Native Waters; a Sacred Learning Place

EarthzineOpEd, Original, Sections, Sustainability, Water

By Ed Galindo, Ph.D., director, American Indian Education in Science Program, University of Idaho (Tribal Coop, director, Natural Resources Tribal Cooperative (NRTC)

2008, Summer Science Camp

2008, Summer Science Camp

The Natural Resources Tribal Cooperative (NRTC) which coordinates research and educational efforts for Native Americans on the University of Idaho campus, in cooperation with the University of Idaho, Idaho State University and Utah State University, has established the Native Waters Project with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Rocky Mountain Space Grant Consortium (RMGC), a NASA funded program. Both NSF and RMSC have very similar outreach programs to ensure that all people have an opportunity to be engaged in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) activities.

The NRTC was formed by an agreement between the University of Idaho and Columbia River Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC) to coordinate research and educational efforts for Native Americans on the University of Idaho campus.

About the Columbia River Treaty Tribes

“The Nez Perce Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon, and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Indian Nation are the only tribes in the Columbia Basin to have reserved rights to anadromous fish in 1855 treaties with the United States.

Dr. Ed Galindo

Dr. Ed Galindo

“The people of these tribes have always shared a common understanding — which their very existence depends on– the respectful enjoyment of the Columbia River Basin’s vast land and water resources. Indeed, their very souls and spirits were and are inextricably tied to the natural world and its myriad inhabitants. Among those inhabitants, none were more important than the teeming millions of anadromous fish enriching the basin’s rivers and streams.

“Despite some differences in language and cultural practices, the people of these tribes shared the foundation of a regional economy based on salmon. To the extent the resource permits, tribal people continue to fish for ceremonial, subsistence and commercial purposes employing, as they always have, a variety of technologies. Tribal people fish from wooden scaffolds and from boats, use set nets, spears, dip nets and poles and lines. Tribal people still maintain a dietary preference for salmon, and its role in ceremonial life remains preeminent. Salmon is important and necessary for physical health and for spiritual well-being.

“Today, perhaps even more than in the past, the Columbia River treaty tribes are brought together by the struggle to save the salmon and by shared spiritual traditions such as the first salmon feast.” (CRITFC)

About Native Waters

Students and staff at Summer Camp 2006 launching bottle rockets using water.

Students and staff at Summer Camp 2006 launching bottle rockets using water.

Native Waters demonstrates the successful integration of American Indian traditional knowledge and the western view of science in dealing with water research.åÊ It is also a successful means of encouraging Native American Indian students (high school, and undergraduates) and other minority students to study STEM topics and to make a contribution to the Indigenous and scientific communities.

Native Waters has two main focuses. The first is on math and science subjects as they pertain to the environment and to broadening participation of all types of “faces” by welcoming them at our science camp. The second is to acknowledge traditional American Indian approaches to the study of the Earth or Earth systems, approaches that show respect for the environment and the students.åÊ Both are important to the author.

The need to develop pathways to the study of science and all education subjects for Native American students is critical. The national high school graduation rate is about 68-71 percent, with nearly one-third of all public high school students failing to graduate (Swanson, 2004, Editorial Projects in Education, 2008).åÊ However, only 51 percent of American Indians complete high school compared to 55 percent of black and 58 percent of Hispanic students. (Editorial Projects in Education, 2008)

But this is not a story about national graduation rates: this is a story about people looking at students and the environment in what the author calls a “Sacred Learning Place”. A Sacred Learning Place (SLP) –as defined by the author–is a place where learning takes place with understanding of the environment and the students in such a way that both are respected.åÊ For example, in our program Native Waters, we look at the water from an Indigenous lens and a western scientific lens as well.åÊ The author likes to call this “Two Eyes Seeing” (TES).

