Leroy Little Bear on Blackfoot metaphysics and climate change
‘We have to change our thinking.’
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DR. LEROY LITTLE BEAR: What we’ve done in the Western world is we’ve taken ourselves out of the circle rather than being part of it.
JEREMY KLASZUS (HOST): This episode is not another bad news story about climate change. It’s about the ways we think about climate change—and about the very ways we think about and understand the world around us in general.
Let me back up a bit. On April 26 Calgary city council had a strategic meeting on climate change. Now, this meeting itself was not particularly consequential by conventional standards. There were no major votes or decisions made on climate action that day—those are supposed to come later, in late May and June.
But it occurred to me, as I was watching this meeting, that this was one of the most illuminating city council meetings I have seen in nearly 20 years of covering Calgary politics.
And you’re about to hear why.
Existence is a web of relationships. What you do to the land, to the animals, to the water, you do to yourself.
Last November Calgary city council declared a climate emergency, joining a bunch of other cities that have done the same thing. But what does such a declaration mean?
CAROLYN BOWEN (CLIMATE DIRECTOR, CITY OF CALGARY): It signals to our community, our province, our country, and the world that we are a global player now in this space. And we are competing for international talent and capital in creating the new economy.
KLASZUS: We should get more specifics on the city’s climate plans later this month and I’m curious about what city hall will focus on. It seems there is always an impulse to gravitate toward focusing on technology, toward economic growth—the same narratives, tools and understandings that got us into this mess in the first place. There is far less talk about cutting our consumption, about changing the way we live, about transforming how we understand the world and our place in it.
It seems that even now we can’t comprehend anything but economic growth. And this is often used as a selling point for taking climate action.
Now, this isn’t Calgary’s first go at taking climate action. The city has developed climate and growth plans in the past and fallen short of its targets. And sometimes climate hasn’t entered the conversation at all when crucial decisions have been made about emissions in the city. I’m thinking for example about when the last city council approved 14 new communities.
But I want to zoom out; I don’t want to dwell on that. Instead, let’s look at how we approach and understand this problem of climate change and our relation to it.
Dr. Leroy Little Bear is a renowned Blackfoot scholar and educator from the Kainai Nation. In the 1970s, he helped found the Native American Studies Department at the University of Lethbridge, where he taught courses on law, philosophy and more. He also chaired the program for over two decades. And although he’s long since retired, he continues to teach—though not necessarily in a classroom setting. Sometimes it’s in city hall chambers.
And Little Bear kicked off this strategic meeting on climate change by giving Calgary city council a bit of a crash course on the differences between Blackfoot and Western metaphysics. In other words, about the different ways we see reality—or what we understand to be reality.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this question of: what is real? That question sounds so simple, as if we could all agree on it. But it’s increasingly obvious that we don’t. Just look around at the different problems we’re facing as a society. Think of the protests we’ve seen over the past year. What one person takes as truth, another understands as “fake news.”
It seems we are drawing from wildly divergent wells of understanding.
Those metaphysics that I’ve referred to are our tools for reality structuring.
In this context, it’s worth taking some time to consider *how* we understand reality. And that’s exactly what a lot of Little Bear’s work is about.
After Little Bear spoke, the presentations at city hall continued. There were a bunch of them and my plan was originally to condense them into this episode. So I started editing clips. But as I did so, I kept coming back to Little Bear’s talk. And I was struck by the contrast between what he said and what came after. One of the points Little Bear made is that the city’s climate change projects are worthwhile, but they amount to a patchwork effort.
We have to change our thinking, he said. What he proposed is an entire paradigm shift.
But after his presentation was done, city hall’s technocratic approach took over. And my sense was—hold on. We’re just picking up and hurrying past something really important here. Something that calls for deep consideration and reflection.
And so I want to slow the tape on this so you can hear what he had to say.
Here’s what Dr. Leroy Little Bear shared with Calgary city council on April 26.
LEROY LITTLE BEAR: Your Worship, and councillors for City of Calgary. I’m from Kainai, and I’m of the Small Robes Band, and we’re of the Blackfoot Confederacy. I’m very honored to be before you this morning to share some thoughts with you about resilience and climate change.
I thought I would start my presentation with a couple thoughts, a couple anecdotes. One of our young people last week came and told me about a dream that they had. The dream was that they were on the prairie and they saw a bunch of rattlesnakes, and these rattlesnakes were coiling themselves up and tightening themselves up. If you can just imagine yourselves tying a knot, like your shoelaces. And that’s what they were doing to themselves. And he said in this dream, they went up over a little hill, and there was a whole bunch of these rattlesnakes with the knots—and they were all dead. I told him, “I don’t know what that means. You might sit on it. You might go talk to some elders.”
