A distinguished lecturer from the University of Michigan visited my campus on the afternoon of Tuesday, April 26, and barriers were broken.
When I made my leave of campus to go pick up UWM at Waukesha’s guest lecturer for the evening, a certain level of pressure began to weigh in over my peripheral senses. I assumed casual conversation would ensue on the ride back to campus, so I performed some research the night before. Kyle Whyte is more than distinguished– not only is he extremely active within his local, native community, he is also very active in attempting to challenge the status quo regarding the systemic issues of education and climate change awareness. He is a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council under the wing of President Biden. Above all that, he has a Wikipedia page.
It was then the pressure gained weight— I am picking up an important figure– the car should be clean, from top to bottom, inside and out. I had about ninety minutes to make this happen.
The universe was seemingly attempting to make this process as difficult as tangibly possible, as the gas tank was almost empty, and the car wash door wouldn’t open until the second payment (the wash was subpar anyway). Lo and behold, all fears subsided and I didn’t fold– Kyle was successfully brought to campus fifteen minutes ahead of schedule.
Conversation was casual on the ride back, and served to foreshadow the context of Mr. Whyte’s lecture to both my class at 2:30 and the public lecture later that evening for 7 PM. We discussed the philosophy behind life and the potentially distorted relationship Americans have with the outside, as well as the city of Milwaukee, the Lake, Whyte’s previous trips to Wisconsin and poetry (I had to introduce myself). Surprisingly relaxed in my word choice and diction, I treated Whyte like anyone else, as that’s exactly what he did for me. Upon the exit of the car and up the steps to the main campus entrance, I understood Whyte was someone of understanding and someone of humility– despite his place in this world, and just how much representation he has regarding the voice of the Native Americans, he was humble and fit right into the environment of Waukesha.
Whyte would proceed to deliver a guest lecture to Interdisciplinary 284 as well as Cultural Anthropology– dissimilar to the public lecture later in the evening, this first discussion was primarily discussion led and question based. Only a few questions were asked to Kyle, which initially may seem like a disappointing achievement regarding the audience, but it was in fact an appropriate one. The professors asked a few questions regarding the future outlook of society and the way that Whyte sees societal norms being either broken down or built up based on climate change. Whyte’s answers to these few questions were so in depth and so informative that it was difficult to comprehend the answer to the prior question, let alone gear up to ask another one and let the cycle continue. The majority of students were merely attempting to reflect upon his insane answers rather than shy away from having a question of their own. I asked a final question regarding the ‘vacation syndrome’ that persists within America, and how we can get Americans to appreciate simplistic nature more, thus turning such appreciation into activism against climate change. His answer was yet another foreshadowing regarding just how involved Whyte is, and how committed he is to change. Such involvement would be further exposed in the public lecture.
Kyle Whyte speaking at the public lecture.
After the class session ended, dinner at People’s Park in downtown Waukesha was on the horizon. Upon my own intrinsic desires, this was what I was most excited for among all the events that were filling up this evening to the brim of the dusk. The eventual hunger that was rumbling deep inside potentially influenced this excitement as well.
At the dinner, at least within my potentially narrow perspective, the other side of Kyle, akin to the southern hemisphere of the Earth, was now radiating with a certain glow again. Another reminder that despite his deep concern with not just the climate of the planet temperature wise, but the conflicting status of the colonial era within America, that Whyte is like me in some ways. He enjoys writing and poetry, divulging into philosophical concepts, as well as sweet potato fries.
The public lecture was filled with students not seeking enlightenment but rather extra credit, as well as a whole bus from neighboring Carroll University, with a few casual attendees flooding the lecture hall as well. The lecture ran for approximately an hour, along with a far too short questionnaire following. He presented a plethora of information regarding not just how natives are affected materially and economically with climate change, but also how giant corporations that influence greenhouse gas emissions and sending manure into rivers are blatantly disrespecting the natives’ culture, social climate, and essentially, their collective soul. The most striking, gravity-sucking graphic that Whyte presented was, interestingly enough, a timeline. It put into perspective just how much longer the natives timeline was compared to whatever America’s wants to be. Native history begins with the Bering Strait land bridge and the successful travel of those people to the North American Continent, and perhaps even before that. A striking discourse is reflected in how history is taught to young generations– if history taught begins with the settlement of Europeans in the 17th century, or the Signing of The Declaration of Independence, or the arrival of All Star Christopher Colombus, that history is false. The night concluded with a casual reception, as well as intense talk regarding the future of the Detroit Lions between Whyte and students of Waukesha.
Within the Red Hot Chili Peppers song “These Are The Ways'', Anthony Kiedis makes a remark in the opening line of the chorus: “These are the ways when you come from America…the sights, the sounds, the smells.” He proactively summarizes the life that Americans have within their respective nation– Americans, as in the modernized descendants of the colonial era and the European Settlers. What are these sights, sounds and smells to the natvie tribes that populate the nation, as well as the rest of the world? They are likely extremely different from what descendants of colonial settlers have, and despite this difference, they may come from the same source. In short, they definitely mean different things upon a spiritual level. The putrid grease that radiates from the local McDonalds may send a whiff of nostalgia or hunger or excitement for the average American, but for the average native tribe, it is a reflection of a quite small period of time where the Earth has been transformed for the absolute worst. The McDonalds and other enterprises and industries of modern Earth are all likely disrespectful towards native cultures as they influence the destruction of the environment.
Speaking to the people.
Largely, what Kyle Whyte teaches us to do is to look at the Earth through the lens of the natives. The natives are a misunderstood group– rather than a race or ethnicity that is stuck in tradition and in the past, they are a cultural hub that recognizes the way that humanity can have a symbiotic relationship with their environment, their land, the planet. They likely understand their environment better than us all and have a stronger, healthier relationship with it as well. It is extremely difficult to change our lifestyle as it is– a suggestion for celebrating Earth Day was to have a day without waste. That is incomprehensibly difficult for the average American, but upon reflection, quite easy for the native tribe to accomplish consistently. Natives create the least amount of damage to our environment, feel the brute of the impact, and yet, are the most vocal about it and are among the most willing people to get out of bed and work to make a change. A change that will reinvigorate the idea that life on Earth is sustainable, and that these ways that we live by should be thought about more carefully.
Upon reflection, the car wash door not opening was the least of my concerns. A bigger picture was painted that night.
Learn More about Dr. Whyte:
Listen to "These Are The Ways":
Support People's Park: