Western Science Meets Native Reality

For Indigenous Peoples (IP) knowledge and place are bound together.  Western educational systems run counter to IPs concept of an “interdependent universe, and the importance of place in their societies.” The authors work from the premise that Westerners could use the Native worldview to promote a sustainable way of living.  Traditional educational processes involve observing natural phenomenon, adapting lifestyle in order to survive, obtaining sustenance from plants and animals, using natural materials to make tools and other implements.  Knowledge is passed down inter-generationally through stories and demonstration.

Westerners test competency through testing; among IPs, competency is determined by survival.  They have their own system for understanding and articulating meteorology, chemistry, physics, psychology, and the sacred.  They have also devised a way of dealing with the flora and fauna of their environment in ways that are sustainable.  They see all of these disciplines as inter-related, while in the Western educational system, disciplines are detached from each other, and learning takes place within four walls.  The practice of deconstruction/reconstruction of Western thought doesn’t hold in traditional worldviews where everything is seamlessly interconnected

The authors advocate teaching subject matter in ways that IP understand it, then explaining it in Western terms.  Their idea is to show IP that Western and traditional knowledge enhance each other.  There is a problem to this, however, for the IP knowledge is an everyday part of life.  When they learn the Western worldview in school, it remains there.  They will not use this worldview in their tribes when they go home in the evening.  Thus, they will see that the Western worldview is best used in school, but the traditional worldview is used in the tribe to survive.  Therefore, the traditional worldview will always take precedence, and be superior in their eyes.

The site includes a chart outlining differences in worldview between IP and West.  The authors illustrate these differences by recounting a meeting between representatives from the State Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks, Alaska and the Minto peoples.  The agency wanted to measure sediment in the water supply; the Minto people wanted to know what was being doing about the fires.  Wild fires are left to burn themselves out until they approach man-made structures, at which time agencies mobilize to put out the fires.  The Minto people tried to explain that the issue of sediment in the water supply would be controlled if the fires were put out promptly.  The representatives said the policy regarding fires were handled by a different agency, and because there were no representatives with them that day, they could not address the issue of fires.  This example illustrates the separation and specialization of areas of knowledge and approaches to handling natural phenomenon.

Conclusions:  Native people may need to understand western science, but not at the expense of their own knowledge.  Traditional knowledge must be recognized as credible.


Kawagley, A., and Barnhardt, R. (2007).  Education indigenous to place:  Western science meets native reality.  Alaska Native Knowledge Network (ANKN).  Retrieved from http://www.ankn.uaf.edu/curriculum/Articles/BarnhardtKawagley/EIP.html


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