But what it reminds me of is I had a student from Australia, an Aborigine student, who told me—this was four or five years ago—that over there in Western Australia, a small tribe of Aborigines had decided not to have babies anymore. That’s the way she put it—not to have babies anymore—because industrial development in their tribal territory had so changed the land that in their minds, they couldn’t be who they used to be.
In other words, their culture was so changed by this development that they can’t be who they are anymore. So they’ve decided, “We’re not going to have babies anymore. We’re just going to die off, slow but sure because we just can’t be who we want to be.” That’s what that dream of one of our young people reminded me of.
Blackfoot metaphysics include notions of flux. Everything is always in motion.
And in this exercise of climate change and resilience, I’m not going to come to you with some brand new discovery about how to do things. But I want to come to you to suggest something about the whole notion about a paradigmatic shift.
Every morning, we wake up in the morning and we think that we’re waking up to this reality. Well, a quantum physicist by the name of Steven Weinberg—and you know how scientists like to pride themselves when it comes to science, how they are very objective in their work. Well, he says there is an objective reality out there, but as soon as you put a human being in the picture, it becomes an interpretation of that objective reality. And so, what we wake up to every morning is not the objective reality but our human interpretation of it. You see the picture, and we think that that’s the reality—when in fact, it is just an interpretation of it.
My presentation is titled Metaphysics: Intersecting Western and Native Ideas. Resilience from a Blackfoot Perspective. I generally understand resilience as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult happenings, sometimes accompanied by a bit of macho-ness on our part. In other words, we can withstand anything that comes up. Well, those metaphysics that I’ve referred to are our tools for reality structuring.
All societies at one time or another claim a territory, and within that territory a culture arises, and an interpretive template—that’s what I mean. You wake up and you have this interpretive template that we use for interpreting reality. And that’s what we wake up to every morning.
So, along with that interpretive template comes social values, and those values act as goals to reach for, and they guide us. That’s what we refer to as norms and standards. Metaphysics, customs and values are very closely related, and the ramifications of those have lots of implications for the whole notion of our approach to climate change.
What are those metaphysics that we carry around and that we wake up with every morning? Well, if you ask the ordinary person on the street, most people couldn’t articulate that. They’re so embedded in us that we know and we use those metaphysics, but most of us couldn’t begin to articulate them.
Well, let me tell you what they are.
A Western understanding of reality
Most of us use these metaphysics, and it’s all about perceptual stagnation. In other words, this is the way God made it. God’s work is beautiful, and it’ll be like this forever and a day. That’s one aspect of it.
Existence consists of matter. Space, cosmic and everything, is a place for matter. In Western thought, that’s what it’s all about. Most everything in the cosmos is inanimate. Everything is inanimate except for you and I, and except maybe those animals out there. But plants are inanimate in our way of thinking. That’s in Western thought.
To come to know, we must isolate. In other words, we may start out broad, but we always come to the point. That’s why there’s one true God, one right answer, one right way of doing things. That’s what we wake up with every morning. And once it’s known, we say, “Hey, been there, done, did it. Let’s move on.”
And our very important referent in our mind, that we always carry at the back of our mind is the notion of time. Time is always at the back of our mind. We always carry it around. And social values that arise out of these metaphysics, these aspects, include things such as bigger, faster, higher. Higher is better than lower. Newer is better than older. These are the kind of values that we carry around, and so on.
If you stop and think about it and you say: When I take those metaphysics, those social values, and I apply them to the notion of climate change, what do I come out with? Well, when we’re talking about climate change, we are talking about ecological balance. That’s really what we’re talking about. Ecological relations speak to balancing equal systems, wildlife populations and biodiversity of the landscape. That’s what climate change is all about.
But when we’re talking about climate change in our situation, we usually come at it from a utilitarian perspective. A utilitarian perspective usually looks at everything from the greatest happiness it will bring to mankind, because we’re the only sentient beings in our view. We never look at things from the benefit it might bring to the land or to animals, or to the plant life.
So, if we were to stop and come back to our city of Calgary, Calgary is to be congratulated for all the little things it is doing to counter climate change, and of it’s goal about zero emissions by 2050. You are to be congratulated. The totality of those little things do amount to quite a bit. When you put them all together, they do amount to quite a bit, but they are a patchwork approach.
Social values that arise out of [Western] metaphysics… include things such as bigger, faster, higher.
A Blackfoot understanding of reality
For comparison, let’s look at Blackfoot metaphysics and climate change.
