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Three Stories+Art on Sustainability
2-Indigenous Lifeways  3-Innovation

Indigenous Lifeways

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Bigtas, Young Eagle Hunter, Baga Davaatiin Khundi, Mongolia. Photograph by Chris Rainier.

Indigenous communities have deep understanding of the natural world and practice holistic sustainable lifeways developed over thousands of years. Their knowledge of ecosystems and biodiversity is vital to the technologically-anchored and sustainable future.
     Dedicated National Geographic and other explorers show that by 
protecting indigenous cultures we protect the planet. Indigenous artists tell the story to the modern world. 

Traditional Peoples in transition
in the 21st Century


Gibe & Pipe, Huli wigmen in Southern Highlands, Papua New Guinea. Traditional ceremonial paint colors: Mali-ambua-hare, Waterfall: Iba-Fugu. "Up in the highlands of New Guinea is the Tari Gap, a high mountain region filled with rich tropical forests and thundering waterfalls. I had the chance to travel there while photographing for my book, Where Masks Still Dance: New Guinea. One day while trekking with the Huli Wigmen (known for making intricate initiation ritual headdresses made out of human hair and birds of paradise feathers), we came across a place to pause for a moment and drink from the fresh clear pools of a beautiful waterfall." - Chris Rainier

The Cultural Sanctuaries Foundation works at the crossroads of conservation and culture helping indigenous communities protect their culture, language, land, oceans, and economic realities and opportunities. It was founded in 2017 by Chris Rainier, a National Geographic Society explorer and photographer, and Olivia McKendrick, a former law firm partner.

     The Cultural Sanctuaries Foundation conducts cultural and linguistic surveys to record vital knowledge and language. They promote local storytelling, photography and film-making, and foster economic opportunities for communities to stay with their land. The Foundation is building community centers for education and language study, exhibitions of arts and crafts of the local cultures, and as a meeting place for community gatherings and sharing of knowledge.

     Since the beginning of our species traditional societies have lived in a sustainable way, refining the renewable ways to grow crops, maintain fresh water, to hunt wildlife, fish the oceans and rivers and build manageable communities and live in abundance. Indigenous communities are the best guardians of the earth's biodiversity.

     But as traditional culture erodes and languages cease to be spoken, the knowledge of the land, forest and ocean learned over thousands of years is fading away. Of the 6000 languages spoken on the planet today, 80% are traditional and oral, being passed down from generation to generation. Twenty four languages are vanishing every year, and with them vital traditional knowledge. 

     Eighty percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity is on the land lived on by indigenous communities. But they are being forced by economic duress, land degradation and climate change to move from their land to find work in cities, or to sell their land and timber. If we protect indigenous cultures we protect the planet.

     Chris Rainier, founder and CEO of The Cultural Sanctuaries Foundation, is a National Geographic Society explorer and photographer who is known for his documentation of endangered cultures and languages. Photography is a tool to affect social change. Rainier has led projects with indigenous groups around the world, using modern technology to document their traditional culture.

     Olivia McKendrick, co-founder and COO of the Foundation, is a lawyer by background and former partner at one of the world’s leading law firms who left the field to work full time on Cultural Sanctuaries.

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Bigtas, Young Eagle Hunter, Baga Davaatiin Khundi, Mongolia. Photograph by Chris Rainier. The tradition of eagle hunting, practiced for hundreds of years in the far Western area of Mongolia, had begun to die out but now the practice is experiencing a huge revival. This is allowing the younger generation of Mongolians to gain a newly found pride in their cultural heritage, promotes a vital connection between them and the older members of the community and revitalizes this wonderful tradition. Pictured here is Bigtas, son of an eagle hunter in a line of seven generations of eagle hunters. Bigtas is now teaching his young children the eagle hunting tradition.

