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Native Currents

'Mother Earth has issued a red alert'

Several noted speakers, including Daniel Wildcat, delivered messages on indigenous ways of caring for the natural world during ''Mother Earth,'' a concert at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., July 7.

Tremendous knowledge and wisdom resides in American Indian and Alaska Native traditions. Right now the planet requires that humankind listen to what indigenous people are saying. Indigenous people - those who take their instructions for living from the sacred powers of this creation, the environment, ecosystems and climates - possess useful knowledge much needed today. Mother Earth has issued a red alert. And indigenous peoples have been echoing this alert a very long time.

In order to appreciate this red alert, the prejudices and stereotypes that have kept people from paying attention to indigenous thinkers and their life ways must be set aside. One of these prejudices is instructive: the idea that civilization results from the human control and manipulation of nature has had deadly consequences for life on our planet. Native peoples around the world can speak directly to this point. The same logic that established a war between nature and so-called civilized humankind too often continues to justify wars against Native peoples so they and their lands can be controlled.

Modern societies are too infatuated with the powerful technologies humankind produced to serve OUR ends of comfort, convenience and control of nature. Too many of our leaders unrealistically think humankind stands above and independent of the rest of the natural world. This misguided notion holds that humankind can always rise above the forces of nature through our rationality and use of technology.

This is wrong.

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Fortunately, tribal elders possess worldviews and life ways (including technologies) closely tied to the unique environments where they have lived. Many Native peoples continue to find their identities, cultures, in the broadest sense, and most important life lessons in the landscapes and seascapes that they call home: their indigenous knowledge emerges from their natural environments. Their main message is that nature and culture cannot be divorced - that biological diversity and cultural diversity are inextricably connected.

Look inside the magnificent building behind me - the National Museum of the American Indian. Here, scholars and scientists curate objects of material tribal cultures that reflect great symbolic meaning and the finest of talent. It is full of examples of the integration of power and place and peoples emergent from the constant nexus of nature and culture.

Amazingly, indigenous peoples are still here. This museum is not about dead Indians - it is the embodiment of living traditions - but traditions now threatened throughout the Americas, and around the world, as a result of what might honestly be called global burning.

As new ways to thrive in life-enhancing cultures are sought out, Native traditions and worldviews must be acknowledged. Many scientists now recognize the knowledge of indigenous peoples. Groups like the American Indian and Alaska Native Climate Change Working Group are encouraging Native students to play to their strengths as indigenous ''holistic'' thinkers and enter scientific fields. Tribal colleges and universities are working to ensure that our indigenous tribal knowledge of landscapes and climates are valued and incorporated into geosciences education and research.

Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation, and many of our elders remind us that if we see the natural world as full of relatives - not resources - good things will happen.

American Indian and Alaska Native wisdom is a cooperative construction built on generations of attentive interaction between humans and the diversity of life found in the unique ecosystems and environments which we call home. How will we protect our homes and homelands? Why not through indigenous life-enhancing systems of knowledge promoting homeland maturity - a human maturity that shows we respect our mother, the Earth.

Daniel R. Wildcat, Ph.D., is a Yuchi member of the Muscogee Nation of Oklahoma. He is co-director of the Haskell Environmental Research Studies Center and American Indian Studies faculty member at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan.