We cannot address the physical climate change facing us until we have a cultural climate change, Lawrence author Daniel Wildcat told a crowd packed into the Raven Book Store Friday evening.
Wildcat, Yuchi member of the Muscogee Nation of Oklahoma, has been a premier scholar and writer on Indigenous thought, education and ecological knowledge for decades.
He is a professor at Haskell Indian Nations University, the author of several books and continues the work of Indigenous scholarship forged by his mentor, Vine Deloria, Jr.
More than 70 people gathered at the Raven, eager to hear Wildcat discuss and read an excerpt from the latest book he’s contributed to the interdisciplinary fields of Indigenous and environmental studies: “On Indigenuity: Learning the Lessons of Mother Earth.”
Employees worked to push book displays to the edges of the store to make more space for the extra large turnout. Young children and agile adults sat on the floor in front of audience members seated in chairs, while others stood crowded together behind the available seating.
All of Wildcat’s books the store had on hand sold out.
How the book came to be
Wildcat’s 2009 book, “Red Alert! Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge,” was small but difficult to write, he said. Between 2007 and 2008, Wildcat read everything he could from climate scientists, the content of which he found depressing. He saw that “we’re doomed with the kind of behavior humankind — a lot of humankind — is engaged in.”
He found inspiration and a different way of communicating ideas in Pablo Neruda’s poetry, which led him to read other poets. He realized that poetry can express things in a very powerful way that typical scientific literature cannot.
For his latest book, “On Indigenuity: Learning the Lessons of Mother Earth,” he “called on Spirit and Reason” — a nod to the Deloria reader by the same name.
Wildcat described “On Indigenuity” as a collection of “loosely-coupled essays,” explaining that he sees all his studies as related. Each essay is bridged by a poem.
The book contains experiences, knowledge and wisdom shared with him “by many persons — human and different-than-human persons,” he said. “For as I’ve often repeated, I am rich in relatives.”
He said there’s “real wisdom that’s shared by Indigenous people from around the globe.” He added that Indigenous cultures are all different, not a monolith.
“A different viewer lens is in order — an Indigenous worldview, not the Indigenous worldview.”
But Indigenous peoples do have shared values, he said, such as personhood and stewardship of the earth. The “deadly mistake” of humans thinking they are morally and cognitively superior to animals and plants is a foreign idea to most Indigenous peoples, he said.
He said he believes that “some of the most important voices of this century will be Indigenous voices.”
Hope for the future
Despite so much threatening our climate, Wildcat said his view is a hopeful one.
He emphasized that we have the ability to look at ourselves and make changes. Regarding cynicism, he said, “that’s not the space I want to be.” He doesn’t want children to be told to give up and that there’s no future for them.
During the discussion, Wildcat shared his “elevator pitch” about what he has learned from his Indigenous relatives:
First, don’t treat your relatives as resources to extract without replenishment.
Second, rights are always grounded with responsibilities, he said. “We have the opportunity to balance this absolutely fanatic obsession we have in the United States, this idea of inalienable rights.” He gave the example of people who wouldn’t wear masks during the pandemic: “Don’t you have any inalienable responsibilities?”
Lastly, we need to move away from the sustainability greenwashing that corporations participate in, he said.
“Here’s the problem: I don’t think I want to sustain what they want to sustain.”
Wildcat asks how we can individually and collectively promote systems of life enhancement on this planet rather than relying on sustainability campaigns.
“We’re all entangled in this very destructive system,” he said, adding that justice is not “just us” but encompasses all our relations, the air, the land, the water, the plants, the animals.
Lies from people who know better are part of the problem we face, Wildcat told the audience. There are also mistakes by people who are “honestly wrong, who misunderstand rather than misrepresent. Those who come by their misunderstanding honestly.” He hopes that sharing Indigenous worldviews may “cause them to rethink how they see and understand the world.”
An audience member asked Wildcat how he connects to nature. He encouraged everyone to remember that when they step outside, they are out of doors. They don’t have to go to a national forest to be “close to nature.” Even in a cultivated landscape like Mass Street, “there is still the wind, the sun, the trees.”
Wildcat recently returned from the College of Richmond in Virginia, where Indigenous scholars and activists from the upper Amazon, Australia, Japan and New Zealand gathered.
He dedicated Friday’s reading to four Indigenous activists from the upper Amazon whose family members were executed for protecting the forest from roads illegally cut by foresters: Arlindo Ruiz Santos, Maria Elena Paredes Márquez, William Villacorta and Afonso Rengifo Pérez.
If community coverage like this matters to you, please support The Lawrence Times.
Click here to subscribe.
If our local journalism matters to you, please help us keep doing this work.
Don’t miss a beat … Click here to sign up for our email newsletters
Molly Adams (she/her), photojournalist and news operations coordinator for The Lawrence Times, can be reached at molly (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Check out more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.