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Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge
By Daniel R. Wildcat
Fulcrum PublishingCopyright © 2009 Daniel R. Wildcat
All rights reserved.
Pay Attention: An Indigenous Lesson Worth Thinking About
Henry Collins, a respected Ponca southern plains drummer and singer, gave me much to think about twenty-one years ago when I started teaching at Haskell Indian Junior College, now Haskell Indian Nations University. Collins took a social-problems course from me. He was very attentive in class and seldom spoke. When I asked him questions, he would take his time and always answer directly to the point. Nevertheless, I thought the situation awkward, because then, as now, I thought of Collins as an elder. How do you ask questions to an elder about sociological theories, concepts, and facts? It seems so rude and arrogant to question an elder as we do young undergraduate students without the least bit of hesitancy.
I remember at the end of the course I asked Collins if he had learned anything useful. Collins thought a while and said, "Yes, I think so, but it worries me because, as I put these new ideas up here [he pointed to his head], it seems like I have trouble remembering some songs." He continued, "It makes me think that I might not have room in my head for all of this new stuff — that if I put the new information in my head, I might lose some songs. That worries me. I don't want to lose those songs." Two decades ago, this is what Collins gave me to think about, and I have often done so.
Now, as I write about some of the indigenous insights and knowledges that reside in the landscapes and seascapes of North America situated in what we, American Indians and Alaska Natives, take to be a fundamentally spiritual cosmos, it occurs to me that many of us have filled our heads with the "new stuff." We have acquired elaborate theories, concepts, and ideas about our species, nature, cultures, and civilizations, and in the process forgotten important insights our ancestors possessed. Like Collins's concern for songs that embody tribal traditions of knowledge and knowing, I, too, worry that such knowledge is threatened. Life lessons, principles, born of experience in the world, as opposed to experiments in controlled laboratory settings or scientifically guided social experiments, seem absent today.
LIFE LESSONS BORN OF EXPERIENCE
As I think now of Collins's words, I wonder how many good songs, practices, and ceremonies about living well in this world humankind may have collectively lost because modern human societies so little value knowledges found beyond the protocols of narrowly defined scientific inquiry. This book is a call for indigenous recollection, reconstruction, and indigenous ingenuity. We cannot go back to the past. We must envision and enact a realization of beauty in the present for the future: a beauty unlike the superficial images sold in increasingly commercial consumer-driven modern and postmodern societies. As my Haudenosaunee friends constantly remind me, we have a responsibility to live respectfully for our children seven generations into the future.
The issue, as Collins put it so clearly, is not that one kind of knowledge or specific body of information is necessarily better than the other — let us say rigorous empirical science versus experiential knowledge acquired beyond the controls of classic experimental design. But rather that, as one identifies the construction of knowledge with the logic of experiment — it seems, with few exceptions — one forgets the knowledges of experience, knowledges gained through attentive living, such as singing and drumming. We need both experimental logic and analysis and experience in the world. Collins reminded me that scientific knowledge can be useful to humankind, but, in and of itself, insufficient in generating life-enhancing knowledges for humankind.
The necessary and sufficient condition for life-enhancing knowledges requires paying attention to the life surrounding us, what I call a deep spatial experiential body of knowledge complemented by scientific information and knowledge. It would be useful if humankind understood how both kinds of knowledge were constructed. Some of us may be proficient in both, but it is more likely that a good number of us are more proficient in the lab, or at least dependent on those who are and the knowledge they produce, than we are competent in experience-based life learning. Fortunately, if those at each end of this knowledge continuum can master the difficult task of communicating with the other, humankind will benefit.
In order to acquire insights into how to live well in the diverse environments of this planet, humankind needs multigenerational deep spatial knowledges as well as scientific knowledge and its application in increasingly powerful technologies. We need to recognize the importance of the exercise of logic and analysis, but never at the expense of the songs of life handed down from singer to singer and documented in the activity of singing.
Collins never took another class from me and that is okay. I know Collins continues to sing. I am glad that he retains songs somewhere in his mind and in the act of singing. We cannot each of us do everything and know everything, but we can benefit from sharing what each of us knows that the other does not. Humankind needs useful knowledges contained in lifeways. In a world where people accept the separation of knowing from doing, it is instructive to reflect on the value of knowledges retained and realized in activity itself.
