Indigenous Perspectives in GEOSS: An Interview with Dr. Gregory Cajete

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Dr. Gregory Cajete

Dr. Gregory Cajete

Indigenous scholars around the world are leading a renaissance in understanding of traditional Indigenous knowledge. One such scholar is Dr. Gregory Cajete, a Tewa Indian from Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico and author of five books on Native American education, history and philosophy. In one of his books, Native Science, Natural Laws of Interdependency, Dr. Cajete writes, “Native Cultures have indeed amassed an enormous knowledge base related to the natural characteristics and processes of their lands through direct experience and participation.” Dr. Cajete is director of Native American Studies and associate professor in the Division of Language, Literacy and Socio Cultural Studies in the College of Education at the University of New Mexico. He received a Ph.D. from International College ‰ÛÒ Los Angeles New Philosophy Program in Social Science Education with an emphasis in Native American Studies. Earthzine’s Editor-in- Chief, Paul Racette, asks Dr. Cajete about Native American science and the role Indigenous perspectives have in realizing an integrated Earth observing system.

Earthzine: Describe native science and the natural laws of interdependency?

Cajete: From my perspective, native science really is a body of knowledge that has been accumulated by a group of people, Indigenous people, through generations, that deals very specifically and is very much founded on how that group of people has developed an intimate relationship with the plants, the animals, the places in which they have lived. It is also how the communities have integrated that knowledge within themselves, how that knowledge has been expressed in their language, their art, their music, their dance and their practical technologies for living in places in which they have evolved. Interdependence is a principle that expresses itself in the context of native science. Expressions can be seen in the life of an Indigenous group of people, the ways in which a group of people calibrates their agricultural cycle around key times of observation of the sun with regard to the equinoxes and solstices, how they understand when plants and animals are best to be harvested, when to go hunting, how to serve plants in certain kinds of condition for medicine and how to use those same plants, say for creation of shelter or as food. So there are many kinds of ways in which native science expresses itself in traditional native cultures.

You almost have to be very specific in focusing on a particular group of people to be able to understand how the natural world is integrated in their life style and the expressions of cultures of those people.

Newspaper Rock, Utah

Newspaper Rock, Utah

Earthzine: Why does myth and metaphor play a central role in human description of the world?

Cajete: That’s interesting. Myth is really an interesting term because in today’s society, myth is often viewed as a kind of a fable or false story. In native traditions, what are called myths, are better described as stories. Many are called guiding stories that were actually created to teach about something that was important to the people, such as how to survive, how to pick plants at certain times, how to create a context for sustainable hunting practices. The metaphor comes into place in the stories to teach about something else and the something else is really the core teaching of the story itself. Metaphors have been used in a variety of different ways in story forms to convey information and knowledge over generations. Story telling essentially is the first foundation of teaching anything. Human beings are story makers and story tellers.

Earthzine: Traditional Indigenous knowledge is founded on the understanding that we are all related, as in mitakuye oyasin. For some, this is a very difficult concept to grasp. What can you say to help explain this context in which Native science can be understood?

Cajete: If you understand natural systems, to say that everything is related almost goes without saying. I will use an example that I remember David Suzuki presenting in his talks where he uses the example of argon as an element that is contained in the air. They are kind of like tracer atoms. The air that we breathe and that is finite we share with each other right now and eventually we will be breathing those same argon atoms again. The idea is that air is shared by all living, breathing entities and through that physical process we become related to each other. It is using those kinds of ways to describe the fact that physically, socially, even spiritually there is this interconnection and interrelatedness that human beings share with each other and that is referred to by saying we are all related. Mitakuye oyasin is the Lakota way of expressing that idea and that reality. There are words in other Indigenous languages that describe the same thing, that we are all related. We use a term in my language, because corn is kind of our sacramental plant, a staple of our traditional diet, we say we are all kernels on the same corn cob.Indian Corn in Fall

Earthzine: You write, “We are Earth becoming conscious of itself, and collectively, humans are the Earth’s most highly developed sense organ.” NASA just celebrated its 50th anniversary. Images of Earth from space have transformed the way we view the world. How have images of the Earth, our planetary siblings, our Sun, neighboring nebulae and distant galaxies affected native science?

