Kali and COVID-19 Through Indigenous Eyes

Indigenous tribes are speaking out about connections twixt coronavirus emergency and the climate emergency. Says Levi Sucre Romero, a BriBri indigenous leaders from Costa Rica who is coordinator of the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests: “The coronavirus is now telling the world what we have been saying for thousands of years—that if we do not help protect biodiversity and nature, then we will face this and worse future threats.”*

Dayak Pomaking tribe members in full ceremonial attire. Photo by Farizal Resat on Unsplash.

Loss of habitat brings wild animals into closer contact with humans and domesticated animals and this in turn enable diseases like coronavirus to jump the animal-human barrier and spread through human-to-human contact.   

Mina Setra, a Dayak Pompaking indigenous leaders representing 17 million indigenous peoples across Indonesia says: “If only the world [had] worked to strengthen the rights of Indigenous peoples—who have learned to live in nature with biodiversity and protect animal and plant species—we would see fewer epidemics such as the one that we are currently facing.” 

While I don’t usually cite anthropologists in the same essay as Native peoples (who bear many scars from anthropological invasions and misunderstandings of their stories and are rightly critical of many anthropologists), Margaret Mead was an exception–and a woman which no doubt has much to do with her interacting differently than male anthropologists with indigenous peoples. 

Stamp of famed Anthropologist, Margaret Mead. Originally posted to Flickr by John Curran.

In his book, The Best Care Possible: A Physician’s Quest to Transform Care Through the End of Life, Doctor Ira Byock tells this story: “Anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about fishhooks or clay pots or grinding stones.

But instead Mead said that the first sign of civilization in an ancient culture was a femur (thighbone) that had been broken and then healed. Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, get to the river for a drink or hunt for food. You are meat for prowling beasts. No animal survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal.

‘A broken femur that has healed is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended the person through recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts,’ Mead said.  We are at our best when we serve others. Be civilized.’

Young sports athlete has leg wrapped in gauze. Photo by Jeffrey F Lin on Unsplash.

Consider also Mahatma Gandhi’s response when he was asked one day: “What do you think of Western civilization?”  Pausing a moment, he responded: “I think it would be a good idea.”

Is Mother Earth telling us a similar message?  Are indigenous peoples telling us the same?

In recent videos I have shared the very fine poem by Brother Richard Hendrick, a Capuchin Franciscan living in Ireland.  It is called “Lockdown” and was posted on a Facebook post on Friday, March 13. His original post has received more than19k positive reactions and has been shared more than 34k times. 

See: Coronavirus Lockdown Poem

Coronavirus and Indigenous Peoples

See Matthew Fox, A Spirituality Named Compassion.

Banner Image: Rest in Peace Posters of Dr Li Wenliang, who warned authorities about the coronovirus outbreak seen at Hosier Lane in Melbourne, Australia. Hosier Lane is known for its street art. Photo by Adli Wahid on Unsplash.

Queries for Contemplation

Do you agree with Margaret Mead that “helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts”? 

What are the lessons from that?  How do the current crises open the door to a more authentic civilization? 

Do you agree with Mahatma Gandhi that Western civilization has not yet begun?  Why?  Or why not?

Recommended Reading

Responses are welcomed. To add your comment, please click HERE or scroll to the bottom of the page.

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4 thoughts on “Kali and COVID-19 Through Indigenous Eyes”

  1. Avatar

    I tend to think that Western Civilization is an oxymoron, as we, like the Romans and even, apparently the Mayan, have over-consumed or over-spent the resources of Mother Earth in order to grow and prosper (for awhile).

    I love hearing what you share from Margaret Mead, as it fosters the sense of our humanity being born of connection, helping each other, understanding how interconnected all of life is. I think the Pandemic can help awaken this sense within, and I do hope it does so strongly enough and in time enough to have us also wake up to our ability to connect and respond to the climate crisis.

    On today’s Krista Tippet show on NPR, she interviewed Rebecca Solnit. When asked if Rebecca sees our humanity evolving and if so how it’s feeding her sense of hope, she said something like: Being an activist has brought me in relationship with wonderful people and wonderful connections; it’s all such a surprise -to be able to participate, to maybe help others live, It’s astonishing!

    Thanks for bringing Indigenous wisdom into our meditations, and this vital understanding of how we must acknowledge our interdependence with all animals and all beings. I would love to hear from others today, on this sacred Sunday in a time like we’ve never lived before.

  2. Avatar

    Thank you, Matthew, for your wisdom and creative ways of thinking. I just pray that we wake up as human beings to the possibilities that this “lockdown” gives us for developing new ways of being–or, I fear, we will simply no longer be. Maybe Mother Nature will cast us aside, as we have cast aside indigenous people and our natural environment.

  3. Avatar
    Bertina M Povenmire

    Thank you for posting this piece by Margaret Mead. This is the most instructive idea I have read for a long time, because it is so practical. Much has been written and said in religious, philosophical, spiritual terms about our connectedness. Mead’s statement is special in that it is so starkly clear and understandable: it tells us what to do to survive–no religion, no politics, no power play. Love it. And Gandhi’s statement boosted my immune system: gave me a good belly laugh!

  4. Avatar
    Gregory Chaney Ph.D.

    Bless You Matthew, Millennial Cicada. You burrowed in the wisdom-ground of Mother Earth. Nursed upon Her roots. On signal of Sister Moon you rose reborn. You climbed to treetops. Angel Wings well earned, burst forth, bright green. Rattle your Sistrum! Shake up the World!

    May we all do likewise when we emerge from the burrows of our well synchronized Retreat.

    Plotting A Way (In The City of Motherly Love),
    Gregory Chaney
    League of Visionary Artists
    Mammoth Arts MotherHouse
    Louisville, KY

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