The environmental crises we now face were shaped to a large extent by some of humankind not knowing what they were doing. These crises and the looming global climate catastrophe can be addressed by knowing contained in doing. The examination of knowledges embodied in the lifeways of indigenous peoples offers hope. The separation of knowing and doing so widely accepted today can be addressed if we recognize that knowledge resides in our living in this world, not in controlling it. By paying attention to our human conduct and the life beyond our own in the world surrounding us — a complex dynamic system where we, humankind, are not in control — we will find humility and wisdom. For those paying attention, knowledge resides in life.
Today many humans accept the fact that knowledge is essentially a social or collective enterprise. Many indigenous knowledge systems extend the notion of knowledge construction to a cooperative activity involving the other-than-human life that surrounds us. This book suggests that planet Earth — a living being known to many indigenous peoples today as Mother Earth — is trying to tell us something in her language.
The language of the Earth, her mother tongue, is one best understood through the many dialects known by indigenous peoples around the world. Because indigenous peoples have paid attention to our Mother Earth, it is important to listen to what we can share with humankind. These knowledges are bound in unique lifeways — customs, habits, behaviors, material and symbolic features of culture emergent from the land and sea — and therefore have practical implications for those of humankind wanting to cooperatively and sustainably live with a place as opposed to at an address.
The Red Alert issued here comes from the Earth herself. What she has been telling tribal people around the world, especially those paying attention, is that she is undergoing a dramatic change, one that threatens their lifeways and those of most of humankind on the planet. The question now is who else is listening and paying attention? Superficially it appears many are. The real test will be how many people act on what they learn. This Red Alert is for those wanting to act. Those willing to examine the public and practical features of our cultures will find life-enhancing values expressed in activity, in action.
YOU WILL BE AT THE TABLE
Our elders continue to tell our young men and women they must be ready to "sit at the table" when policies, programs, and laws are developed affecting our peoples and homelands. At the University of Arizona Vine Deloria Jr. symposium of 2006, "Where Do We Go from Here? The Legacies of Vine Deloria Jr.," Billy Frank Jr., the legendary leader of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, passionately summed up where the indigenous peoples of North America are now headed. Using the twenty tribes in Washington State as an example, he stated:
You will be co-managers with the state of Washington. You will write your own regulations ... You will have your own judicial system. You will have an infrastructure that makes that happen. You are going to go to Congress and Congress will send money to every one of the tribes to build their infrastructure — to be co-managers with the state of Washington. You will have your own science, legal system, policy, and everything. So today we sit like that. We sit on that on the infrastructure of our tribes. We sit on the US international treaty commission in Canada. We sit on the body managing two hundred miles of the ocean off the [Pacific] coast — from Mexico to Alaska.
Speaking of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, Frank emphasized the role the twenty American Indian tribes now play in the co-management of a two-hundred-mile zone extending into the Pacific Ocean from Mexico to Alaska:
You [the twenty tribes] will be at the table. And that is where we want to be. We want to be there when decisions are made about our life. We want to be at that table. We are capable of sitting at that table today with the federal government, with any government in the United States, to argue our case or negotiate or sit down and do it. And that is where we want to be.
As we prepare to face the challenge of climate change, we not only want a seat at the table, we want to participate in discussions about research, sustainable economies and the energy to fuel them, and environmental adaptation. We want to be involved in designing research.
All of this will result in the necessity for difficult discussions on several fronts. First, historical — human and ecological — reality will inevitably present itself when the necessity for concessions is discussed. Second, the way in which issues are defined will pose a difficult challenge for scientists, policy makers, and entrepreneurs. Finally, a necessary radical reframing of environmental justice issues will have to occur if humankind is to substantially mitigate the consequences of our behavior already set in motion.
Climate change will force humankind to reexamine our comfortable notions of world history, especially the way in which modern humankind so easily distinguishes human history from what is broadly called natural history. In part, this formulation results from the fact that with the exception of violent catastrophic natural phenomena, which operate independent of our immediate human influence, human history moves rapidly when compared to the histories of mountains, oceans, and rivers. Indeed, we do seem to make things happen relatively quickly when addressing our own affairs. The reality of global climate change will certainly challenge this comfortable human-versus-nature distinction.