    “There are myriad examples of indigenous solutions all over the world,” 

Olivia McKendrick said at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland in 2021. “Within their oral languages is a wealth of knowledge accumulated over hundreds of generations of observed empirical evidence that have deep understandings of weather and how it affects crops.

     "In Guatemala climate signs are read by the elders and exposed roots of corn foretell hurricanes and storms coming in the approaching winter. The size of particular birds nests indicate the need to delay the planting of crops. In central Europe traditional herders manage their pastures to get the right level of grazing to keep weeds and bushes in check and the grasslands in balance. In Malaysia, indigenous communities committees of elected village elders decide on 'no-take' areas of their rivers and actively ban destructive fishing practices. As a result fish numbers increase, endemic species return, and the river system stays healthy.
     "In Australia the aboriginal millennia-long practice of intentional burning staves off the risk of the mega forest fires that we've been seeing ravaging the US, Europe and Australia and after generations of being banned from practicing their traditional fire knowledge, 'right-way burning' as it's called, is now being recognized by fire experts that indigenous inherent knowledge and is being reintroduced.

     Rainier added, "It's misleading to think of Indigenous knowledge as to whether it is scalable or not, but rather let us embrace sustainability in terms of what first nations people have known all along a deep respect for the planet and not using this natural world as an endless supply of resources in an open sewer but rather understanding the planet as a living breathing being that needs nurturing respect maintenance and love. We must rethink the way we define sustainability to include a level of reverence."

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Maasai Fire Dance, near Olduvai, Tanzania. Photo Chris Rainier. There are many ceremonies within Maasai culture, many associated with young men and women passing from childhood into adulthood. One of the more important ceremonies in Maasai culture is the Adumu jump dancing, often around a fire. 

The Future of Exploration: Discovering the Uncharted Frontiers of Science, Technology, and Human Potential is a new book by Chris Rainier and former National Geographic Executive Vice President and Chief Science Officer Terry Garcia. It includes essays by over 35 renowned explorers, scientists, astronauts, visionaries, thinkers, and authors. Exploration by its nature is anything that pushes the boundaries of knowledge and today is striving to find the solutions to the problems that face us living on planet earth in the 21st Century. Topics include archaeology, conservation biology, history, geography, oceanography, education, architecture, ecology, ethics, space travel and planetary science, genetics, paleoanthropology and paleontology. 

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Woman and Child, Palizi village, Arunachal Pradesh, NE corner of India. Photograph by Chris Rainier. Around the world, indigenous cultures are losing their traditional culture and language. Every two weeks, an elder passes away and with them a traditional language dies and a unique understanding of the land on which they live is lost. This woman and child are some the last speakers of the Aka language. The future of these communities sits in the balance.

     In the book and in their presentation at The Explorers Club in New York City, Garcia and Rainier talk about how the 21st century promises to be the greatest age of exploration and discovery in human history. The speed at which new technologies are being developed and applied is changing how we explore. Technologies such as high-resolution satellite imagery, side-scan sonar, ground-generating radar, muon detectors, AI and gene editing, and lidar (laser, imaging, detection, and ranging) are opening up areas of exploration in ways never before possible.

   The ocean covers 75% of the Earth and yet we have explored only a tiny fraction, perhaps 5-10 %. Lidar is discovering uncharted underwater territory to study threats to ocean health with ecological and economic advantages and for establishing marine protected areas that can contribute to increasing the productivity of the oceans. Garcia developed and launched the Pristine Seas Project to explore and protect the last pristine wilderness areas in the ocean.
     “Despite the impressive extent of our accumulated knowledge," says Garcia, “we have barely scratched the surface of our understanding of ourselves and the world. we don’t know what we don’t know!” 

     All proceeds from the sale of The Future of Exploration: Discovering the Uncharted Frontiers of Science, Technology, and Human Potential go to grants for emerging Explorers, Scientists and Conservationists from around the globe.


