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A new approach to science rooted in Indigenous tradition

Encampment of Pawnee Indians at Sunset, 1861/1869. on the Platte River. 1833. Artist George Catlin. (Photo by Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images)
Encampment of Pawnee Indians at Sunset, 1861/1869. on the Platte River. 1833. Artist George Catlin. (Photo by Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

The National Science Foundation hasfunded its first ever research hub focused on Indigenous knowledge.

This $30 million investment will fund projects from ancient clam-farming to mapping climate change on tribal lands.

“At its root trying to bring community and place back into science in a more effective and ethical way,” Jon Woodruff says.

Western science has long viewed Indigenous practices as something different, apart, guided more by belief than scientific reason. The new center takes a totally different approach – where science partners with Indigenous knowledge rather than ignore it.

“This is not solely for indigenous peoples. This is designed to benefit all,” Bonnie Newsom says. “When we start pulling various knowledges out of marginalized places and begin to integrate it with Western science, that only strengthens our sciences.”

Today, On Point: A new approach to science rooted in ancient traditions.


Bonnie Newsom, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Maine. She co-leads the Center for Braiding Indigenous Knowledges and Science (CBIKS).

Jon Woodruff, professor of sediment and coastal dynamics in the Earth Geographic and Climate Science Department at University of Massachusetts Amherst. He’s also co-leads the Center for Braiding Indigenous Knowledges and Science (CBIKS)

Also Featured

Marco Hatch, a marine ecologist at Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA.

Rebecca Ferrell, the program director in the social behavioral and economic sciences at the National Science Foundation.


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: If you walk along the beach on the Pacific Northwest coast, you might not notice some very special things. They’re called clam gardens, and they’ve been sitting along the shore for thousands of years.

MARCO HATCH: Clam gardens are these really special intertidal spaces where for thousands of years, indigenous people moved rocks to the low tide line to terrace the beach, just like you could terrace a hill to grow more grapes. You can terrace a beach to increase the area for clams to live.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s Marco Hatch. He’s an associate professor at Western Washington University in environmental science and a member of the Samish Indian Nation. He’s also a clam garden expert.

Now, clam gardens are an indigenous innovation that’s essentially a rock wall along the shoreline. These structures allow the rising tides to bring sediment over the rock wall to create an ideal habitat for the clams. But then during low tide, it creates an exposed beach that’s ideal for harvesting.

Hatch says clams’ grown in gardens are two to four times the size of other clams. And the gardens are 150% to 300% more productive than wild beaches.

HATCH: Clam gardens are really fascinating ecologically. Because the very rocks that define a clam garden, those basketball sized rocks on the low tide line, creates this fascinating three-dimensional structure, all of these rocks piled up with little hidey holes for other things to live in them, like big snails or limpets or chitons or red rock crab or seaweed, which are all also traditional foods.

And so we often focus on the clam productivity, but that rock wall itself creates this really complex environment that lots of other native species and traditional foods also reside in.

CHAKRABARTI: Clam gardens are ancient. Examples approximately 3,500 years old are known from Washington state to coastal British Columbia, Canada and all the way up to Southeast Alaska.

But Hatch says many more have yet to be discovered. And that’s because for thousands of years, the gardens have been left untended.

HATCH: I often talk about clam gardens, maybe in the same way you might think of a raised garden bed in your backyard. You don’t just throw some seeds out there and come back 10 years later, right?

You are constantly tending that bed, you’re tilling the soil over, you’re pulling out the big carrots so there’s room for the little ones to grow. It’s the same thing when clam gardens, that the soil needs to be tended. It needs to be turned over, to wash away the fine grain sediments and the organic content, to pull the big clams.

So the little ones have space to grow. And so the health of clam gardens has been degraded, has gone down since people haven’t been out there tending those special places.

CHAKRABARTI: That ancient knowledge could soon have a resurgence. The National Science Foundation is providing funding for a new organization called the Center on Braiding Indigenous Knowledges and Science.

One of the center’s projects is helping indigenous communities reconnect with the ancient practice of clam gardening. The center’s mission is to quote, “Ethically braid Western and indigenous science research, education and practice related to the urgent and interconnected challenges of climate change, cultural places, and food security,” end quote.

Hatch says he’s grateful for the additional funding. But says the creation of the center is more meaningful to him than money.

HATCH: What’s more important is the acknowledgement of the role that traditional ecological knowledge has and thinking about how we manage our ecosystems today. What are our priorities?

Whose voices matter? Who’s at the table? What’s the goal of ecological restoration and management? And how do we build true authentic partnerships with Indigenous communities that have been on this landscape since time immemorial.

CHAKRABARTI: And Hatch says his project on clam gardening is a perfect example given its importance regarding climate change and food security, but also its cultural significance for Indigenous communities.

