Brief Reviews, VOLUME 6

Gary Holthaus – Learning Native Wisdom [Review]

[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”0813141087″ locale=”us” height=”333″ src=”” width=”223″ alt=”Gary Holthaus” ]The Deep, Intensive Surgery Required

Learning Native Wisdom: What Traditional Cultures Teach Us about Subsistence, Sustainability, and Spirituality
Gary Holthaus

Culture of the Land Series.
Paperback: University Press of KY, 2013
(New Paperback Edition)
Buy now:  [ [easyazon-link asin=”0813141087″ locale=”us”]Amazon[/easyazon-link] ]  [ [easyazon-link asin=”B00B35TGB0″ locale=”us”]Kindle[/easyazon-link] ]

Reviewed by Scot Martin

The pharmaceutical industry has made us good at treating symptoms, and once the pain has been ameliorated we tend to move on, ignoring the sickly roots that first caused the symptoms.  “The most important task in our time is not to protect the land or create social justice but to create a sustainable culture,” asserts Gary Holthaus against that kind of symptom-treating-only thinking in Learning Native Wisdom: What Traditional Cultures Teach Us about Subsistence, Sustainability, and Spirituality” (6).

I have to start off this review by remarking that I felt a little misled by the title and subtitle.  That’s all in there —traditional cultures, subsistence, sustainability, and spirituality—there are even pictures of Eskimo people on the cover—it’s just that I was expecting Dances with Wolves looks at ecology or something like that.  Thankfully, the book is better than ecological revisionist stories, but it still seems light on the Native Wisdom, at least not the “native wisdom” displayed on the cover.  Instead, he looks at many cultures, for example, Chinese Confucian culture, and contrasts them with our current dominant Western way of viewing the world.


Our way of viewing the world is dependent on extracting fossil fuels, using those fuels, in part, to build big machines to extract more resources from the earth in a way that severs our sense as creatures living in a world that we need, but may not need us.  Our dependence on electronic and petroleum-powered technology is again, just a symptom: “The evidence seems clear now that the real root of these issues, both cause and cure, lies not in our science or technology but in our own spiritual and intellectual poverty…or, more hopefully, in our own spiritual and intellectual resources” (3).  So he, along with many other voices, says something has to change.  We can’t proceed in the manner we are accustomed to.  But what does the way forward look like?  Perhaps the way forward involves us looking backward to other cultures rooted in a time before electricity, gasoline, and computer-generated finance.


Holthaus lays out the way forward through the lens of non-Western ways of thinking about, what else?, subsistence, sustainability, and spirituality.  The trick is to get away from piecemeal solutions: “We can create a sustainable agriculture and still have an unsustainable planet.  We can create thousands of sustainable communities and be left with an unsustainable world.  We can build sustainable economies and still lack other essentials that will create a sustainable life for all.  And who, except the self-destructive, wants to work toward an unsustainable culture?” (16).


Subsistence is not stone or bronze-age technology, rather it is “direct, personal engagement with land and sea and the recognition of humans’ dependence on the land for energy, nourishment, tools, and household goods” (69).  He takes several pages to define what he means by subsistence.  It is more than romanticized Indian-Earth harmony, more than being conservation minded,  it is an ontological reality, much like St. Paul’s observation about a pagan poem, “In him we live, move, and have our being.”  Subsistence living permeates every aspect of a cultures thought and expression.  It is the give and take that allows for not only survival, but flourishing as well.


With sustainability, he notes that the key is less in defining it, rather it’s recognizing it.  Sustainability is composed of relationships.  Humans and their culture, all living things, and even the non-living things are part of sustainability.  Try being sustainable without carbon atoms for awhile, I suppose.  He examines how our education doesn’t support sustainability rather it encourages atomistic, consumptive lives that encourage a lack of stories about them.  “Do we educate for each person to develop a self to the greatest possible extent, educating toward maximum individual growth and self-expression?  Or do we educate for participation in a community where self-restraint is a primary virtue and citizenship a cherished responsibility?” (103). Beauty, something not stressed by many writers, is also a necessary component for sustainability, asserts Holthaus.


The last part of his subtitle “spirituality” concerns less the spirituality of American Indians (though he touches on it), and more of Confucians, pre-Socratic thinkers, Martin Buber, and little bit of St. John.  While there is much to commend about his spirituality, I found myself arguing, more often than not, with it.


His spirituality includes the obvious reverence for the beauty of nature, but then he strays into stranger territory with the idea that the darker parts of reality, disease, natural calamities, and the like as well, “natural.”  We must accept, at least natural evil, because it is part of the warp and woof of the universe.  The cancer that kills me may cause grief, but it belongs here because it is an organism native to this earth.  There is no place for sin in Holthaus’s view.  No Fall, no bent world, just a “universe with all its powerful goodness and its abhorrent, implacable disease and its ultimate capital punishment” (187).  To be fair, Holthaus doesn’t say we shouldn’t fight to beat the cancer in our bodies or work against racism nor fail to restore a ruined ecosystem, but he seems unable to conceive of a world where evil is vanquished and not an acceptable visitor.  There is no New Jerusalem, there’s only the one we have with the intractable Jewish-Palestinian problem and a stoic acceptance of that fact.


The spirituality he recommends has a place for mystery, for stories, for a sense of connection to the world we are part of when he writes, “I believe that our spiritual lives are rooted not in creeds or scriptures or particular beliefs or rituals but in our use of language and stories.  Language shapes thought and behavior and informs our spiritual life” but we are still left alone in an indifferent universe that has, as Stephen Crane put it, no obligation to us (7-8).


As I said the author doesn’t advocate huddling around the fire while the winds of death whip around our backs.  He talks about an organization he helped create the Northern Plains Sustainable Agricultural Society (NPSAS), an organization designed to ask questions like “Who is my neighbor?”  From there the questions lead to creating small changes in an unsustainable culture that should lead to systemic transformation.


I appreciate Gary Holthaus’s desire to not simply make cosmetic changes to our society, instead he wants the deep, intensive surgery required to make things aright, including our use of language.  “We have known for millennia how we should treat the earth.  Our problem is not that we lack ethics but that we fail to act on the ones we have,” he posits correctly, but I’m not convinced that the nature-centric viewpoint such as the one he describes here is going to get us to make those systemic changes that are required.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at:

L10-Launch Promo Blog Phase 1 CTA 1

Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior

Enter your email below to sign up for our weekly newsletter & download your FREE copy of this ebook!
We respect your email privacy

In the News...
Christian Nationalism Understanding Christian Nationalism: Essential Books [A Reading Guide]
Most AnticipatedMost Anticipated Books of the Fall for Christian Readers!
Theology BooksTen Theology Books to Watch For – September 2022
B. EhrenreichJournalist Barbara Ehrenreich died earlier this month. Here's a few video clips that introduce her work
Funny Bible ReviewsHilarious One-Star Customer Reviews of Bibles

Comments are closed.