Breaking Barriers | Integrating Native Scientific Perspectives into Resource Management Frameworks (2013)

Many cultures have worldviews which are similar in process to science but have been designated to be myth or magic for not being disseminated in a standardized manner. This paper examines the social and historical development of Indigenous Stewardship Models. There has been a lack of integration between the native science perspective and the scientific community. The epistemological and institutional barriers which have attributed to this lack of integration will be examined, along with examples of how both worldviews can collaborate on new stewardship management models.

The scientific community places a high regard on the knowledge developed by specialists, which has been acquired through a systematic set of repeatable experimentation. Results are generally compartmentalized and shared conservatively (Ross et al. 2011,  97-98). Indigenous communities favor a community based, holistic approach, which has been founded on empirical observation over an extended length of time (Ross et al. 2011, 98). The differences in these practices are a manifestation reflecting how each group understands the natural world. Science sees nature as a separate entity, which must be conquered and controlled or it would do the same to humankind. This fuels the inherent need to overcome a wild and untamed wilderness. Rather than seeking control over nature, the native scientific perspective is a “science of the subtle,” honing in on the small intricacies of the natural world by forming a deep personal relationship with it (Cajete 2000, 17). The Native perspective does not distinguish between the natural world and humankind.  Humans are seen as an inseparable component of the natural world. Rather than adhering to defined laws and theoretical frameworks, the native scientific perspective attempts to understand the nature or essence of things, as nature is constantly in flux (Cajete 2000, 72). The methods reflect direct experience, interconnectedness and holism and are integrated into a whole lifestyle, which aids in creating a basic schema for action in the mind (Cajete 2000, 66). The basic philosophies of the native scientific perspective reflect the spirit and energy of all things, which is integrated into its methodologies, dissemination of knowledge and the development of new technologies (Cajete 2000, 64-65).

Many methods are similar to those used in contemporary notions of scientific methodology, however basis and intent differ. Observation of plants, animals, weather, healing events, ecologies of nature all occur in the native scientific methodology, however they occur over a long period of time (Cajete 2000, 67). There is no real deliberate attempt to alter natural events, as is often the goal of the scientific community however experiments for practical purposes do occur (Cajete 2000, 67). The native scientific perspective considers meaning and understanding of nature to be of a higher priority than the prediction and control sought by other sciences. While the scientific community maintains a strong sense of objectivity, the native perspective asserts that objectivity is found in subjectivity, and stresses direct personal experiences, and a relationship to nature that will reveal more subtlety and understanding. (Cajete 2000, 67-68).

There is a scheme of order and harmony in the world which is acknowledged by the native perspective; however there is also an inherent diversity and chaos which can disrupt any scheme. This possibility of unpredictable chance is an underlying concept for multiple indigenous cultures (Cajete 2000, 68). Causality can be derived from both the physical and non-physical as all entities are considered to have energy and will (Cajete 2000, 69). Teaching native models is subtly communicated through ceremony and ritual, with symbols, songs and stories deeply coded beyond simple archetypes, to develop a worldview. Ceremonial structures and art typically reflect the universe and natural world. (Cajete 2000, 68-69). The mind, body and spirit are considered to be a finely tuned scientific instrument to receive knowledge. This knowledge is received through means of altered stated of consciousness, dreams, and meditation (Cajete 2000, 69). Dreams and Visions are considered to be a natural means for accessing knowledge which are to be encouraged and facilitated (Cajete 2000, 71). This is possible because there is no distinction between science and spirituality. Every act, element, plant, animal, and natural process has a spirit with which humans continually communicate (Cajete 2000, 69). There is a life force and natural energy in everything, which must be understood and respected in light of itself (Cajete 2000, 71), and not from categorically imposed criteria.

The methods of technological development differ from that of contemporary science, as the adoption of technology is conservative and based on intrinsic needs only. There is no need to develop any technologies for the sake of knowledge itself (Cajete 2000, 69). Explanation in the native scientific perspective uses multiple metaphoric platforms such as storytelling, symbolgy and images rather than a peer-reviewed scientific journal approach (Cajete 2000, 69). Written records have been kept, through birch bark, hides, structures, and petroglyphs and pictographs (Cajete 2000, 70). Authority and credibility are established not from an institutional designation or degree program, but are gained through an individual’s experience and accomplishments (Cajete 2000,69). Elders are considered respected carriers of knowledge, wisdom, and experience. They receive the highest regard as teachers and guides for native science (Cajete 2000, 71). The native perspective views humankind as having an  integral responsibility to the natural world, and to further cultural knowledge of this responsibility. The ultimate focus is on sustainable stewardship and ecology (Cajete 2000, 70).

