Our Ancestors Were Scientists

Salish Sea Research Center lab manager Rosa Hunter. (Photo by Crosscut)
Photo of Rosa Hunter, Salish Sea Research Center. Photo by Crosscut.

Earlier this month, Northwest Indian College (NWIC) alumna Rosa Hunter was featured by Crosscut in an article by writer Sarah Hoffman. Hunter shares about returning to school in her 30’s, following her experiences of dropping out of high school, working hard at various jobs, and being incarcerated. Hunter, now the lab manager for the Salish Sea Research Center located on the NWIC campus, carries with her the educational experiences from a tribal college (including Western scientific models and tools), but also the traditional education from her grandmother, who taught her and her siblings how to find healthy clams through observation and an understanding of the environment.

Like most of us, the road of higher education was not an easily assumed path handed to Hunter by parents who knew the way, confident of their role in the world of academia and expecting all of the benefits and door-opening privileges that can come with it. It is worth reminding ourselves that, for much of the history of colonization, Native people were not given access to higher education, but instead were assumed to be less intelligent than whites and relegated to roles of domestic servitude or tribal arts and crafts. The so-called education provided at Indian boarding schools was academically limited and primarily focused on English language skills and domestic trades, such as cooking and smithing. This ideology was prominently displayed in the early 20th century, when Native scholars such as August Breuniger (Menominee), Dr. Carlos Montezuma (Yavapai Apache), and Arthur C. Parker (Seneca) promoted the idea of an Indian university, where Native students could learn “the arts, lit­erature, history, ethnology, and philosophy of their people. Along with such subjects might be taught political and social sciences and such other academic branches as might be found necessary.” The idea was vehemently opposed by Indian assimilationists, who believed the only pathway for Native Americans was through rejecting Indian cultures and embracing the Western worldview and ways of living. This 1989 article by Steven Crum from the Tribal College Journal explains the many years of advocacy (and resistance) that led to the first tribal college, established by the Navajo Nation in 1968. Even at that time, elected officials insisted that Indians didn’t want to go to school, but should be happy to continue making arts and crafts. Not only do modern tribal colleges enroll more Native students and provide a home for Native scholars pursuing higher education, but they do so in ways that include and validate all of our experiences as Native people.

In the interview, Hunter shares her realization that her ancestors were scientists, who moved through the world with a set of knowledge, skills, and perspectives that helped them collect and evaluate data, and make wise interpretations of that data in ways that helped them thrive. This idea is further developed by Gregory Cajete, a Tewa scholar, professor, and author of the book Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence. In this 2015 talk at the Banff Event Center, Cajete defines Native science in this way: “Native science is a metaphor for Native knowledge. It is the stories of the world that include creative ways for living and participating in relationship with the world through processes for seeking life, relationship, and meaning.”

One of the biggest pitfalls of Western science is the way it attempts to categorize everything into neat and distinct boxes, including (and especially) the scientists doing the work. One is encouraged (and even required) to bring a pretense of distance, “objectivity,” and a version of neutrality that takes us as scientists out of the picture in order for our work to be considered valid. Native science reminds us that this is impossible. We are already and always connected to the rest of the world, in all of its messy complexity. Instead of seeking an unemotional and detached view of the universe and how it works, Cajete explains that the goal of Native science is “becoming open to the natural world with all of one’s senses, body, mind, and spirit.”

In getting to know and learn from Rosa Hunter through my internship at the Salish Sea Research Center, I’ve had a first-hand experience of these capacities. Rosa is a good and committed scientist, but she is also funny and passionate and humble and accessible – all the things which make her a real and good person, too. I am grateful for her and the example she provides to all of us, even in a world that hasn’t always seen our peoples as possessing scientific and vital ways of knowing.

“Our ancestors were scientists,” says Hunter. May more of us embrace this knowledge and find our way on the pathway of becoming “open to the natural world with all of our body, mind, and spirit.”

Mickki Garrity (Bodewadmi) is an enrolled in the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, a Cobell Scholar, a Doris Duke Conservation Scholar, and is pursuing a BS in Native environmental science at Northwest Indian College.

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