We Need to Philosophize from an Indigenous Framework


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In Mexico, one of the main tasks for philosophers today is to deal with the country’s social reality, which in many ways finds itself in crisis. Mexican philosophy, therefore, unlike others, is situated within the socio-political context – which both conditions and facilitates the task.

The philosophy of indigenous communities in Mexico, however, has not been recognized, and has even been rejected, much like their ways of life and their right to autonomy. Below, we will discuss why their philosophies have been ignored or dismissed, and why this must change.

The recuperation of indigenous culture concerns us all, not just philosophers. In taking an interest, we discover numerous examples of inspirational resistance, such as: the defense of water in Sonora by the Yaqui tribe; the exploitation of the Wixárika territory in San Luis Potosí by Canadian mining companies; and the self defense of communities on the coast of Guerrero, where Community Police Forces have stepped up in the absence of a competent or interested State. And finally, we have the example of Zapatista communities in Chiapas which have defended their land since the agrarian crisis of 1974 and continue to build autonomous forms of societal organization. But one recurring factor in all these campaigns is the discrimination of the government, landowners, and businessmen towards such indigenous peasant organizations.

In each case, questions arise regarding the legitimacy of these groups (as philosopher Enrique Dussel considered [1]), and regarding the philosophical basis behind such forms of organization. In many cases, mestizos have learned about other cultures, but they have also looked down on them, having adopted a “Western” way of thinking. As a result, the idea of embracing and rescuing indigenous culture can be quite unsettling for them.

By encouraging the recognition of the diversity within the Mesoamerican cultures present in Mexico, we do not necessarily mean that everything “Western” should be overlooked or forgotten. However, we do need to start off with the correct conceptual framework. For example, we first need to accept the existence of a unique indigenous culture and challenge all doubts about the human condition of indigenous people. In México Profundo (‘Deep Mexico’), Bonfil Batalla helps us to develop this framework by deciphering what is presented to us as ‘reality’.

The attack on indigenous culture began with the Spanish Conquest, so we first need to look at how colonization distanced the colonizers from the colonized. We also need to consider how the continued domination and centralization of knowledge by Western philosophy in society has ensured that this ‘distance’, to a certain extent, persists today. From the very start, for example, Western ideologues claimed that indigenous inferiority was natural, and this idea soon turned into real social inferiority.

A fundamental characteristic of all colonial societies is the ideological affirmation that the invaders, who belong to a different culture from those who are being invaded, are in some way superior in all aspects and that, as a result, the culture of those whose land has been colonized must be rejected and excluded. And this is precisely the process that took place in Mexico, and continued after independence from Spain. As there was never a true decolonization, the internal colonial structure simply remained, and the dominant class which took power after 1821 never renounced the Western ‘civilizing project’ or the distorted view of Mexico held by the colonizers.[2]

An imaginary Mexico was soon created, with the idea of a “unique Mexican culture”, and the differences between the diverse communities within the nation were overlooked. As a result, the new ‘civilizing project’ saw social groups which had been westernized (whether through heritage or circumstance) reject the place of Mesoamerican civilization in their culture. The world views of the colonizing and colonized civilizations, including their perceptions of nature and humans, were different, and their disagreements were intensified by the fact that westernized groups had considered indigenous communities inferior for centuries. The original inhabitants of Mexico which had failed to assimilate into the culture of the colonizers would have no part to play in the continuing Western project.

As a result of the subsequent homogenization, our journey towards understanding the complexity of our own condition will be a long one. colonizers and Western ideologues have long ensured that a process ‘deindianization’ distances us from our roots – a tactic characterized by Batalla as the ‘loss of collective identity to make domination possible’. In summary, people were displaced and their ways of thinking and living were suppressed, all in order to create a fictitious Mexico that denies its own history and is even embarrassed by it.

In the process of recuperation, though, it is not only the mestizo who needs to reflect. Some indigenous communities have managed to conserve their identities in spite of the presence of the dominant culture, but there are also many who do not try to recognize themselves in the history of the ‘Deep Mexico’. Having been ‘deindianised’, both mestizo and indigenous citizens may be confused about their identities, unaware of their history, and therefore ignorant to the reasons behind the problems facing them and their communities today. Upon seeking to “recuperate the Indian” and “possess their own I”, mestizos in particular are likely to “see their reality divided”. Rather than this division being imposed upon them by the dominant culture, however, this division will now reside inside them, “in their own spirit”.[3]

When the mestizo approaches the indigenous, they begin to see how they are in a similar situation – that of exploitation. In this way, they learn to recognize themselves within this circumstance, and act in a different way as a result. They no longer see indigenous communities in the framework of the oppressor, and start to understand that ‘Indian’ was just a pejorative word used by colonialists to homogenize all that was ‘non-Spanish’ (or, today, ‘non-Western’). They also recognize that, by doing this, colonizers sought to declare the inferiority of all that was ‘different’.

So, in what way have philosophers approached indigenous cultures in the last century?

