Ways of Knowing 

What is knowledge? For many of us students, knowledge is something fought for and earned through hard work, studying, and research. As semesters evolve, knowledge is our prize for the many nights and cups of coffee, bleary eyed mornings, and studiously completed papers. This is especially true in the sciences, built partially on the idea that nature’s essential truths are hidden away behind miles and miles of inscrutable detail. In this view, it is only through tenacious labor in labs and in the field that we are able to wrest these truths away from her. Science, when I was taught, had an almost Promethean feel to it—we were taking knowledge and bringing it back to the people against the will of some self-centered god who had long ago deemed us unfit for it. Would it surprise you to know I hated science then?

For me, it’s a privilege to know the natural world. Having spent part of my childhood in a place where the dominant cover types are asphalt and concrete, the lush, soft green world seemed to me like a gift. I felt blessed to know the names of the trees and their neighbors and listened attentively when someone shared these with me. There was no brash thievery—just gentleness and patience, the willingness to listen and observe in humility and thoughtfulness.

Of course, chauvinism wasn’t everywhere, but it was an attitude I encountered enough that it had an imprint on me and turned me away from that whole hemisphere of my brain for many years. It wasn’t until I got older that I met those who shared with me a view of knowledge and its pursuit as a gift and a privilege rather than something to be taken, a heist.

Of course, with gifts comes the understanding of reciprocity. What was my return gesture for the gift of knowing the natural world? I needed to protect it, to treat it with respect and honor, and, when appropriate, to pass on what I knew. In many ways, I think, this is the best thing to do if you want to make someone into an environmentalist: teach them to know and to love a place well and when they learn it’s under threat, they’ll rush to protect it themselves.

I was recently in conversation with a young non-Native scientist friend who had just returned from listening to a prominent Indigenous elder speak on this topic. I knew the dreamy look in her eyes meant that there were questions forming and so I invited her to share them with me. She told me she felt invigorated by these ideas—the idea of knowledge as a gift, the inherent reciprocity. She said that after attending the lecture, she had gone back to her desk, turned on her computer, and became keenly aware of the disconnect. She had had time to reflect upon her gratitude for her knowledge in her field—to know that this discipline had given meaning to her world beyond a paycheck and a couple of letters after her name. How could she reciprocate?

With any luck this is a question that she will keep with her throughout her career.

Jasmine Neosh is a student at College of Menominee Nation.

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