The problem with “Indigenous science”

The logo of the Worldwide Indigenous Science Network

Last month I was invited by Frances Widdowson, a faculty in the Department of Economics, Justice and Policy Studies at Mt. Royal University, in Calgary, to participate to a panel discussion on the topic of the “indigenization” of the university curriculum. It was a weird experience, to say the least. [Warning: if you think that as a White Male European I am automatically disqualified from offering reasoned opinions on matters pertaining the history of exploitation of Indigenous people by Western nations, you may want to stop reading and take a walk. I’m trying to save you a possible ulcer.]

Canada is in the midst of a process of reconciliation with its Indigenous people, who have been exploited in ways similar to those experienced by their counterparts in what is currently the United States, in Central America, and in South America. The details vary from place to place, and so do the modalities of the exploitation, but the problem is common to the entire continent.

In the specific case of Canada, an overview of the process is presented at the web site of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which “aims to reveal the truth about the history and the ongoing legacy of Canada’s residential schools [a system of boarding school aimed at integrating Indigenous kids into Western society, administered by Christian churches], and to guide a healing process of reconciliation among Canadians based on inclusion, mutual understanding, and respect.”

This post offers my thoughts as a layperson on Canada’s reconciliation process, and my opinions as a professional scientist-philosopher on the specific issue of indigenizing the science curriculum.

Before attending the panel I gave my customary talk on the difference between science and pseudoscience — the area of expertise that induced Frances to invite me in the first place. I also attended a talk by one of the panel members, David Newhouse, an Onondaga from the Six Nations of the Grand River community near Brantford, Ontario, and an Associate Professor in the Department of Indigenous Studies and the Business Administration Program at Trent.

The talk was on the broader process of reconciliation, and I will give you the highlights because they set the tone for what happened during the focal event, the panel discussion itself.

I learned a lot from David’s presentation. He talks calmly and deliberately, but his passion shines through nonetheless.

His first slide opened with the phrase “Before all other words are said we extend greetings to all of creation.” Which was a slight turn off to an atheist such as myself, but I didn’t mind, it was his talk after all. (Another participant to the panel, Root Gorelick, had, however, asked Frances to use “indigenous protocols,” and recommended that we “start with a local Elder smudging and welcoming everyone.” In response, Frances had argued that to participate in a ceremony with which one did not agree was not respectful, it was condescending.)

David explained that reconciliation is meant to correct what he called the “founding error,” the fact that no Indigenous people were present when the founding documents of Canada were drawn up.

He reminded us that the “long assault” on Indigenous people went on from 1857, with the passing of the Act to Encourage the Gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes, to 1971, with the Withdrawal Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian policy, adding that the major tool of the long assault was the above mentioned network of residential schools. As a proponent of that approach once explained: “When one Indian boy or girl leaves this school with an education, the ‘Indian problem’ will forever be solved for him and his children.”

That sort of thing makes me cringe. It is abundantly clear to me, both from what I heard from David and from a bit of research on the topic done on my own, that the Canadian government’s approach had been a major blunder (even though it was probably well intentioned, from the point of view of the colonizers), and more broadly that a process of reconciliation is a very good way to go. That said, David used the highly emotional words “cultural genocide,” which made me a bit uncomfortable, both because of their obvious appeal to emotion, and because I tend to resist the metaphorical use of the word genocide, so not to diminish its impact when used in its original meaning of a deliberate, mass slaughtering of a particular people.

From then on, however, a few flags began to go off in my head as David continued his talk. For instance, David’s request for Indian control of Indian education, including the establishment of school boards, as well as the suggestion that Indians should be considered “citizens plus” with special rights, because they were charter members of Canada.

The problem with these sort of requests (other than that they will simply not be fulfilled, realistically) is that they fly straight into the face of Canada’s attempt to be a true multi-cultural society, welcoming people of all backgrounds and faiths. (Unlike, at the moment, its neighbor to the south.)

Cosmopolitanism is simply incompatible with special rights and exclusive education. And while it is perfectly understandable where such requests come from, in terms of historical wrongs, they would simply be wrongs of another type. It was a grievous mistake to attempt to eliminate Indigenous culture by forced assimilation into its Western counterpart. But it seems to me that respect for cultural traditions does not require a special status, something that in a sense embodies the opposite mistake of that represented by the residential schools. Indeed, it would be a disservice to Indigenous kids to isolate them culturally from the variety of traditions that characterize the rest of modern Canada, in the way a number of religious minorities in the United States wish to shelter their youth from the “corrupting” influence of other ways of thinking about the world.

