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Western Researchers Finally Appreciating Wisdom of Elders When It Comes to Mother Earth

A story about how Western scientists are learning from Native American elders about the earth.

Indigenous Peoples have a deep and profound scientific understanding of creation, of the duality and tension that holds the created world in place. Mainstream science and academia can’t begin to understand and convey the knowledge that Indigenous Peoples carry in their DNA. We all come into the world with this knowledge, but Indigenous Peoples still carry the knowledge in their blood memory.”

That’s according to Renee Gurneau, Red Lake Ojibwe, who spoke at the recent Rights of Mother Earth: Restoring Indigenous Life Ways of Responsibility and Respect conference at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas.

Increasingly, Western scientists and academics seem to be recognizing the wisdom of interconnectedness and respect for life that has long been expressed by Indigenous Peoples. The challenges of addressing climate change are motivating mainstream scientists to look for solutions outside of their traditional knowledge base. The following quote, for example, is an apt summation of the essence of indigenous wisdom: “We have no greater concern than the future of this planet and the life upon it.”

Those words, however, were not spoken by an American Indian leader—they come from the 1988 report, Earth System Science: A Closer View, by the NASA Advisory Council Earth Systems Sciences Committee. The committee was formed to create a direction for NASA’s Earth Sciences Program.

That report is part of the Bretherton Report, named after committee chairman Francis Bretherton of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Released in two volumes, Earth System Science: An Overview (1985) and Earth System Science: A Closer View, the report is a seminal contribution to the discipline of Earth System Science and its approach to climate change.

In the study of climate change, the Bretherton Report is often cited as a momentous development that has offered scientists a new view of Earth as an integrated system in a state of constant change. “We have thus in the 1980s reached an exciting point in our attempt to know the Earth,” it reads. “Our research has led directly to the concept of an Earth system and a scientific approach that considers the Earth as a complex evolving body, characterized by ceaseless change.”

The authors of the Bretherton Report were undoubtedly influenced by the Gaia hypothesis that emerged during the late 1960s. The hypothesis, defined chemist James Lovelock, proposes that the Earth’s organisms are integrated into one self-regulating system. Earth scientists of the time were becoming increasingly aware of the important role that human activity plays in changes of Earth’s “system.” Indeed, they appear to have been embracing the interconnectedness of life on Earth.

The scope of knowledge expressed in Earth System Science and the Gaia hypothesis, however, is not news for American Indians. “We are part of the Earth, and it is part of us. This we know: The earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself. “

Commonly attributed to a speech made in 1854 by Chief Seattle of the Duwamish and Suquamish tribes, this quote demonstrates the essential qualities of indigenous knowledge and indigenous science: interrelationship with the earth as well as respect and responsibility for it.

“We have always known life is connected; therefore, life is ceremony,” says LeManuel “Lee” Bitsoi, Diné, Harvard Medical School faculty member. “Traditionally, Native peoples seek to maintain balance and harmony. This perspective brings respect to learning and understanding the power and miracle of life and science.”

To illustrate this connection, he described a meeting in his family’s hogan, a traditional Navajo structure often used for ceremonies. Speaking the Navajo language, he described a recent scientific discovery to his family. He told them that a genetic code of the platypus had been found indicating that cows, chickens, sheep and even the platypus share more than 80 percent of the same genes found in humans.

He recalls that his uncle, an elder and medicine man, sat quietly with his eyes closed throughout the talk. At last his uncle remarked, “Well, it looks like those white scientists are finally catching up with us.”

A Need for Empathy And Community

According to Gregory Cajete, Tewa from Santa Clara Pueblo, Native scientists have long espoused the concepts of human interconnection with the earth, empathy for living things, the power of working and living in community and the importance of acknowledging and celebrating spiritual connection to all life.

Cajete is the director of Native American Studies at the University of New Mexico. A scholar in ethno-botany and social cultural studies as they relate to Indian education and science, he spoke at the National Museum of the American Indian’s (NMAI) July 2011 symposium, “Creating a Climate of Change: A Sustainable Future for the Living Earth,” in Washington, D.C. “[Native peoples] have been talking about the importance of climate change for years to anyone who would listen,” he says, adding that Native peoples have been among the first to directly experience climate change. Since Indigenous Peoples often live subsistence lifestyles, they are among the first to see the impacts of climate change on hunting, fishing and gathering practices.

