Geoscience and Traditional Knowledge: An Interview with Dr. Daniel Wildcat

Paul RacetteIn This Issue, Original, People

Dr. Daniel WildcatDr. Daniel Wildcat, a Euchee member of the Muscogee Nation of Oklahoma, is a faculty member in the School of American Indian Studies at the Haskell Indian Nations University where he has taught since 1986. His doctorate is in public administration and social science and provides basis for his keen interest in the social implications of climate change. Dr. Wildcat is co-founder of the Haskell Environmental Research Studies Center at Haskell. HERS was established in 1995 in partnership with Kansas State University’s Hazardous Substance Research Center with funds from the Environmental Protection Agency. HERS is an environmental research center guided by American Indian and Alaska Native Earth knowledge and wisdom. As part of the 25th anniversary of Earth Day, Dr. Wildcat was moderator for a nationally broadcast dialogue between traditional American Indian elders and American Indian scientists and engineers about the way we must live if we are to ensure a healthy planet for our children. Dr. Wildcat is a protégé of the late Vine Deloria, Jr., “the most significant American Indian intellectual and activist of the 20th century,” with whom he co-authored the book, Power and Place: Indian Education in America.

Earthzine: What about your life would you like to share that would give the readership a better understanding of who you are?

Wildcat: People need to understand that I take indigenous knowledge seriously, not merely as historical artifacts, but as practical systems for living well in the world today. I see much of cutting-edge systems science and assessment science as really coming around to the recognition that our everyday life experiences are not contained in academic or disciplinary boxes. Likewise, the really important questions, issues and problems we human beings face cannot be adequately addressed through narrow disciplinary perspectives. We must approach the major issues humankind now faces through interdisciplinary efforts. I am committed to interdisciplinary research and problem solving. This commitment is informed by my Euchee culture and heritage. My good fortune to work with many American Indian and Alaska Native Peoples over the past twenty years at Haskell Indian Nations University has reinforced this commitment. I can tell you from experience that among our indigenous thinkers – often people with no advanced academic degrees after their names – I have found some of the most complex and sophisticated thinkers I have ever met. A large share of what humankind needs today, in order to live well on this planet, is knowledge that is borne of a keen attentiveness to the relations and relationships we humans are surrounded by and in which we participate. The key point humankind must keep in mind is that we are just one small part, albeit it an important one, of life on this planet. Indigenous elders have helped me to really recognize this crucial point and examine its implications. I am excited about the opportunities for indigenous people to help solve some of the problems modern humankind faces.

Many indigenous worldviews have the advantage of operating without many of the invidious dualities and dichotomies that seem to have defined Western thought and generated some modern societies most vexing problems, i.e., nature v. culture, material v. spiritual, objective v. subjective, science v. religion. Although I am hesitant to use the term “holistic”, because of the way in which it has been trivialized, we should think of indigenous worldviews as wholistic.

Earthzine: What is our responsibility to Earth and how do you see that responsibility being manifested through the geosciences?

Wildcat: Responsibility is crucial for it follows from respect. I always cite the comments Onondaga wisdom keeper Oren Lyons made at the twenty-fifth anniversary Earth Day activities in Washington D.C. to demonstrate what Native people can bring to the Earth sciences. Mr. Lyons pointed out that the primary difference between the way Western trained scientists and American Indians look at nature is easily and, I might add profoundly, illustrated by the fact that the dominant threads of Western thinking look at nature and see resources, while American Indians in our indigenous worldviews look at nature and see relatives and, consequently, relationships. If you want to seriously explore a paradigm shift, think of how our human behavior might change if we understood animals, plants, geographic landforms, and other features of the other-than-human natural world as relatives. Respect would take on a much deeper meaning and as far as the future of life and biodiversity on the planet goes a much more realistic and useful meaning than what the worldview of nature as resources has given the planet. Greg Cajete, a Pueblo scholar, and several other indigenous thinkers have started talking about the indigenous R’s of education. We always include respect and responsibility. I always start my version of the indigenous R’s with relatives/relations, because this reminds us to not treat our relatives as resources: just try it with your parents, aunts and uncles and see how quickly you get set straight.

Earthzine: In June2006, you organized a symposium on the impact of climate change on Indigenous Peoples. How are Indigenous People being impacted by global warming?

