The Importance of Indigenous Science

Persons who feel there’s “no such thing as Indigenous Science” obviously don’t think it’s an important subject to pursue. But almost everyone else agrees there are important benefits of promoting and acknowledging Indigenous science.  There are two broadly diverging viewpoints about the nature of Indigenous science’s significance,  and they relate closely to how people see the relationship between Indigenous Science and Western Science.

  • Persons with the viewpoint: “Indigenous Science and Western Science are the same; there is only one thing — Science” tend to see the subject in terms of increasing the diversity of the scientific workforce so it reflects the demographics of the nation as a whole. When they say “Indigenous science” they are referring to the participation of Indigenous persons in Western scientific education and research. They see this as an issue of political fairness and equal opportunity. Minorities are seriously under-represented in the sciences, so the goal here is to improve primary and secondary education so that all Americans have an equal chance to go into a career in the sciences if they so choose. A slight variation of this theme is that (a) we will need a more highly-trained workforce in the future, particularly in science, engineering, and technology, (b) few minorities get such training, statistically, (c) the proportion of minorities in the U.S. population is growing substantially, so (d) in the future we won’t have enough trained bodies and minds to do what needs to be done — meaning we’d better pull minorities into those career tracks. In this view, acculturation to Western worldview is essential for long-term success of Indigenous persons. Persons who disagree with this view often feel it is expressed in ways that sounds colonialist.  An example of a colonialist-sounding statement is this quote from a prominent science organization’s publication: “In our efforts to sustain U.S. productivity and economic strength, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Native Americans provide an untapped reservoir of talent that could be used to fill technical jobs.”
  • Persons with the viewpoint “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.” tend to see the issue differently, even though they still want to see increased minority participation in the sciences. They see the subject in terms of increasing scientific diversity in order to increase the diversity of imagination, method, and experience available to the scientific workforce so it can find new and more powerful ways to address critical environmental, health, and energy problems that threaten the earth’s communities. To the people who hold this point of view, acculturation destroys the very diversity from which new solutions can come. Of course, effective collaboration can be more difficult among members of a truly multicultural scientific workforce because of communication problems. So an important part of this process is cultivating “cultural competence” — “the ability to relate and communicate effectively with individuals who do not share the same culture, ethnicity, language or other salient variables,” thereby “fostering the long-term institutional change that will sustain diversity in the future” (quoted from a prominent science organization publication).  Many of those who promote this view of Indigenous Science’s importance see it as especially relevant to research carried out by and for Indigenous communities themselves.  Such research is seen as generating valid information that adheres to the values and belief systems of the people involved, provides plans and solutions that adhere to these same values and belief systems, and also generates and maintains a healthy sense of pride in cultural identity — as well as ownership in whatever land use, health, and other processes are the subjects of a given research project — to all the members of the Indigenous community involved.  One impact of increased pride and ownership in research and its results is seen as being increased participation of community youth in educational programs that empower them to become researchers in their own right, thereby bringing them into the scientific workforce in a more authentic and meaningful way than is accomplished by strategies of minority recruitment and retention.

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

The Range of Indigenous Science

The Processes of Indigenous Science

A Brief History of Indigenous Science