Curing the world’s woes

By inviting us to reconnect with Amerindian cosmology, Georges Sioui is pointing the way toward transformative change in modern society.

Georges Sioui

“With its focus on material gain, Americanism does little more than cause pollution, divisiveness, exploitation among humans and the demise of nature. I think Amerindians need to position themselves as the source of another approach.”

— Georges Sioui

At the age of six, surprised by the negative portrayal of his Indigenous ancestors in the classroom, Georges Sioui, the son and grandson of Hurons living on the Quebec reserve of Village-des-Hurons (today Wendake), did what any child would do: he asked his parents why.

“My father told me, ‘For now, just do your best to get good grades. Write what the books say about you, but don’t let yourself believe that it’s the truth. One day, you’ll get a chance to rewrite history,’” recalls Sioui.

Several decades later, in 1991, Sioui became the first Indigenous person in Canada to obtain a PhD in history. Then in 1999, he published Pour une histoire amérindienne de l’Amérique, a work lauded by none other than the renowned French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.

“At home, we were never raised to think of ourselves as victims,” says Sioui. “We were taught to give back, to make a contribution.”

And that’s exactly what Sioui has done. In addition to being a philosopher, historian, activist, poet and songwriter, he now teaches Indigenous history, metahistory, philosophy and spirituality at the University of Ottawa’s Department of Classics and Religious Studies.

This is where he focuses both on debunking the myths perpetuated by Canadian historiography and on helping students discover an Indigenous spiritual vision of the world (cosmology), patiently recreated from an array of oral and written sources.

It’s painstaking work, but it’s driven by Sioui’s unshakable conviction that certain tenets of Amerindian cosmology can teach us how to “cure what ails the world,” like environmental degradation and social alienation.

Achieving this lofty objective, says the researcher, first requires us to transform our relationship with others and with planet Earth. That’s why his writings, which have been published in many books and journals in North America and abroad, compel us to re-embrace the matricentrist and circular thinking prevalent among North America’s first peoples.

“Matricentrism and circular thought are often synonymous,” says Sioui. “They simply imply that one recognizes life and the world as a circle of relationships, and that we’re all related, all interconnected—and not just humans, but also everything else in the universe.” At the very centre of this vision is Earth itself, a nurturing mother and an undividable entity that no one owns.

To make sense of these powerful ideas, we need only consider what would become of environmental problems if we stopped seeing the Earth as the “property” of humans, as a commodity to be sliced up, exploited—and trashed—shamelessly.

For Sioui, matricentrism and circular thought are the foundation of “America’s true spiritual identity,” the Americity that he says counters Americanism and represents the most valuable contribution Amerindians can make.   

“With its focus on material gain, Americanism does little more than cause pollution, divisiveness, exploitation among humans and the demise of nature,” he says. “I think Amerindians need to position themselves as the source of another approach, one that comes from North America and allows people to commit to protecting the land.”

Sioui’s students, of whom only 5 to 15 percent are of Aboriginal descent, always receive his ideas enthusiastically.

“Every time I finish a course, students come to me to say it’s the first time a university course has given them a chance to become closer to their classmates and to feel that everyone was truly together there, as one,” he says.

Such testimonials delight Sioui, who dreams of establishing a centre for the study of circular thought at the University of Ottawa, not only to promote this philosophy and its “curative” potential, but to help the world change… for the better. 

 

by Sophie Coupal

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