A Shaman, in front of a sacred Ovoo shrine, near Khuvsgul Nuur Lake, Mongolia. Photograph by Chris Rainier. The tradition of Shamanism is considered one of the oldest form of religions in the world . Still practiced in Mongolia, a shaman is practicing the ritual of calling forth the spirits in front of a Ovoo shrine for the purpose of a healing practice.

"Diversity in all its forms is key to solving many of the most significant challenges we face today,” Rainier explained in anthropologist Mark Bidwell’s podcast. "Preserving cultural and intellectual diversity enables the Cultural Sanctuaries Foundation to take advantage of useful wisdom hiding in plain sight.”

     Rainier describes the process and feeling of immersing himself in the cultures of New Guinea or Africa or Mongolia, or Mexico, or other locations, as a matter of “slowing down until you're truly absorbed within the culture, and then observing it and documenting it. And then the transition back into your culture, it's the grinding of the gears of coming from essentially a stone age culture into modernity.” 

     Rainier's most inspiring moments are when he can “reflect on the excessiveness of our culture and the short-term attention span.... I’m not placing any value judgment on our culture, I certainly am from a modern culture, but I think they can learn from each other. And that’s very much the mission of the Cultural Sanctuaries project — to have a cross-pollination - ancient culture speaking to modern cultures and vice-versa, out of respect and not hierarchy.”

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Traditional pole fishermen, Southern coast of Sri Lanka. Photograph by Chris Rainier. The tradition of sitting on poles to fish has been going on hundreds of generations in this part of Sri Lanka. In recent years, the fishermen make more of their living posing for the photograghs of hundreds of tourists than they do from fishing. The world is going through a massive upsurge in tourism and, quite understandably, traditional culture is a main focus of tourist travel. So often, however, the very people who are the destination for eco- and cultural- tourism reap none or little of its potential benefits. It is crucially important to ensure that appropriate cultural tourist practices are in place to ensure the survival of traditional communities.

Programs featuring Chris Rainier produced by Streaming Museum

Chris Rainier's photography and videos was presented in Streaming Museum's international network of public spaces, cultural venues including Juilliard at Lincoln Center; and in the exhibition and public program, Ancient Stories with Modern Technologypart of a series produced by Streaming Museum for Digital Art @Google  at Google's NYC Headquarters. Among the exhibited works were the two films below by Rainier, with music by Anouchka Shankar, directed and edited by Ethan Boehme.

Sacred: Angkor Wat  
Created at Angkor Wat, one of the magnificent temples in the vast metropolis of Angkor, Cambodia,  built for king Suryavarman II in the early 12th century as his state temple and part of his capital city. Today, a symbol of Cambodia  Read more.

Ancient Marks: Sacred Origins of Tattoos and Body Marking 
explores the intrinsic connection between humankind’s culture and the 2000 year old tradition of marking the body with tattoos and scarification as a form of initiation, beauty, and ritualized ornamentation. Read more.

The lifeways of the Shipibo-Conibo People of the Peruvian Amazon provide critical    knowledge for a technologically-anchored and sustainable future 

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Sara Flores, Untitled (Shao Maya Punté Kené 1, 2022), 2022. Vegetal dyes on wild-cotton canvas 59 x 122 3/8 inches. Courtesy Clearing Gallery NY/LA/Brussels

​The Shipibo-Konibo People of the Peruvian Amazon and other indigenous communities around the world have a deep understanding of the natural world and sustainable living practices that have been developed over thousands of years. The traditional knowledge of ecosystems, biodiversity, and the relationships between the well-being of humans and nature is deeply intertwined with cultural, spiritual, and social aspects.

     It is increasingly recognized globally that sustainable development and environmental stewardship to maintain balance in harvesting plants, fishing, and hunting to ensure the long-term health of the ecosystem, is an intergenerational responsibility to future generations. 

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Celia Vasquez Yui, Otorongo, 2020. Coil-built pre-fire slip-painted clay and vegetal resins. 12 3/4 x 8 1/2 x 23 1/4". Courtesy Salon94.

