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Expert Q&A: Dr. Daniel Wildcat

We chat with the Director of the Haskell Environmental Studies Center at Haskall Indian Nations University and the author of Red Alert!: Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge.

By Amy Nelson

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Dr. Daniel Wildcat, a Yuchi member of the Muscogee Nation of Oklahoma, has been teaching at the School of American Indian Studies at Haskell Indian Nations University for more than a quarter century. In that time, he has co-founded the Haskell Environmental Research Studies Center and helped establish the American Indian and Alaska Native Climate Change Working Group. A protégé of renowned American Indian activist and intellectual Vine Deloria, Jr., Dr. Wildcat writes about indigenous knowledge, technology, the environment, and education. His latest book, Red Alert! Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge (Fulcrum, 2009) is an urgent call to pay attention to the truth of what he calls “global burning,” and to apply the wisdom and adopt the world view of indigenous people in order to effectively combat it.

Leaf Litter was honored to have an opportunity to chat with this inspiring scholar, activist, and author.

How did the Haskell Environmental Research Studies Center come to be, and how is it guided by American Indian and Alaska Native Earth knowledge and wisdom?

The Haskell Environmental Research Studies Center started in 1995, as a collaboration between Kansas State University and Haskell. At that time, there was big focus on Superfund sites, and the Center for Hazard Substance Research at Kansas State approached Haskell Indian Nations University about partnering. We said we’d like to become the conduit of good information and technology transfer to our native communities in North America.

From the very moment we started talking about what would guide the Haskell Environmental Research Studies Center, we felt like we had an opportunity to affirm a very deep awareness that the way humankind lives ought to be directly informed by the landscape and seascape of the place one chooses to live. I say “chooses” because for most Americans, that’s a decision they make. For American Indians and Alaska Natives, the places that we call home are identified by thousands-years-old histories of connection to a place, a homeland. In our science, research and application of technologies, we wanted to affirm that the dichotomy we often find in the dominant society between “nature” and “culture” does not operate in our indigenous world view. It would be very difficult, for example, for an Anishinabe person of the Great Lakes to think of [himself or herself] as separate from the lakes, wild rice and fish.

Can you give us an example of how that indigenous world view is brought into a particular project or study at the Center?

The best embodiment of this awareness and relationship would be found in the recent history here at Haskell. In the early 1990s, the county announced that they wanted to build a traffic way along the southern edge of our campus, through an area known as the Wakarusa Wetland. Our students, faculty and alumni thought, “This is insane. They can’t be serious.” Well, we found out that they were serious.

Our position about the wetland, which was very much based on our indigenous philosophies and world view, really took the Kansas Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration, and other agencies involved in the debate aback. Our position was: the wetland doesn’t have to do anything other than be a wetland to be valuable to us. It is a unique ecosystem where life thrives, and it ought to be respected for what it gives to humankind and to the balance of life in the Wakarusa Rivershed area.

The wetland serves so many purposes. Can you imagine living on a campus and being able to walk to a wetland and conduct aquatic biology and botany classes there, rather than in a sterile lab environment? We made the argument that the wetland was one of the most important laboratory facilities we had, but we also talked about it in that broader context of sacredness.

[Initially founded as the U.S. Indian Industrial Training School, a government-run, ‘assimilation’ boarding school for American Indians] Haskell started in 1884, when boarding schools were all about destroying any vestige of Indian children’s tribal identity. Back then, the wetlands were a place of refuge, where students could escape and engage in important practices such as prayer, singing native songs, and speaking the native language—all of which were prohibited in the school. So this place is recognized as very important in our history, and many of us consider it a sacred site. In fact, in 1992, with the help of a crop artist, we commemorated (not celebrated) the 500-year anniversary of the arrival of Cristóbal Colón [Christopher Columbus] by putting a medicine wheel image in the north edge of the Wakarusa Wetlands. It has a spirit bird image approaching from the east. The circle itself is about 200 feet across.

Were you able to prevent the road from being constructed?

