BOOK REVIEW: “Required Reading” – Curated by NDN Collective

-C.J. Keene, News Director

(CORRECTION: An earlier run of this review erroneously referred to Maia Wikler as a “White ally”)

Have you ever wondered what the real beliefs of prominent indigenous activists are?

Importantly, I’m not talking about the half-baked, unthoughtful beliefs that are too frequently heard in the tones of neoliberal-types who claim to “feel the pain of the native peoples” at best, or of angry, hateful abject racism seen right here in Rapid City at worst.

No. Not that. I’m talking about reality here. In the words of indigenous leaders and activists, on their own terms.

Curious about the historical depth of indigenous peoples approach to climate change? Or is it the question of why indigenous philanthropy of NDN Collective’s ilk is necessary in the modern age? Or perhaps more detail about what the ambitious and controversial “LANDBACK” campaign actually constitutes?

Interested?

Then read “Required Reading: Climate Justice, Adaptation, and Investing in Indigenous Power”, because there isn’t a clearer window into the beliefs and philosophy of a group, for someone from outside the community especially, than reading the words from the people themselves.

The collection of essays, curated by associates of Rapid City-based NDN Collective, reads brisk, challenges beliefs, and takes an unapologetic look both at why indigenous people deserve a chance in the driver’s seat, and what can be done by those who hold the proverbial keys.

NDN Collective is a Rapid City-based indigenous activist group, who has taken part in both high-profile protests locally at the foot of Mount Rushmore and taken to the streets of Glasgow, Scotland to promote their own policy items at the recent COP26 Climate Summit.

As a result of the groups sweeping, enterprising perspective, we find a fair amount of content here spread across what was, admittedly, an intimidating page count of 298. However, the formatting of the pages and large font do perhaps leave the page count slightly deceiving at first blush. I’ll be the first to concede when I write in this format, I usually swing closer to film, arts, and music, but it’s good to branch out nonetheless, and books are great for stimulating the mind.

And this one provides plenty for the mind to chew on. Do not mistake the formatting for a lack of content or depth here. Let us remind ourselves how ambitious of an organization NDN Collective is.

It’s no secret indigenous activists have historically stood against extractatory economic systems, but just how deep does this mindset cut? Chapter two, section four, Jade Begay, NDN Collective Climate Justice Campaign Director – “The policies enacted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries didn’t just violate indigenous peoples rights and sovereignty… they made way for the extraction of resources by oil and fossil fuel corporations from our native and tribal lands.”

Another segment, directly from the pen of embattled group president Nick Tilsen, credited as a co-writer of one of the essays, questions what the outcomes are for indigenous cultures in this nation.

“Though Indigenous peoples in this country are experiencing an upward trajectory in terms of our population growth, educational attainment, economic participation, and even representation in dominant political systems at local and national levels, we still content with our invisibility in mainstream society,” one passage of the section reads.

Immediately after comes a finding that seems to support this claim – citing IllumiNative – that says most Americans know very little about modern indigenous peoples, and what is shared are rarely accurate portrayals of indigenous peoples, and certainly isn’t the indigenous answer to greenhouse gas emissions.

Indeed, maybe this book – which again I’ll remind is quite literally titled “Required Reading” – isn’t penned for those already on reservations or chaining themselves to pipelines.

Perhaps instead this book was written for people like myself, people maybe like you, to have a peek behind of the curtain on the stage of climate summits and protests. In reading, I found the wide, varied range of voices we hear from made me feel like I was getting a true glimpse into the inner workings of a movement here. 

As a white American, the only knowledge I truly can lean on is my own experience with, say, the US education system to address the claim made in the previous passage. Looking back on my own experience in history classrooms, what was there exactly? A cartoonish depiction of the first Thanksgiving and a half sentence about Wounded Knee? 

Oh yeah – I clearly remember one of my High School teachers showing the class the film Little Big Man as part of that era of history, and making that part of the semesters curriculum. Do you see my point here?

I can tell you what wasn’t present in my experience – actual descriptions of who the people who walked the lands first were. What their spiritualities, philosophies, and cultures were like. The things that might actually make a difference in the perception of a group of people, and the likelihood their distinct and valuable cultures would be able to survive in the future. It begs the question – when are we in white America going to finally acknowledge the reality that this continent wasn’t full of uncivilized “savages”, and accept that the people who were colonized by some of our forefathers were the masters of complex societies? The holders of profound beliefs centered around the hills which we carve the faces of our Presidents into.

I want to close on the third voice we hear from in the text. Penned by Maia Wikler, the focus is on what it takes to be an ally in the contemporary landscape.

Actively unlearning what we once thought about indigenous peoples to re-learn truth, making an effort to take action in your own sphere of influence, being ready to listen to and be present with indigenous peoples in the real world.

That, to me, served as an important reminder that we all have a role to play if we are serious about taking steps towards equity. Regardless of background. I encourage non-indigenous readers to take special note of what, to the curators of this book, allyship actually entails.