The cultural heritage of most Native American and Alaska Native peoples incorporates considerable knowledge and experience of the natural world, including meteorological and ecological phenomena.
Despite these strong cultural traditions, Native Americans and Alaska Natives remain the most under‑represented minority in scientific disciplines overall, and in environmentally oriented sciences in particular, currently constituting less than half of one percent of all enrollees.
There are currently less than twenty PhD level Native Americans in the natural and physical sciences in the United States and Canada.
Native scientists would be likely to bring new perspectives and potential insights to environmental science and resource management.
In nearly 20 years of university teaching we have found that if Indigenous themes and topics relevant to Indigenous peoples are openly discussed within a classroom setting that this allows Indigenous students (and others) to feel more confident and comfortable within the classroom setting. This encourages students to engage with other students and instructors and classroom exchanges are more fruitful.
What makes the existence of such a curriculum of greater significance is that many Native American tribes and Alaska Native villages are charged with managing resources on lands that they control but must employ non-tribal members to manage these resources. Currently many professionals employed by tribes in resource management are not tribal members or even Indian so emphasis is placed on Western ideas of management rather than Tribal concepts or principles. We propose to change this situation by empowering and inspiring Native American and Alaska Native students to seek careers in STEM disciplines, especially biology and environmental science.
Most Native American students, as well as many students from other cultural traditions, are intimidated by science and math courses. Native American students, however, come up against an additional barrier--the tendency of Western scientific and academic traditions to either ignore or denigrate the philosophical principles and knowledge of indigenous peoples (Johannes 1989; Deloria 1995; Pierotti and Wildcat 2000; Deloria and Wildcat 2001).
One of the most egregious recent examples of this trend is the recent bestseller, The Ecological Indian, published by Brown University anthropologist Shepherd Krech in 1999, whose basic premise is that despite thousands of years interacting with and depending upon the ecological communities of North America, Indian people did not understand rudimentary principles of ecology. Like many of his intellectual predecessors, the author of this book fails to understand either Indian people or ecology, relying on narrow environmentalist interpretations for the basis of his critique. One unfortunate impact of such books, combined with critiques of the Western scientific tradition by Vine Deloria Jr. in books such as Red Earth, White Lies (1995), has been to convince many students of Indigenous ancestry that the natural and physical sciences and mathematics are biased against them and thus remain closed to their ways of thinking.
This curriculum is an attempt to counter all of these other factors, by showing how Indigenous traditions are based on a solid understanding and description of natural phenomena. Our goal is to avoid romantic cliches and characterizations of Indian people and their traditional knowledge and to present this knowledge as well documented but different in approach from "Western science." These traditions are based on connection to the natural world, rather than separation from nature--in other words we are working with a science based on relationships, reciprocity and respect rather than solely on exploitation and economic concerns.