We have been fighting that for 20 years. We just received a decision from an appeals court in Denver upholding an environmental impact statement we had challenged saying that they can build the traffic way. We’re really coming up to the last round. We’ll have to see if we can appeal this to the Supreme Court.

But that is a real, contemporary example of native people saying, “Places count for something, and we ought to have active relationships with those places.”

You call climate change “global burning” and refer to it as yet another forced removal of indigenous people. While mainstream Americans do not yet really “feel” this burn, many indigenous people (whose very identity emerges from the landscapes and seascapes in which they live) are experiencing the “catastrophic dissolution of their indigenous lifeways.” To help our readers really understand this, can you share an example of a people whose lifeway is being destroyed?

Most people get it when you talk about the circumpolar Arctic. Most people don’t understand, however, [the impact on] the Desert Southwest. People think, “It’s always been a desert, so what’s the big deal?” The drought that they have experienced for almost two decades has gotten so severe, that the surface of that desert is literally changing. With the dry heat, wind, and fires, [native people in the Desert Southwest] are really facing some severe threats to their traditional agricultural practices. Even for people who are used to getting along with very little water, the change of just two, three, or four inches annually, when it comes, can be catastrophic.

In April, the American Indian Alaska Native Climate Change Working Group held a meeting on the Tohono O’odham reservation, just outside of Tucson. [The Tohono O’odham] are people who are used to 110 to 115 degree, temperatures throughout the summer. The models that some of our best scientists are working with today show extreme heat day temperatures moving to 120 degrees or even 125 degrees. I was visiting with [a Tohono O’odham] natural resource official and asked, “What does this mean to you?” He said, “I don’t know. We have lived for generations in a hot, dry place. But two months of 120 degrees? I don’t know if we can live here.” He was very serious.

Margaret Hiza Redsteer, who works with USGS, has done a lot of work on climate change and the Navajo Nation. I’ve seen pictures of hers which show Earth’s surface being rearranged by this drought. She has pictures of sand dunes covering parking lots, for example.

These are things that people are starting to think about, particularly people who have seen this incredible fire season. People are beginning to say, “Maybe we ought to begin to think about global ‘burning.’” Not only are the fuels we burn causing the heat, but with extreme fire conditions and extreme heat conditions, all of a sudden “burning’ is no longer hyperbole.

When you start looking at this drought that has extended through the Desert Southwest and the panhandle of Texas, you begin to wonder how people can live in this environment. They’re going to have to exercise what I call in my book “indigeniuty.”

In your book Red Alert!, you define “indigenuity” as the application of deep, spatial, indigenous knowledge to problem solving. For the benefit of our readers, can you elaborate on that definition?

Indigenuity is one of those words that speaks so powerfully to what we’re discussing today. Indigenuity is a problem solving ability that is the result of looking at a particular situation in a particular environment, and asking oneself, “What can I do differently, with what exists here, to change the destructive relationship we’ve been demonstrating with the balance of non-human creation and nature that we interact with, into a more restorative, life-enhancing relationship?

It’s akin to discussions you might hear about “appropriate technology”– what’s appropriate relative to a particular situation, to this landscape. It asks us to once again connect technology–very dramatically and directly–to community, communication and culture. (And by community I include the living ecosystem that I’m a part of). Indigenuity is situating technology in that sort of framework, so we don’t treat it as some sort of autonomous tool, separate from a culture or community. It includes the natural world we’re a part of.

You write that “we should look at indigenous tribal knowledges for insights into how humankind might not merely survive this global crisis, but thrive in indigenously inspired cultures of life enhancement.” To what degree do you think indigenuity, and indigenous knowledge in general, is valued today by those working in the fields of conservation planning, ecological restoration and regenerative design?

A lot of people are thinking about it. Think about “new urbanism” or “restorative landscapes.” People are beginning to recognize that with a lot of the rearranging and engineering we’ve done for our human convenience, comfort and benefit, there are latent, unintended consequences that often turn out to do much more harm than provide benefit.

