UPDirectory Highlighted Philosopher of February 2018: Kyle Whyte

Kyle Whyte

Timnick Chair in the Humanities, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Community Sustainability, Michigan State University

AOS: Environmental Philosophy, Indigenous Philosophy

My research addresses the moral and political issues of Indigenous climate justice; the ethics of knowledge exchange between Indigenous persons and climate scientists; and the theory of justice in Indigenous food sovereignty and environmental movements. I have recently been writing about environmental justice and the Dakota Access Pipeline.

In my work, I seek to explain the connections between the ecological dimensions of colonial domination and to identify and justify pathways for Indigenous liberation and decolonization in relation to the ecology of colonialism. In this research, I engage with many Indigenous organizations, from governments to networks, and the U.S. federal government. I consider myself an engaged philosopher. Yet understanding what “engaged” philosophy means to me requires some explanation.

Indigenous peoples have diverse philosophical traditions dating from time immemorial. Millions of Indigenous persons spanning every imaginable environment philosophize all the time. 567 U.S. federally-recognized governments, 34 state recognized governments, many more unrecognized governments, and thousands of self-determining Indigenous centers, organizations, groups, networks, societies, and educational institutions engender Indigenous contexts for diverse philosophies and forms of philosophizing. Sometimes the English-language term “philosophy” is used in these contexts; other times not.

Most U.S. citizens and visitors are unaware that any Indigenous philosophical contexts really exist as settler colonialism seeks to disappear these contexts. Despite all the philosophizing Indigenous persons do, there is basically no coverage of Indigenous philosophy in U.S. philosophy departments. Philosopher David Martinez has recovered some of the public Indigenous intellectual tradition—traditions usually found in non-academic archives. Indigenous philosophers, such as Viola Cordova, Dale Turner, and Anne Waters, among others, express different views on what being an Indigenous philosopher means in U.S. and Canadian contexts.

Indigenous philosophizing and philosophies are, importantly, active today in the contexts I described earlier and can be found, through careful reading and research, in various archives. So, imagine the irony of living in your own homelands and watching people eagerly refer to “Ancient Greek” or “Early Modern European” philosophical literatures as foundational in some exclusive sense. The irony.

My understanding of “engaged” philosophy comes out of this ironic situation. I put “engaged” in quotes because what most philosophers in the U.S. academy see as my engaged work differs from what engagement really means to me. My “engaged” work is the work I do as a professor in the U.S. academy when I work with other professors, leverage academic financial resources, and teach classes at my university. I have been able to pursue this work while, at the same time, I work directly in the Indigenous philosophical contexts that matter most to me.

While I had few people to look to as models for understanding the division of labor I would have to undertake “to engage” as I understand it, I do think it is an approach to research that is possible for Indigenous persons aspiring to philosophy careers in the U.S. academy—and one worth pursuing even when one seeks to operate from one’s own perspective and work on behalf of one’s own peoples.


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