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Science Meets Tradition and Benefits Culture

Science is meeting tradition at Oglala Lakota College and on the Pine Ridge Reservation thanks to some innovative educators and programs.

Ellsworth Chytka, Ihanktowan, is an elderly man from Yankton, South Dakota. When asked about technology, he told a story about a woman he knew who was driving and told her children, “Look at the sunset!” The children looked up, admired it briefly, and went back to their iPads and smart phones. The mother sighed and said again, “Look at the sunset!” They looked up again, took pictures of it with their devices, and went back to their games. The woman stopped the car and made the children get out, and said, “Look at the sunset!”

“When you look at it, it goes inside you. People hardly go outside anymore, it is part of becoming emotionless; and that’s why they are killing Mother Earth,” Chytka said. “The soul isn’t touched.”

Technology can play a part for better or worse, but of course it’s all about how it’s done. While undisciplined use of technological gadgets can interfere with Native students’ connection with their surroundings, there are other ways in which technology enhances that connection and boosts culture. Where the modern world meets ancient traditions is where the future lies.

Misty Brave, TCUP (Tribal Colleges and Universities Program) Outreach Community Service/ Faculty, developed hands-on science programs for youth whose education was fact-based rather than critical thinking. “I don’t care if a kid can tell me that five times five is 25. But if he says five fives are 25 I know he understands. They hate the program that is so regimented.” Fact-based curriculum does not teach students to think, which is exactly what Brave’s science program does.

Christina Rose

Misty Brave and a student demonstrate how electricity is conducted. Note that they are lighting the bottom half of the fluorescent tube with their hands.

After taking a training program, Brave brought science fairs to Pine Ridge. “People were always afraid of science because it was taught as facts with big words. The way I taught it, it hit home with the youngsters. They said, ‘Hey, this is fun, this is Indian, and this is how my ancestors learned.” Referring to the fact-based education, Brave said, “When you are living off the land, nothing is packaged for you. You have to experiment. It was a way of life. We didn’t know what an experiment or a hypothesis was.”

The youth on Pine Ridge have shown an increasing interest in science. Brave said last year eight Pine Ridge schools and 593 students participated in the Native American Science and Engineering fair. “We have noticed some changes in our fair. There are more cultural projects. One student from Red Cloud did a study of uranium and went on to the regional and then the international fair. We have seen projects using traditional dyes, and projects that revolve around culture. Our Lakota Studies program is in favor of sponsoring prizes.”

Generations Indigenous Ways, funded by the Seventh Generation Fund, is another Pine Ridge science program developed by Helene Gaddies who is looking to push the envelope on existing programs. “People have to realize that science is innate, we are born with it,” Gaddies said. “But in order to balance it out, you put the culture first. You have to know who you are. The first thing is to learn Lakota geography, but they are not learning about the town of Kyle. They are learning about Paha Sapa [Black Hills], the Great Racetrack [a Lakota creation story], the origin of Wanblee.

Helene Gaddie

Helene Gaddie stands holding sage while volunteer Joy Romero rests during an outing for the Generations Indigenous Ways Winter Camp. Both were interning for the Native Science Field Center at that time.

“When you take the kids to the petroglyphs, you can cover history, culture, science; and the way it works best is if you have Lakota experts and geologists,” she said.

Having Native scientists is critical to the maintenance of tribal land and is the career path for many at Oglala Lakota College. James Sanovia, instructor at OLC, said a young girl asked him the point of chemistry. This was his answer: “The interns and students know about the plants and their traditional values, but their knowledge stops there. I asked her, ‘Don’t you want to know what your plants are drinking? What would give you the tools to check on your plants if something went wrong, like patients in the lab?’ If they want to learn more about how to keep them healthy or if they need to fix a situation, we can check soil and ground water, check on the motion rate of a stream, maybe somebody or a beaver built a dam and it changes the dynamic of the stream at somebody’s berry bush. How do they fix that?”

“With satellite mapping you can see where the problem is,” said Sanovia, who has used mapping to learn the geomorphology of the stream. “You learn about erosion and how the stream operates. Then you can use the chemistry to analyze them,” he said.

Using Native scientists to perform scientific land work assures that cultural values will be respected and sacred sites will remain undisturbed. Sanovia said, “Our students will know biology, geology, chemistry, geomorphology, hydrology by the time they graduate. If they get a job with the tribe’s land office, they will need to be able to do many things, including be a geologist with a cultural background.”

The Generations Indigenous Ways program, which is gathering steam while waiting for its 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, develops curriculum with elders on the reservation and recently held a popular after school program where students made a bow. Throughout the summer there were gardening classes and farmers markets. She is also working with others to develop an Indigenous Ways model, which will take place after school at the Crazy Horse School.

“If you are going to do this, consult with your elders. The curriculum comes from respect, our values, our oldest generation, and then you have those teachings. We brought all the elders together with the Lakota studies teacher, the science teachers, and we put it together in a Lakota way, ” Gaddies said. “I have been enhancing Lakota culture through science, and have worked in several places (including Oglala Lakota College). Now we want an outdoor science campus on the reservation,” Gaddies laughed and said. “It always seems impossible ‘til it’s done.”