Finally, David claimed that the process of reconciliation ought to be one for which there is no end point. This is odd, to say the least. The point of other truth and reconciliation commissions — in South Africa and Rwanda, for instance — has always been precisely to reach an end point, to acknowledge past wrongs, set up a proper system of reparations, and then shift to educational objectives to prevent future recurrences of the original problem. If people don’t accept an end point then resentment festers, perpetually undermining the goal of establishing a more harmonious society, constantly pitting people of different histories and cultures against each other, and generating further resentment on both sides.

And we finally come to the panel discussion itself. The point of contention was how to interpret article 62 of the recommendations issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which reads in part:

“We call upon the federal, provincial, and territorial governments, in consultation and collaboration with Survivors, Aboriginal peoples, and educators, to … Provide the necessary funding to post-secondary institutions to educate teachers on how to integrate Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods into classrooms. [and to] provide the necessary funding to Aboriginal schools to utilize Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods in classrooms.”

The keywords to pay attention to there are “Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods.”

The Commission goes on to explain: “Incorporating Indigenous knowledge in education is not only useful in building stronger intercultural relationships, and making the classroom more inviting to aboriginal students, it also provides alternative ways of teaching many concepts to children especially when it comes to topics related to the environment. Some schools that incorporated Indigenous learning into their curricula had lessons where students went on nature hikes, and learned how to grow traditional plants. Indigenizing education does not simply mean adding a chapter about residential schools to the textbook; it means including an Indigenous perspective in schools that would involve getting lessons from elders, taking nature walks to understand science, studying Indigenous language, and ultimately learning what it means to coexist in a just and peaceful way.”

Most of which I find entirely unobjectionable, as stated. The problem, apparently, is in how to interpret just how far this process should go.

The panel was made up of the organizer, Frances Widdowson; David Newhouse; Root Gorelick — who describes himself as a feminist anarchist evolutionary theorist, who primarily researches evolution of sex and diversity; Shawn England, who teaches Latin American and US history at Mount Royal; and yours truly. The whole thing was moderated by Gerry Cross, a Professor Emeritus of Mathematics and Computing at Mount Royal.

My notes on the individual presentations are not detailed enough to attempt a play-by-play report, but Frances told me that there is a good chance an edited volume or special journal issue will soon be in the works, including some contributions from scholars who couldn’t attend the panel, so stay tuned.

I will, however, comment on a few important points. Root, for instance, is a really nice guy with whom I had genial conversations over dinner and lunch. But he insisted that there are radically different ways of doing science — in support of the notion that there may be different ways to achieve knowledge, including Indigenous ones. For instance, he claims that unsystematic observations are perfectly valid scientific data. I responded that unsystematic observation may very well represent the beginning of a scientific investigation, but that “data” means one has some specific idea in mind, a theoretical framework to guide his investigations, and systematic sources — be they observational or experimental. Root also suggested — in a move eerily reminiscent of those of American creationists — that (Indigenous) kids should be exposed to both Western science and traditional “ways of knowing” so that they can decide what best fits their needs. To which I replied that no, education isn’t about subjecting students to all sorts of notions and let them decide. It is about sharpening their tools for better thinking and providing them with the best notions that human knowledge has arrived at so far. And yes, I’m perfectly aware that “best notions” and “better thinking” imply value judgments.

Shawn’s role was that of presenting a middle way between Root’s and David’s position on one side, and Frances’ and mine on the other. (If you want a taste of Frances’ take on this matter, check this article. In the interest of balance, here is one by Root.) In an attempt to strike a compromise, he claimed that indigenization can open new venues of inquiry, at which point I asked for specific examples, without getting much of a response (more on this point in a minute).

David attempted to pre-empt criticism along the lines that requiring the teaching of Indigenous “science” would run afoul of the principle of academic freedom by saying that “we don’t require other faculty to teach this.” In other words, the idea is to hire Indigenous faculty to teach Indigenous science. But, I replied, that’s simply dodging the bullet. Imagine for a minute someone wishing to teach homeopathy as if it were sound medicine and reassuringly telling the medical school that they are not required to do it, someone else will do it for them. That would be to spectacularly miss the point, I should think.