HATCH: For quite a while, one of the dominant narratives is that Indigenous people of the Northwest didn’t have an impact on the landscape, that we were simple hunter gatherers and that we lacked the tools and technology to meaningfully modify the environment. In the terrestrial realm, camas tending, cultural burning, these sorts of practices have been used as evidence to reverse that false narrative.

In the marine environment, it’s been a bit harder, and clam gardens offer this monumental structure. That’s undeniably human made, that shows undeniably that Indigenous people have impacts on the environment and have modified the environment in a reciprocal fashion for thousands of years.

CHAKRABARTI: That was Marco Hatch. He’s an associate professor at Western Washington University in environmental science and a member of the Samish Indian Nation. Joining us now are the co-leaders of the new NSF funded center. Again, it’s called the Center for Braiding Indigenous Knowledges and Science. Bonnie Newsom is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Maine.

She’s also a member of the Penobscot Nation, and she joins us from Augusta, Maine. Professor Newsom, welcome to you.

BONNIE NEWSOM: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here.

CHAKRABARTI: And also with us is Jon Woodruff. He’s a professor of sediment and coastal dynamics in the Earth Geographic and Climate Science Department at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

And he joins us from Amherst, Massachusetts. Professor Woodruff, welcome to you.

JON WOODRUFF: Thank you, Meghna. And just Along with Bonnie and I the other co-PIs of CBIKS can’t be here, but Sonya Atalay, as well as Ora Marek-Martinez.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah noted, or duly noted, and also, it’s a little hard to manage a conversation with four or five people.

But I’m grateful to the both of you for coming on today. And Professor Newsom, actually I wanted to start with you. And a question not specifically about the new center, which we’ll talk about in detail. But going back to your young life. Because when we think about Western science, we think about one way of discovering knowledge about the world or knowing more about the world.

It’s historically grounded in empiricism, in observable events. It’s in replicable experiments, in the testing of hypotheses, etc. That’s one, science is one way of knowing the world. When you were young, Professor Newsom, is that kind of your first, was that your first introduction to knowledge and understanding of how the world works, or did your introduction come in a different way?

NEWSOM: My introduction came in a different way. I did not grow up in the indigenous community that I’m a part of. And many of us as indigenous peoples have been separated from our communities.

And through a variety of ways. I think understanding, though, the connections that people have with indigenous knowledge despite the fact, regard, irregardless of where they grow up, or are the experiences that they are exposed to. We bring our connections to those communities to our lives in different ways. And so as a young person growing up, my father was an avid canoeist and a hunter, and all of these things were rooted in his Indigenous identity.

And so I came to some of my knowledge through him, but also through connections with Penobscot community.

CHAKRABARTI: Can you tell me more about those connections?

NEWSOM: Sure. My connections to the community are rooted in both people or elders that I had the opportunity to interact with throughout my lifetime, as well as my opportunity to work with Penobscot people through my role as tribal historic preservation officer.

And in that role I had a number of ways to connect to people who retain Indigenous knowledges, particularly around place, because Indigenous connections to place are ways that we can begin to get at the importance of understanding the longevity of knowledge, in a particular place, and that’s one of the things that CVICS is about.

It’s place based knowledges. And so as Historic Preservation Officer, I had a wonderful opportunity to understand and learn how these places were important to Penobscot people.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Professor Woodruff, I promise I’m going to get to you in just a second, but I have another just quick background question for Professor Newsom.

Given the fact that you are an associate professor at the University of Maine, it means that, by definition, you’ve had to travel along the conventional paths in academia, right? And I wonder if at any time during your academic journey, if you felt a tension between what your academic life was and demanded of you versus the kind of knowledge and connections that you were just talking about. That you were very aware of as being present to this day in Indigenous communities.

Was there a gap there, Professor Newsom?

NEWSOM: Absolutely. Particularly undergraduate and my master’s program. I had wonderful guidance through my advisors and committee members. During that time at UMaine, during, I got my undergraduate. Both undergraduate and master’s at UMaine and had some wonderful advisors. But I always felt as though I wanted to do archaeology for a different reason. And one of the reasons that I wanted to do archaeology was to give Indigenous peoples a voice in interpreting their past. And so this notion of kind of a community-based archaeology or community-based science was not part of my early training.

And so I felt like there was a bit of a gap, but on the flip side of that, I got some really wonderful experiences in understanding Maine archaeology from a Western perspective.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Today we’re talking about indigenous knowledge, and Western science, and how those two things are coming together in a major new project funded by the National Science Foundation. The project’s called the Center for Braiding Indigenous Knowledges and Science, and we’re speaking to the Center’s co-leaders today.

