This presentation is a basic introduction to many of the topics and themes that are represented throughout the curriculum. In it I lay out the basic premises and explore the way in which Indigenous studies of nature characterize the natural world and provide a way of understanding and knowing that is complimentary to, but different from, concepts emphasized by the Western Scientific tradition.
The resolution of such questions hinges on the definition of science, including the concept of universality. This resolution is of considerable importance for both educators and the public at large. When a discipline earns the title science it "acquires the authority to promulgate truthful and reliable knowledge, control over education and credentials, access to money and manpower, and the kind of political clout that comes from possessing knowledge that is essential yet esoteric"
The Yupiaq scholar Oscar Kawagley has written that: "Such a narrow view of science not only diminishes the legitimacy of knowledge derived through generations of naturalistic observation and insight, it simultaneously devalues those cultures which traditionally rely heavily on naturalistic observation and insight."
The record is fairly clear. Around the globe where science is taught, it is taught at the expense of indigenous knowledge and this precipitates charges of epistemological hegemony and cultural imperialism.
My goal in this presentation is to deconstruct this last point and show how unique and insightful Indigenous science can be.
Slide 3: Lewis Wolpert is an author, broadcaster and professor of biology as applied to medicine in the department of anatomy and developmental biology at University College London, UK, where his research interests lie in the mechanisms involved in the development of the embryo. Born in Johannesburg in 1929, he originally trained as a civil engineer but changed to research in cell and developmental biology at King’s College London in 1955. In 1966 he was appointed professor of biology at the Middlesex Hospital Medical School. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1980 and awarded the Commander of the British Empire in 1990.
Click here to view our presentation on Metaphors and Models
Most students have not been exposed to philosophy and this can be a relatively painless introduction to the topic.
As one example, in the previous slide I presented the idea that Indigenous people attribute the causes of some phenomena which are not obvious to spirits. The Western scientific tradition would regard this as superstition whereas the Western spiritual tradition might attribute such events as being the result of "God's will", a concept which is less empirical even than the idea of "spirits", which are metaphors for unknown causative factors.
This produces a conflict between Western science which attempts to be "rational" and Western spiritual tradition, which is not rational at all. In contrast, by recognizing spirits as part of the natural world, albeit aspects that are not well understood, there is no conflict between scientific and spiritual traditions.
Similar discussions can be had concerning the other components of a world view.
Slide 6: A clear example of this difference can be seen by comparing these metaphors from different traditions.
First, the Mayan story clearly does not conform to the Western concept of "rational thought", however, it does illustrate the concept of relatedness between humans and the nonhuman world, which means that there are obligations about how humans are supposed to behave towards nature. In other words, spirituality in the Indigenous world view anchors humans in the natural world.
(The image is titled My Orca Son and illustrates the idea that the artist's son is both killer whale and human)
Second, the Cartesian metaphor is clearly untrue, but it has provided an organizing principle for much of Western science over the last 350 years, and established the tradition by which science tries to understand whole organisms by studying their constituent parts. This means that, in contrast to Indigenous worldviews, in the Western Worldviews spirituality separates humans from the natural world. This has led to some advances, but it has also limited understanding of how organisms and ecosystems actually function.
This means that Indigenous concepts may be better at understanding relationships, whereas the Western tradition may be better at understanding mechanistic causation, i.e. how an internal combustion engine works and developing such a machine. The "machine model" is terrible at understanding the function of populations and ecosystems, and these fields did not develop until Cartesian ideas were over 300 years old.
For a discussion of Descartes and his ideas click here
This does not mean that an adherent to one worldview has to accept or believe in the other point of view, but it does mean that they have to respect it.
Ironically, it is the Western tradition that has more difficulty showing respect for alternative worldviews. This seems to be linked to their spiritual tradition and the idea that they are seeking universal "truth", i.e. discovery of principles that apply everywhere in the world (and possible the universe).
An example can be seen in the account of an early encounter of European missionaries and Indians in North America. The missionaries tell the story of Jesus. After they finish, the Indians tell the missionaries their own creation story, which involves the origin of corn. The missionaries respond angrily, saying "We have told you the true word of God, whereas you respond with a fairy tale.' the Indians were offended and responded, "We listened to your story with respect, why can you not listen to ours in the same way."
