yangkahao Vashum (Jorhat: Tribal Study Centre, 1998), 16.

6) Shimray, Origin and Culture of the Nagas, 6.

Indigenous Peoples’ Worldview: The Basis of Indigenous Spirituality

Indigenous Peoples’ Worldview: The Basis of Indigenous Spirituality

by Rev. Yangkahao Vashum

Indigenous peoples’ worldview can be described as the recognition of the undifferentiated unity of all things, meaning, there is no distinction drawn between the spiritual and physical, material and immaterial, sacred and profane, and spiritual and earthly. Nor does an indigenous worldview recognize any structure of hierarchy in creation. They see the world and all its surroundings in holistic perspective. While a Western world view is essentially anthropocentric, an indigenous worldview is creation-centered and is characterized by understanding the interdependence and the inter-relatedness of all creation, including human beings. Therefore, indigenous peoples across the world that I know believe that the whole of creation are our relatives. The Lakota nation of American Indians has an expression which describes beautifully all that concerns the Indigenous worldview, “We are all related.

”According to Standing Rock Sioux scholar Vine Deloria, Jr, the similar phrase, “All my relatives” is not merely a religious sentiment which many people have supposed, but it also “describes the epistemology of the Indian worldview, providing the methodological basis for the gathering of the information about the world.”1 Deloria goes on to explain the implication of this worldview when he states: “ We are all relatives ” when taken as a methodological tool for obtaining knowledge means that we observe the natural world by looking for relationships between various things in it. That is to say, everything in the natural world has relationship with every other thing and the total set of relationships makes up the natural world as we experience it. This concept is simply the relativity concept as applied to a universe that people experience as alive and not as dead or inert.2

Here then is another key characteristic which distinguishes an indigenous worldview and its knowledge from a Western worldview and its scientific methods. In a similar vein, Leroy Little Bear observes that the indigenous “paradigm is comprised of and includes ideas of constant motion and flux, existence consisting of energy waves, interrelationships, all things being animate, space/place, renewal, and all things being imbued with spirits.”3

As noted above, indigenous “peoples do not differentiate their world of experience into two realms that oppose or compliment each other. They seem to maintain a consistent understanding of the unity of all experience.”4 Referring to Naga religious view, J. H. Thumra asserts that “unlike many modern Christian belief in the dichotomy of the ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular’ or the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘material’, the traditional Naga religion does not have such a dichotomy. For them the ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular’ are one.”5 In “An Emerging Asian Theology: Tribal Theology,” Wati Longchar makes a useful comparison between dominant Christian worldview and traditional Tribal worldview in which he underscores their differences.6 Indigenous peoples around the world view reality in its wholeness and perceive life as one single web and many smaller webs of relationships which is the antithesis of the dominant Christian dualistic and individualistic views. Further, their cultural and religious values are governed by respect for one another and reciprocity is the norm for their day-today interactions.

The well-being of all creation including that of human beings depends upon preserving and restoring the harmonious inter-relationships of all creation. All living creatures including humans are meant to work toward maintaining balance and harmony and these are to be seen as the ultimate concern of all beings. Indigenous peoples do not believe in the superiority of humans over against the rest of creation.

In fact, most Indigenous people believe, as their stories and mythologies attest, humans are thought to be at the lowest strata of creation order. 7 Arguing against the Euro-western theories of evolutionary ascendancy, Tinker asserts that:Rather than elevate human beings to the apex of an evolutionary ascendancy (i.e., common descent), the lack of human privileging over against these other life forms means that Indians understand that all life shares equal status and that value, personhood, intelligence, and the like must be recognized in all life. If there is a hierarchy of beings in the Indian experience of the world, humans are found at the bottom rather than at the top, the youngest and least wise of all living things.”8 Indeed, indigenous people consider animals, other living creatures, and all created as “‘people’ in the same manner as the various tribes of human beings are people.”9

Indigenous peoples claim they have reciprocal relationships with all living things, which includes the so-called “inanimate” objects such as rocks, plants, and other natural forms.10 Everything is imbued with spirit so all is sacred for Indigenous peoples. Because all creation is sacred the very land we walk and till must be treated with respect and reverence. Therefore, they treat life and creation with respect and reverence. One reason land is sacred for Indigenous peoples is that it is the dwelling place of the spirits; the ancestors have lived and worked the same land and they take their final rest and their bones becomes the land.11

Indigenous worldview is further characterized by being spatially oriented rather than temporally focused as is of the Euro-american worldview. This worldview of spatiality ess entially accentuates and locates the all important life qualities of relationships among and between human beings and the whole of creation. This understanding extends and embraces the way Indigenous peoples view the world and relate themselves to the spirits and God(s). In “Full Circle of Liberation: An American Theology of Place,” Tinker argues that the traditional Christian Euro-centric notion of God’s action in time, which incidentally is also embraced by Black theologians and Latin American theologians, is not how American Indians could understand a relation to God. God acts in space and in place.

Tinker explains, “God reveals God’s self in creation, in space or place, not in time.”12 For Tinker and other Indigenous thinkers, the traditional linear thinking of temporality that is fundamental to the Western intellectual tradition is quite alien to Indigenous peoples and is in fact destructive to their livelihood.

1. Vine Deloria, Jr, Spirit & Reason: The Vine Deloria, Jr., Reader, Eds. Barbara Deloria, et
al (Golden: Fulcrum Publishing, 1999), 52.
2. Ibid., 34
3. Leroy Little Bear, “Foreward”, in Gregory Cajete, Native Science. x.
4. Deloria, Spirit and Reason. 354.
5. Jonathan H. Thumra, “The Naga Primal (Traditional) Religion and Christianity: A
Theological Reflection,” in V. K. Nuh, ed. In Search of Praxis Theology for the Nagas (New
Delhi: Regency Publications, 2003), 54.
6. For a detailed comparison see A. Wati Longchar, An Emerging Asian Theology: Tribal
Theology: Issue, Method and Perspective (Jorhat: Tribal Study Center, 2000), 64.
7. Ibid., 131.
8. George E. Tinker, “The Stones Shall Cry Out: Consciousness, Rocks and Indians”, TMs, 3.
9. Vine Deloria, Jr, God is Red: A Native View of Religion. 2d ed.(Golden: North
American Press, 1992), 89.
10. Walking Buffalo articulates this truth: “Did you know that trees talk? Well they do.
They talk to each other, and they’ll talk to you if you listen. Trouble is, White people
don’t listen. They never learned to listen to the Indians, so I don’t I suppose they’ll
listen to other voices in nature. But I have learned a lot from trees: some times about
the weather, some times about animals, sometimes about the Great Spirit.” Quoted in
Deloria. Ibid., 90.
11. M. Horam, Nagas Old Ways New Trends (Delhi: Cosmos Publications, 1988), 15f.
12. George E. Tinker, “The Full Circle of Liberation: An American Theology of Place,” in
David G. Hallman, ed., Ecotheology: Voices from South and North (Geneva: WCC
Publications, 1994), 221; Spirit and Resistance, 91-92.