Celia Vasquez Yui, Otorongo, 2020. Coil-built pre-fire slip-painted clay and vegetal resins. 12 3/4 x 8 1/2 x 23 1/4"  Courtesy Salon94.

The interconnection of the cosmos and all living things is expressed by Shipibo-Konibo artists of the Peruvian Amazon--Sara Flores, Chonon Bensho and Celia Vasquez Yui. They are represented by the Shipibo Conibo Center, a nonprofit cultural organization headquartered in West Harlem, New York City, on ancestral Lenape land. Within a setting of contemporary art and knowledge, the Center perpetuates the creative lifeways of the Shipibo-Konibo People in such a way that would benefit its practitioners.

     With a focus on Indigenous self-determination and territorial sovereignty as well as visual arts, music, and ethnobotanical research—which in the Shipibo-Konibo lifeway are inseparable realms—the organization’s mission is motivated by the conviction that Indigenous identity does not belong to a romanticized ancient age, but rather to a technologically-anchored and sustainable future.

     The Shipibo Conibo Center promotes initiatives that fight against deforestation and land and environmental violations, and that support political and economic autonomy and the use of technology and data to define territorial borders and quantify and protect natural resources. They promote the monetization of plant knowledge to gain local, culturally-specific employment, and programs that coordinate communication in the Shipibo language across geographically dispersed communities. This reinforces cultural pride and language-preservation, and enables collective organizing to defend against territorial threats. 

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Chonon Bensho, Jene Nete, 2020. Embroidery of colored threads on cotton cloth.  1.52 m x 2.22 m. Courtesy the artist.

The Shipibo Conibo Center collaborations are rooted in principles of the Kené designs that are a visual manifesto of the commitment to the core values of Shipibo ethics, and to protocols of conviviality, reciprocity, and kinship that extends beyond the human to animal, plant, land, and water. This implies an understanding that the work of art, the work of environmental activism and the struggle towards Indigenous sovereignty, cannot be separated. They must move forward on the same path. As a result, Kené designs become charged politically, as an emblem of artistic activism. 

     The Center's collaborations aim to overstep the colonial paradigms that have separated Indigenous artists from the contemporary art setting, and sets up a model for rejoining the realms of art, healing, ecology, and politics that were separated through colonial and neocolonial modes of extraction and representation.

Sara Flores

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Sara Flores, Untitled (Maya Kené 8, 2022), 2022. Vegetal dyes on wild-cotton canvas. 55 3/8 x 56 5/8 " Courtesy Shipibo Conibo Center and Clearing, NY

Sara Flores was born in 1950 in the native community of Tanbo Mayo within the Peruvian Amazon, residing along the Ucayali River. Flores is one of the foremost contemporary artists emerging from the Amazonian basin and is co-represented worldwide by White Cube, Paris, CLEARING, NY/LA/Brussels  and the Shipibo Conibo Center, NY.  
     Flores's artworks follow the intricate complex geometric patterns of the ancient practice of Kené that are integral to the traditions of her ancestral heritage and represent the lines and flowing interconnectivity of the Amazonian ecosystem.
     Flores and other artists of the region use materials from the trees, botanicals and wild cotton of their environment integrating the technical knowledge and philosophical principles passed down by women through generations. 

     Applying prepared natural dyes, the art maps neural, psychological, elemental and ecological networks, derived from observations of the native flora, fauna, as well as the mapping of the rivers in Amazonia, the shape of the Anaconda, and the representation of  the spiritual world. This spiritual dimension is introduced through shaman-led ayahuasca ceremonies, involving the ingestion of psychoactive plants which serve as the point of contact between the material world and invisible life forces. It is believed that Kené is revealed exclusively to women, who interpret these induced visionary experiences into compositions.


