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Visions of a Native science: Appreciation of Gregory Cajete


In a recently published book, Panchito Ramirez, a Taino elder from eastern Cuba, reminds us, "The Indian system is a science." Ramirez referred to the conuco system of agriculture still employed in his mountain village. This ancient companion-planting method of the Caribbean and much of indigenous Latin America is often called "the grocery store of the forest" for its diversity, fertility and production capacity. Says the cacique, "Respect is essential. The Indian system started with that, and it can resolve human needs."

Everywhere in the hemisphere, Native elders, educators and medicine people will assert this reality. Whether referring to conuco or the corn-beans-squash agronomic combination known as the "three sisters" or the "three sustainers" by Northeastern Indians, or to the extensive repertoire of natural medicinal knowledge, the continuing point made by Native cultural principles has signaled this basis of respect. Much of what is called "primitive" about indigenous peoples' ways of organizing human activity on this Earth was quite useful, practical and pragmatic; it followed general principles that are increasingly ignored today by much of human enterprise. Perhaps humanity will pay a heavy price yet for turning a blind eye to its impacts on the natural world.

One Native intellectual from North America paying excellent attention to this theme is the Santa Clara Tewa professor, Gregory Cajete. In his wide-ranging and well-researched book, "Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence," Cajete makes an excellent argument for the scientific basis of American Indian systems. Cajete picks up on the diversity and abundance of the Caribbean conuco; he also interprets existence from a Native relational concept. Among his comprehensive listing of "Tenets of Native Philosophy:

oAll human knowledge is related to the creation of the world and the emergence of humans; therefore, human knowledge is based on human cosmology.

oDynamic multidimensional harmony is a perpetual state of the universe.

oHumanity has an important role in the perpetuation of the natural processes of the world.

oThere is significance to each natural place because each place reflects the whole order of nature.

oThere are stages of initiation to knowledge.

oElders are relied upon as the keepers of essential knowledge.

oEvery "thing" is animate and has spirit.

oDreams are gateways to creative possibilities if used wisely and practically.

The base of all the tenets: Native science integrates a spiritual orientation.

"Everything is in the practice," a Maya elder of our acquaintance often reminds his students. Cajete joins Vine Deloria, Jr., Daniel Wildcat and others who have challenged mainstream academia to consider a different base from which to conduct research and seek knowledge. As Cajete writes, in the Native context, objectivity is known to emerge from subjectivity. In this context, however, the subjectivity is tribally developed and is not simply an individualistic quest.

Congratulations are extended to all the many Native educators working to revitalize the use of Native traditional knowledge and languages. People such as Jeannette Armstrong, Darrell Kipp, Kalena Silva and many others, all must be commended for breaking the ice-wall of disregard for Native knowledge represented in oral memory and cultural practices. The intimate tie to the nature of place is a constant of all Native beliefs and languages. They are saying: this is where science must start. Through participation and observation of untold generations, in their languages, Native peoples exhibit, an "enormous knowledge base related to the natural characteristics and processes of their lands."

Thank you, Greg Cajete, for honing the Native argument. Indian educators and students are certainly listening. Perhaps the others will hear it as well.