“Climate change affects our ways of life and place-based rights,” says Cajete. “It hits at the core of who we are as indigenous communities.” The harvest of certain plants and animals are central to the lives and cultures of many Indigenous Peoples—and the loss of those resources due to climate change leads to a loss of traditional knowledge.

“Sustaining our communities is essential,” says Cajete. “It requires reforming our traditional ecological knowledge and cooperation with other tribes and agencies. Crisis brings about the necessity to cooperate. We’ve been trying to do this for years.”

Although Indigenous Peoples may be more vulnerable to climate change, they may be able to offer important lessons to the rest of the world in addressing this challenge. Findings in the 2006 Climate Change and Pacific Rim Indigenous Nations report by the Northwest Indian Applied Research Institute show that although Native peoples are on the front lines of climate change and the first to feel its effects, they can also be viewed as the most historically adaptable and resilient population on Earth. Unlike the non-Native population, Indigenous Peoples still have “community” and leadership that are responsive to community.

Alan Parker, Chippewa-Cree, director of the Northwest Indian Applied Research Institute, notes that many Natives still live in traditional extended families and care

for one another, unlike most Americans. He predicts that mainstream Americans living isolated lives and disconnected from their neighbors may have a tougher time dealing with the challenges brought about by climate change.

Jeremy Rifkin echoed these sentiments during NMAI’s climate change symposium. A best-selling author of numerous books on climate change, Rifkin is an advisor to the European Union and is a senior lecturer at the Wharton School’s Executive Education Program at the University of Pennsylvania. “In order to continue our survival as a species, we must reintegrate ourselves into family,” he told attendees of the symposium. Human beings, he noted, are “hard wired” for empathy. “Empathy is our social glue, our transcendent value,” he says. This empathy must extend not only to the human race but also to the entire biosphere and all its creatures.

Meetings such as the Rights of Mother Earth conference would appear to illustrate the hunger many people have for empathy and community. “Indigenous Peoples don’t have a word for ‘natural resources.’ When we speak of the land, the trees and the animals, we refer to them as relatives. Let’s start a discourse about living well with responsibility and respect for all our relatives,” said Dan Wildcat, a professor of American Indian Studies at Haskell. Wildcat, a Yuchi member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma was a co-convener of the Rights of Mother Earth conference.

According to Rifkin, modern humans have become estranged from the rhythms of Earth and have lost empathy not only for one another but also for the planet. This estrangement has allowed us to ignore the impact of excessive dependence upon fossil fuels. Since most of our food, building matter, and even clothing are petrochemical-based, our entire civilization has become based on fossil fuels, he told the audience.

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He believes our ideas about human nature, mostly based on acquiring property, have become toxic and dysfunctional. “We are in deep trouble as a species and are potentially headed for a mass die-off,” he says. “We are monsters devouring the Earth.” People must relearn empathy and embrace the spirit of working together, he says, in order to survive. “If mainstream society had embraced the Native philosophy of considering how their decisions would affect the next seven generations,” he says, “we wouldn’t be in the situation we are in today.”

NASA Tribal Colleges and Universities Project Manager Nancy Maynard agrees: “Our grandchildren are going to pay the price of climate change. Unfortunately, we, as Western scientists, haven’t been able to communicate that very well.”

NASA has a history of working with Indigenous Peoples and tribal colleges on various endeavors including shared research projects, internships and the 2009 Native Peoples Native Homelands Climate Change Workshop. That workshop was a collaboration between the American Indian Higher Education Consortium and NASA for Native and non-Native scientists, Native leaders, and tribal college students to address concerns and share information regarding the impacts of climate change on Native peoples.

During the workshop, non-Native scientists found that they shared common ground with Native peoples—a love of the Earth and a desire to heal it. “Native people have a wonderful way of visualizing the earth as part of something grander,” says George Seielstad. Retired from the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences at University of North Dakota, Seielstad conducted climate assessments for the 2009 Native Peoples Native Homelands Climate Change Workshop.

According to Seielstad, Native science students have an advantage over their non-Native counterparts. “They have always known they are connected to the earth and its processes. I have always wanted that relationship,” he says. “For me and for us [non-Natives], it has been a learned process.”