Bonnie Newsom is one of them, and Jon Woodruff is the other. And Professor Woodruff, I’m so grateful that you were listening along with me to Professor Newsom describing sort of her journey to this moment. And I’d like to hear, similarly from you, when you were early on in your studies of the earth sciences and climate sciences, how much, if at all, was the recognition of the potential knowledge and information and observation that can come from indigenous practice.

How much of that was part of what you learned?

WOODRUFF: Yeah. I can say that I didn’t, there was really no discussion of indigenous knowledge when I was being trained. I come, I am not indigenous, and I come from a traditional academic training where really the emphasis was addressing grand challenges and global problems.

And there was very little emphasis or training on how to interact with communities, how to do that in ethical ways, and I have had to learn the hard way, along with sort of a lot of my colleagues, I think, on the issues that come with jumping into a community and trying to do science without really having that true relationship.

And so when I started, I was encouraged on my tenure track to do things internationally. I flew all over the world and jumped in and conducted a project and thought it was making a meaningful change.

But I really noticed that it really was not being applied at the community level. That I was publishing in all the big journals, and I was making, on paper, a big impact and I got tenure, but when I really reflected on it, it was unclear to me how much my science really got to the communities that I was, and that place that I had been working in.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so tell me a little bit more. Because you mentioned obviously your work now with the Center for Braiding Indigenous Knowledges and Science, what brought you to becoming one of the co-leaders?

WOODRUFF: So I am, I’m also a co-director of the Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center. And that’s a partnership between the United States Geological Survey and a consortium of universities in the region.

In this northeast region, and the mission of that is really in sort of recognition of the importance of conducting research in the place that you live.

CHAKRABARTI: Professor Woodruff?

WOODRUFF: Yeah, sorry. I got, my computer’s getting disconnected. Butso the Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center has really a mission of conducting regional work and working with communities on co-production. And I was only able to jump into that post tenure when I could really start focusing on the region that I lived, but when conducting that work, I grew a value of respect and a value for conducting sort of place based and community-based research.

And then we had really a mandate of making these tribal partnerships. And then recognition that I had no training on how to do that. And so Sonya Atalaya, who is the lead PI for the Center for Braiding indigenous Knowledges and Science. I was interacted with her quite a bit on some of these sorts of efforts to make authentic tribal partnerships.

And through that, those discussions, I came to be invited to be a part of this center.

CHAKRABARTI: I see. A little bit later in the show, I want to come back to hearing more of both your thoughts on how Western science and indigenous knowledge can be in harmony, but also the longstanding tension between the two.

So we’ll come back to that in a second, but let’s learn a lot more about what the new Center for Braiding Indigenous Knowledges and Science aims to do, because as I mentioned at the very top of the show, it was created via a $30 million block of funding from the National Science Foundation and that funding is a part of the Science and Technology Center’s Integrative Partnerships Program from the NSF.

Now, that program has been around since 1987 and competition for the funding has been, very vigorous over the past several years. So we spoke with Rebecca Ferrell, who helps oversee the grant program for the National Science Foundation. And she said that every time NSF receives hundreds of proposals, that have to go through four different levels of review before they’re chosen.

And she said this means that CBIKS, the new center, winning this funding is truly a big deal.

REBECCA FERRELL: What we think is really exciting about it is that it represents this opportunity really to scale up existing efforts to connect Indigenous knowledges with Western science in areas of societal relevance. In this case, climate change, food systems, and cultural heritage.

So really the goal of this particular center and why we’re interested in it is that it’s going to advance knowledge about our natural and built environments. And hopefully develop better solutions for adapting to changing environments at both local and global scales.

CHAKRABARTI: So that’s Rebecca Ferrell at the National Science Foundation.

Professor Newsom, can you tell me more about why these three areas in particular, about cultural heritage, climate change, and food systems, are the places where the center will focus most of its research and efforts on?

NEWSOM: Yes, thank you for that question. I think we opted to focus on these areas because many of us that are part of the kind of research team have experience in these areas, particularly there are a number of Indigenous archaeologists and environmental scientists.

And one of the things that we know as kind of indigenous scholars and indigenous communities recognizes that these and other systems, social systems and environmental systems, are interconnected.

And when you think about climate change and food systems and heritage cultural spaces, those three things are intimately connected in terms of one, they feed off of each other. And in the natural world, and if we include humans in that, you can see that we have these three systems in place. But you can’t address climate change without thinking about food, right?

And you can’t think about food without looking at food systems that have been in place for millennia. And so those kinds of connections between the three, for a nice way to look at relationality in terms of our research. But also, they’re very pressing issues that indigenous peoples and people globally are facing right now.

