Wisdom and Generativity: Personal Vocation in Indigenous Traditions

As I’ve been reading about different Indigenous wisdom traditions from across North America, searching for areas of common ground and essential difference between them and my own Christian tradition, I’ve been particularly curious to see how the idea of vocation, which I wrote a lot about at the start of the summer, might manifest itself in Indigenous cultures. We’ve already seen how the Christian understanding of general vocation as bearing and recognizing the image of God in the world is mirrored in Indigenous focus on the Harmony Way — living so as to build and maintain positive, reciprocal relationships with the Creator and everything and everyone in creation. Today I’d like to look at the idea of personal vocation, particularly as I’ve seen it described by Indigenous writers in terms of the values of wisdom and generativity.

Wisdom is one of those catch-all words that is surprisingly difficult to define; at its most basic we might say that it is about discerning how to live. What a person, or culture, includes within that says a lot about their values and beliefs. So it’s always interesting for me to see how different people talk about it. Unsurprisingly, different Indigenous writers mean a lot of different things when they talk about ‘wisdom’; but one common theme I’ve encountered is the idea of wisdom as understanding one’s place in the world (see, for example, Kidwell, Noley, and Tinker: “For American Indians, creation is a matter of give and take. It is … a matter of knowing our rightful place in the world and of living appropriately.”*). This has two sides to it; the first connects to humility and gratitude: not making oneself to be more than one is, not taking more than one needs, showing appropriate respect in one’s relationships, and so on. But there is a second side to it, which is understanding how one ought to positively contribute to the world. This stands to reason: If life is about reciprocal relationships, then wisdom means understanding both how we ‘take’ well (humility, gratitude), and ‘give’ well within them. Robin Wall Kimmerer (2003) puts it like this:

In indigenous ways of knowing, it is understood that each living being has a particular role to play. Every being is endowed with certain gifts, its own intelligence, its own spirit, its own story. … The foundation of education is to discover that gift within us and learn to use it well.

Likewise, Vine Deloria, Jr. (2006), writes: “The task of each individual of [its] kind was to fulfill, as much as possible, its inherent possibilities through physical real-life experiences.” And Richard Wagamese (2011) adds: “We are all on the same journey, and we become more by giving away.”

Thus, to be wise means to discern one’s own path and to walk it well, giving generously of one’s own gifts, life-lessons, and experiences. This is not for the sake of ego or reputation, but to further develop peaceful and peace-making relationships at the heart of life itself. Thus, wisdom is inherently generative: it promotes the flourishing of the whole system — and systems of systems — within which we are embedded. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (2017) puts it simply: “Living is a creative act, with self-determined making or producing at its core.” Similarly, Deloria (2006) notes: “a biosphere operating at its maximum positive potential should produce a fruitful and fulfilled planet if every creature does its best to fulfill all its possibilities.”

Thus, we have a common vocation to contribute to the world’s flourishing, which is manifested in individual, personalized ways. When we flourish, we help the whole world to flourish; if our success or growth hinders the flourishing of all the world’s creatures, then it is not genuine growth, success, or flourishing.

This is similar to the relationship between general and particular callings that emerged in the series on vocation earlier this year. There we saw that vocation in the Christian imagination operates like a series of nested dolls: Our shared human vocation is to bear the image and likeness of God and recognize it in others (a vocation that is primarily actualized for us as Christians in the person of Jesus), which involves growing up into maturity and contributing back in a reciprocal relationship with our communities. And so, on this level, I think, there is a lot of common ground to be explored here. Both approaches offer up strong critiques of both Western individualism and any communitarianism that diminishes personhood and individuality.

This seems as good a place as any to shift the focus of this series. We’ve explored several different conceptual dimensions of Indigenous thought in comparison with traditional Christianity: the focus on harmony and using this as a way of understanding what it means to be ‘faithful’; understanding human life as embedded within rather than over the rest of creation; the centrality of gratitude, respect, reciprocity and generosity in all our relationships; humility, responsibility, and humour and transformation; and today, wisdom and generativity. The next three posts will turn to some of the ways these concepts are engaged, enacted, and lived out: through story, ceremony, and visions and dreams.


* Please see the full bibliography for the series for details.

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