Culturally Responsive Science Curriculum


Traditional Knowledge, Environmental Assessment, and the Clash of Two Cultures

by Richard Glenn, Barrow, Alaska


Native American people have, since the time of the first European contact, struggled with the idea of sharing a storehouse of raw information, truisms, philosophies and ways of life with the outside world. This storehouse, wrapped in a big blanket and named by the outside world as “traditional knowledge”, has been obtained (as in any culture) over time by observations of nature, trial and error, dogged persistence and flashes of inspiration. In cultures without a written history, such as North Slope Iñupiat culture in Alaska, knowledge is passed person to person through social organizations and individual training, as well as through stories and legends.

The Iñupiat culture is based on knowledge of the natural environment and its resources. Our foundation is knowledge of the arctic tundra, rivers, lakes, lagoons, oceans and food resources. Knowledge of snow and ice conditions, ocean currents and weather patterns and their effects on natural systems are necessary for navigation, finding game and locating shelter and each other. This knowledge has value. First, to share with each other and pass on to our children and second, (if desired) to pass on to those outside of the Iñupiat culture.

To someone unfamiliar with the Iñupiat culture or the Arctic environment (such as a youngster or an outsider), the storehouse of information must seem infinite and inaccessible. In addition, stereotypes abound among ourselves and in the eyes of outsiders. Legends of the “hundred different terms for snow or ice” perpetuate the mystery. Most importantly, those wishing to learn the Iñupiat culture or environment, there is a stigma: bad experiences too numerous to count begin by good-faith sharing of traditional knowledge with outsiders. These range from simple plagiarism to exploitation and thievery. Legends and stereotypes abound. Such experiences have led many Iñupiat people to first ask “Why share?” And, even if this challenge has been answered sufficiently, an equally difficult challenge remains for both sides: “How to share?”

Why Share?

Why do Iñupiat share traditional knowledge? Despite the stigma, our community is proud of a long history of productive, cooperative efforts with visiting researchers, hunters, travelers, scientists, map makers and others. We share when we consider others close enough to be part of Iñupiat culture and share when it is in the best interest of a greater cultural struggle.

Experts Sharing With Each Other

The question of “why” is always easy to answer when two individuals are sharing equally and the joy of discovery takes place on both sides. Examples of the Iñupiat hundred-year history of cooperation serve as good models: the wildlife biologist and the whaler, the nomadic traveler and geologist, the archeologist and the village Elders. This two-way exchange has often worked when a given researcher has been around long enough to be considered “one of us” or at least has displayed to the community that he possesses some common values.

Sharing for the Greater Good

For a more locally important reason, we share traditional knowledge when we believe it will lead to preserving the land, its resources or the Iñupiat way of life. This reason has prodded us to work hard with regulatory agencies and other organizations to develop policies, to draft environmental impact statements or to offer even the most specific knowledge of the environment, wildlife or cultural practice.

Sharing as a part of Iñupiat Education

A third reason exists: pure instruction. Like a teacher to a student, our Elders and experts teach the rest of our community in all facets of traditional knowledge. We share to perpetuate our culture. How does one become involved in this kind of sharing? The answer is simple: become a student. However, this can take a lifetime—pairing with a given expert through years of learning. Chances are that the teacher is learning, too. This is the method most commonly used by Iñupiat people to transfer knowledge with each other. Iñupiat culture has many vehicles to allow this kind of instruction to take place. However, this method faces challenges due to changing culture, loss of language and other factors.

How to Share?

How can an outsider partake in vehicles of sharing traditional knowledge? Choose one or all of the criteria: an exchange among experts, become part of an effort that is of value to the Iñupiat or remain in the community and become a real student. Any other method risks lack of context, data gaps from abbreviated efforts and other problems such as trying to gather traditional knowledge in non-traditional ways or trying to force what should take years of heart-to-heart collaboration between experts into a period of weeks to months.

Knowing that change happens slowly and that one can only do so much, there are a few more cautions to those interested in documenting traditional knowledge, learning about the environment without reinventing the wheel and working with Native communities on regionally important issues.

Choose the Forum with Care

A meeting’s attendees must be matched to the issue. When expertise is really needed, it should be stated. Stereotypes will allow any agency to assume the expertise is there. There is a scene from the movie On Deadly Ground where the leading actress (an Asian woman playing a Yup’ik) jumps on a horse to the surprise of Steven Seagal’s character. He asks, “You can ride a horse?” to which she answers, “Of course, I’m Native American!” A comical analogy, but not far from the mark.

Don ‘t put your Eggs in One Basket

Check sources. Stated another way, the most talkative person may not be the most knowledgeable. Ours is a culture of consensus. Agreement is mandatory on nearly every item passed as traditional knowledge. If one person stands alone, he may be an expert or he may be wrong.

Given the size of the task, it is easy to run away from documenting traditional knowledge for use by others, even for our own reasons. For many like me, it can be an intensely personal endeavor. Still, such documentation will continue—by Iñupiat as well as by outside groups. Our culture is changing and some day we may be learning traditional knowledge using the same techniques employed by those who are outside looking in. We may be learning of Iñupiat traditional knowledge as if it belonged to others. Just as today, in many places, we are learning Iñupiat language as if it were a foreign language. As long as we are pledged to the task, we should look past the requirements of this contract or that mandate and remember the quality of information—time-tested and true. With everything changing, it is a valuable reference plane. If it is not where we are going, at least it is where we are coming from.


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