And so I think that as we can begin to explore and identify areas to do research on that are themed in these kinds of really important topics, we can begin to address, hopefully. Create some solutions and think about how to live differently so that these three areas are healthy for us.

CHAKRABARTI: So I’d love to talk more about some of the projects that the center has undertaken so far. We heard about the clam gardens earlier in the show, but Professor Woodruff, there’s one, all of them actually seem quite fascinating to me, but so let’s talk through some of them. First of all, a project that works with Aboriginal partners to document and map land and environmental indicators of climate change.

Can you tell me more about that one?

WOODRUFF: Sure. So I’m always a bit nervous about talking to these particular projects because I think that they really are rooted in the region. And we have specialists that are particularly focused on these specific projects. And so the thing that I think that I’m most qualified to talk about is the importance of these sort of place and community-based projects.

And that the center’s goal of taking those projects, all that have exciting that are really exciting in and of themselves, but what I’m involved in are the discussions of how we scale these projects up.

So in and of themselves, they’re a local place-based project. But what CBIKS or the Center for Braiding Indigenous Knowledges and Science is really trying to do a different type of science that’s branching up and scaling these individual projects up and what can be learned when we start combining these different projects and approaches.

And so we have these thematic working groups that really are trying to connect. And we have these regional centers where they really are the experts on the particular research that’s being done in that particular location. But then we have these thematic working groups that are trying to take those place-based and community-based projects and scale them up on lessons learned on relationality.

How do you data sovereignty? And how do you address sort of the sharing of that data, field work practices, education and the interactions with policy and government. And then the communication of knowledge mobilization and how you can communicate this, the various methods that this research can be communicated at the local level, but also the regional and national and international.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay then let me ask a question in a similar vein but differently to Professor Newsom, because whether it’s this specific project of working with indigenous partners to document environmental indicators of climate change, or others monitoring salmon populations in Alaska, a huge issue, actually, along the entire Pacific Northwest.

But the implication is that there is some deeper or more useful knowledge, data and information that can emerge from the partnerships with indigenous peoples than has been typically available to researchers using Western science exclusively. I’m thinking of what could be gained by partnering with indigenous peoples to map land?

Looking for indicators of climate change that’s not accessible from geosats that are looking down and measuring, hot spots in the summer over the course of 20 years. Do you see what I’m getting at, Professor Newsom?

NEWSOM: I think I do. So indigenous peoples around the world have long lasting relationships to place. And many of the knowledges that are generated over millennia are based and rooted in people’s experiences in particular places. And if there are oral narratives or other kinds of practices that help to retain knowledge of change in the landscape over time, then those kinds of knowledges can be brought to bear on Western science questions.

Typically, what we would think of Western science questions, right? Particularly around climate change and environmental, I don’t know what the word is.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s okay.

NEWSOM: Sorry. But anyway, just knowing that people have been engaged with these particular places for millennia, they’ve developed certain practices and understandings and have witnessed different things.

And those knowledges have been transferred across generations. And I think as we bring in western science into our spheres of knowledge as indigenous peoples, we can begin to not only share that information in an ethical and trusting way with our partners, but we can also bring Western science to help improve our communities.

And I think that connection between the two really, and an acknowledgement that people, Indigenous peoples, do have experience with things that may be of interest to a broader world, I think having those connections and making those connections more deliberately is most important, will change how science is done.

CHAKRABARTI: So what you just said, I think is very powerful, right? Because again, just sticking, I’m just going to throw out an example. We can measure changes in let’s say forest cover. Or the health of forests due to climate change, right? That’s a major area of research right now.

But what you’re saying is that then imbuing that also, and just as importantly, with things like the oral narratives from the people who have been living on that land, or stewarding that land for thousands of years, gives us more quantitative and also qualitative data to understand the impacts of what it means that forests are rapidly changing.

So that kind of gives the research a greater depth than just saying, “There’s been this percentage of change in chestnut trees in the Northeast over 100 years.” Right?

NEWSOM: That’s correct. And I think one of the things that Western science can benefit from in terms of working with kind of Indigenous communities is understanding the different philosophies that shape that knowledge.

For example, a particular community may feel a certain connection to a certain plant or animal species. And what comes to mind for me is the indigenous peoples of the Northeast in Maine, where they are particularly connected to the brown ash tree and have used brown ash for millennia and making baskets.

And so they have a very intimate knowledge of the life cycle of those trees and changes that occur in those brown ash stands are quite visible. So I think bringing that to bear in a relationship with Western science, it’s important.

CHAKRABARTI: And so when we come back, we’re also going to talk about something that both of you mentioned, about the ethics of the science and its interaction with Indigenous knowledge. And also making the data and discoveries that the center will do available to Indigenous communities, as well.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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