How indigenous knowledge is transforming the March for Science

“Indigenous peoples were always scientists. Their lives depended on it."

SOURCEYes! Magazine
Image credit: Hillel Steinberg/Flickr

The March for Science this year is set for April 14. Last year’s march drew tens of thousands who marched to protest the Trump administration’s war on science.

Since then, a corresponding March for Indigenous Science has grown into a burgeoning movement of its own, one aimed at increasing the visibility of indigenous science and traditional ecological knowledge as valid and valuable forms of scientific knowledge.

“Indigenous science holds a wealth of knowledge and is a powerful paradigm by which we understand our place in the living world. It is essential to the problems we face today and yet has been historically marginalized by the scientific community,” plant ecologist Robin Kimmerer (Potawatomi) said in a statement about last year’s march.

Following the success of the March for Science, indigenous organizers began “working to transform the march to a movement,” ethnobotanist Rosalyn LaPier (Blackfeet/Métis), and chairperson of the National March for Science, said.

LaPier, Kimmerer, scholar-activist Kyle Powys Whyte (Potawatomi), and ecologist Melissa Nelson (Anishinaabe) co-authored a declaration to endorse the March for Science while at the same time celebrating indigenous science as crucial to answering scientific questions.

It is a powerful document, and well over 1,800 Native American and indigenous scientists, scholars, and their allies added their endorsements to the declaration. The document declares that original peoples have long memories, centuries-old wisdom, and deep knowledge of this land, and their knowledge is an important form of empirical scientific inquiry that’s fundamental to the well-being of people and planet.

“I would like to see the March for Indigenous Science serve as a national scale movement that recognizes Native people’s efforts over decades to reform U.S. sciences and empower Indigenous sciences,” said Whyte. “The movement can articulate a national scale agenda that includes many different needed efforts for increasing diversity in the sciences, from creating safe places to practice Indigenous sciences to energizing young Indigenous persons to work in science fields.”

The declaration joined other indigenous science organizations that have endorsed and officially partnered with the March for Science, including the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, the National Coalition of Native American Language Schools and Programs, and SACNAS (Society Advancing Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science).

These organizations, and the Canadian-based Evidence for Democracy, have gone on to mobilize indigenous participation in the march across North America.

Ecologist Corey Welch (Northern Cheyenne), a SACNAS board member, is speaking at the national march in Washington, D.C.

“Indigenous peoples were always scientists,” Welch said. “Their lives depended on it. They knew what plants to eat, how to harvest game, and other practices that continue on today.”

Welch said that although some tribes have lost these practices, “they continue on in memories and in stories.”

There are many cases in which traditional practices, informed by millennium of traditional ecological knowledge, have contributed to modern scientific knowledge, said Welch.

The deadly hantavirus outbreak in 1993 in the Four Corners region of the Southwestern United States provides one example of this, Welch said. That outbreak had perplexed the scientists searching for the origin of the virus. Their answer finally came from Navajo elders who had predicted the outbreak based on weather patterns.

The elders explained that similar outbreaks in 1913 and 1933-34 had followed a period of heavy rains and then bumper crops of pinyon pine nuts. The community stored the pinyons in their homes and hogans, which attracted deer mice infected with the virus. The elders and traditional medicine people warned people to isolate their food supplies, and to burn any clothing exposed to mouse feces and urine.

Welch also described a tradition of tribes in the Puget Sound region of Washington state returning salmon bones to their streams. When scientists learned about the practice, they discovered that salmon carcasses release nitrogen, needed to improve salmon habitat.

“The carcass of one salmon infuses a creek with nitrogen 100 meters in both directions,” Welch said.

Today, biologists return salmon bones to streams they are preparing for the reintroduction of salmon.

Tribal nations in western Washington have also pinpointed for scientists areas that have experienced earthquakes and landslides in the distant past, conveyed to them through the oral traditions of their ancestors, passed down for generations.

And these are just a few examples.

SACNAS has arranged for a number of Native and indigenous speakers at satellite marches across the country, all committed to engaging the power of both Western and indigenous science.

Astrophysicist Ximena Cid (Yaqui) will speak in Los Angeles. Environmental scientist Marco Hatch (Samish) is speaking in Seattle. Neuroscientist Micah Jasey Savin (Lakota) will give a talk in San Diego. Molecular geneticist Matt Anderson (Tsalagi or Cherokee) is yet another speaker.

More than a million scientists and supporters around the world joined the March for Science in 2017. It was a celebration of science, but its genesis began with concerns raised by scientists—many of whom were scrambling to archive scientific data before the Trump administration could scrub it from government websites—about the change in public policies to discredit scientific consensus and restrict scientific discovery.

This year’s march may be smaller, but the movement of scientists who are advocating for scientific integrity is growing.

The success of last year’s march has laid the groundwork for scientists to mobilize voter registration, raise awareness through their Vote for Science initiative, fund grassroots science advocates with a community grants program, and organize a summit for science advocates, organizers, and communicators, LaPier said.


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