Cajete: In many ways it helps us to visualize what native science has always been, in one way or another, trying to define, first of all that we are all interrelated, we all breathe the same air, we are made of the same elements of the earth, we are conveyors of the sun’s fire, we are participants in the activities of the biosphere no matter where we are and so this idea of the photographs of Earth, especially the newer technologies that allow us to see the Earth as it is evolving its processes, its weather patterns help us to visualize a living, breathing, active planet processes, the life process of the planet itself. And so those images and ways of understanding ourselves, really do add to the conceptions and perspectives of native science. A metaphor that is sometimes used in native science is “we are all members of Turtle Island”. This is an idea that has been popularized by the Iroquois Confederacy but it is really a notion or an idea that is held by all native tribes. The metaphor describes Earth as a living, breathing, super organism and that we as human beings ride the turtle’s back. The thoughts that we think, the actions that we perform, the understandings and the insights that we gain, the celebrations as well as the sadness that we feel are all registered on the Great Mother of the turtles’ back. And so, we affect the consciousness of the Earth as she affects ours. This idea of the super organism which is the planet Earth has been held by every Indigenous culture that I can remember ever studying and can be said to be the prime philosophy of native peoples. It is the understanding that one comes to naturally; if you are a good observer you can begin to see how life forces interact on the Earth or just in the place in which you live, and you begin to have a sense that there is this greater organism, this greater process that is a part of life.

Earthzine: A principal goal of GEO is to integrate Earth observing systems into a Global Earth Observing System of Systems, GEOSS. What role can Indigenous perspective play in realizing an integrated Earth observing system?

Cajete: Much of the practical day-to-day knowledge of Indigenous people, what is called traditional environmental knowledge, is based on generations of knowledge and understandings that have been passed on through generations by people who live in certain places. Indigenous peoples around the world, living in the places that they do, have knowledge of their places that becomes important data that needs to be integrated into this broader body of knowledge if we are going to understand the ramifications and deal with issues of global climate change. These bodies of knowledge need to be a part of that broader story. We need to create a much larger story of the Earth than we have currently. What we now have is just bits and pieces of a much larger puzzle and so while we are able to see through satellite imagery all of the Earth and the system of the Earth, we don’t necessarily have the details of what is going on in specific places of the earth. The other contribution, before I go on, is one of attitude and one of philosophical orientation. It goes back to the Earth as a living system, as a living entity that deserves respect and deserves understanding and deserves some kind of reverence. Really the message of Indigenous cultures and traditions is you have to have reverence for that which gives you life.

Earthzine: We are all being impacted by climate and environmental change. The impact is now severe for many Native Americans and Indigenous peoples whose life ways are tied to the rhythms of Earth. Are there any needs or gaps that Earth observing technologies or satellite observations can fill for the Native American communities?

Cajete: One way that that technology can be useful to native areas, native reservations, native lands, and native communities, is through providing an understanding of how rapidly change is happening in certain land bases controlled by native peoples. There is a lot of interest among many tribes with regards to the GPS technologies. Tribes that have a large land base are able to see how their land base is changing due to deforestation, drought conditions, flooding or a variety of weather related effects In earlier days, let’s go back historically, the first Europeans found, what could be called the Garden of Eden, an amazing richness in America that wasn’t present in Europe. The tendency at that time was to think that this abundance was just a natural occurrence. We are beginning to understand that the abundance was what today can be called ‘terraforming,’ for lack of a better term, where groups of Indigenous people took care of the places in which they lived to such an extent that they were able to bring those places to an abundance of plants and animals and diversity. Practices of people enhanced living in those places to the extent that it created a bounty of plants and animals that humans could use for food. I know this was true in the Southwest as well because we supported much larger populations than are supported now due to an ability to work with the land in such ways that they enhanced wild food as well as traditionally domesticated foods. What I am saying is, today what the new technologies can help us do is to actually begin to understand our land bases in a much more intimate way, in some ways the way we used to understand them. I see a lot of advantages in technology.

