An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Spring 2018

If Indigenous Peoples Stand with the Sciences, Will Scientists Stand with Us?

Megan Bang, Ananda Marin, and Douglas L. Medin
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Indigenous sciences are foundationally based in relationships, reciprocity, and responsibilities. These sciences constitute systems of knowledge developed through distinct perspectives on and practices of knowledge creation and decision-making that not only have the right to be pursued on their own terms but may also be vital in solving critical twenty-first-century challenges. “Science” is often treated as if it were a single entity, free of cultural influences and value-neutral in principle. Western science is often seen as instantiating and equivalent to this idealized, yet problematic, view of science. We argue for engagement with multiple perspectives on science in general, and increased engagement with Indigenous sciences in particular. As scholars focused on human learning and development, we share empirical examples of how Indigenous sciences, sometimes in partnership with Western science, have led to new discoveries and insights into human learning and development.

MEGAN BANG is Associate Professor at the University of Washington College of Education. She is the author of Who's Asking? Native Science, Western Science, and Science Education (2014, with Douglas L. Medin). She has published widely in journals such as Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Nature Behavior, Cognition and Instruction, Science Education, and the Journal of Research in Science Teaching.

ANANDA MARIN is Assistant Professor at the ucla Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. Her work on learning has been published in such publications as Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Journal of American Indian Education, and Harvard Educational Review.

DOUGLAS MEDIN, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2002, is Professor of Psychology at Northwestern University. His publications include Who's Asking? Native Science, Western Science, and Science Education (with Megan Bang, 2014) and The Native Mind and the Cultural Construction of Nature (with Scott Atran, 2008).

For many years, wildlife biologists who observed coyotes and badgers hunting in the same area hypothesized that they were competing for game and speculated that badgers would follow coyotes in hopes of snatching their prey. After further observation, the biologists realized that badgers and coyotes often hunt cooperatively and that this in fact makes them more successful. The logics in these studies mirrored reasoning patterns within some Indigenous communities: that is, Indigenous peoples often focus on and inquire about reciprocal relationships between entities. It is possible, therefore, that different cultural orientations may facilitate different insights into badger and coyote behavior. To further test this insight and place these findings in a cultural context, we removed all the text from a children’s book on coyote/badger hunting, asked U.S. college students and Indigenous Panamanian Ngöbe adults to look at the book’s illustrations, and listened to what they thought the book depicted. U.S. college students interpreted the story as competitive, while Ngöbe adults saw it as cooperative.1 This study shows that cultural orientations influence how we interpret and explain our observations–both in our everyday lives and when we build systems of knowledge.

Indigenous sciences build knowledge about the world through a distinct set of orienting values, concepts, and questions. These include: What is worthy of attention? What needs explanation? Who is related? How? Why does it matter? Tewa scholar Gregory Cajete has articulated one of the most important concepts of Indigenous science in this way: “everything is related, that is, connected in dynamic, interactive, and mutually reciprocal relationships.”2 This foundational premise shapes Indigenous sciences both in principle and in practice through methods of knowledge building. Cajete goes on:

The ultimate aim [of Native science] is not explaining an objectified universe, but rather learning about and understanding responsibilities and relationships and celebrating those that humans establish with the world. Native science is also about mutual reciprocity, which simply means a give-and-take relationship with the natural world, and which presupposes a responsibility to care for, sustain, and respect the rights of other living things, plants, animals, and place in which one lives.3

As Cajete argues, Indigenous sciences are relationally organized. This has implications for the way humans live and for the responsibilities we carry to each other and to our relatives who make up the rest of nature, including not only plants and animals but also the sun, stars, waters, and land that constitute our ecosystems. This ecological axiom grounds the questions and methods of most Indigenous sciences, fulfilling ethical responsibilities that ultimately contribute to the larger collective good.

In the twenty-first century, climate change will require human communities to adapt and reimagine interdependent relationships with and responsibilities to the natural world and each other. Science will play a critical role in meeting these challenges and developing policy that facilitates the collective good. But what kind of science, and mobilized by whom?

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  • 1bethany ojalehto and Douglas Medin, “Emerging Trends in Culture and Concepts,” in Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences: An Interdisciplinary, Searchable, and Linkable Resource, ed. Robert A. Scott and Stephen Michael Kosslyn (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2015); and bethany ojalehto, Douglas L. Medin, William S. Horton, Salino G. Garcia, and Estefano G. Kays, “Seeing Cooperation or Competition: Ecological Interactions in Cultural Perspectives,” Topics in Cognitive Science 7 (4) (2015): 624–645.
  • 2Gregory Cajete, Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence (Santa Fe: Clear Light Publishers, 2000). See also Manu Aluli Meyer, “Native Hawaiian Epistemology: Sites of Empowerment and Resistance,” Equity & Excellence 31 (1998): 22–28; Vine Deloria, A Brief History of the Federal Responsibility to the American Indian (Washington, D.C.: Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Office of Education, 1979); Robin W. Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013); Robin W. Kimmerer, “Weaving Traditional Ecological Knowledge into Biological Education: A Call to Action,” BioScience 52 (2002): 432–438; Audra Simpson, Theorizing Native Studies (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2014); Kyle Powys Whyte, “Now This! Indigenous Sovereignty, Political Obliviousness and Governance Models for SRM Research,” Ethics, Policy & Environment 15 (2012): 172–187; Oscar A. Kawagley, “Yup’ik Ways of Knowing,” Canadian Journal of Native Education 17 (2) (1990): 5–17; and Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999).
  • 3Cajete, Native Science.