A Closer Look At Indigenous Science: Culture, Context, and Euro-Science's Hidden Assumptions
Updated: Dec 12, 2022
©2022 Kenneth S. Cohen
19th Century Ojibwe "Prescription Stick" showing a representational prescription of herbs recorded by a traditional herbalist and likely given to a patient. From the Museum of the Wisconsin Historical Society, photo courtesy of Daniel E. Moerman
“Indigenous science” or “native science” have become hot topics; yet everyone seems to use the term in a different way. Sometimes the definition is too restrictive, based on an assumption that scientific method is the only valid form of inquiry or access to truth. I have heard both indigenous and non-indigenous speakers championing early indigenous knowledge of architecture, geology, and wildlife biology because it conforms with Western epistemology while being dismissive of explanatory models based on indigenous cultural concepts. For example, “Of course we used the bark of the Pacific Yew Tree to treat cancer. It is the source of the chemotherapy agent Taxol”. True, in a sense, but I am wary of scientific fundamentalists that acknowledge indigenous understanding of the plant because of the modern discovery of a chemical constituent, rather than honoring an alternate viewpoint. That is, from an indigenous perspective, the plant may have communicated its proper usage directly to dreamers and healers.
Additionally, the term “indigenous science” frequently has nebulous boundaries, as though everything a native person does is scientific, will someday be measurable, or does not require critical evaluation. Let me give you a humorous example. A Nakota friend shared that his grandmother always cut a buffalo roast in 4 parts before cooking it. He grew up believing that this was a ceremonial practice: each section representing one of the four winds (4 directions), thus both demonstrating respect for the buffalo and ritually empowering the meat to have greater healing and spiritual benefits. One day he made the roast for his grandmother and expected her to be proud of his adherence to tradition. Instead, she asked quizzically, “Why are you cutting the roast in four parts before cooking?” When he shared the reason, she giggled, “I cut the roast that way because it was the only way to make it fit in the pan!”
I wrote the article “What Is Indigenous Science?” (open attachment below) with the hope of bringing more clarity to the term or at least opening the topic to further dialogue. To my surprise the article was accepted for publication in record time by the peer-reviewed science journal, Explore: The Journal of Science & Healing, having received approval by a board of indigenous and non-indigenous scholars.
Personal Note: Although Elsevier, the publisher of Explore, charges a hefty fee to view or download my article, I receive no payment or royalty. Thankfully the journal allows me to freely share the pre-publication final proof with friends and colleagues, and you may do the same. Here is the link to the full article. Hope you enjoy: