I get angry when I think about global warming, or global burning, as I prefer to designate this world phenomenon. I get angry because I know the history of involuntary removals and relocations indigenous peoples throughout the United States and around the world have endured. So, when nearly a decade ago I began hearing the reports of what was beginning to manifest itself on the landscapes and seascapes of the circumpolar Arctic and banks of the Yukon River in Alaska, I got angry. Angry because I thought, Here we go again – another removal of indigenous peoples.
Contrary to what is found in U.S. history books, many of us encountered in our peoples’ histories at least three removal attempts. Many of us have trails of tears stories. From one shore to the other on this continent, there are many stories of removal from indigenous homelands beyond the most well-known removal of the so-called civilized tribes of the southeastern United States to Oklahoma in 1838.
The stubborn resilience of our ancestors was again sorely tested during a second displacement: The removal of our children from our homes and families to off-reservation boarding schools. These removals were done by “friends” of Indians who wanted to solve the “Indian problem” with the classic liberal solution to all social problems – education. But, in this case, that meant education in off-reservation boarding schools. One of the surest methods for destroying a people, their families, communities, and culture is to take their children away.
I get angry when I think about global warming, or global burning, as I prefer to designate this world phenomenon.
The removal of children takes on an even more sinister air when it is understood that boarding school education programs were premised on the necessity of stripping Native children of all features of their unique tribal identities and cultures. Education was only one, albeit the most potent, representative of the final removal attempt waged by every social institution that American society could bring to bear on who we were as indigenous peoples. Religion, law, economy, education and family, all of the social institutions of the late 19th century, were attacked as “civilization” sought to remove from our peoples our Indianness – our indigenousness.
Despite these three removals – geographic, social and psycho-cultural – many American Indians and Alaska Natives still have their languages, songs, ceremonies and tribal identities. For those who faced all three removal attempts, there has been an intergenerational transmission of trauma, yet also often a tenacious resilience.
Sadly, some of us now face another removal. Of course, this time things are different. This removal is not simply a governmental social policy imperative of the non-indigenous majority population. This relocation is mandated by a much deeper, more fundamental crisis: The way we live.
Not everyone on the planet, but those of us who are immersed in or living in the interstices of modern industrial and now post industrial societies. As ice sheets and glaciers melt, permafrost thaws, and seacoasts and riverbanks erode in the near and circumpolar Arctic, peoples indigenous to these places will be forced to move, not as a result of something their Native lifeways produced, but because the most technologically advanced societies on the planet have built their modern lifestyles on a carbon energy foundation that has several problematic consequences and one deadly consequence: The emission of carbon dioxide.
Writing about climate change as an indigenous person, a Euchee (Yuchi) member of the Muscogee Nation, has been difficult. I have fought two responses to the dangerous situations in which many indigenous peoples now find themselves and growing numbers of non-Native people will soon find themselves: Anger and a fatalistic sense of hopelessness. This is frustrating and useless, for sustained anger and despair inevitably lead to dead ends along roads that literally and figuratively, physically and metaphysically indigenous peoples did not construct.
Unlike some of my angst-ridden existentialist or post-modern friends, I see neither anger nor despair nor the ensuing frustration as fundamentally defining features of the human condition. Fortunately for me and many others, these emotions do not last long once one recognizes what is happening and decides to take action.
Fortunately, thanks to indigenous elders like Oren Lyons, Billy Frank Jr., Albert White Hat, Angayuqaq Oscar Kawagley and Henrietta Mann, to name a few, I am constantly reminded that our human knowledge of reality must always be approached with humility. In North America many indigenous traditions tell us that reality is more than just facts and figures collected so humankind might wisely use resources. Rather, to know “it” – reality – requires respect for the relationships and relatives that constitute the complex web of life. I call this indigenous realism, and it entails that we, members of humankind, accept our inalienable responsibilities as members of the planet’s complex life system, as well as our inalienable rights.
In order to accept our inalienable responsibilities, we must now pay attention to what is happening in the natural world beyond the physical walls that enclose us and the alluring media windows we ironically look and listen to in order to feel connected.
In North America many indigenous traditions tell us that reality is more than just facts and figures collected so humankind might wisely use resources.
Some of us have so well-insulated ourselves from the inconvenient and uncomfortable features of the natural world, we fail to see that in the process we have isolated ourselves from the convenient, comfortable, and beautiful features of that same natural world of which we are one very small, but powerful, and now destructive part. Before progress – the idea and the people who enacted the idea – covered the globe, our ancestors lived in cultures that were emergent from the places where we lived.
An indigenous inheritance exists for humankind that takes many forms from many places and peoples regarding how humankind might re-examine lifeways that, although hardly without failures and mistakes, suggest in practical terms how we might adopt life-enhancing cultures situated in a symbiotic relationship of nature and culture. Will this indigenous inheritance be denied and go unclaimed? I hope not, for the sake of the rich diversity of life we share this planet with and for the sake of our human selves. It is time to issue a Red Alert.
Dr. Daniel Wildcat is a faculty member at Haskell Indian Nations University. This article is excerpted from “Red Alert! Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge” (Fulcrum Publishing: ISBN 978-1-55591-637-4, $12.95), available now at bookstores and online at major retailers or at www.fulcrumbooks.com.