The irony is that the story of the origin of corn is probably closer to the truth because it is almost certainly a metaphoric interpretation of an event that was experienced in the history of the tribe, whereas there is considerable controversy, even among Western scholar of the facts of the life of Jesus. To read more about questions concerning the life of Jesus click here
Both sides must be willing to admit that they have solid principles and that they are capable of being wrong, of making an error.
Ironically, the Western scientific tradition is built on repeated testing of concepts and hypotheses that can be refuted, i.e. found to be in error.
The Salishan scientist Lilian 'Na'ia' Alessa has argued in her essay What is Truth (Alaska Native Reader pp 246-251) that Indigenous traditional knowledge is also tested, and that refutation of such knowledge is "not the ridicule of one's peers, or failure to get a research grant, it is sickness, suffering and death." Thus understanding the natural world and how it works are a matter of survival. Dr. Alessa's essay is a wonderful discussion of how an Indigenous person trained in Western science has come to terms with Indigenous ways of knowing and understanding. To learn more about Lilian Alessa click here
The idea that nature existed to be subjugated by humans emerged from the religious tradition of Western thought, but was incorporated into the scientific tradition as justified by Descartes' use of the machine model/metaphor to separate humans from the rest of the natural world.
Click here to view our presentation on Economy and Ecology
You can ask your students what they see in this painting and why they think the artist composed it the way he did.
It's actual title is Pollution can kill and it illustrates how toxic substances can move through the relationships that occur in nature. For example the body of the bear is made up of fish, which carry toxins from the water, which is shown by the birds (loons) and the fish which are similar enough to be literally connected. The bear is on land, where the trees also appear to be dying as a result of pollution, specifically acid rain. Over all the living beings is the sun, which warps them in its protection.
To see more works by Roy Thomas click here
The scholar Eugene Anderson has argued that we have the technology and knowledge to solve most environmental problems, what we lack is the emotional connection to the natural world that would motivate us to actually address these problems. This type of issue arises regularly when it comes to economics and jobs. Everyone knows that oil exploration is harmful to the environment, but most people are unwilling to give up inefficient automobiles or cut back on their energy use because they don't really care about the environment unless it affects them personally.
Understanding connections is the basis of the Western scientific discipline called ecology, (the word itself comes from the Greek: eco = home, logos = knowledge) or the knowledge of places. This scientific discipline is also based on understanding relationships among both species and individuals. The cycles of life are also part of both ecology and Indigenous knowledge, as illustrated in this image, which is an Anishinaabe representation of a life cycle in which spirit links the living organisms with its remains which will break down and then be taken up by other life forms, thus propagating the circle.
Click here to view our presentation on Community
In contrast, even though people of European ancestry consume lots of animal protein they consider themselves to be prey. This theme plays itself out endlessly in popular entertainment, where humans are often represented as prey of either flesh and blood (Jaws, Grizzly Man), supernatural (vampires, werewolves) or science fictional (Alien, Predator) organisms that apparently exist primarily to both terrify and consume humans. This is part of what Eugene Anderson refers to as "learned helplessness", where humans feel that they are victims and do not have control over their lives.
In contrast, the traditions of Indian people empower them through ceremonies such as the Sun Dance, which started out as hunting ceremonies, that now have been transformed into rituals that serve the emotional and spiritual needs of contemporary Indians. This is also seen in the clans of many tribes, which involve predatory species.
Click here to view our presentation on Predators and Prey
It might be noted that Euro-Americans also use the eagle as a heraldic symbol, where it appears on money, being on the back of both the one dollar bill and the 25 cent piece in US currency. Although this is not often emphasized, in many Indian works of art they use the Golden Eagle, which is the top predatory bird of the great plains and west, rather than the Bald Eagle, which is primarily a fish-eater and scavenger that lives alongside large bodies of water.
Slide 15: An excellent example of the links between Indian people and predators can be seen in the way in which wolves are regarded by traditional Indians, i.e. with respect and even identification, as can be seen in this image, titled Eyes of a Sleeping Village, by the Cheyenne artist Merlin Little Thunder. To learn more about Merlin Little Thunder click here
In contrast, EuroAmericans have traditionally hated and feared wolves, which is one reason that this species, which once roamed from the Arctic Ocean to deep into Mexico, and from the Pacific to the Atlantic is now restricted to small populations in states that share a border with Canada. It is notable that thriving populations of wolves exist mostly in Canada north of the 40th parallel, which is one of the few areas in the world in which Indigenous peoples (First Nations) outnumber other humans.
