O ver the past few weeks, I have been on a quest to discover the meaning and implications of the term "Indigeneity."

Although the idea of Indigeneity was not entirely unfamiliar to me, I had only a tenuous grasp of the concept, laced with dense anthropological jargon and something about native culture. I recently ran into the term as a primary topic of Colorado Bioneers 2012, the national sustainability conference in its tenth year at the University of Colorado-Boulder.

I scoured the internet for a more basic explanation, but my understanding of Indigeneity remained murky. Just when the topic seemed too dense to pursue further, I recalled a presentation by Ian Sanderson, a member of the Mohawk Nation and adjunct faculty of Indigenous Environmental Issues at Naropa University. Sanderson works with Bioneers, leading workshops that guide participants through experiences formed by his indigenous worldview.

At one point during his presentation, Sanderson held up both a handmade stone knife and an iPhone, labeling the former as "primitive" and the latter as "sophisticated."

"I'm going to propose a reversal of definitions. Let's say that 'Primitive,'" Sanderson said, holding up the stone knife, "means I can make it from materials in my surrounding environment; when it breaks, I can fix it; and when I'm finished using it, I can put it on the ground and it returns to nature."

Next, he held up the iPhone. "'Sophisticated,'" he said, "means I can't make it from materials in my surrounding environment; when it breaks, I can't fix it; and when I'm finished using it, I can't put it down -- it won't go back."


Sanderson's example was more of a thought experiment, but it touched on a key concept of Indigeneity: a reconnection with the natural world. Our current culture is characterized by disconnection from identity, others and our environment, as Sanderson demonstrated with the iPhone.

However, sustainability initiatives and programs like Bioneers are dedicated to re-establishing these connections and relationships. Indigeneity in particular re-focuses sustainability efforts using the lens of indigenous knowledge -- that is, the knowledge of Native Americans, of the First Peoples -- to help us reconnect with a sense of place and experience a genuine relationship with our physical environment.

Consider the title of the conference itself: "From Breakdown to Breakthrough: Reimagining Civilization in the Age of Nature." By returning to this fundamental worldview, we can apply Western technological advances to the knowledge of Native Americans and indigenous peoples across the globe for an authentic and personal approach to sustainability. We can "reimagine" our civilization from an indigenous worldview by connecting with our natural environment.

To learn more about Indigeneity and more topics of environmental sustainability, be sure to attend the 10th Annual Colorado Bioneers conference at CU-Boulder Nov. 9-11, presented by the CU Environmental Center. For more information and to register, and to see the complete program, visit http://ecenter.colorado.edu/bioneers or contact bioneers@colorado.edu.

-- Jessica Farris is the communications coordinator for the Environmental Center at CU-Boulder and a journalism graduate student.