Mann: AISES: Powerful medicine for the spirit and education

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American Indians are this country's first scientists, a fact that is often overlooked by contemporary America in general and the scientific community in particular. As indigenous peoples walked through history on their respective cultural roads of life, they formulated sophisticated bodies of traditional knowledge, some points of which converge with mainstream science. They were intimately familiar with their environment and knew where they stood in the universe. In indigenous thought, life is viewed holistically and for them science is but a strand that is interwoven into a vast, delicately balanced ecological system in which everyone and everything is connected and interdependent. For them, science did not stand separate from life.

Recognizing the paucity of American Indians in the fields of science and engineering, a small group of scientists, engineers and educators in the late 1970s began to address the issue of under-representation of American Indians in higher education and in the science and engineering fields with a focus upon improving graduation rates. If more American Indian students were to be recruited into the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines, strong support systems had to be created and implemented. With incredible foresight and drawing upon the experience and strength of the past, they sought to bridge intellectual aptitude and contemporary education, while simultaneously instituting culture-based support structures and networks that would lead to graduation and on to successful professional careers. Thus, the group organized the American Indian Science and Engineering Society to meet the academic goals and needs that were vital to students studying in the STEM fields.

AISES has been in existence for close to three decades, and it has had a council of elders for an estimated 20 of those years. In the late 1980s, Norbert Hill, then director of AISES, asked me to become a founding member of the council, an honor I enjoyed for many years. The AISES Council of Elders is an advisory body to the board of directors.

In addition to being advisers on cultural matters and protocol, elders interact with students at annual or regional conferences and at leadership conferences. They also conduct separate talking circles for males and females. The talking stick is passed from one participant to another, and those who choose to can share their challenges, emotions, hopes and dreams in a safe environment where all that is said there remains there.

Another significant event of the annual conference is ''storytelling,'' and I recall with great joy our young intellectuals sitting at the feet of their ''masters,'' so to speak. Some were thirsty for cultural knowledge and others just wanted to be reminded of their culturally rich past. Such teachings from yesterday, it is hoped, will help them to strengthen their connections or remain rooted in their communities, lest they forget from where they come. They were afforded the opportunity to smell and smudge themselves with the same sacred perfumes of their mother or grandmother the Earth that their grandparents over the generations had smelled and burned. AISES and its council of elders provided this vital connection with the cultural past. Such traditions serve to balance the demands of their academically challenging fields of study with culture and identity.

AISES is a unique organization with strong leadership in its director and board. Years ago, it set the trend with its strong code of conduct for alcohol- and other drug-free gatherings. It honors the memory of a great Cherokee man through its Sequoyah Fellows Society. Dedicated to culturally and financially supporting students in the STEM areas, it is a strong student-centered organization, with students having a seat on the board of directors. Many who were students now participate as professionals, another population that has emerged within the organization. AISES is about family and community and honoring the individual and the past.

I am pleased to see it reaching its adulthood of 30 years of age. What a celebration and testament to the value of the traditional knowledge that our ancestors passed down through the generations that run parallel to contemporary knowledge. Just as white willow bark with its properties now commercialized as aspirin was healing for the body, AISES is powerful medicine for the spirit and education. It deserves an eagle feather and tremolo for its achievements and longevity as a vibrant organization that promotes respect for community, indigenous nations, culture and education.

Henrietta Mann, Ph.D., Cheyenne, is professor emeritus of Native American Studies and special assistant to the president at Montana State University.