When our students use “Two Eyes Seeing” and the western scientific lens, the water and all that the water touches are viewed as a relative. Since it is assumed that one treats a relative with respect and compassion, this is how one should treat the knowledge of water.åÊ If we use only the lens of the western scientific community, we can look at water as an independent variable that is studied or examined with only a very specific set of questions asked.

At Native Waters, we use “Two Eyes Seeing” to train students to use both “eyes”. When students can accomplish this task of learning and talking about science, and use both eyes, the topic of science, math, history, astronomy, or health makes more sense to the Native student, and perhaps all students. Again, our team calls this creating a “Sacred Learning Place (SLP) using TES.”

Our science camp had a focus on the water, and the sacredness of water resources. Students were exposed to Native American views of water; for example, stories of how water is home to many of the earth's creatures and plants. Students were also exposed to the scientific community research views of water as well.

Our science camp had a focus on the water, and the sacredness of water resources. Students were exposed to Native American views of water; for example, stories of how water is home to many of the earth’s creatures and plants. Students were also exposed to the scientific community research views of water as well.

SLP can occur every where on this planet, if respect and compassion are mixed with the wonderment of life.åÊ This story is about a SLP in the mountains of Idaho, a place that generations of Native people have called home.

The Sacred Learning Place

American Indian traditional knowledge includes knowing a place. It covers knowledge of the environment, such as rain, snow, ice, weather resources, plants and animals, and the relationship between all these things. Traditional Knowledge (TK) is partly a holistic way of looking at the world and partly looking at life with a deep spiritual respect for all things. For example, traditional knowledge explains in story form how and why water is important to all that share life on this planet. By ‰ÛÏall‰Û, the Native American means plants, animals, clouds, sky, fish, birds, rocks, and water. Water in some Native communities is so important that it is considered sacred medicine. Many Native ceremonies begin and end with a prayer of water. Water is an important gift for all.

If water can be viewed as sacred, then perhaps it will be taken care of and viewed in a different light than it is today by most people that live on Mother Earth. This planet’s water is a sacred gift that much too often is taken for granted. Therefore, a theme of Native Waters and Sacred Learning Places is one of respect and a deeper understanding of what the gift of water is really about. On the other hand , if water is only approached by the western scientific method of looking at water, and as a variable to be weighed, measured, and data driven for a single scientific objective, many investigators may not view it as a family member to be respected. This author feels a more complete story about water may be lost.

For example, we know today that most of our problems with water are multidimensional and that neither science alone nor American Indian traditional knowledge alone can solve these problems.åÊ The solutions to our water problems involve not only scientific and technological solutions but also changing attitudes and actions so that people learn to regard our natural resources with respect. This way of knowing and teaching could help us change attitudes in regards to not only respect for water, but life respect on this planet.åÊ As indicated by a Shoshone-Bannock Tribal member, Lavern Broncho Sr., “We are finally getting to the point where we can put our ancient knowledge to use in the modern world, side by side with Western science.åÊ This is a good thing.” (Lavern Broncho Sr., Shoshone-Bannock Tribal member, 2004)

Students assisted Dr. Galindo's research efforts to establish base line data for Salmon.

Students assisted Dr. Galindo’s research efforts to establish base line data for Salmon.

Native Waters is a research project that asks several scientific questions. One that the author is asking is. Can the headwaters of the Salmon River in the Idaho Mountains where the salmon (“finned one”) lives now support even more salmon? Another question is what “stories” can we learn from the water to determine if indeed fish can survive in an ever changing habitat?åÊ Water stories are usually only composed of data, like water chemistryåÊ and the knowledge of acid or base of the water (pH), or dissolved oxygen (DO), and how “clean” the water is (nitrates, or other pollutants).åÊ Data and stories will give us a good baseline on what the “finned ones” seem to already know: clean water is a must for their (and our) survival. All things are related.

Research questions should drive a research project, no less the pedagogical question of why and how students learn. For example, using Traditional Knowledge (TK) knowledge of respect for the environment from a Native perspective and performing scientific streamside chemistry techniques that students learn from the scientific method are all part of a student’s learning with Native Waters. But there is much more.