Wildcat: Indigenous Peoples will be impacted numerous ways and I fear for many the impact will be catastrophic. The list of physical, ecological, and social impacts is sobering and of course they are all related. For Indigenous Peoples who continue to recognize and live their cultures as emergent from the ecosystems, landscapes and climates they call home, the impact of climate change may well be catastrophic. Today, we know, all indigenous circumpolar peoples are being greatly impacted. For people living in this region of the planet global warming is anything but abstract, speculative or theoretical. As Oscar Kawagley, a Yupiaq scholar, discussed at our Impact of Climate Change on Indigenous People Symposium, when one’s identity and way of life are emergent from an environment, a landscape recognized as home, the kind of dramatic changes that are being experienced today with the atmospheric warming is devastating. Forget the romantic “close to nature” motif many want to apply to tribal peoples, unfortunately such ideas typically trivialize the deep sense of connectedness tribal people have to landscapes they have lived within for hundreds and thousands of years. The really import point to keep in mind is that we are already seeing very significant changes across the planet, even in continental landscapes. The Navajo Nation of the desert southwest is experiencing a decade long drought, one that some are suggesting is a result of global warming. Margaret Hiza Redsteer of the USGS in Flagstaff, Arizona has pointed out that the Navajo or Dine’ are already seeing their herding and farming lifestyle threatened.

Earthzine: How can the geosciences community help the Indigenous Peoples that are being affected by global warming?

Wildcat: That is a really good question. We have the opportunity for geoscientists, atmospheric scientists, hydrologists, geologists, etc…, to team with native people at the ground level to transfer the information needed for making good decisions. The challenges tribal Peoples face are many of the same issues related to energy, water, land utilization and economic development that non-indigenous societies around the world will face but with more immediate and deeper consequences like those we are seeing in the Arctic. One of the crucial points that came out of our symposium was the recognition that in order to address the very practical questions Indigenous Peoples will face, we must provide opportunities to create several generations of indigenous geoscientists and even more importantly increase geoscience literacy for our non-scientists. Let me make four quick points about how the geosciences community can help us. First, helping requires a true partnership where both sides can benefit. We need to establish partnerships for research and education wherein American Indians/Alaska Natives and non-native scientists can translate their respective knowledge into language that nonscientists can understand. Both have information and knowledge to share. It is critical that humankind begins to recognize the way in which the physical processes of the land, ocean, atmosphere as well as the plant and animal worlds are being affected by global warming. Second, a true collaboration is built on trust. Information and knowledge exist within the geosciences and traditional environmental knowledge (TEK) that should be shared in a mutually-beneficial exchange. However, because of a sad litany of historical and contemporary events, Native Peoples have good reason to distrust those who so often come to help or save us. Nonnative scientists need to be aware of this as we move forward in developing collaborative partnerships. Third, communication poses a classic problem: nevertheless, it is through bi-directional communication that the geosciences can play a critical role in helping the tribes. I have found through experience that if I take the time to listen, not only to the words but how they are said, very useful insights into important questions can be gained. Fourth, it’s a mistake to think that the issues Native Peoples are facing are irrelevant to modern industrial societies. The key is recognizing that the planet Earth we share ties us together. In partnership we can generate useful knowledge for people all over the planet. The work being done to develop Geographical Information Systems with remote sensing data for tribal land management is a good example of how partnership between Native communities and geoscientists can be mutually beneficial.

Earthzine: You discuss establishing a mutually-beneficial partnership. How do you see the geosciences being advanced by integrating traditional knowledge?

Wildcat: The planet is tremendously complex and to understand the advances being made in the geosciences will require a deeper appreciation for Earth’s interrelationships than currently exists. The way that Earth science is currently developing emphasizes the fact that multi- and interdisciplinary research is crucial. At a time when many of the leading universities are shifting more towards experientially-based education, a serious examination of tribal and essentially experiential traditions of learning and acquisition of knowledge will prove very useful. Still, most of modern humankind is disconnected from the non-human made natural environment. How many people know what the phase of the moon is? Problems we face today result, in part, from the fact that most of our experience occurs in human-made environments, well insulated from the other-than-human natural world. Technology does not give us the tactile phenomenal sense, awareness and appreciation needed for a deeper understanding of Earth and all its relations. For this reason, I see Native students with an experiential-based education grounded in a close relationship with specific lands as predisposed to making very good geoscientists. The challenges we face require the inclusion of multiple perspectives, especially those originating from tribal lifeways, e.g. customs, habits, tribal ceremonial knowledge, etc…, that are closely tied to the rhythms of the Earth.

Earthzine: One of the goals of the Working Group established at the symposium is to develop more Indigenous geoscience professionals. What can be done to attract more Indigenous scholars to pursue studies in the geosciences?

Wildcat: We need to create greater awareness of the breadth and importance of geosciences in the tribal schools, colleges and universities. Many tribal Peoples associate geosciences with geology and the exploitation of land for its minerals, coal, natural gas, and oil. We need to convey to our young scholars that the geosciences encompass a much broader array of disciplines and have tremendous value to their tribes at the local level as well as at societal and global levels.

This interview was originally published in the IEEE GRS-S Newsletter, June 2006.