Sara Flores. Photograph by Helena Kubicka de Bragança

     Flores was interviewed at Art Basel, Miami about what unites the artistic practices of Amazonian artists.       
     "The harmony of nature, which in our worldview, [that exists] between the sky, the earth, the water and all its biodiversity. Our spiritual understanding of ecology, where each being, tree, plan
t, animal, and river has its mother spirit. For me it is a ‘whole’ that we must protect, because we, the Amazonian women, with our artistic works, are integrators of the Amazon, not disintegrators."

Artist Sara Flores, video by Helena Kubicka de Bragança

     What is the most important aspect of your artistic practice?     

     "It is the invitation to reciprocity, to good living. My artistic practice gives me the resources to share, to support my community members, and to support the dream of the Shipibo Nation. I want my work to be an agent of change, [for us] to be able to return to be owners of our territories, and to recover a world that is now radically disabled by colonialism and constantly eroded by the exploitation of nature. My work wants the regeneration of a new world."

Chonon Bensho

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Chonon Bensho, Inin Paro (El río de los perfumes medicinales) (Inin Paro [The river of medicinal perfumes]), 2021, embroidery on fabric, 61 1/4 x 54 3/8". Courtesy of the aritst.

Chonon Bensho is an artist and poet from the Shipibo-Conibo People and a descendant of a long lineage of female artists and visionary healers. She is represented by the Shipibo Conibo Center, NY. Her creative research includes a broad spectrum of life-generating practices, including work on the land and reforestation of native species, plant-medicine, academic research, poetic song, as well as drawing, painting, embroidery, photography, video, and collage.


     Bensho infuses her art with the 
cosmological image-world of Amazonian history, mythologand knowledge. She expresses the vital energies of the sacred network of existence, and the collective well-being between all living beings across generations. Bensho advocates for the protection of the Amazonian ecosystem and reconfiguring of our contemporary understanding of the territory and this “sacred network of existence," writes ARTFORUM.

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Chonon Bensho. Photograph by Adrian Portugal


Chonon Bensho, El sueño del dietador, 2018. Oil in canvas. Image courtesy of the artist.

     Chonon Bensho and her spouse Pedro Favaron are members of the Native Community of Santa Clara of Yarinacocha, where they founded an ethnobotanical garden. 
 In recent years, through community work, Chonon and Pedro have shared their oraliture, documentaries, paintings, embroidery and conversations, with those who believe that creativity and clear words can heal the environmental and social imbalance in the Amazon and the world.

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Chonon Bensho, El sueño del dietador, 2018. Oil in canvas. Image courtesy of the artist

     With Chonon's images and Pedro's works/songs, they create an intercultural bridge: translate into a “clear language” a complex experience of traditional understandings of fasting and the link with the forest, as well as the responsibility of the legitimate doctors with the healing of the world. In this poem, the roots are not planted on ethnic, racial, national or religious identities, but on the Earth Mother and memory. Whoever forgets the territory, the river, the community, is at risk, because how can the forgetful-one use the visionary plants? 

Read Chaikonibo, poetry by Chonon Bensho and Pedro Favaron

Celia Vasquez Yui


Ceramic sculptures by Indigenous artist, activist, Celia Vasquez Yui. Images: Salon94, NY

     Jaguars, monkeys, armadillos, parrots, caimans, anacondas, capybaras, river dolphins, red squirrels are among the animal ceramic sculptures created by Celia Vasquez Yui. She lives and works in the Peruvian Amazon in the city of Pucallpa, where indigenous groups are struggling against rampant destruction of endangered animals and biodiversity, deforestation and the violent encroachment of oil and palm oil interests on their land and lives, as the drive for indiscriminate economic growth moves the world towards rapid environmental and social catastrophe. Her art is represented by the Shipibo Conibo Center, New York, and she has exhibited at Salon94 and CLEARING in New York, and international museums and artfairs. 


