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Marching for Indigenous Science

“Let us remember that long before Western science came to these shores, there were Indigenous scientists here”

This Earth Day, four leading Native American scientists and scholars, Robin Kimmerer (Potawatomi), Rosalyn LaPier (Blackfeet/Métis), Melissa Nelson (Anishinaabe), and Kyle Whyte, (Potawatomi) will participate in the March for Science, in the main event in Washington DC, and at satellite marches in cities across the country tomorrow.

Santa Rita MountainsPhoto courtesy of USDALeech Lake Band of Ojibwe youth tends to a rice crop on the Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota.There is a growing recognition — both among the mainstream scientific community as well as among the wider public — of the validity and value of Indigenous science.

And although they’ll be marching in disparate locations, they are all committed to engaging the power of both Western and Indigenous science. Kimmerer, LaPier, Nelson and Whyte are the co-authors of a declaration, Let Our Indigenous Voices Be Heard, which endorses the March for Science, and at the same time celebrates Indigenous science as a respected partner for answering scientific questions and supports pluralism in scientific research.

“As original peoples, we have long memories, centuries-old wisdom and deep knowledge of this land and the importance of empirical, scientific inquiry as fundamental to the well-being of people and planet,” the declaration says.

“Let us remember that long before Western science came to these shores, there were Indigenous scientists here. Native astronomers, agronomists, geneticists, ecologists, engineers, botanists, zoologists, watershed hydrologists, pharmacologists, physicians and more — all engaged in the creation and application of knowledge, which promoted the flourishing of both human societies and the beings with who we share the planet. We give gratitude for all their contributions to knowledge. Native science supported indigenous culture, governance and decision making for a sustainable future –the same needs which bring us together today.”

Tens of thousands of supporters around the world will be celebrating science in the March for Science tomorrow, but its genesis was anything but a celebration. It grew out of discussions about new public policies in the US to discredit scientific consensus, and restrict scientific discovery, even as scientists and supporters were scrambling to archive scientific data before it could be scrubbed from government websites.

Right after President Trump signed two executive orders upon taking office, one expediting environmental reviews for high priority infrastructure, the other green-lighting the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, LaPier joined the national steering committee of the March for Science. “Both cases were related to science and the role of scientists in helping provide information to communities so they can make informed decisions about natural resource development,” she said.

The declaration joins with other Indigenous science organizations that have endorsed and officially partnered with the March for Science, including the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, the National Coalition of Native American Language Schools and Programs, and the Society Advancing Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science.

Well over 1500 Indigenous scientists, scholars, and allies have signed their support for the declaration, including Indigenous scientist Karletta Chief (Navajo) at the University of Arizona, Christof Mauch, Director of the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich, and Bill McKibben, Founder of 350.org.

 “We imagine the declaration as a powerful statement to illuminate and elevate Indigenous Science in the minds of the public and scientific communities, for the benefit of people and planet,” the co-authors said in a separate statement released earlier this week.

 While the organizers haven’t discussed formal plans for moving the coalition forward, the groundswell of support from Native signers and their nonnative allies speaks to a need to keep it going in order to create more awareness and support for Indigenous science and education, Kimmerer said yesterday. “The collaboration of Indigenous and western science holds great promise,” she said.

“Indigenous peoples have their own scientific traditions and institutions, of all kinds and varieties that are both critical for the future of our peoples as well as for the advancement of knowledge of the world,” Whyte added. “We hope this coalition honors and further empowers the work already being done.”

Indigenous science is an interchangeable term with others, such as “traditional ecological knowledge” when describing earth and environmental sciences — fields that are especially relevant today. “To successfully address our world’s pressing ecological issues, it is critical that we look to the multiple place-based and time-tested sciences of Indigenous peoples,” Nelson said.

There is, in fact, a growing recognition — both among the mainstream scientific community as well as among the wider public — of the validity and value of Indigenous science. This is particularly true in the field of environmental science — a field where science and culture intersect. All over the world, conservation biologists and policy makers are realizing the importance of incorporating local and Indigenous knowledge into conservation efforts. A perfect indication of this is the recent acceptance of Indigenous organizations into the Members’ Assembly of the International Union for Conservation of Nature — the global authority on the status of the natural world and the measures needed to safeguard it.

However, much more needs to be done to ensure more participation by Indigenous people in the sciences. Native Americans, for instance, are the most under-represented group in the American scientific community.

Terri Hansen
Terri Hansen is a member of the Winnebago tribe. She has covered Indigenous peoples’ issues since 1993. Hansen’s focus is science and the environment, and she has reported on climate change in tribal communities since 2008, as well as on Indigenous participation in the annual UN climate summits. Follow her on Twitter @TerriHansen.

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