Indigenous Knowledges can offer unique insights to scientific questions, but Western scientists must be respectful and keep and open mind. CHANNONE ARIF/ CC WIKIMEDIA

Betelgeuse, glowing a fiery red, is one of the brightest stars in the sky, and one of the largest visible to the naked eye. Betelgeuse’s brightness varies periodically, a phenomenon first recorded in scientific literature in 1836 by Sir John Herschel, an English astronomer. 

In his article, Herschel also observed that the brightness of Eta Carinae, a star system, had increased. Eta Carinae is unstable and erupts from time to time, causing it to shed its outer layers, grow, and outshine some of its neighbours. The event that Herschel observed would come to be known as The Great Eruption. 

Herschel, however, was not the only person to observe and record the event. In southeast Australia, the Boorong clan of the Wergaia language also passed down reports of this astronomical event through oral communication. Yet Herschel’s report is the most well-known.

“So much Indigenous Knowledge has been lost due to colonization,” said Hilding Neilson, an assistant professor in the Department of Astronomy at U of T.  UNESCO defines ‘Indigenous Knowledge’ as the “understandings, skills and philosophies developed by societies with long histories of interaction with their natural surroundings” — for example, the Boorong clan’s description of the Great Eruption. 

Indigenous Knowledges offer different perspectives on scientific phenomena 

The availability of Indigenous Knowledges in our current education system is scant. According to Neilson, any given science textbook will have a couple of pages dedicated to Indigenous Knowledges — but much of the content on these pages is written by Western scientists from an anthropological perspective.

A 2010 study examining the presence of Indigenous Knowledges in a Canadian high school science textbook found that only 20 per cent of the chapters mentioned Indigenous Knowledges. 

Neilson, who is Mi’kmaq and a member of the Qalipu First Nation Band, divides his research program into two realms. One side of his research involves the life, death, and evolution of stars, and the physics that govern these processes. The other side centres on the development of curriculum modules that integrate Indigenous Knowledges into the astronomy classroom.

“These modules would take stories that are shared by Indigenous leaders or communities and integrate them into astronomy courses so that students can see Indigenous Knowledge in action and learn about the universe through these stories,” said Neilson. He points out that U of T is an ideal place to begin this integration because it is a public university on Indigenous territory.

Neilson said that we tend to stand on the shoulders of giants like Galileo and Einstein, while ignoring other peoples and other methods of crafting knowledge. “In some respect, that’s kind of a form of colonization.”

Dismissing the importance of other knowledge systems can limit our understanding of science and could even halt scientific progress. 

The author of the 2010 study also found problematic language, including the use of words like “traditional” to describe Indigenous lifestyles in textbooks, which implies a lack of authenticity and equivalence to Western science methodologies.

In a 2018 Nature article, two researchers made a case for triangulation in scientific research to produce robust insights into a research question. Triangulation involves the use of “multiple approaches to address one question” where “each approach has its own unrelated assumptions, strengths, and weaknesses.”   

One of the ways in which Indigenous Knowledges and Western science differ is the way in which phenomena are analyzed. 

At the core of Western science is the belief that everything in nature can be understood and explained if you break it down enough. According to Neilson, Indigenous Knowledges do not follow this axiom: they accept that there is some mystery to the world.

As such, implementing different knowledge systems, like Indigenous Knowledges, in astronomy and other fields of scientific research can probe questions from different angles. 

Furthermore, these two knowledge systems differ in what kinds of observations are accepted as truths. For example, the only observations accepted in Western science are the objective ones. “If I see a phenomenon in nature, and it’s happening independent of my observations… I should be able to go across the hall to my colleague and he should be able to see the exact same thing… In that respect, knowledge is independent of the person,” said Neilson.

Observations using Indigenous Knowledges methodology, on the other hand, can differ based on context. 

“Indigenous Knowledges tend to be more relational, like… how looking at the universe relates to me or my community… My knowledge, my truth, can be different from your truth, and be just as equivalent,” said Neilson.

Indigenous Knowledges are much more holistic and draw on truths and values from outside the sciences. An Indigenous story about a constellation can tell us not just about the stars, but also about the seasons, how they connect to the behaviour of animals, and the ethics and morality that are embedded in these topics. 

Incorporating Indigenous Knowledges into the classroom 

While the development and implementation of Indigenous teachings into current curricula has been slow, Neilson already weaves Indigenous astronomy into his lectures and says that the students are receptive. 

“I’ve found that students do very well with it and leave with a different appreciation of how astronomy and science work.”

Students have a role in the integration of Indigenous Knowledges into curricula too because “departments will react to what students want,” said Neilson. “If students ask for Indigenous Knowledges and Indigenous Learning in their courses, I think faculty will shift a lot faster.”  

Neilson explained that a crucial step in asserting the equivalence of Indigenous Knowledges with Western science is to step back and let Elders and Indigenous Knowledge Keepers tell us what we can do. “That’s kind of hard because scientists tend to feel like we’re the authorities [on] things — we have to let some of that go,” said Neilson.

Ultimately, Indigenous Knowledges allow us to see a different worldview than what is accessible through Western science — and acknowledging this alternative worldview is important. As Neilson noted, “Western people looked at the night sky, Indigenous people looked at the night sky, everyone views the night sky. So everyone has a perspective [that] we should be seeing in our classrooms.”

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