From Tribal College Journal, Fall 2003

From 'savages' To Scientists; Mainstream Science Moves Toward Recognizing Traditional Knowledge

BYLINE: Lori Lambert

According to Phil Duran (Tiwa Pueblo), "The world tries to be round. Everything we do is in a circle because the power of the earth is a circle." A science instructor at Northwest Indian College (Bellingham, WA), Duran believes that tribal colleges want people to remain who they are. "We want to teach science in a tribal college so it blends the cognitive and the circle of life in bringing back the future."

In 1848, when American Indians were being pushed to the brink of extinction and referred to as "ignorant savages," the American Association for the Advancement of Science was founded by a small, cross-disciplinary group of scientists. It only took 127 years, but the AAAS formally recognized the contributions of Native Americans to the field of science by passing a significant resolution on Jan. 31, 1975. AAAS vowed to "encourage and support the development and growth of natural and social science programs in which traditional Native American approaches and contributions to science, engineering, and medicine are the subject of serious study and research."

Today, of the 3.2 million scientists and engineers in the United States, only 10,000 are American Indian/Alaska Native (0.3%). Overall, one in four of those is a Native American woman. Hoping to attract more Native Americans to the field of science and to recognize the outstanding contributions of tribal colleges producing Native American scientists, the Directorate for Education and Human Services Programs of AAAS invited 20 Native American scientists to attend the 2003 annual conference in Denver, CO, last February to present papers on Native American science and traditional knowledge.

Speakers included representatives of several tribal colleges, mainstream universities, and various other agencies and organizations. They focused on the roles that tribal colleges and universities play in educating Native Americans for the future as they preserve the wisdom of our pasts. The speakers also addressed the philosophy of Native science and its relationship to Western science as well as the neglect and under-funding of tribal colleges.


"Many threads weave the tapestry of Native American science," said Duran, who has master's degrees in physics and in computer science. "Tribal science is linked to the needs and goals of the tribal community; it understands Indian ways and recognizes the treaty relationship. Native science incorporates traditional knowledge and perspectives."

In our Native languages, Native science or traditional knowledge refers to scientific skills that Native people value and have used since the beginning of time to discover the dependable, repetitive, and tested way things work in the world. When speaking about Native science or traditional knowledge, one is really talking about the entire body of indigenous knowledge.

"Native science is most akin to what Western science calls environmental science or ecology. The understanding that indigenous people have of the natural world is profound. It impacts our philosophies, our cultural ways of life, and our customs, languages, and all aspects of our being," says Gregory Cajete (Tewa), Ph.D., a professor at the University of New Mexico, who has written several major works on indigenous science and ways of knowing, including Igniting the Sparkle, Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence, and Look Toward the Mountain.

The environmental science class at Salish Kootenai College (Pablo, MT) explores how Native science is tied to the spirit of the people and the heart of ecological values. For instance, skilled Inuit hunters watch polar bear behavior as they hunt seals. The bears wait and watch at the seal's blowhole, not moving, perhaps hiding their black noses behind the ice. Inuit learned to hunt seals from polar bears. The hunters stand for hours with a ptarmigan's wishbone, or strands of hair on a pole. When the wishbone springs or the hair moves, the hunters observe that the seal is about to take a breadi out of the blowhole. They are ready with their harpoons. Their weapons, carved with ivory tips and highly decorated, proclaim the death of an animal is no small thing and must be done with beautiful tools and a technique that honors the animal.

Northwest Hudson Bay residents note that caribou, which are not intimidated by mining activity, migrate very close to work camps and may feed in chemically contaminated areas. Since 1990 they have postulated a link between the caribou ingesting lichens and water originating in poisonous mine tailings and the high rate of cancer-related deaths among elders who eat caribou. Western science calls this knowledge environmental health. Inuit interpret aquatic environmental indicators and predict animal behavior, hunting, and travel outcomes by their traditional knowledge of currents and sea ice. Western scientists call this study oceanography.

"This kind of indigenous science education isn't just for indigenous people. It's for everyone, and it must become part of science education in the 21st century. Indigenous science education has the kind of meaning and context necessary to address the problems of the 21st century, including our relationships to the earth and to each other, the ability to understand and deal with 'other.' We are just at the very beginning of seeing how these two ways--indigenous and Western science--can come together to make a new world." added Cajete.

"To turn Native science into curriculum, to contrast Native science with Western science, is very difficult. For example, knowledge in the Lakota way is different than in the Tewa way. It is specific to that community and belongs to that group. It is relevant to the daily struggle of a particular people. It is in a great deal of danger because it is local knowledge," Cajete said.

Dan Wildcat told the group, "The reductionist view of science cannot answer the fundamental, critical problems we have in the world today. We American Indians will do science our way. We need to bring Native people into science because of what they can bring to Western science. We need to reunite reason and spirit ...and address the gap between knowing and doing." An Euchee member of the Muscogee Nation of Oklahoma, Wildcat directs the Haskell Environmental Research Studies (HERS) Center at Haskell Indian Nations University (Lawrence, KS).

"Native people are naturally scientists. We begin with the big picture. We need scientists who begin their practice of science by asking 'What does it mean to me, my family, the place I live?'" Wildcat said.


Tribal colleges like Northwest Indian College, Salish Kootenai College, and Haskell Indian Nations University are in a strategic position to indigenize science as tribal-centered learning, where spirit and reason are reunited. Students discover how traditional values can contribute to solving tribal environmental problems there.

At Northwest Indian College in Bellingham, WA, the Tribal Environmental and Natural Resources Management (TENRM) model teaches Native science and Western science simultaneously. "Students can practice ways of knowing science beyond dissection and experiment and pass down knowledge through customs and ceremony," according to Gigi Berardi, Ph.D. She and Duran are both faculty members in TENRM. Their colleague at Northwest Indian College, Roberto Gonzalez-Plaza, Ph.D., played a major role in organizing the Native sessions at the AAAS meeting.

"We must begin with a dialogue among indigenous wisdom keepers, scientists, and non-indigenous scientists. It won't be easy because of the fundamental 'worldviews of the various entities such as the National Science Foundation and private foundations," Wildcat said. He advised the AAAS group in Denver to "recognize the important work of tribal colleges and fund innovative curriculum and research projects there."

Cajete told the group in Denver, "A tribal college education is the kind of education that is needed by everyone if we want to solve the problems of the 21st century."