World’s Indigenous Peoples Day – How Indigenous Knowledge-Holders Can Improve Our Understanding of the Earth


Dr. Daniel Wildcat

This International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, August 9, 2018, I ask all AGU members to take a moment to reflect on the rich Earth knowledges Indigenous Peoples possess and this year’s World Indigenous Peoples’ Day theme of migration and movement. Established in 1994 by the UN General Assembly, this annual celebration of Indigenous Peoples should cause everyone working in the geosciences to critically examine their work in relationship to the Indigenous Peoples of the world. For scientists who take the land, air and water as their primary domain it is hard to imagine how that research and the knowledge applied in the world in which we live, does not affect Indigenous Peoples. Ask yourself how much you really know about the unique political, legal, cultural, geological and geographical situation of Indigenous Peoples, especially given the prominent role current physical changes in the earth’s systems play in their life-ways and the migration and movement issues they face.

Politically, the U.S. government recognizes 567 American Indian tribes (including Alaska Native villages) in the 48 contiguous states of United States and the state of Alaska. In the U.S., Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders constitute Indigenous Peoples in their own right and work to express sovereignty in accordance with their traditions. In the case of the tribes of the 48 states they are recognized as sovereign tribal nations, nations within the larger nation of the United States of America. The political and legal situation of Alaska Natives is somewhat different and they assert their sovereignty in a manner consistent with their ancient forms of governance. Legally, both American Indians and Alaska Natives have rights, powers and often difficulties associated with their respective sovereignty, other American citizens do not. Culturally, the most distinguishing feature of the Indigenous Peoples of the United States is their diversity: a diversity directly tied to the ecological, geological and geographic character of their homelands.

Most AGU members know there are very few American Indians and Alaska Natives working professionally in the geosciences. The reasons for this are complicated (that will be the subject for another blog) and should be the cause for some “soul searching.”  Today, few people on the planet participate in cultures and express identities as emergent from ancient symbiotic relationships between their people and a place or we might say as emergent from a nature-culture nexus, like Indigenous Peoples. Consequently, Indigenous Peoples possess cultures and deep-spatial experiential knowledge systems emergent from the landscapes and seascapes they know as home. They are fundamentally geo-spatial thinkers.

Given the earth system changes now underway and the ‘wicked,’ complex relational and process driven character of the problems we are now experiencing across the planet in this Anthropocene Age, I believe the geosciences would benefit from some indigenous wisdom based on observations of landscapes and seascapes producing knowledges inter-generationally transferred over hundreds and thousands years in places some of us know and understand as homes. The fact that Indigenous knowledges and traditional ecological knowledges are now beginning to make a showing at the annual AGU meeting is hopeful.

Think about this: Because the world’s Indigenous Peoples are among the most vulnerable to the damaging effects of earth system changes experienced by humankind in this age of the Anthropocene – often as a result of too many humans thinking their culture and the powerful technologies they create, can operate and function autonomously from nature or to control nature – it might be useful for geoscientists to start a co-production of knowledge with Peoples who never thought that way. Better yet, I believe we need a generation Indigenous geoscientists for what they can bring from their Indigenous intellectual traditions to improve our understanding of humankind’s home – planet earth. Now that is something to think about.

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  1. Dale Lowery, PHD

    Thank you, Dr. Wildcat, for this thoughtful and thought-provoking essay. Those of us from the dominant Euro-centric cultures are little exposed to more natural ways of “knowing,” and are frequently taught, whether explicitly or more often through insidious cultural snobbery, that ancient ways are flawed and unworthy of our time and attention. As you have gracefully reminded us, the opposite is closer to the Truth.

    Thank you, also, for modeling the grace and generosity I have come to know and expect from Native and indigenous people when and wherever I have met them.

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