The Cosmic Serpent, a 4 year project of the Indigenous Education Institute, funded by the National Science Foundation, recently held a workshop in Fairbanks, Alaska. There a diverse group of tribal museum educators and “western” science center professionals met to plan how indigenous knowledge can be incorporated in science education. The informal learning environment that we envision will help more Indian/Native students to acquire competency in science and math, so they can staff their Tribes’ future scientific and technological workforces. The Cosmic Serpent is investigating ways to interest young indigenous people in pure science, in addition to their goal of incorporating native teachings in general science education.
Here are a few comments by Isabel Hawkins, an astrophysicist who is a principal of Cosmic Serpent:
“The most in-depth experience of Alaska native knowledge occurred during the preparation of a traditional meal at the home of Robert and Bernadette Charlie at North Pole, AK. One might think that at the North Pole reindeer are a favorite food, but instead we prepared moose! An “educated moose” we were told, since the elders secured a permit to hunt a moose for educational purposes. Seeing and participating in the whole adventure of cooking moose stew is something that will always stay in the imagination and memory of the participants. The celebration after the feast, with traditional songs, put the ‘icing on the cake.’ The principal lesson that emerged is the respect and dedication that is required for sustenance living. Nothing is wasted, nothing is ignored, everything that nourishes us is welcome with gratitude.
Other important lessons and messages at the workshop were shared by western scientists and native elders alike. Traditional Hawaiian navigators provided insights into non-instrument navigation and using one’s body as the instrument, in perfect tune with the environment. Hawaiian Ph.D. astronomers shared their knowledge of astrophysics, and the challenges we face in our understandings of the workings of the Universe. The western science physical laws can describe the workings of 4% of the known universe. Much is yet to be learned, and much of it also, will always be a mystery.
Elders with traditional as well as western ecological training shared ways of relating to the land in sustainable ways. In the western tradition, national parks and biosphere preserves remove native people from their land. We learned about ‘keystones’ or critical, essential components that must work in harmony for sustainability, and native people play such critical roles, by working with nature to balance the effects of water, air, earth, and fire. These were important messages especially for the western trained science educators. The most important message for me was to reflect on the difference between knowledge and wisdom.”
Thanks to Isabel for her summing up! She’s great. She is based at The Exploratorium in San Francisco. It was truly a wonderful experience to meet the fellows of Cosmic Serpent. They have a website–http://cosmicserpent.org