Since David too, like Shawn, insisted that indigenizing the university would be a plus because it would introduce both faculty and students to other ways of knowing, I asked again for specific examples. I finally got them.
Here are the only three that were presented during the entire panel discussion:

i) Indigenous people know the local flora and fauna well, including some of their medicinal properties (Indigenous biology).

ii) Chairs can change into bears, because energy is in movement and can change into matter (Indigenous “physics”).

iii) Going into a sauna and smudging some local plants on one’s skin is an effective way to “cleans” one’s mind, body, and spirit — though from what is not at all clear (here is a pretty much unhelpful description of the process).

Clearly, the first is an example of local knowledge that is not different in kind from scientific knowledge; and indeed, it’s a routine practice of botanists and zoologists all over the world to take advantage of such knowledge, there being nothing “alternative” about it. The second example has a vague whiff of quantum mechanics — which was, indeed brought up during the discussion — but no, chairs ain’t gonna change into bears (much less with a probability of “about 1%,” as stated by David during his talk). The third example is vaguely spiritual, perhaps hinting at the supernatural, and hardly seems to merit a spot in a science curriculum.

In a nutshell, it was clear to me that the positive claims made by supporters of Indigenous science reduce to an attempt to introduce what to me clearly qualifies as pseudoscience in the university curriculum. When they experience some pushback, however, they shift to a position that is entirely unobjectionable — like bringing students to nature walks or teaching them about the medicinal properties of the local flora. But such unobjectionable proposals seem to be obviously designed as Trojan horses to get the real crazy stuff in by way of a secondary entrance. Once a university hires an Indigenous scholar to teach Indigenous “science” there is very little oversight over what, exactly, the fellow will be teaching in the classroom. And the problem with Trojan horses, even when they are so obvious to spot, is that they tend to work — just ask Odysseus. This makes me worry for the future of Canadian education, as well as for the possibility of copycats soon appearing south of the C-border.


192 thoughts on “The problem with “Indigenous science”

  1. I doubt I could add to what Massimo and Frances have said on “Indigenous science”. The only question seems to be, how do you convince others?

    Part of the problem is that people can call science “Western” science. There isn’t any Western science, just science – it doesn’t belong to any group or culture.

    And there is nothing respectful on failing to call nonsense something which is nonsense – just because it has been expressed by a particular minority view. In fact it is patronising to indulge ideas like this on the basis of culture.

    In Australia there was a group who said that there should be a separate indigenous science on the basis that cosmology said one thing and “we have our own creation stories”. But that never seemed to catch on with the majority of Indigenous Australians.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Big fish eat little fish.

    Some have touched upon this metaphor, but only inadequately in terms of the OP, a subject about which I can add little, but–rightly or wrongly–most of the comments depart from the OP’s central concern with “The problem with ‘Indigenous science,'” or as Massimo further elaborates, “[his] thoughts as a layperson on Canada’s reconciliation process, and my opinions as a professional scientist-philosopher on the specific issue of indigenizing the science curriculum.”

    Instead, when even approaching the topic, commentary has been painted with a broad brush regarding “culture,” a concept that is bandied about as if there were some common understanding of how it’s being used with respect to the OP.

    There is more than enough in the OP to contend with or to request further clarification such as the following:

    “Cosmopolitanism is simply incompatible with special rights and exclusive education. . . . But it seems to me that respect for cultural traditions does not require a special status, something that in a sense embodies the opposite mistake of that represented by the residential schools. ”

    [followed by] “The point of other truth and reconciliation commissions . . . has always been precisely to reach an end point, to acknowledge past wrongs, set up a proper system of reparations, and then shift to educational objectives to prevent future recurrences of the original problem. If people don’t accept an end point then resentment festers, perpetually undermining the goal of establishing a more harmonious society, constantly pitting people of different histories and cultures against each other . . . .”

    Ms Widdowson’s comments are the most pointed in the thread. And yet, perhaps, cannot be generalized outside her work in Canada. Nevertheless, statements like the following are problematic for me:

    “We don’t expect any other group to go back to what their ancestors were doing thousands of years ago; however, this is what is proposed by indigenization initiatives because it is assumed that aboriginal culture is tied to ‘race’/DNA (it is passed down from one generation to another, goes the argument, and therefore to transform it is ‘genocidal’).” [“We”?]

    Or: “The reason why it is being promoted is that is a lucrative way to extract rent from governments (neotribal rentierism).” [Really? In contra-distinction to what Amish communities do as opposed to, say, what welfare free riders as opposed to how Corporations extract “rent”?]

    But my comments, at best, only serve to enlarge the context of the OP, which seems more limited in scope, which in itself presents special problems for the average reader.