Before answering this question, it is important to emphasize that ‘indigenous communities’ are not one group alone – and that such a categorization would place us in the same framework as the colonizers and their ‘Indians’. Instead, we could talk about the Nahuas, Purépechas, Tojolabales, Tzeltales, Huicholes, Chichimecos, Otomíes, Paipais, Kiliwas, Mazatecos, or Ixcatecos – to name just a few. To recognize the differences between these groups in this way is to respect their individual identities and give them each the place they deserve.

It is essential that we look at the world through the framework of a ‘Deep Mexico’. We could mention historical figures or groups, but that would only be to understand why different groups exist today. Instead, we should try to place ourselves within the conceptual framework of other cultures – such as the Tojolabales, Tzeltales and Tzotziles, who called themselves Zapatistas in their fight to defend their land and sovereignty in Chiapas. We should also look at the world through the framework of their construction of a new form of political organization – totally different from that present in the West. By looking at the world in the way they do, we can begin to understand that their circumstances are ours too.

In “Philosophizing in the Key of Tojolabal”, Carlos Lenkersdorf affirms that politics, for this community, must be looked at from the “we” (or -tik). At birth, mothers are surrounded by family members as they go into labour, and the new-born child is passed into the arms of each one. The place of the baby on the back or chest of the mother in the first few months represents the incorporation of the child into the “we”, as it observes and becomes a part of its mother’s daily activities. In this way, learning is a collective process from the moment of birth in the Tojolabal context.

Meanwhile, the problems set out at school are always related to what happens in the community, and the problems are solved by the whole community. The presence of “WE” is essential, and education here is therefore referred to as “we-centric”. This is the basis of both the community’s politics and organization.

The “–tik” is key in understanding Tojolabal philosophy, as it is central whenever the community refers to experiences, thoughts, or decisions. It represents a “large number of components or members, including animals and nature” and, without “losing their individuality”, each member is considered a part of all that surrounds them.[4] Although the different opinions of individuals are heard, an attempt is always made to reach a consensus – with the common good in mind. And the impact of decisions on nature, from animals to rocks, is of great importance – hence the Tojolabal commitment to defending land and subsequent conflict with Western philosophy, whose project of neoliberalism does not consider the impact of its actions on the Earth.

In a socio-political framework, the “we” is an organizational principle. It is the community organization in assemblies which does not resemble the form of political association dominant in the world today. It considers the combination of intelligence, feelings, and reason when making decisions, but is propped up by judgements based on experience and on the will to act. And all members of the community are considered in these decisions.

In the Tojolabal context, the key is cooperation and collaboration – both based on organization. Their Mexico – one example of ‘Deep Mexico’ – brings all citizens together to reach a consensus, respecting differences of opinion in the process. The other Mexico – the fictitious one – does not.

As we have seen, the dominant schools of philosophy and politics are not the only ones. There are others to consider, and we must open ourselves up to them. By reflecting on the knowledge of our indigenous communities, and asking ourselves how we can create a “we” space like in Tojolabal communities, we can visualize and create new horizons. Upon considering the quantity and distribution of citizens, however, along with the structures used when they relate, we see that the possibilities for creating these new horizons vary. In a place with thousands of inhabitants, for example, where people are unaccustomed to discussing every decision that affects them, such a task would be incredibly difficult. And many citizens are unused to such dialogue precisely because ‘democratic’ procedures have minimized participation to elections or ‘majority’ decisions (however slight the margins). This is the norm today, and it makes understanding other forms of organization a significant challenge.

From a framework of Western concepts and experiences, other forms of organization appear strange and inaccessible, and it is therefore crucial that philosophers engage with the ‘Deep Mexico’, and the diversity that lies within. The same is true throughout Latin America (and other former colonies), where different forms of philosophizing, knowing, and existing are present. And they are all within our reach, as parts of our nations, even though they may be buried, ignored, or rejected.

Reflecting on alternatives is an urgent task for philosophers, and a great worry for the current generation. The taking of water in Sonora, displacements in Chiapas, or invasions of Canadian mining companies are risks to us all. We may be a combination of different ethnic groups, but we all share the same condition. We are all exploited.

We must therefore assume the task of counter-hegemonic philosophy, of embracing and understanding the different traditions that have been hidden for too long. In order to bring about change in the concrete situations we experience on a daily basis, we must open up the discussion, philosophizing not from the dominant ideologies, but from the framework of our own indigenous communities. By doing so, we can set out potential solutions and transform both our way of thinking and our way of life.


[1] Dussel, Enrique. “¿Son legítimas la policía y la justicia comunitarias según usos y costumbres?” en La Jornada [en línea], publicado el 15 de enero del 2013.[2] Bonfil Batalla, Guillermo. México profundo: una civilización negada. Editorial Grijalbo, México D.F, 1989. p. 11

[3] Villoro, Luis. Los grandes momentos del indigenismo en México. México, CIESA-SEP, 1987. p. 225

[4] Lenkersdorf, Carlos. Filosofar en clave tojolabal. Edición de Miguel Ángel Porrúa, México, Porrúa, 1ª edición, 2002. p. 29

Translated and adapted by Oso Sabio for Dorset Chiapas Solidarity from a text originally published in Spanish by Luz María León (luzfilos@gmail.com) at FilosofiaMexicana (@FilosofiaMexico)