In Blackfoot, we also have our approach, and we have our metaphysics. Blackfoot metaphysics include notions of flux. Everything is always in motion. Existence consists of energy waves, not matter. It’s about energy waves.
Everything is animate. In other words, in Blackfoot, there is no such thing as inanimate. Everything is animate. So, we talk about all my relations. When we’re talking about all my relations, we’re talking about all those other beings, those trees, those rocks, all those other animals. And existence is a web of relationships, renewal and maintenance of those conditions, and factors that make for the present reality without which humans cannot survive as a species, sustaining the land upon which the present human reality depends on.
And language, lastly, acts as a repository for the knowledge that arises out of those metaphysics.
Now, when we apply those Blackfoot metaphysics to climate change, the thing is that all of existence is animate, it is all about my relations. I need all of my relatives; those rocks, those trees, those animals out there, I need them and they need me. So, it is all about reciprocity. That’s what the approach is all about. Existence is a web of relationships. What you do to the land, to the animals, to the water, you do to yourself.
What is missing right now in a Western-dominated world is ceremony and respect for the environment and ecological balance.
Just a slight segue with regard to water. You know that only 3% of all the water on this Earth is freshwater. Only 3% that we depend on. And the six to seven billion people on this Earth, that’s what they depend on is that 3%. Stop and think about it. You and I, every adult human being, is at least 65% water. All of us are at least 65% water. A brand new born baby is probably 75% water. So, what you do to the water, you do to yourself.
If you realize that, it makes a big difference about how you think about climate change. It’s all about good relationships.
So, continuing with the application of Blackfoot metaphysics to climate change—that’s the reason why Blackfoot Confederacy and other First Nations adopted a keystone species, like the buffalo. Because we as humans have kind of gone overboard, but we need their help—that is the buffalo in this case—to help us bring back that ecological balance. The buffalo is an eco-engineer, and it helps to bring about that balance we’ve been talking about. Our songs, our stories, our ceremonies, are very closely related to that buffalo.
Through its eco-engineering of the landscape, the buffalo has taught us many lessons about the land, plants, and other animals.
Our spiritual responsibility
Learning our spiritual responsibility to the ecosystem brings about changes. That responsibility includes learning about plant and animal communities. You know that these plants do grow in communities. Animals do live in communities. And they’re alive and have life ways. So, in our traditions, we talk and we sing to them. They in turn teach us songs. Many ceremonies are specific to places, to animals, and to plants. We go to specific places. They have their own songs, their own ceremonies and so on. That’s how closely related we are to the landscape.
The lesson to be learned Is that we live in a very narrow spectrum of ideal conditions. You know that scientists say that we’re an accident of nature. In other words, conditions and factors just happened to be just right for humans to come into the picture. If we are going to survive as a species, we must maintain and renew those conditions, otherwise, we will be a passing phase.
We have to change our thinking. We have to go through that paradigmatic shift.
I jokingly tell people, I used to text Neanderthal man. You know that Neanderthal man used to be our neighbour? He’s nowhere to be seen. He’s gone. We’re still around. Well, you know there are scientists today that are already talking about the next species. They’re already talking about the next species that are going to take over for humans. Well, if we want to be around a little bit longer, we better do something about climate change.
And what is missing right now in a Western-dominated world is ceremony and respect for the environment and ecological balance. What we’ve done in the Western world is we’ve taken ourselves out of the circle rather than being part of it.
And the road to true resilience is education. We need to make Calgarians know that climate change is for real, that if we are going to reach our goal of zero emissions, we have to change our thinking. We have to go through that paradigmatic shift. If we don’t, then these little attempts here and there that I’m referring to as a patchwork approach won’t accomplish the task.
Truth and Reconciliation gave us the luxury of stepping back to reflect. COVID-19—the positive side of it is that it is also giving us time to step back and reflect and examine how we do things. We should take advantage of that opportunity of stepping back and really reflect on how we do things. So, maybe it’d be a good idea to go and take on our spiritual responsibility and sing to our plants, talk to them, and so on, really develop a relationship.
We’re doing a good job right now with all these different programs that we’re starting, but it’s that paradigmatic shift that we need to go through with all our people within the city of Calgary to make them realize that climate change is for real. And our neighbours upstream and downstream, because what people upstream do affects our community here, but then what we do here affects people downstream.
We need to be good neighbours and we need to develop relationships with those communities too.
So my message is: Let’s all work together and develop those relationships by going through this paradigmatic shift.
For further reading, check out:
Jagged Worldviews Colliding, by Leroy Little Bear
Traditional Knowledge and Humanities: A Perspective by a Blackfoot, by Leroy Little Bear
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