Earthzine: You write, “This knowledge must now be transferred to others and studied seriously by Native and non-Native people the world over for the models and lessons that it can provide as we collectively search for an environmentally sustainable future.” There exists resistance on both sides. How can we lower the barriers of knowledge sharing?water-turtle

Cajete: I think by helping each other to understand the cultural principles that both our knowledge systems operate from. A lot of the misunderstanding on the part of native people is the feeling that Western science is totally antithetical to native philosophy and maybe at certain levels it is. And at many levels there are aspects of Western science that are utilized by native people to enhance their lives. Likewise, consider native people’s regard, understanding and consciousness related to reverence for the land… how we are going to look at it in a generation from now. Is it going to affect our people and the people for seven generations or more? Understanding of an ecological reverence, philosophy and consciousness that guides the generation of knowledge in the context of science becomes very important and a much needed component. We are searching for, if you will, a revitalization of that reverence of the land and that reverence for all living things that we have always had because we wouldn’t be here as human beings if we didn’t have that. To bring it into a contemporary context to be able to then practice a more conscious form of science is what I am looking to. I know that Eastern traditions, Buddhism for instance, are also being explored for the same reasons, that there has to be a kind of consciousness that guides science rather than the consciousness that has guided it in the past. The big question is “how are we going to develop a kind of consciousness that allows us to work the future and work with the natural processes that are part of nature in a way that benefits both us as human beings but also benefits and cares for the finite resource which is the Earth?” Native traditions in their variety of very diverse kinds of ways were able to do that at one time and I think those are the things that we have to rediscover. This is a rediscovery on the part of native people themselves.

There is one book that I highly recommend called Beyond Culture and it’s written by a gentleman whose name is Edward G. Hall who was my doctoral thesis chair. He really explored how conflict happens as a result of language and cultural difference and I think we have to begin to learn again a new kind of language of talking to each other that goes beyond those traditional barriers and traditional kinds of issues that we have culturally.

Those kinds of bodies of research are very important. For me as an educator, a native educator, there are two quintessential issues that we have to come to terms with. The first one is how we are going to deal with ecological crisis which is an issue of physical relationship, our physical relationship to the Earth. The other crisis is how we are going to deal with each other, which is the issue of social ecology.

Earthzine: It has a spiritual dimension as well.

Cajete: Absolutely, the context is a spiritual consciousness.

Earthzine: You’ve called for a ‘mutually beneficial bridge and dialogue between Indigenous and Western scientists and communities.’ In your eyes, what do you see looking ahead?

Cajete: I see a lot of projects that bring together native communities and the body of native community knowledge with Western scientists working on projects related to issues that are viewed as meaningful and important to native communities. A lot of this is going on already in many ways. So, I think coalitions of Indigenous people are working with interested scientists to begin to address just issues and creating a bridge of dialog between each other. It happens actually in small ways at first in small projects in which there is a respectful and direct relationship around the issue that is established by the Western scientist and by the native community members. I have seen a lot of positive, very beneficial kinds of science being done as a result of that kind of relationship, but it begins with a social relationship, a social relationship that is established first that then leads to trust and then leads to mutual beneficial knowledge. I think those are the kinds of tasks and kinds of teachings that have to happen in the education not only presently, but certainly in the education of the future.

Acknowledgement: This interview was conducted prior to Dr. Cajete’s speaking engagement for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Science Colloquium on November 21, 2008. The seminar was co-hosted by Goddard’s Native American Advisory Committee for which Paul Racette serves as co-vice chair.