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February 26, 2024

A First Nations Perspective 14

By Christine Miskonoodinkwe Smith

"Science has been and can be defined many different ways depending on who is doing the defining" - Leroy Little Bear

What is Science and Who Defines It ?

Science is a difficult topic to write about, but I want to write about it because it not only challenges me to think outside the box, but it also allows me to explain how according to the Indigenous worldview, there are two ways of looking at science -- through the Western eye and through the Indigenous eye.

"Conventional historical narratives about Native Americans typically assume that they were pre-technological or 'primitive' peoples. As such, they are thought to lack science. The word 'science' is derived from the Greek word for knowledge. In its broadest sense then, science can be said to be the quest for knowledge, which is based upon the worldview of a people. Native Americans have always had worldviews, which determined and was based on their experience of the world, and thus their own forms of science. Native American scholars and historians have given a name to their way of knowing the world: Traditional Environmental Knowledge (TEK)." - Dina Gilio-Whitaker Native American History Expert

According to the book Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence, by Gregory Cajete: "Native science is a product of a different creative journey and different history than that of Western science. Native science is not quantum physics or environmental science, but it has come to similar understandings about the workings of the natural laws through experience and participation with the natural world." (pg.14)

It is also said, "Native science reflects the unfolding story of a creative universe in which human beings are active and creative participants. When viewed from this perspective, science is evolutionary -- its expression unfolds through the general scheme of the creative process of first insight, immersion, creation, and reflection." (pg.14)

In order to distinguish between Western modes of knowing and those of Native people it is often helpful to compare. For example, in terms of science, "We think of Western science as being characterized by a heavy reliance on theorizing through measuring and the ability to test the 'truth' of a claim or theory by being able to predictably reproduce consistent results. When we can reproduce the same results over and over again, we give the theory a name and call it the 'truth.' It is one way of understanding the world through observation.

"Though Native science is also based on observation, the assumptions about the world Native people observe are based on how they perceive themselves within it, and this is the biggest difference between Western science and philosophy and Native science and philosophy."

I love the reading by Vine Deloria Jr, "Where the Buffalo Go: How Science Ignores the Living World" because Deloria speaks about the same issue and argues the difference between the Western and Indigenous paradigms of life. He points out that Western people, especially scientists, reduce the world to objects, and the implications for this attitude are immense. He states "If you see the world around you as a collection of objects for you to manipulate and exploit, you will inevitably destroy the world while attempting to control it."

The reality we all see through modern science is largely based on Western paradigms. Western paradigmatic views of science are largely about measurement using Western mathematics. But nature is not mathematical. Leroy Little Bear says, "Mathematics is superimposed on nature like a grid, and then examined from that framework. It is like the land survey system: a grid framework of townships, sections, and acres superimposed on the land. These units, in turn are used as the basis for dealing with the land, but they are not part of the nature of the land."

Albert Einstein said that "the business of science is 'reality' " and though I tend to agree, I also tend to believe that science is based on a Western paradigm and doesn't entertain any other way of seeing it. Scientific facts -- the appearances themselves -- are as much a product of the person doing the observing and their human nature as they are of an underlying reality.


Article © Christine Miskonoodinkwe Smith. All rights reserved.
Published on 2015-04-06
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