Indigenous history of sciences

Navajos used stars to test vision by staring at the night sky. Those who were able to see the Big Dipper’s double stars, Mizar and Alcor were said to have good eyesight.

Astronomy, math, biology, botany among other sciences, have been passed down through generations in indigenous cultures around the world, for thousands of years.

“One of my goals is to increase understanding of indigenous science,” said Polly Walker, chairwoman of the Indigenous Education Institute.

IEI was founded in 1995, on the Navajo Nation, Tsaile Arizona, by Nancy Maryboy, who recently received a lifetime achievement award from the International Tribal Archives and Museums for her work. The award is given to an individual who contributes to the vitality and cultural sovereignty of Native Indians, according to Guardians of Lifeways and Culture. (To find out more information, read the Journal of the San Juans Nov. 2 issue.) Maryboy is also a professor at Northern Arizona University. She moved to Friday Harbor in 2011, bringing IEI with her.

“I was strongly pulled here because of the waters and beauty of the islands. Since I travel so much, San Juan Island has become a refuge and place of renewal for me,” Maryboy said.

IEI has branches worldwide, working to integrate indigenous knowledge with western science. According to Maryboy, the board of IEI are all indigenous, and many are college professors and scientists. The vice president of IEI, David Begay, for example, is Navajo and a professor at the University of New Mexico. He has been researching the effects of uranium poisoning among the Navajo Nation from the plethora of abandon mines. Walker is also a First American, Cherokee, and director of the Baker Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies at Juniata College Pennsylvania.

Walker came aboard IEI after meeting Maryboy and Begay at the World Indigenous People’s Conference in Hawaii.

The trio found they had many interests in common, and the desire to reduce violence toward indigenous people and their knowledge systems, Walker said.

Through her work with IEI, Walker said she has learned indigenous astronomy, which is the center of many of their projects. IEI partnered with NASA on Navajo Sky, for example, which worked to integrate Navajo cosmology into education modules for digital planetariums. This gave Navajo students an appreciation of their heritage, and non-native Americans a great understanding of indigenous knowledge, according to Navajo Sky’s website.

“Native and indigenous science are both rigorous and relevant in contemporary society,” Walker said.

“Cosmic Serpent,” one of Walker’s favorite projects, worked to illustrate just that. Partnering with the Association of Science and Technology Centers, Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hawaii, and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Indians they designed workshops on science throughout indigenous cultures. These workshops were held from Alaska to Hawaii, and all up and down the west coast of the United States. Maryboy and others from IEI wrote a book about the NSF-funded projects, called “Cosmic Serpent, Collaboration with Integrity,” which explains in detail how native astronomy and western science enrich each other. Looking at indigenous cultures across the world, according to Walker, common themes seem to resurface.

“They each seem to have a focus on place, integration of spirituality as an integral part of science with a sense of responsibility and reciprocity with the natural world,” said Walker.

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