     Celia Vasquez Yui is part of a matriarchal lineage of ceramicists linked to the centuries-old polychrome horizon cultures. She received her artistic training from her mother and now collaborates with her daughter Diana Ruiz. her hand-f
ormed ceramic animal sculptures use a coil-built process that is thousands of years old, and are created with tree bark and archeological materials reduced to dust intertwining the past and present, symbolizing the unity between the Shipibo and the creatures of the forest, and the interconnection of art and healing as expressed in the Kené patterns that cover the surfaces of her animal figures, reflect the web of connections into a far-ranging system of exchange between living and dead people, stories, animals, soils, forests, and water.

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Celia Vasquez Yui. Courtesy Shapibo Conibo Center, NY

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Daily work, song, community, stories

Maria Linoa Cuban-born multidisciplinary artist, creates portraits of the often overlooked--women, children, people with disabilities, migrants and immigrants. Her documentary videos Tapo Pan / Tapo Bread (above) and Ritmos Ancestrales (below), bring viewers into the daily lives of women in the Peruvian Amazon region, capturing their life stories and the rhythms and domestic repetitive routines of their work. 

     Tapo Pan features cousins Esperanza Limaymanta Torres and Susana Reyes Limaymanta preparing and baking “tanta wawa,” homemade bread, for the community overlooking the Andean town of Tapo, in the Central Peruvian Andes. Filmed with available light in an adobe home, the camera follows the women's hands in a rhythmic, synchronized triptych, emphasizing the repetition and cyclical nature of bread making as a customary routine. In Spanish and Quechua with English subtitles.

     Ritmos Ancestrales/Ancestral Rhythms by Maria Lino is a video portrait of Olga Mori, a Shipibo teacher, healer and artist who draws the traditional Kene imagery of her native Shapibo Conibo culture. She sings an "icaro" song in her mother tongue and explains what it expresses and how it is reflected in her drawings. The camera follows the movement of her hands while she works and talks about her personal life and the reality of Shipibo women and girls. In Spanish with English subtitles. Ritmos Ancestrales was screened in the Smithsonian Mother Tongue Film Festival in Washington, D.C. in 2022

The art of Oscar Howe and the
moderness of his indigenous art

Oscar Howe (Yanktonai Dakota, 1915–1983), Dance of the Heyoka, 1954. Casein on paper, 20 1

Dance of the Heyoka by Oscar Howe, 1954. Casein on paper, 20¼ by 26¼ ". Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, Oklahoma. 

OSCAR HOWE (1915-1983) was one of the twentieth century’s most innovative Native American painters. He committed his artistic career to the preservation, relevance, and ongoing expression of his Yanktonai Dakota culture
     Howe proved that art could be simultaneously modern and embedded in customary Očhéthi Šakówin (Sioux) culture and aesthetics—to him there was no contradiction. Over forty years his artistic development grew from early conventional work created while in high school in the 1930s through the emergence in the 1950s and 1960s of his innovative and abstract approach to painting.

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Dakota Duck Hunt by Oscar Howe, circa 1945. Watercolor on paper, 15-15/16 by 25-3/8 ". Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Howe challenged the art establishment’s preconceptions and definitions of Native American painting. In doing so, he catalyzed a movement among Native artists to express their individuality rather than conforming to an established style. This legacy of innovation and advocacy continues to inspire generations of Native artists to take pride in their heritage and resist stereotypes.
     A retrospective, Dakota Modern: The Art of Oscar Howe, traveled to Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in New York, and Portland Museums in 2022-3, accompanied by a publication. Among other exhibitions:  The Art and Legacy of Oscar Howe at the University of South Dakota 50 Works for 50 Years at the North Dakota Art Museum

Oscar Howe (Yanktonai Dakota, 1915–1983), Umine Dance, 1958. Casein and gouache on paper,

Oscar Howe, Umine Dance, 1958. Casein and gouache on paper, mounted to board, 18 x 22 in., Garth Greenan Gallery, New York

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