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10 September 2010

Red Alert!

On my trip back to Connecticut to visit my parents, my dad gave me a copy of a book by his friend (and mine) Dan Wildcat.  The title of the book is Red Alert!: Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge.  I read half of it on our way up to New Hampshire, and then the other half on my way back to Maryland.  The book was not a list of "indigenous knowledge" that might help to save the planet, nor was it a New Agey appeal to spiritualism, but rather a theoretical argument for, and call to action to incorporate practical indigenous knowledge into our notions of sustainability.

There were several things about the book that rung true with me - having just come off a research project involving indigenous peoples, and thinking deeply about realist understandings of our world.  First of all, Wildcat refers continuously to what he calls Indigenous Realism - that is, fully embodied, empirical, practical knowledge of a real world, and the recognition that the world acts of it's own accord rather than being simply fodder for human actions, perception, and signification:
" know 'it' - reality - requires respect for the relationships and relatives that constitute the complex web of life"

"...the Menominee understand that, like humans, the nonhuman or other-than-human features or persons, as many indigenous langagues signify them, possess an active spirit that possesses power that must be respected.  In this sense, successful living in a community constituted of other-than-human relatives requires their active cooperation and participation in order for human-kind to live well."
He refers, in addition, to the concept of the seven generations, which I've heard many times before, but have never really seen explained.  For Wildcat, we must think of ourselves as part of the seventh generation which is set in the middle of six other generations - three before and three after.  We draw on the lessons of those who came before, and consider the effect of our actions on the three that come after.  To me this reflects an intuitive notion of the composition (in the Latourian sense) of culture and knowledge, but also reflects an intrinsic respect for the future and the possibilities that emerge from our actions. 

Another important concept is what Wildcat refers to as Indigenuity or Indigenous Ingenuity.  That is, the ability of indigenous peoples (those who are attentive to their relationships with the land) to experiment, improvise and find ways to adapt to situations.  Climate change, Wildcat suggests, pushes the boundaries of Indigenuity, but by incorporating it into our notions of sustainability we might collectively be able to find novel solutions.  This is maybe analogous to cultural resilience.

Overall, the book makes a strong argument and is an effective call to action.  My only complaint with the book is the pervasive use of "Mother Earth" and Gaia langauge, which, despite the fact that it has been widely incorporated into many indigenous discourses, seems to me to be a relic of Western Romantic ideology rather than a component of truly indigenous knowledge (Wildcat refers to Deloria's The World We Used to Live In, and I've been reading portions of that book recently and haven't come across a concept that's analogous to Gaia.  In fact, Wildcat acknowledges the Western origin of Gaiaism early in the book, but continues to use it nonetheless - maybe just for the sake of simplicity or because this wasn't the place to question it).  I'm working on an article at the moment in which I argue that we need to move away from these concepts in order to develop a more practical environmentalism.  But, in any case, the book is good, and I highly recommend picking it up if you're interested in indigenous issues or even realist theory.


Anonymous said...

A lot of the comments on this post remind me of the book I am reading now. "A Language Older than Words" says much the same thing. Where/when did we become so distant from our natural neighbors???

Jeremy Trombley said...

Definitely one of Jensen's best books, in my opinion. There are definitely parallels here, though Jensen is a little more radical than Wildcat. I realized just before reading Wildcats book - and the book really solidified it for me - that the main difference between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous (i.e. Western) culture is that the Non-indigenous see the world as being simply a material substrate which can and should be molded in whatever image they like, whether it's "Natural" or otherwise. Indigenous culture, on the other hand, recognizes the agency of the world and the importance of building relationships.
More on this in the future - like I said, I'm working on an article on it as we speak - but I'll surely post some thoughts later on.
Thanks for the comment!

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