Dan Wildcat Discusses Indigenous Perspectives of Climate Change


Spring 2010

Dan Wildcat, a Yuchi member of Muscogee Nation, began his partnership with CReSIS in June 2006. This marked the first time the American Indian and Alaska Native Climate Change Working Group convened, at a meeting entitled "Ice Symposium: Impacts of a Changing Environment for American Indians and Alaska Natives." Attendees of this three-day meeting included not only tribal college administrators and professors, but also representatives from federal agencies and national scientific labs. All emerged with hope. Opportunities from the working group, which now meets twice annually, have included student internship opportunities and collaborative research efforts between federal agencies and tribal colleges.

"To me, finding these shared interests is the embodiment of how we wanted things to work," Wildcat said.

Most recently, the group collaborated in planning the second Native People, Native Homelands workshop, which will be held in November of 2009, two weeks prior to the COP15 conference in Copenhagen. This workshop represents an effort to foster ways for Native peoples worldwide to have a role in the development and direction of climate change policy. The unique ties native communities have had with their homelands for generations upon generations is why their knowledge should not go ignored in political or scientific arenas, Wildcat said.

"I feel there's beginning to be a genuine recognition that people who've lived in a place for many generations, and people who view their lines as connected to homelands that their grandparents, great-grandparents, children, and children's children have and will depend upon, possess this longitudinal empirical database," Wildcat said. "This is something that scientists are beginning to recognize as very important in understanding climate change and adaptation strategies."

Along with providing a richer understanding to the complexities of climate change, bringing indigenous knowledge into the understanding of the general population may also serve to localize the climate change scenarios. "We know that climate change will manifest itself in very different ways in different places," Wildcat said. "This is what local indigenous knowledge can give us -- insight and recognition that it's not one-size-fits-all solutions that will work for us."

Red Alert

Dan Wildcat's latest book "Red Alert! : Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge," calls for a convergence of cultures to address climate change issues.

This indigenous knowledge, or "indigenuity," as Wildcat prefers, comes less from human minds' interpretation of it, and more from the source itself -- the plants, animals, seascapes, and landscapes that Native Americans and indigenous peoples throughout the world depend upon for their survival. During his presentation to IGERT, Wildcat explained that following one of the working group meetings, a researcher from Northwest Indian College brought up the impact that climate change is having on salmon fisheries, which are one of the main economic lifelines for tribes in the Pacific Northwest. Collaboration between the college and a federal agency ensued, and out of the situation emerged a statement that sums up precisely the experiential, natural essence of indigenous knowledge. "It's not our knowledge, it's what the salmon is telling us," Wildcat relayed to his audience.

"That's one advantage of indigenous knowledge systems," Wildcat said. "We typically do not pay attention to what the water may be telling us, to what the salmon may be telling us, but if you begin to kind of rearrange the perspective, you soon realize that the bird, the plant, and its shifts in behavior, may tell you something. It's not human-centered knowledge."

Wildcat says he's certainly not one to contest modern science and the advantages of sound, empirical knowledge. Rather, by regarding both experimental and experiential (indigenous) knowledge as essential to understanding the changes the Earth is facing, a fuller, richer picture of what's going on will emerge. "Having both knowledge systems in a dialogue is so important because in so many cases, they are complementary."