Before colonization, most Indigenous groups had established principles that kept humans and nature intertwined in complex relations of balance. These were encoded in stories, art, religion, and everyday practices. For example, the Navajo use the word hózhó, which is variously translated as “balance”, “harmony”, and “beauty” among other things. This is represented by the symmetry in their weavings. But Navajo artist Harry Walters explains that the rug does not just symbolize it: “What the women weave is part of the environment. If you take something from the environment, you must give something back. Navajo weaving is all about relationships...The weaver has a relationship with the sheep...she must respect them, and she uses the wool in her weaving...and she must respect it too.”

For the Anishinaabe of the Northeast, the balance concept is expressed as bimaadiziwin, or “the good life”. The bimaadiziwin framework was applied in many different domains. In 1699, Iroquois hunters were killed near present-day Detroit in a dispute over beaver. To bring relations back into balance, the Anishinaabe and Iroquois formed the “One Dish, One Spoon” treaty. Visualized in a wampum belt, it symbolizes the idea that when everyone limits themselves to what they need, there is plenty to go around.

The Anishinaabe say that their knowledge comes from nonhuman sources, and that must be balanced as well. For example, in 2012 the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) removed the Grey Wolf (Canis lupis) from the Endangered Species list. Several state governments made wolf hunting legal, so some Anishinaabe nations, whose origin stories featured the wolf as brother to man, responded by designating their lands as wolf sanctuaries. At first these stories made no sense to EPA biologists, who simply saw the wolf as a top predator. But they soon found that hunting wolves meant larger litters of pups for the survivors, causing even worse predation of livestock. Removing wolves also meant more deer, which caused more crop damage. As a result, wolf hunting was made illegal again a few years later, although the EPA never admitted that the Anishinaabe bimaadiziwin had the right policy recommendations all along.