A Brief History of Indigenous Science

People were starting to talk about and practice the discipline that’s come to be known as Indigenous Science or Native Science by the last half of the 1960’s. An early leader was the late Lakota philosopher Vine Deloria, Jr., who published extensively on scientific and Indian ways of knowing about the natural world and participated in a number of scientific and other scholarly meetings. Diné ethnobotanist Donna House was also active early in the movement.

But of course, Indigenous persons have been learning and teaching about the natural world for thousands of years, sometimes in the same ways we do now and sometimes not. The term “science” is itself only a few hundred years old, as is the process of formalized research common to Western science, and it took quite a while for people to settle on a term such as “Native Science” or its global correlate, “Indigenous Science.”

In the 1970’s, several important events helped bring Indigenous Science to a wider audience. The Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science was founded in 1973. Four years later, in 1977, the American Indian Science and Engineering Society was organized. Both organizations inaugurated magazine-style journals that feature articles and information about Native peoples in the sciences and in science education. The National Science Foundation (NSF) worked with AISES to hold workshops on Indigenous science education in which leaders such as the late Vine Deloria were active, and published a number of small handbooks on the subject for teachers and policy-makers.

In 1975, the American Association for the Advancement of Science(AAAS) passed a remarkable resolution about Indigenous science. Here it is, from the AAAS archives.

“AAAS Resolution: Native American Science and Technology

“Be it resolved that the Council of the Association (a) formally recognize the contributions made by Native Americans* in their own traditions of inquiry to the various fields of science, engineering, and medicine, and (b) 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.

*The term “Native American” refers to the descendents of the aboriginal inhabitants of the Americas, often referred to as American Indians. [Adopted by the AAAS Council, January 31, 1975.]”

In July of that same year, an article on Indigenous Science was published in the journal Science (Vol. 189, No. 4196, pages 38-39), which is the journal of AAAS. That article is available online at the site for archived Science issues maintained by JSTOR.

The last few decades have witnessed explosive growth in Indigenous Science education, research, organizations, and activities — only a sample of which is noted here. The Alaska Native Science Commission was established by the Alaska Federation of Natives, with support from the National Science Foundation, in 1993. In 1995, the Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative began the first year of what has become an extraordinarily successful 10-year program for developing science education curricula that incorporate Native ways of knowing and learning. Other Rural Systemic Initiatives sponsored by the National Science Foundation and designed to increase the efficacy of science education work with Native peoples in the Colorado Plateau area, the Navajo Nation, and tribes of the Northern Great Plains. In the year 2000, the first book to have the term “Native Science” in its title was published: Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence. The book’s author, Tewa Pueblo Gregory Cajete, Ph.D., had previously published several books on Indigenous science education and edited a volume on sustainable agriculture.

New educational opportunities at colleges and universities continue to advance Indigenous science in important ways. At the other end of the educational spectrum, organizations such as the Cradleboard Teaching Project headed by Buffy Sainte-Marie, Ph.D., “reaches out from Indian country” into mainstream primary educational venues through packaged curricula such as “Science: Through Native American Eyes. In the area of public education, special exhibits and educational workshops on Indigenous Science have been held at several museums in the last several years, including the Minnesota Science Museum.

A meeting of Indigenous Science educators and researchers resulted in the book Science and Native American Communities: Legacies of Pain, Visions of Promise, edited by Iroquis psychology professor Keith James, Ph.D. in 2001. A 2002 meeting of Indigenous scientists, elders, artists, and educators was funded by the National Science Foundation. Indigenous scientists gathered again in 2003 and 2004 at the AAAS annual meetings in Denver and Seattle, where Indigenous science was the focus of several symposia.

In 2013 the American Indigenous Research Association was founded at Salish Kootenai College to promote, foster, and apply Indigenous Research Methodologies — methods based in the philosophies, knowledge systems, values and beliefs of Indigenous communities, as a whole as well as in regards to the particular Indigenous peoples and communities engaged in a particular program of research — to any and all research carried out on or with Indigenous peoples.  A current bibliography of research methods related to Indigenous Science can be found on the AIRA website.

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

The Range of Indigenous Science

The Processes of Indigenous Science

The Importance of Indigenous Science

-or- Return to the subject of Indigenous Knowledge