Splitting the Differences

To the casual observer, it might seem that Western science is greatly influenced by indigenous science and wisdom. Mainstream scientists are showing a surge of interest in the observational data possessed by Indigenous Peoples, a growing willingness to work in partnership with them—rather than viewing them as source material—a general increase in respect for the earth, and concern for the impact of scientific research on future generations.

There is a distinct boundary, however, between the two approaches to science, according to Wildcat. Spirituality, he says, is the demarcation between the two epistemologies.

According to Wildcat, who is also a co-director of the Haskell Environmental Research Studies Center and author of Red Alert! Saving the Planet With Indigenous Knowledge, Western science values knowledge that is empirical and can be tested within its own framework.

Like Western science, the Native approach to science and climate change is based on observation. Native peoples, however, also value the spiritual tradition of gifts and insight into natural processes that are every bit as fundamental to them as empirical information.

Gurneau agrees. “The phrase ‘everything has a spirit’ does not describe our Anishinaabe cosmology,” she said during the Rights of Mother Earth conference. “For us, everything is spirit. Everything is that one creator of which we are individual manifestations. The Creator makes Anishinaabe of the earth herself. Not only are we made of the earth, the earth is made of us,” she said.

This essential connection explains the psychic pain people feel when the earth is desecrated, Gurneau says. “The acceptance of a Creator, a greater power, is at the heart of the Native approach to science. For instance, how can we have plants that are wonderful and glorious and not have someone to thank for them?” asks Frank Finley of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Finley, a science instructor at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, Montana, is working on his master’s degree at the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho. In his thesis, he is examining how climate change is influencing the practice of gathering traditional plants for area tribes.

“Spirituality is implied in everything for Native scientists. If I bring spirituality into discussions with Western scientists, they turn and run. It is simply not done,” he notes. Not only that, but Western scientists consider certain information as folklore. They are interested in the data alone.

But for Native scientists, there is always a story attached to the data. That story, says Finley, explains how the information should be used. Not only that, but Indigenous Peoples are wary of the growing interest in their in situ data by mainstream science. “When you take data from indigenous sources and simply plug the information into Western ways of thinking, you lose the value that makes it unique,” he notes.

Historically, Indigenous Peoples have good reason for their ambivalence regarding the motives of mainstream science researchers. The much-publicized settlement between Arizona State University and Arizona’s Havasupai Tribe over alleged misuse of DNA samples collected from tribal members exemplifies the often-difficult relationship between Natives and mainstream science.

The growing sentiments of respect and responsibility among Western scientists are encouraging, but according to Wildcat, the changes are very slow and incremental. “If you think there will be an easy match between these two ways of thinking, you are mistaken,” he observes.

That means Native scientists and tribal colleges have an important responsibility to remain true to their own philosophies and traditions when working with mainstream science.

“We don’t want to find ourselves in the position of being so eager to contribute to scientific arenas that we forget who we are as Native peoples,” he says. “We need to remember to put our ways front and center.”

Increasingly, scientists from organizations such as NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration want to talk to Indigenous Peoples about their traditional knowledge, Wildcat noted. “We should not step back from these conversations but we should tell them, “We talk, you listen.”

Native scientists agree that traditional ways of knowing, or epistemologies, can make invaluable contributions to a world addressing climate change—if this knowledge is treated respectfully.

According to Finley, Native peoples do not have stories telling of the end of the world. There is no wrathful end from a vengeful god. For Native people, the natural order of things is for human beings to get together and help each other. “Sometimes I get accused of praying to rocks and trees. I have respect and reverence for the things of this Earth,” he says. “If you don’t have that, there’s nothing anyone can do for you.”

In summing up the Rights of Mother Earth conference, Wildcat notes that Indigenous Peoples have an unprecedented opportunity to guide the global discussion about how to address climate change. “The time is now,” he says. “We are looking at a critical growing mass of people, both indigenous and nonindigenous who are questioning the abilities of the current political, social and economic base and its accompanying institutions to address the Earth’s needs.

“We have a powerful collection of wisdom to share with all of humanity.”

Part of this article originally appeared in the Tribal College Journal of American Indian Higher Education’s 2011 Winter Edition, “Climate Commitment.”