Riggs and Semken (Riggs and Semken, 2001) present evidence as well as does Cajete,(Cajete,1999) that more and more Indigenous people are starting to have a greater voice in the environment/ education and are taking a closer look at how lands, especially reservation lands, are being managed in regards to cultural awareness, environment and sustainability of these lands. The voice of the Indigenous people themselves will help tell a story–teaching not only environmental issues, but a more holistic view of social, cultural and political views, and perhaps a Sacred Learning Place for all to know.

Students had college mentors from North Idaho College (NIC), Idaho State University (ISU) and the University of Idaho (U of I). Members of a Community Advisor Panel (CAP) also helped mentor students. CAP members are members of the community that volunteers their time and effort working with students and the environment.

Students had college mentors from North Idaho College (NIC), Idaho State University (ISU) and the University of Idaho (U of I). Members of a Community Advisor Panel (CAP) also helped mentor students. CAP members are members of the community that volunteers their time and effort working with students and the environment.

Riggs and Semken ask this interesting question:åÊ If Native American people have such a deep respect and view of Mother Earth then why do we not see more Native people obtaining degrees in Earth science fields, or science fields that have knowledge of the earth and earth processes?

Riggs and Semken and Cajete posit that the reason more Native people are not going into science fields is that a true fear of science and the scientific culture many times equals the loss of self in the process of learning science.

Cajete (2000) and Riggs and Semken (2001) state that when Indigenous students take science classes at the university, many times an educational mismatch occurs. For example, many times what the Native students know to be true about water and the waters sacred medical/healing properties are not discussed in the classroom or laboratory as medicine or sacred, but viewed only as chemical bonds or electrical properties to be weighted, measured, probed or in some cases sold as “bottled water”. The wisdom of water is lost and so is the Native student’s point of view. At this point, only one eye is seeing and many Native students do not feel welcome at the “table of western scientific knowledge”.

Riggs and Semken talk about the difference between acculturation and assimilation in regard to learning and Native American views. In their view, acculturation happens when a student is learning new ideas and learning from another’s culture, in this case, the culture of science.åÊ They are using and learning about those ideas, but maintaining their own culture and, in the process of learning science; the student’s own ideas and identity are not lost in the process. Assimilation, on the other hand, is when a Native student is given a new idea by the dominant science culture as the one and only “true” way to knowledge. The student’s own ideas and learning– thoughts, style and points of reference– are not considered, and, in fact, many times they are dismissed as not “true knowledge”. To the Native group’s point-of-view, this step by-step-adoption of the dominant culture’s ideas many times equals the loss of one’s own ideas and identity. Science learning and the culture of science are not viewed as an equal or positive event in the lives of the Native student, and the Native student feels less and less respected or wanted in the classroom setting. Cajete (2000) in his book Native Science: natural laws of interdependence, calls this process of acculturation and assimilation “mainstream education institution” (p.62) Cajete states and the author agrees,åÊ “that this type of education model is a major part of the problem we see today as Native people” ( Cajete, 2000).

Streambed Learning. Challis, Idaho

Streambed Learning. Challis, Idaho

An example of successful acculturation and assimilation with regards to Indigenous people is the story of the horse. Long before the horse came to the Indigenous people of the plains and mountain country of North America, the people walked and or used dogs they had trained to pull supplies. Once the horse was “acculturated” from the Spanish Europeans, it was assimilated into the Indigenous way of life. The Indigenous people of the plains areas of North America are considered to this day some of the most experienced people with the horse the world has ever seen. The horse became a major survival tool for the Indigenous people. The “new knowledge” had a positive effect for the Native people.

Sacred Leaning Places and Two Eyes Seeing are tools we are using to educate our students about assimilation and acculturation of science culture. Our goal is to have education a part of the solution and tools for Native students obtaining more degrees in “Mother Earth fields.”

