The Processes of Indigenous Science

The processes of Indigenous science are more holistic than those of Western science but overlap them in critical ways. Comparing Indigenous and Western science may challenge us to reconsider the nature and scope of Western science, recognizing that it’s been defined in many different ways at different times by philosophers, historians, educators, the general public, and a wide array of scientists from many disparate disciplines.

In his book Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence (2000:2) Greg Cajete defines Indigenous science in a way that’s acceptable to most Indigenous persons. It reads: “Native science is a metaphor for a wide range of tribal processes of perceiving, thinking, acting, and ‘coming to know’ that have evolved through human experience with the natural world. Native science is born of a lived and storied participation with the natural landscape. To gain a sense of Native science one must participate with the natural world. To understand the foundations of Native science one must become open to the roles of sensation, perception, imagination, emotion, symbols, and spirit as well as that of concept, logic, and rational empiricism.”

There are many points of view about Indigenous science, and their differences are based on process. The organizational system below categorizes some of the more common points of view but does not reflect any standard, “accepted” way of thinking about the subject. No value judgments (e.g., “good” or “bad”) are intended or suggested in association with any of these viewpoints.

Each passage in quotes in the explanatory passages below represents a statement a person holding that viewpoint would make about Indigenous science.

General Viewpoint 1: “Indigenous Science and Western Science are the same; there is only one thing — Science.”  There are two versions of this view, both listed below.  Both are held by mainstream science — variously and at different times, back and forth — and the two views are in uneasy tension since they seem to be mutually exclusive.

  • Type 1a: “If Indigenous science includes processes such as concept, logic, and rational empiricism, then this is the part that overlaps with what’s truly ‘Science.’ The rest of what is commonly called ‘Indigenous Science’ is not really science, although it may be an important part of Indigenous culture. This means that ‘Indigenous science’ is ‘Western science’ plus other, added things that don’t matter because they are not ‘science.'”
  • Type 1b: “Western science also includes processes such as sensation, perception, imagination, emotion, symbols, and spirit — just like Indigenous science does. In fact, those processes are the hallmarks of some our greatest scientists. Evelyn Fox Keller wrote of her interviews with Barbara McClintock, Nobel laureate geneticist, that “it became clear that the communal premise of McClintock’s work went well beyond the relationship between the genes and the scientist who studied them . . . Over and over again she tells us one must have the time to look, the patience to ‘hear what the material has to say to you,’ the openness to ‘let it come to you.’ Above all, one must have ‘a feeling for the organism.” (cited in Palmer, 1998:55). So there is still only one kind of ‘Science.'”

General Viewpoint 2: “Indigenous Science is different from Western science in important ways, similar in other ways, and a valid way of knowing and learning about the natural world.”

    • Type 2a: “Western science is reluctant to acknowledge the importance of processes such as sensation, perception, imagination, emotions, symbols, and spirit in learning about the natural world, whereas Indigenous science is not. Indigenous science therefore has a more robust practice of applying these processes to research from which Western science can learn a great deal.”
    • Type 2b: “Indigenous science focuses on participation instead of objectivity. This important difference, whether it ‘should’ be there or not, is critical for Indigenous scientists to share with Western culture, to preserve the future of the earth and all her peoples, human and non-human.”
    • Type 2c: “Indigenous persons on tribal lands who are facing serious problems with water, air, and soil contamination need scientists to help them who understand the priorities and ways of Indigenous worldview, so they can work with the people to effect solutions. Indigenous persons trained in Western science become Indigenous scientists who can do this. Likewise, medical researchers who focus on illnesses proportionately higher on reservations than elsewhere and that are of little interest to mainstream medicine, or engineers who focus on providing transportation and housing solutions appropriate for communities that live in Indigenous worldview, function as Indigenous scientists of this type.”

General Viewpoint 3: “There is, simply, no such thing as Indigenous Science. The term is without meaning.”

    • Type 3a: “Science is Western. It was born in post-Renaissance Europe during the Age of Enlightenment, and it is inextricably linked to the economic, political, and intellectual ‘fitness’ that has made Western culture a standard worldwide.”
    • Type 3b: “Indigenous knowledge is not and never has been Science, because it’s superior to what is essentially an enterprise of political domination.”


Please browse Tapestry’s other Online Education pages about Indigenous Science:

The Range of Indigenous Science

The Importance of Indigenous Science

A Brief History of Indigenous Science

-or- Return to the subject of Indigenous Knowledge