Presenting: Daniel R. Wildcat, author of Red Alert!
Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge
An interview with Dr. Daniel R. Wildcat, author of Red Alert!, Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge. He is a Yuchi member of the Muscogee Nation of Oklahoma, director of the Haskell Environmental Research Studies (HERS) Center, and an American Indian Studies faculty member at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas.
Dr. Wildcat discusses key issues and ideas covered in his latest book about the Native response to the environmental crisis and how we as a society can draw from the wisdom and nature-centered beliefs of indigenous peoples.
On Wednesday, April 21, at 7 PM. at the Plaza Branch, 4801 Main, Daniel Wildcat, director of the American Indian studies program and the Haskell Environmental Research Studies Center at Haskell Indian Nations University, discusses his book Red Alert! In his book, Wildcat says that “what the world needs today is a good dose of indigenous realism.” Wildcat draws upon ancient Native American wisdom and nature-centered beliefs to advocate a modern strategy to combat global warming.
Present: In Red Alert!, you state that American Indians and Alaskan natives have maintained relationships with land- and seascapes dating back hundreds and thousands of years. Can you share an example of this relationship?
Daniel Wildcat: Three examples come immediately to mind. Throughout Mesoamerica and southern North America, the centrality of corn to the life-ways and unique cultural identities of indigenous peoples provide an excellent example of the early hybridization of corn. More importantly, the cultivation of corn and the relationship of Peoples to corn informed customs, habits, ceremony and key features of Indigenous identities and cultures.
Another excellent example of what I describe in the book is the way in which Dine' (Navajo) traditions and identity are shaped by the four sacred mountains that define their homeland and in very profound ways embody their Dine' worldview - ways of living and thinking. The relationships with other-than-human life and features of the natural world were and in many cases remain the foundation of their cultures.
Finally, the recent renewal of Makah whaling hunting traditions gives a very compelling example of what this deep spatial nature-culture nexus I describe in Red Alert represents. The Makah decision to again hunt whales was really a statement about cultural revitalization. Many mainstream environmental organizations fundamentally misunderstood what the Makah were doing. The Makah were not making any statement about whale hunting in general. The Makah were making a statement about what it means to be Makah - the decision to whale hunt again was an affirmation of what it means to be Makah and the necessity to renew a relationship with a non-human relative that gave them their unique culture and identity. After a nearly two generation-old cessation of whale hunting, some elders in the Makah recognized that part of the social dysfunctions they were facing was a result of their loss of this relationship - a profound relationship shaping what it means to be Makah.
Present: How can the experiential and “deep spatial” aka “place-shaped” knowledge gained from such relationships be beneficial in addressing climate change for a specific area or region?
Wildcat: First, these deep spatial knowledges remind us that in order to live sustainably, our cultures in the broadest sense must fit the natural environments of which we - humankind - are but one small part. This applies to our dwellings, diets, clothing - the entirety of our culture - material, non-material, symbolic, and behavioral. In short, climate change solutions must reflect the diversity of the places and Peoples where they will be implemented. A large part of the problem we now face with dramatic climate change is that the major institutional forces supporting and promoting industrial economic development around the globe still advocate a one-size-fits-all economic and social development solution. The global climate crisis we now face seems to be largely tied to carbon-based economic and cultural products to which modern societies are wedded. Taking Indigenous knowledges seriously can provide opportunities to think outside the boxes in which we live and think. Humankind has an opportunity to overcome the large degree of insulated ignorance we have created, if the stereotypes and prejudices about all things 'tribal' can today be overcome.
We must reconnect our human lifeways or cultures to the places, landscapes and seascapes, where we live.
Present: What existing stereotypes do modern Indians face that interfere with the role(s) they can play in addressing climate change with an indigenous approach?
Wildcat: Well, the most damaging stereotypes are those still found throughout the mainstream media that want to see us either as romantic child-like savages - frozen in time - in need of civilizing or, and equally damaging, as victims of colonial practices and institutions incapable of overcoming the crippling social dysfunctions that beset many of our families and communities. Of course, we have the natural resource and casino-rich stereotypes today also. The point is all of these stereotypes prevent people from recognizing that we have Indigenous leaders today - in 2010 - who are sophisticated thinkers involved in national and international forums and organizations with useful practical knowledges that could help humankind address some of the environmental messes we have created. Unfortunately, the iconic images of American movie making in the twentieth century still haunt popular culture and consciousness.
Present: In the book, you call for a cultural climate change. Would you please explain what this idea means and what it would entail to realize on a personal and/or social level?
Wildcat: Yes, I am glad you picked-up on that idea. In order to address the climate change - I prefer “global burning” - event humans are creating, we are going to have to have major changes in human cultures, especially the political and economic climates we live in. As I alluded to above, we must reconnect our human lifeways or cultures to the places, landscapes and seascapes, where we live. I think Indigenous Peoples can offer good insights on how to develop societies that promote and develop systems of life-enhancement. The good news, I do think the political and economic climates are changing ever so slightly in favor of allowing experiments in Indigenous ingenuity – indigenuity.