    Still there is commentary worth consideration even if outside the scope of the OP, like:

    “The danger, I think, is in lumping these claims of indigenous knowledge with geniune practices that are culture-specific – for example, naming, marriage, burial rites and rituals; kinship relations; dietary habits; cultural icons, symbols, fabrics, colors; and perhaps most importantly, language, literature, and mythos.” [Haulianlal] Or Socratics, “And back to that word ‘evolution,’ and another word used above, ‘progress.’ In general, cultural evolution no more denotes progress than does biological evolution.”


  3. Michael, true that, on language and descriptions. I don’t believe that a full-blown version of Sapir-Whorf is true, but I do believe there’s some fair degree of truth to an ameliorated version.


  4. No group could go back – it can only go forward. Much like the myth of living fossils – there might be an appearance of stasis, but so much has gone on under the hood that the groups are not in reality very close. These are modern people, not some fossil culture unearthed from long ago like a Siberian mammoth meat in a snowbank. Oral traditions allow for much change with it seeming to occur to even the people involved.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The divergence of this thread from the original topic suggests the existence of much larger issues in the background. On the one hand, there is globalization of culture, most obvious in Americanization through the media of TV, movies, pop culture: T-shirts in Africa, McDonald’s everywhere, etc. The other side of this is a mosaic of cultural enclaves within the dominant culture of particular regions, often intent on establishing a separate identity and resisting assimilation, but also wanting a piece of the economic and social pie.

    The grandfather of all such groups is that of the Jews of the Diaspora, who managed to preserve their religion and traditional ways in Europe and Asia for over 1000 years.

    The indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere present one enormously tangled history, and the Africans who were brought there against their will present another.

    The problematic status of the Kurds in the late Roman Empire is mentioned by Gibbon, and is still going strong.

    The Mormons had a tempestuous history in America before compromising their principles to achieve statehood in Utah.

    The issues between Palestinians and Israelis have been unresolved for at least 70 years, and no end in sight.

    Separatist movements abound, in Scotland, Quebec, Hawaii, and other places, while Putin strives to rewire the USSR.

    In brief, globalization seems to be linked with an equally strong current of fragmentation.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Underlaying even this OP is the capitalist tsunami, in which these cultural artifacts are pulled from their context and commodified, which Prof Widdowson referred to as neotribal rentierism. Hunting money, instead of seal.
    When that wave crashes, they better not have forgotten how to hunt seal.


  7. wtc,

    “The grandfather of all such groups is that of the Jews of the Diaspora, who managed to preserve their religion and traditional ways in Europe and Asia for over 1000 years.”

    The advantage of a cultural monolith, when one is a minority. The disadvantage appears to be reconciling it with governing a modern pluralistic society. Witness Israel. There is no inherent tension to keep it from feeding on itself, other than the organic liberalism developed over the Diaspora, of sustaining that distinct identity in larger societies.


  8. I suspect if one were to really go back into pre-history, the basis of the concept of god is the group identity. That of the people as a larger organic whole. That this sense of spiritual entity being projected onto other features of the environment was then likely an early form of anthropomorphism.
    The power of this collective identity is that it held the group together in a hostile environment. Which is often what Jews, as a self identified separate group, often found themselves in. Yet the downside, as a formal religion and not just an instinctive response, is it does create barriers to the outside world. Of course this applies to any such group; Kurds, Armenians, etc and the consequent need to have an established space or country.
    Creating a homogenized culture has its own drawbacks, such as providing a universal goal, as opposed to simply defending one’s group against threats. Enter capitalism and money as quantified hope.

    Now all we have is ISIS and the Evil Russians to defend ourselves against.


  9. I feel torn on this one. If I was to take a course called “Science” and it ended up being chair-bear science, I would no doubt feel cheated. But if the course was called “Chair-Bear Studies” or something, at least I know what I’m getting.

    On the other hand, this reminds me of something I read recently about the Soviet Union, which had “scientific communism” courses – quote: “everybody knew it was a pseudoscientific scam, but you were still advised not to say that out loud. But in private, achieving perfect scores on your mandatory “scientific communism” course was considered to be a smirch on your academic record by real professors in science and mathematics.”

    Such courses may acquire a veneer of respectability if they appear in well-regarded institutions and have the government’s stamp of approval. But society at large will still judge them for what they are, potentially creating a trap for unwitting students.


  10. I’ll take it as given that no bear has a chair origin. Nevertheless, if bears in Canada are in such plague proportions that it was thought they emerged spontaneously from inanimate objects, I am never ever going there.


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