This October at the EcoHealth 2012 Conference, we will be displaying an exhibition of indigenous art from Yunnan and surrounding regions. The purpose of this exhibition will be to promote awareness of indigenous perspectives on nature. This entry gives a brief taste of the exhibition.
Dongba nature deities and sacred mountains
Naxi peoples inhabit primarily the valleys of the Sino-Tibetan borderlands. The religion of the Naxi peoples is known as 'Dongba'. There are numerous aspects of Naxi culture we might think of as eco-friendly and one among these are the Svq: a Dongba deity often referred to as a 'nature deity'. Svg have a frog's head and a snakes tail and are the half-brothers of people (sharing a father but not a mother). Whereas the people inherited the farmlands and the livestock; the Svg inherited the heavens and the earth, the rivers and the lakes, the forests and the wild animals.
In the distant past, the Naxi's ancestors were not so careful in their exploitation of nature and took resources from the mountains, rivers and forests at whim. This greatly angered the Svq who brought hail storms, floods, fires and terrible calamities upon the Naxi's ancestors. The Svq, meanwhile, lived in great luxury. The Naxi people therefore called upon Dongba Shenluo – the forefather of Dongba religion – to administer justice between the brothers. Dongba Shenluo sent the Roc – a holy bird of prey – to fetch the Svg and eventually an agreement was reached. People were to be allowed to make use of the mountains, forests and rivers, however this must only be done in moderation. Moreover, from then on when people took from nature, they understood themselves to be borrowing and understood that these debts must therefore be repaid. One example of this repayment is the sacrifice of sheep each year when the herdsmen bring their sheep down from the mountain. A further part of this agreement was that the Svg must give a jeweled crown to the Roc: this is a crown that the Roc wears to this day.
Trees, water and the Miao (Hmong)
Miao peoples are scattered across the mountains of south-east Asia, as well as in numerous migrant communities across the world. According to the Miao artist who painted the scene shown below, the Miao originally inhabited Gansu Province, but moved south to the mountains to escape war.
Another aspect of this reverence for trees is the practice of ancient trees fostering children. If a young child becomes ill, many Miao will take the child to an ancient tree and perform a ceremony to make the tree a foster father. From then on the ancient tree will protect the health and well being of its son or daughter.
Applying indigenous knowledge
Contemporary environmental scientists have argued that indigenous people's reverence of nature has greatly benefited biodiversity. Naxi holy forests, for example, are especially dense and rich with life. Unfortunately, however, many of these environmentally-friendly practices were attacked during China's Cultural Revolution and continue to come under threat from forces associated with economic development and modernization. Indeed, many fear Dongba religion and respect for nature are increasingly irrelevant to today's Naxi communities. In response to Yunnan's environmental problems, some have called for a greater degree of respect for indigenous ways of life such as those represented in this artwork. Others have even set up Dongba priest mentoring projects with the hope of re-invigorating the interest of young Naxi towards Dongba conceptions of nature. It is our hope that the indigenous art we will display this October will raise awareness of indigenous perspectives and promote this kind of respect for indigenous knowledge within contemporary Eco-Health projects.