A RED ALERT OF HOPE
Hopefulness resides with the peoples who continue to find their identities emerge out of what I call a nature-culture nexus, a symbiotic relationship that recognizes the fundamental connectedness and relatedness of human communities and societies to the natural environment and the other-than-human relatives they interact with daily. Just as importantly, hopefulness resides with those who are willing to imaginatively reconstitute lifeways emergent from the nature-culture nexus. Over the last five centuries, some of humankind brought tremendous change to life on the planet, and the change seems essentially guided by an allegedly objective mechanical worldview that envisioned the noblest human activity as the control of nature (the machine) and the forces of nature. We now find that the complex life of Mother Earth demonstrates that such a view is naive and dangerous, for we are situated, in spite of however much we would like to think otherwise, inside, as but one part, of the life system of planet Earth.
Those expecting to find reassuring romantic reveries about noble savages living close to nature should turn elsewhere for their reading pleasure. There are no tribal secrets or ceremonies contained in these pages. There are more than enough faux-shaman reveries available on bookstore shelves to falsely and fictitiously meet those readers' very real emotional needs. However, those — Native and non-Native alike — wanting to explore practical and useful features of indigenous worldviews and knowledges should read this book.
Humankind does not stand above or outside of Earth's life system. If the planet is telling us the problem is the way much of our kind is living, it seems arrogant and unproductive to continue to want to change everything but the way we live. Yes, the world is changing, and it is time for us to pay attention — for humankind to find value in our lives as they are intrinsically related to the other-than-human life of Mother Earth. Let us do so, for like our ancestors before us, we may learn something about ourselves. We may find insights in our oldest indigenous traditions and activities. It is also likely that if we demonstrate respectful attentiveness to the world we live in today, we will find new techniques, songs, practices, and even ceremonies for life enhancement. This Red Alert expresses a desire for urgent action based on respectful attentiveness. This Red Alert is about hope, not fear.CHAPTER 2
The Truth Is Not Inconvenient — It Is Deadly
For many of us immersed in industrial and postindustrial societies, the truth may indeed be inconvenient, for the time being, but for many indigenous peoples around the world, the truth of climate change is deadly. Increasingly, Native hunters of the circumpolar arctic region are losing their lives due to the unstable condition of the ice. According to Bill Erasmus, chief of the Déné Nation in northern Canada, and Patricia Cochran, Inupiat Eskimo and program chair for the indigenous program of the International Congress on Circumpolar Health, Native hunters now risk their lives every time they go out on the ice. Climate change has created a dire situation for peoples who depend on the ice for their livelihood. Nevertheless, for those living in places on the planet where the effects of global burning are less obvious, the urgency of addressing the climate change situation is difficult to convey given the self-absorbed individualistic popular culture representations of catastrophe the media sells. Many people are suspicious of catastrophe theories — cataclysms, Armageddon scenarios, societal-collapse hypotheses — and rightfully so. We have always had forecasts of imminent doom. Some people and institutions seem to thrive on catastrophe. My local Fox television affiliate is a good example of this phenomenon, as are a host of fundamentalist Christian evangelists. Consequently, it is a difficult but necessary task to explain the climate changes set in motion by taken-for-granted carbon-based energy technologies as a catastrophe without seeming like a the-sky-is-falling alarmist or without engendering hopelessness.
It is increasingly clear that we have set in motion consequences that will be damaging and deadly for much of the life we have taken for granted on our Mother Earth. Fortunately, we can take some positive, life-affirming steps to address this catastrophe by behaving respectfully and responsibly in ecological communities within which we must once again situate our lives. There is hope for ourselves and many of our other-than-human relatives if we pay attention to what the unique landscapes and seascapes and their plants and animals can still teach us. In order to respond to this Red Alert, four points must be made explicit so that what follows can be clearly distinguished from popular marketing practices, certain theological traditions, and forecasts offered by individuals with catastrophe-addicted personalities that entail an unfaltering belief in cataclysmic scenarios regardless of the facts.
HONORING AMERICAN INDIAN AND ALASKA NATIVE INSIGHTS
First, the truth is not inconvenient — it is deadly. The catastrophe humankind is currently facing is far from a purely theoretical discussion, theological debate, or psychological condition. The global-burning phenomenon pushing global climate change is for tribal nations most fundamentally a life-way issue, one that is immediately impacting the lives of indigenous peoples around the planet — and make no mistake about it, it will soon be felt by all people across this planet. Our northern hemisphere circumpolar relatives, human and other-than-human, are experiencing the catastrophe of global burning right now. For the indigenous peoples of that region, the truth is lethal.
Excerpted from Red Alert! by Daniel R. Wildcat. Copyright © 2009 Daniel R. Wildcat. Excerpted by permission of Fulcrum Publishing.
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