Indigenous Ways of Knowing

I was puttering around my kitchen with the radio on for background noise when I was taken in by the warm, welcoming voice of Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer. She’s a professor at the State University of New York College for Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. She is also a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and founding director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. Dr. Kimmerer is a plant ecologist who creates programs that draw on both modern scientific knowledge and traditional ecological wisdom and she places a priority on restoring ecological communities as well as our relationships to the land.

As a science advocate who believes in the restorative power of a forest bath I was hooked by Dr. Kimmerer’s words. I was especially intrigued by a phrase she mentioned several times during her interview, “Indigenous Ways of Knowing.”

Indigenous Ways of Knowing

Also called Native Ways of Knowing, Native Science, or Traditional Ecological Knowledge, Indigenous Ways of Knowing refers to a holistic point of view that goes beyond physical senses to incorporate emotional, spiritual, and traditional knowledge.

As Dr. Kimmerer poetically explained it, “Science polishes the gift of seeing. Indigenous traditions work with gifts of listening and language.” In discussing the gift of seeing, as someone who studies very small plants and mosses, she’s no stranger to a microscope. But that microscope becomes a metaphor for the fact that scientists tend to have a very specific focus on their area of study. Sometimes it’s to the detriment of what’s around them.

Dr. Kimmerer talked of plants and animals as our oldest teachers. But she didn’t mean that in the sense that they are likely to take over your classroom or that they literally talk to us. Rather, she noted that with careful observation, we can learn about our world through them. Plants do more than color our world or feed us. Indeed, recent research indicates plants have memory and the ability to learn and, as I wrote earlier this year, even the simple Physarum polycephalum (slime mold) has shown an ability to solve puzzle mazes.

Indigenous people, especially those who have inhabited an area for generations, have a broad understanding of that area’s ecology. Much of that knowledge may come in the form of stories, traditions, or casual conversation. The vocabulary might differ from that of a modern scientist, but it’s worth seeking out and understanding.

I’m not suggesting that you toss out your science curricula, but you might consider how discussing or incorporating Native Ways of Knowing might enhance it. Many middle schools have worked to create a more holistic approach to science, tying it in with social studies, health, and English language arts classes. Weaving in indigenous knowledge is another way to provide a broad context, especially when it comes to ecology and environmental studies. Indigenous Ways of Knowing can also dovetail nicely with problem-based or experiential learning modules.

I’ve come full circle. These days I’m back in my kitchen exploring native knowledge through kitchen science. I’m working my way through a cookbook that only features ingredients that were available before Europeans landed in North America. On the one hand, this means no beef, cow’s milk, white flour, or white sugar, among other things. On the other hand, I’m learning how much of my landscape is edible.

And I'm not going to say an that an oak tree shouted my name, but when it dropped an acorn a few inches from my head just as I was pondering making acorn flour, it certainly got my attention. I gathered up a bunch, leached out the bitter tannins and eventually processed the acorns into a flour. I'll be sure to have the radio playing when I bake something up with it.

The websites of Dr. Kimmerer and Dr. LaPier provide links to some of their insightful talks. This article provides a useful primer on indigenous knowledge systems.