By Christy Tidwell
November is National Native American Heritage Month, a chance to acknowledge the history and living culture of Native American peoples. As a science, technology, and society program, this seems a good opportunity to discuss Native science, also called Indigenous science or Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). As the varied names for this indicate, it’s not one monolithic entity but incorporates ideas from many perspectives. It is both traditional, building on Native peoples’ long histories of learning about and sharing knowledge, and contemporary, an ongoing part of living in and with the world.
What is Native Science?
Gregory Cajete (Santa Clara Pueblo) coined the term, and he describes Native science as “a metaphor for a wide range of tribal processes of perceiving, thinking, acting, and coming to know that have evolved through human experiences with the natural world.” Cajete says, “Native science is born of a lived and storied participation with the natural landscape. It is the collective heritage of human experience with the natural world” (2). In other words, Native science combines human and nonhuman and describes what humans know by relating to, communicating with, and experiencing the world. It is not a science based on laboratory experiments or anonymous review.
This contrasts with Western ideas of science by emphasizing connection rather than separation, relationships rather than objective distance. Native science sees people as part of the world they’re learning about, not outside it, and therefore people cannot be removed from scientific work. If you’ve been trained to think of science as necessarily objective and tainted by any hint of subjectivity or bias, this may sound unscientific. However, as Leila McNeill points out in a Lady Science interview, “It really just means that it’s grounded in this specific experience of this specific group of people in this specific place, which can actually give us better results than if we were looking at something that is looking at large, broad questions that they’re trying to apply to everything that just kind of obscures the particular.”
Despite the meaningful differences between Native science and western science, there are also similarities. For instance, as Linda Black Elk describes in “Native Science: Understanding and Respecting Other Ways of Thinking,”
Native science has at its foundation the very same scientific method that we, as researchers trained in the Western world, all hold so near and dear. For example, The Native scientific method begins with observation. Long-term observational data is nothing new to Indigenous peoples; we have been observing the world around us for millennia, gaining an understanding of its systems and processes. Additionally, Native science is grounded in experimentation. Much of the early literature in anthropology claimed that Native Americans learned everything by trial and error, as if we would test edibility of various berries on any unfortunate soul who came along. Rather, the introduction of new foods involves observation (Have we ever seen other people eat this berry? Other animals?), background research (ask others about this berry), and experimentation (does my tongue hurt or feel numb when I touch this berry to it?). This process could take many months and the results would be shared and replicated throughout the extensive trade routes that once existed between and among tribes.
The two are not so far apart, then, and Native science offers a great deal of knowledge to the world based on centuries or millennia of experience. In California, for instance, Indigenous peoples have a long history of managing and using fire, but, as Ron Goode (tribal chairman of the North Fork Mono) says, “They [settlers] came with their concepts of being afraid of fire . . . They didn’t understand fire in the sense of the tool that it could be to create and what it did to help generate and rejuvenate the land. So they brought in suppression.” This suppression made things worse, and as wildfires become larger and more common in California, the state turns to Indigenous knowledge, finally acknowledging that Indigenous cultural practices and Native science have value.
Native science is wide-ranging, and this just begins to scratch the surface. There are more and more books being published about Native knowledge and Indigenous research practices, so I want to suggest just a few – all by Indigenous authors – that can provide starting points for anyone interested in learning more.
In Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (2013), Robin Wall Kimmerer, botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, writes about the relationship between Indigenous knowledge and western scientific knowledge in this beautiful book. She presents fascinating information – gathered in a multitude of ways – about plants, as well as family, culture, and scientific practice. She describes the book as “a braid of stories meant to heal our relationship with the world. This braid is woven from three strands: indigenous ways of knowing, scientific knowledge, and the story of an Anishinabekwe scientist trying to bring them together in service to what matters most. It is an intertwining of science, spirit, and story” (x).
Enrique Salmón (Rarámuri), is an ethnobotanist and head of the American Indian Studies Program at Cal State University East Bay. Iwígara: American Indian Ethnobotanical Traditions and Science (2020), begins with an essay called “All Native Knowledge Is Local” and then provides entries for 80 plants across North America. Each entry includes a story or reflection related to the plant and sections dedicated to its uses, identification and harvest, and health benefits. Like Kimmerer, Salmón intertwines various types of knowledge to create something beautiful and meaningful.
Shawn Wilson (Opaskwayak Cree) describes himself as “a father of three boys, a researcher, son, uncle, teacher, world traveller, knowledge keeper and knowledge seeker.” This combination of identities is reflected in Research Is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods (2008). In this book, Wlison represents and argues for an Indigenous research paradigm that is relational and inseparable from human meaning and interaction. He writes, “I think that the thing I most want you to remember is that research is a ceremony. And so is life. Everything that we do shares in the ongoing creation of our universe.”
In her poem “Remember” (1983), Joy Harjo (Mvskoke/Creek Nation), the current poet laureate of the United States, emphasizes the importance of connection between the human reader of the poem and the nonhuman world:
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.
Native science takes this relationship seriously, not only as a personal experience but as a way of understanding the world we live in. As Harjo indicates, we as humans must remember and we have a responsibility to remember in order to live in better relation to the rest of the world. If we do not remember that “we are earth” and that nonhuman beings have families and histories, too, then we risk missing out on a great deal of knowledge and understanding.