The Philosophy and Elements of Mutual Stewardship

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Something mysteriously formed,
Born before heaven and earth.
In the silence and the void,
Standing alone and unchanging,
Ever present and in motion.
Perhaps it is the mother of ten thousand things.
I do not know its name
Call it Tao.
For lack of a better word, I call it great.
Being great it flows.
It flows far away.
Having gone far, it returns.
Therefore, "Tao is great;
Heaven is great;
Earth is great;
The king is also great."
These are the four great powers of the universe,
And the king is one of them.
Man follows the earth.
Earth follows heaven.
Heaven follows the Tao.
Tao follows what is natural.

Chapter 25, "Tao Te Ching" by Sun Tzu, circa 400 BC, as translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English

The Philosophy and Elements of Mutual Stewardship

From ancient times, humans have observed that the various elements of the universe are inextricably related with one another, continuously changing, and wondrous. Their deep study of "that which is natural" over generations, their pondering, their measurements, constituted the science and philosophy of their time in which they determined how it is humans should live if humans are to be in right relationship with the universe that they are a part of.

In the natural order of things, if humans are to be in the right relationship, then humans would follow the rhythms and needs of the earth because surely, as they observed, the earth follows the rhythms and needs of the universe.

While there are many variations of how the relationship would be described - different names, different aspects of the earth that would be described depending on the place of those humans - the central principles of the relationship as described in the written and chronicled were remarkably similar. Why wouldn't they be? Though situated throughout the earth, humans were observing and learning from the earth and the universe. There were innumerable cautionary tales of what happened when the right relationship was ignored; tales of famine, drought, disappearing fish. Nonetheless, humans' belief and acceptance of relationship with the earth and the universe slowly abated over the eons of time, giving way to constructs of ownership, property, hierarchy of culture and science, and hierarchy of values and rights. But not for all. Some humans are the descendants of humans who did not stop learning and practicing, did not forget, and continue to think about the land and universe at the center in relationship to the past, the present and the future. We call these humans indigenous.

For the indigenous peoples, as it was for the earliest of humans, one of the principles governing the right relationship between humans and the earth is the principle of mutual stewardship. Simply put, the humans of a given place would, in relationship to each other, care for and support that place so that the place can care for and support the humans. Mutual relationship describes the relationship between the differentiated humans as much as it describes the relationship between all of the humans in a given place with that place.

Different groups of humans in relationship to a place will have different needs and desires. Before those needs and desires are sorted, the first rule of mutual stewardship is "humans follow the earth", not the other way around. What - from the perspective of the place, the land, the waters, and beings who are not human - are the needs, the desires, the carrying capacity, the fragility, the resilience, the sustainability and suitability of uses, the extent of care and caution of the place, the land, and the waters? Who gets to say? The wisdom of a place comes from those who are in the longest relationship of care to that place (not the longest relationship of use). In many disputed places where the dispute arises from different worldviews on the relationship of humans to the land, the people who hold the wisdom are those who are indigenous and/or who are aligned with a more indigenous worldview. The call in a dispute for the voices of the indigenous should be about the call for the source and keepers and practitioners of the caring relationship with the place, the land, the waters and the non-human animal and plant beings of the place, the land, the waters.

Relegated to stakeholder status, or indigenous consultation, there is no mutual stewardship. "Being in relationship" means just that - the various peoples who recognize and embrace that their hopes and challenges are intertwined should be in relationship with a// of the various aspects of stewardship: the identification and understanding of the intertwined hopes and challenges; the respectful and curiously held understanding of wisdoms that may not be innately held or previously recognized; the casting into the future possibilities; the untangling of the current knots; the hard work and sweat equity of finding ways and implementing. This variety of mutuality is simple but not easy. Long steeped in place-based wisdom, the practice of that wisdom, the fierce defense of that wisdom, the stepping into carries the heavy responsibility and risk of sharing wisdom with people who will honor it and people who will not. There is a forever woven responsibility for those people who do honor. Roles may differ. Expertise may differ. Wisdom may differ. It is the weaving that defines mutual stewardship.

Stewardship in the indigenous context is about a long arc, the foresight of what is possible, a multi­generational view of the health of a place and the lives and interactions with humans in that place. Casting into the future, the various peoples who stand in mutual stewardship are both dreaming and determining what it is and how it is they may be mutually striving for in order that they - peoples, endeavors and knowledge, the place - may mutually thrive. They understand it will take many decades to pursue; indeed, beyond their work-life and lifetime, and therefore there is a responsibility to pass on knowledge, tasks, resources for future stewards.

If summoned as a tool or formula or process to satisfy combatants in a clash of worldviews, mutual stewardship has limited utility. In its most generative manifestation, mutual stewardship is a flow, an evolving organism that gives birth to new possibilities in the "in between spaces" previously obscured because the first weavers saw their struggles and aspirations as separate, conflicting, mutually exclusive endeavors. The mere bringing together is insufficient. To be generative - to flow - requires mutual respect, chemistry, humans recognizing humans, the unveiling and apprenticeship of wisdoms, and a persistent pursuit of mutual and practical problem-solving and creation.

Mutual stewardship is a governance way, whether it is in relationship to government, or not. It is a way that requires choosing into, leaning into, being a part of.

Summary of Key Elements Within Mutual Stewardship

  • Mutuality - people in relationship to the place; people in relationship to each other.
  • Interwoven mutuality - different needs and desires are recognized while focusing on what may be possible together.
  • "Humans follow the earth" - begin with and center the needs and desires of the place, the land, the waters, and the beings who are not human.
  • Wisdom at the center - the people who understand and practice the integral relationship of humans to place, land, and waters are bringing invaluable wisdom to the discourse, problem-solving, and decision-making.
  • Multi-generational arc - problem-solving and dreaming of what is possible in the course of a multi­generational future and carrying out the responsibilities and possibilities over multiple generations.
  • Generative and evolving - the creative process between humans who are holding the well-being of the same place at center should have the energy and possibilities greater than the struggles and aspirations as separate or mutually exclusive.

Part One of a series by the Hawai'i I Ke Alo mutual stewardship project, May 2024

Photo Credits: Cory Lum

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