A few years ago, the author was on a reservation visiting with some of the tribe’s Elders. Tribal Elders are one of several types of teachers (and keepers of knowledge) on any reservation. The author was sharing some of the research projects the author has done including some science experiments that were on-board the International Space Station (ISS). An Elder asked an interesting question: He said, “Of all the things you teach and research, are you teaching compassion in your science?” The author replied to the Elder: “No.” Then he asked, “why not?”

From a Native view point and scientific methodology do we teach “compassion” with our science and research? Does compassion have a place at the scientific table? The author believes so.

At our Native Water science camp, students and mentors learn how to perform the chemistry test on the water by using a live fast running stream (hands-heart-on instruction). The author demonstrates the initial instruction of how to perform the water chemistry test outside at our base camp. Questions, discussion and practice sessions are all done in our outdoor classroom. Students practice on water samples at the camp until they and the mentors feel comfortable they can reach accuracy. Once this is done, they are ready to try their water chemistry techniques on the river where the Finned Ones live. Students perform the tests and are guided when they have questions. If a chemistry water test result is outside the norm reported for the area, students are asked to repeat the test. Students learn that accuracy with results is important. They also learn other subjects as well.

Students are asked questions on the geology of the area, or the effects of human history on our study area. For example, what minerals were important in the area (gold and silver)? How do people find this mineral? Other questions are asked of the students. What chemistry and physics properties do gold and silver have that facilitate mining? What is the “social” cost to the environment with mining? How do we use what the mining industry provides for us and at what cost?

Camp participants collect water samples.

Camp participants collect water samples.

In the evening after the sun sets, and the moon and stars are out, students are led in discussions of Native stories of the stars and how they came to be, and telescopes are used to “explore” our galaxy. Students hear both the Native view of how stars came to be and the scientific hypothesis of how our and other galaxies are still being formed (two “ears” learning). All this leaning is done in our “outdoor” classroom.

In summary, the Tribal Elder’s question of compassion was a good one: do we teach compassion with our science? Native Waters is teaching compassion by asking the scientific questions of water chemistry and asking them in ways that the students are asked to look at what they are learning in a much bigger picture. For example, if the students find in their research that the water habit of the Finned Ones (salmon) is not good, what does that say for a safe human environment? Are students learning that a healthy environment for fish, plants, and birds is a healthy environment for all that live on Mother Earth? Another question to ask students and mentors is what are they going to do with the knowledge of water? Is the knowledge going to be complied and put in a scientific report that is filed on someone’s shelf to gather dust? Or is the water knowledge used to help change some attitudes about this special gift of water?

Science alone cannot solve water pollution, or solve how to keep water clean or why and how to respect each other. The solution to our Mother Earth water problems is a human solution of changing attitudes and actions, using the methods of science, the traditional knowledge of the Native community, and the compassion of using this knowledge to help maintain a balance for all the life on this planet.

Finally,åÊ the author likes to think he is leading the students and mentors in learning not only about how to blend good science of water with traditional knowledge in a more balanced way, but that we are all learning about compassion–compassion for each other and compassion about how and why to use our knowledge. The author is reminded of another Elder taking about compassion;

“A human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of this consciousness. This delusion is a kind of a prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty”.åÊ Albert Einstein.


Swanson, C.B. (2004).åÊåÊ KIDS COUNT Indicator Brief: Reducing the High School Dropout Rate

Personal conversation with Lavern Broncho Sr. Shoshone-Bannock Tribal member, 2004

Riggs and Semken, Geotimes, 2001;

Cajete, G. (2000). Native Science Natural Laws of Interdependent, Clear Light Publishers, 823 Don Diego, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Cajete, G. (1999). A people’s ecology: explorations in sustainable living: health, environment, agriculture, Native traditions, Clear Light Publishers, 823 Don Diego, Santa Fe, NM 87501

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