Someone could be instrumental about it and do some sort of cost/benefit analysis and say, “You know what? The way we’ve been doing things really hasn’t been working very well. How can we change the way we grow food? How can we change the way we house ourselves? How can we change the way we live so that our lives are situated in a symbiotic equilibrium with the balance of nature we share the world with?”

I think this is what people are trying to deal with when they talk about restorative properties and resilient systems: things that have, promote, and give life. We may not be using the same terminology, but we are all starting to recognize what the fundamental problem is, and we’re trying to put our minds and our practices around ways to address that.

You state the need to create places where the integration of classical experimental methodologies of science can be integrated with the experiential knowledge of indigenous people. Do some of these places exist today?  Are there other places in the world that are doing a better job than we are in the U.S.?

I don’t think the U.S. can claim any type of leadership on this. That’s for sure.

I was invited by some Hawaiian elders to a meeting in January (which is a very good time to go to Hawaii if you live in Kansas). A German sociologist who was visiting Hawaii told me about a whole movement in Germany and across Europe, which we would recognize as permaculture experiments. People are exploring ways to build intentional communities in very specific places, and they are all about local food, local technology applications. To me, the fact that there’s this whole movement is very positive.

Some of that is going on here in the U.S., but I don’t want to be naïve or unrealistic. I think, and I know many people around the world would agree, that we are not the leaders; we’re kind of the poster child for the problem.

I’m a baby boomer, and I grew up in a culture of convenience – even small towns in northeastern Oklahoma and southeastern Kansas. No one really thought about energy, water, and consumption practices. To a large extent, this is still an issue in our American consumer culture. People even measure their success in terms of what they consume. We are in systems – suburbs, cities, shopping malls, “super” stores, that were largely built on a whole set of assumptions which we now realize was a mistake.

There’s some heavy lifting to do here. We’re talking about making intentionally, very different decisions and very different kinds of communities. The good news is, it seems like a lot of people who are really interested in that. Not the majority, but increasing numbers of people seem to “get it.”

I interpreted your book Red Alert! as a three-fold call to action: 1) face the truth of what is happening to Earth; 2) pay attention- to our world and the wisdom of indigenous people; and 3) change your world view! See the world from a nature/culture nexus. The question that kept coming to my mind was: how? How does one go about changing someone’s world view, and…more specifically to our audience, how do you get people in fields like biological sciences, engineering, landscape architecture, architecture, etc. to value “experience” as much as “experiment?”

The first thing you have to do is, literally, get people out of doors. If you do that, you’ll see that people start finding that there’s something they’ve been missing. One of the challenges is to create more and more places where this can happen. Planners, who are thinking about how people want to live in the future, are already beginning to value open, green spaces.

We can also have an immediate advantage by starting to teach basic science outside of classrooms. We ought to take children outside and show them how they can begin to understand science, the world, and their relationship to it. Rather than taking this odd, experimental kind of setting and approach to understanding science, why not step outside and start talking about the hydrologic cycle, the nutrient cycle, the food or energy pyramid, etc.? You can walk around and start identifying trees that grow in your neighborhood and the birds that are in them, and ask “Why are they here? Why don’t we have this bird? This tree?” Some people may say, “Well that’s fine for elementary school, but what about when we need to deal with real science?” That’s the problem. People should recognize that what I just described ought to be a part of real science.

Right now, most modern people talk about nature as a complete abstraction. “I just love nature.” You do? Well, what part of it? Why? People say, “I’m going to get close to nature. I’m going to go backpacking through the Colorado Rockies.” To me, that is absurd. Why don’t you just go outside? This weird notion that “Nature can’t be here; it has to be over there in the Rockies, the Yukon, or the Sonoran Desert,” is emblematic of the problem. Where you live is part of nature, and ought to be recognized as such. The fact that we don’t that shows you how difficult it is to change world views.

In indigenous traditions, we were great field scientists. We didn’t have to go to labs. All we had to do was go to the lakes, rivers, mountains, and forests, and guess what? We had a lot of practical insight. I think this is one of the things that we’re going to have to do. If we widen those experiences that changes peoples world views. That informs how they think about themselves.

