Does Daniel Wildcat, professor at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, really believe indigenous knowledge can save the planet? The answer is yes, but a qualified yes.
The first qualification is humanity will need help to clean up the mess we’ve made, help from the nonhuman cohabitants of our planet. We need a lot of help to become competent, mature members of humankind and our larger, more extensive ecological kinship relations. This help, when it comes, will take the form of learning from careful observation of our environments.
The second qualification is we, who see things through a modern, Western worldview, need to make a profound change in that worldview, replacing a tenet anchored in Genesis 1:26 – And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth (King James version). This linking of our anthropocentric worldview to the Biblical creation story isn’t in Red Alert. It goes back to Lynn White’s famous 1967 article, The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis. In Wildcat’s words, Primary .among the myths to which modern humankind faithfully adheres is the deep-seated notion that humankind constitutes the center of creation around which the rest of the world revolves. This position is held self-evident by our “apparent” control and manipulation of the natural world. We’ll need to replace this myth with another story.
What story? That remains to be discovered, but one example of indigenous knowledge we might study is the famously sustainable management of the Menominee forest. Here Wildcat quotes Ronald Trosper’s 2007 article Indigenous influence on forest management on the Menominee Indian Reservation, one of several recent academic works celebrating Menominee sustainable forest management. This achievement, in Trosper’s estimation, is anchored in three principles: (1) We humans are one of many species living in complex ecosystems, in no way special – or, rather, special as all species are special; (2) The nonhuman cohabitants of our ecosystems are infused, as we are, with a spiritual dimension that must be acknowledged and respected; and (3) The ecosystems we inhabit belong to everyone collectively, not anyone individually.
Realistically, it seems unlikely we humans, especially in the US, will give up our collective pursuit of individual prosperity, or our relentless dismantling of ecosystems we depend on anytime soon. We are not yet tired, or tired enough, of the story we’ve been telling each other for centuries, though it brings us surprisingly little happiness. Still, Wildcat’s Alert is a useful reminder of the path we’re on and signpost pointing toward a better alternative.