When settlers first entered the Americas, they assumed the pristine conditions had existed prior to Native American stewardship, ans failed to realize these conditions had been carefully tended for long term (Diekmann et al, 2007). Native Americans have practiced their responsibility as stewards of the natural world through variable plant harvesting techniques. The frequency and intensity of harvesting was meticulously considered, to provide the best conditions for humankind along with plant and animals .The idea of leaving potions of plants behind for future generations has been integral to the native scientific perspective (Anderson 2005, 127-130). Native American groups also had methods or irrigation, weeding, and trasdplanting (Anderson 2005, 142-144).

Native Americans used controlled burning techniques, which had benefits of decreasing accumulated plant matter, and recycling nutrients into the soil (Anderson 2005, 144). It was also helpful in the influence of insects and pathogens which may have been detrimental to the forests (Anderson 2005, 145). The enhanced conditioned help local plant and wildlife to thrive, and could also be used to detour wildlife to specific areas for hunting (Anderson 2005, 148-149).

A history of conquest and conflicting ideals has inhibited Native involvement in resource management programs from contact to the present. Settlers have impacted not only the culture (by removal, reservations, and down-right genocide), but the landscape which they had been so quick to call pristine. This is especially evident in the large scars left behind in California from massive hydraulic mining projects (Anderson 2005, 91).

There are deeply rooted epistemological barriers which have made it difficult for a native science perspective to be recognized as a legitimate science. They are a result of misunderstanding and bias, and a general lack of recognition that Indigenous Knowledge has a place in natural resource management (Ross et al. 2011, 98). There are also very narrow definitions in the scientific field, and words such as spirit, tradition, and custom often translate to a description of persons who are incapable of any form of scientific worldview (Ross et al. 2011, 99). The expression of knowledge as spiritual or social is a concept which science has difficulty accepting (Ross et al. 2011, 101). Native science knowledge is typically not proven using the same methodology used by scientists, and is therefore assumed to be invalid (Ross et al. 2011,  100). There are also issues in the translation of knowledge, as scientific frameworks require Indigenous groups to translate knowledge into a form which may alter its meaning and understanding. This carries to the codification of knowledge, as the need to write down information is not inherent to all cultures, and often requires boundaries to be drawn where there weren’t any(Ross et al. 2011, 101-103). This is especially noticeable when physical boundaries are to be delineated as with mapping. The idea that there is an ownership of knowledge does not exist in the native perspective. The scientific community thrives on individualism, creating a competition to patent knowledge, rather than a community process (Ross et al. 2011, 101-103).

These epistemological barriers, along with an abrasive history extend into institutional management, where bureaucratic systems have many requirements and the involvement of outsiders is difficult (Ross et al. 2011, 107). A primary issue is that native perspectives often do not fit into the management framework that has already been developed (Ross et al. 2011, 107). State power often impedes the native perspective, and this power is inherently assumed to be of the best interests to all. Tribes however, must legally prove state actions have been detrimental to the health and well-being of their people and so another barrier is in place.

Joint management strategies present a legal sharing of power between a government agency and a community or organization (Ross et al. 2011, 198). This is not the ideal for integration, as it places the government agency in a higher position than Tribes. Co-management strategies allow for a formal agreement, but are typically not legally binding  (Ross et al. 2011, 207). Finally, many governments have developed concepts of Indigenous Protected Areas, land set aside for resource management and Indigenous use (Ross et al. 2011, 211). In the United States, the National Register for Historic Places had added the designation of Tribal Cultural Properties; however this still requires that physical boundaries be placed where they previously may not have occurred (Parker and King 1998).

In order to better integrate the native science perspective into contemporary science, an epistemological shift must occur. There are systems and institutions in place which must be revamped and employed to cater to all modes of scientific thought. A balance can exist between the rigorous record keeping and repetitive experimentation with the subtle intimate relationship to the natural world. There is room for all perspectives if they are let in.

Works Cited

Anderson, Kat. Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of     California’s Natural Resources. Berkeley: University of California, 2005.

Cajete, Gregory. Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence. Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light,    2000.

Diekmann, Lucy, Lee Panich, and Chuck Striplen. “Native American Management and the  Legacy of Working Landscapes in California: Western Landscapes Were Working Long     before Europeans Arrived.” Rangelands 29.3 (2007): 46-50.

Parker, Patricia and Thomas King. Guidelines for Evaluating and Documenting Traditional       Cultural Properties. Department of the InteriorNational Register Bulletin, 1998.

Rohde, Jerry. Our Collective Unconscious. The Humboldt Historian, 2010.

Ross, Anne and Kathleen Pickering Sherman, Jeffrey G. Snodgrass, Henry D. Delacore, Richard   Sherman.  Indigenous Peoples and the Collaborative Stewardship of Nature: Knowledge    Binds and Institutional Conflicts. Walnut Creek (Calif.): Left Coast, 2011.

Published by Nikki M

Applied Anthropologist and Digital Dance Specialist

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