It could be useful to have students discuss how they feel about wolves and where their knowledge about wolves comes from. In recent years it has been found the the younger generation in some tribal communities have come to fear and despise wolves, whereas their elders still revere them.
In the Shoshonean (Numic) peoples, which include the Shoshone, Paiute, Ute and Comanche, Wolf was regarded as a Creator figure and the name for Gray Wolf (Numuna) in some Shoshonean traditions is similar to the name the people use for themselves.
Slide 16: A concept which typically is linked to the idea that All Things are Connected is that All Things are Related, which is a basic premise of Indigenous metaphysics. This can be seen in the prayers and rituals of many tribes that include the phrase, "All My Relations."
As a Lakota elder has stated, “All my relations. That means everything in the world—the plants, the animals, the sky, the trees, the rocks— everything. When you feel that everything is your relation, you feel that everything is connected.”
This is a powerful concept. Interestingly, it is also the fundamental principle of evolutionary biology as described by Charles Darwin, who emphasized that humans are related to all other forms of life on Earth. It has been said that the real reason Darwin's ideas are controversial in American society is that he forced humans to recognize that they were part of nature.
To read more on Darwin and his ideas click here
Click here to view our presentation on Relatedness
This is quite different than the tradition from Western science in which relationship is based on genetic and anatomical similarity. Although there is considerable usefulness to this perspective, it must be recognized that it emerges from the Cartesian metaphor and assumes that organisms can be effectively described as collections of parts, i.e. genes, features of anatomy, anything that can be described as a "trait"
This allows Indigenous peoples to recognize some important concepts: 1) that nonhumans existed before humans did, and 2) That humans might depend on nonhumans for survival skills. This means that species that are important to humans, especially in hunting are considered to function as creators, which means they were important in the formation of cultural tradition. Examples are Raven in the Pacific Northwest and the Arctic and Wolves on the Great Plains. Each of these species is instrumental in assisting in hunts or in teaching humans how to hunt effectively.
In the Western tradition, this lack of a relationship leads to debate between adherents to science and adherents to religion who differ strongly in their concepts of what a creator must be, with scientists arguing that humans share a close relationship with apes and followers of religion insisting on a supernatural anthropomorphic creator.
By avoiding these topics Western science basically concedes these crucial concepts to religion. Thus, the debate over evolution has been reduced to a debate over origins, in which creationists argue must be supernatural, whereas scientists look to unique events that lead to new forms of life.
Ironically, classic taxonomy, with its emphasis on "type specimens", which are related to the concept of Platonic "ideal forms" has provided fuel to the creationist fire.
In Indigenous thought, creation is a process, and origin stories typically deal with the beginnings of a distinct cultural tradition, which was shaped by interactions with the natural world. In this image we see Bear and Raven discussing the disposition of salmon, which is a major food resource for these species, as well as a primary food source for humans, and has been incorporate into important ceremonies, such as the First Salmon Ceremony.
It is crucial to keep in mind that when entering a new habitat that virtually all human societies had to learn what to eat and how to collect food by observing local nonhumans, which sets up place-based relationships.
This panel depicts the existence and ownership of the Auk’w Tlingit who possess a very sophisticated sense of belonging to a family group and a strong sense of place. This society evolved as a result of a very long history of communal organization near the head of Aak’w Bay called “Aak’w Nu.” north of Juneau, Alaska.
The top portion of the panel pictures the mountain behind Aak’w Lake, the presence of the wolf in the center and the dog salmon, in the lower corners, that return to the lake every year to spawn and die. The Tlingit are part of two distinct family groups - the Eagle and the Raven. The primary clans of the Aak’w Tribe are the “Woosh-kee-taan” (Eagle/Shark) and “Tl’ei-neidi” (Raven/Dog Salmon). The original work is by Wanda Culp. To learn more about this artist click here
Place is very important in the origin of European cultural traditions, but when Europeans came to North America they did not think of places as sacred, but as a source of resources that could be exploited for economic gain. One topic for discussion might be how this changes value systems. It might also be discussed is how value systems changed as Indigenous Americans are drawn into the global capitalist economy.
The idea of humans as companions to other beings, who are related to them through sharing a local place is shown in this image by the Kiowa artist Barthell Little Chief, titled Old Friends. To learn more about this artist click here
It can be a useful exercise to use this image, or other images included in the presentation to ask students how they interpret these images and what they mean to them. This can be a very helpful way of discussing the issue of aesthetics (what is beautiful or appealing) and how art can be sued to represent cultural concepts.