How do you think higher education is doing, in terms fostering the integration of traditional ecological knowledge with Western scientific knowledge?

Some schools are doing quite well. There are some tribal colleges that are really addressing this, such as Diné College (formerly Navajo Community College), Northwest Indian College, and Haskell Indian Nations University.

What about non-Indian universities?

Some are beginning to get there. Dartmouth has a good IGERT program (Integrated Graduate Education Research Training Program) which deals with climate change. Kansas University also has a good IGERT program. Both are doing a good job of getting students out on landscapes, in places, to begin to understand what’s going on.

Tell us about the American Indian and Alaska Native Climate Change Working Group. To what degree has this group begun to collaborate with national or international science organizations?

We have collaborated quite a bit. We have had a lot of support from national and federal scientific organizations. I had a summer research group that spent a week out at the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (NCAR-UCAR) in Boulder, Colorado. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has supported grants and programs for tribal colleges as a result of what we’ve tried to facilitate through the Climate Change Working Group. We have received gift support from NASA, NOAA, USGS and others. In a lot of ways, that’s hopeful. It suggests that even these big, mainstream, dominant-society institutions are beginning to realize that native people have valuable knowledge.

Are they actually integrating that knowledge into their programs?

Yes, they are really working on it.

In Red Alert!, you mention the 2007 Treaty of Indigenous Nations, and the fact that there is now a United League of Indigenous Nations. The U.S. has failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. What role do you think the world’s indigenous people can play on the global stage?

I’m going to be very honest. I’m not terribly hopeful about that global stage. I see these large, global meetings as being controlled by major nation states like the U.S., China, and I see a lot of political jockeying.

I think indigenous people will start saying, “Let’s convene our own meetings, and talk amongst ourselves about things we can do. If we wait for the major nation states of the world, we’re all going to be in big trouble.”

In Red Alert!, you recognize the need for “homeland maturity,” and you describe that maturity as a respectful humility whereby people recognize that they are but one part of life on Earth and that they have an “inalienable responsibility” to the life that surrounds us. What gives you hope that this level of maturity can be achieved across our nation and world?

This is something for which I’m really indebted to my mentor, the late Vine DeLoria Jr., one of our leading American Indian scholars and intellectuals. The issue of maturity comes up in a lot of his writing. I once asked him about it and he said, “What is maturity? Maturity is thinking about others; not just yourself.” He said, “If you look at us as a species, it’s all about us. The question is: will we begin to develop maturity?”

The issue [of homeland maturity] is embodied in what Oren Lyons[Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan among the Onondaga Nation and member of the Council of Chiefs of the Haudenosaunee] says: “Do you look at the world around you as ‘resources’ for our use, or do you recognize that other life as ‘relatives?’”

Think about what a radical departure there would be in the way we do things if we said, “I’m not going to treat plants, animals, the Earth, water and air as resources. I’m going to establish relationships of respect.” We need to leave behind this unrealistic notion that the balance of nature exists as resources for our consumption, and start recognizing that life is relatives to be treated with respect.

I’m not against a fundamental notion of inalienable rights. Even native people recognize the integrity of individuals and moral autonomy. But we left behind the counterbalance. We need to move from a system solely based on inalienable, unrealistic rights to one balanced with inalienable responsibilities.

Look at all the advertising that’s being done by carbon energy: “Oh, look at all the natural gas and coal we still have! We don’t need to worry! We just need to reproduce what we already have!” I say we need to move from systems of reproduction to systems of resilience.

So, we need to move from resources to relatives; from inalienable rights to inalienable responsibilities; and from reproduction to resilience.

With the kind of model we have, when people are unhappy, they take a pill. When people can’t sleep, they take a pill. When people are overweight and feeling bad, they take a pill. I would argue that we need to stop looking for that biochemical solution. Let’s just look at how we are living, and let’s begin to modify that so we can live with less stress, in a life-enhancing manner. That’s not indigenous romanticism. That’s indigenous realism.

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