Engineers and scientists are vital to meeting Sustainable Development Goals but the ecological knowledge that Indigenous people hold when we care for the land are things that are central to the existence of life.
Some of the most intelligent people I know in my community are those that don’t hold degrees from institutions that were built to function as settler colonial entities; the extraction of bodies, the extraction of knowledge, the nonconsensual taking of land are rooted in these entities. People, like my grandmother and uncles hold thousands of years of traditional knowledge, but don’t hold degrees from these institutions. They know when the salmon will come in the Yukon-Kuskokwim River, they know that heavier snowfall in the winter will bring more berries in the spring. These are our ways of knowing and I’m thankful for their stories because they brought me here.
Your lived experiences, the way you subsist from the land and care for your community is science.
In my experience in higher education, I found that a lot of what is taught to me in my engineering courses often use language that is inaccessible to those in my community yet those same principles and theories are things we follow when we care for the land and our loved ones. The knowledge I learn from my uncles, aunts and elders are not underrepresented in this field but are systemically excluded and invalidated because of the origins of western science and the expectation that nonnative people hold for myself and those in my community.
Globally we’re seeing intense wildfires, rising sea level, coastal erosion, dying vegetation and rising temperatures. These are drastic environmental changes.
Indigenous peoples have been living in these dystopic futures and conditions since the beginning of colonialism. (Whyte, Anthropocene) Yet people continue to frame Indigenous communities as people who have just been hit by the effects of climate change. We have always known about the rotting of our lands, of our waters, of our air. But we are not listened too, not regarded. I often think about what our world would look like if our stories and our ways of knowing were regarded as serious and thought-provoking frameworks in the field of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics)? Would our reality be different? Our lived experiences as Indigenous peoples can shape a better future for the earth but also for the entire field of STEM.
The Extractive Nature of Research and its roots in Settler-Colonialism
I am an undergraduate student studying Civil Engineering and Anthropology at Columbia University and do research on the intersections of plant ecology, civil infrastructure, plant ecology, and cultural resilience. My existence in the field I study in is a disruption of western academia because I was never intended to be here, yet here I am. I love the work I do and am grateful for where I’m at.
However, people also need to understand the extractive nature of research that most scientists follow, unintentional or not. Entering a community, they hold no ties to, extracting knowledge non consensually and then presenting it in highly specialized spaces that are inaccessible to attain degrees, compensation, title, and prestige. This shouldn’t be the standard.
Ecological scientists do work with the intention to create a better future for people but as an Indigenous woman who does ecological work, I do this work for the survival of my people because we have been living in these “dystopic” conditions due to settler colonialism.
On Navigating Higher Academia as a Native woman in STEM
I often describe my experience in STEM as a violent endeavor, being underestimated, having my place and competence questioned in spaces I thought I would be regarded with respect. But then I meet professors and mentors and students that remind me that I am capable and I want to remind Native woman who do work in STEM that I see you and am proud of you. Your words and your work are necessary.
Thank you especially to Dr. Kevin Griffin and Dr. Paige West at Columbia University. I would not be doing the work I do today without your guidance and brilliance.
And thank you to Mr. Abel who was one of the first educators who believed in me.
I found that despite these barriers, there were always people who believed in me, saw me and validated my experiences and scholarship and I am thankful for these people because I would not be where I am without them.
My story in Education
When I was 16, I conducted research. I found that American Indian and Alaska Native students have the lowest graduation rates and highest dropout percentages in the US. The graduation rates of Indigenous students are among the lowest in Alaska, despite the state having the highest percentage of Indigenous K-12 students. In my district, Alaska Native and American Indian students have a graduation rate of 62.88 per cent and the highest rate of dropping out compared to any other demographic.
When Native students don't see themselves in the curriculum that they learn, on land that was once theirs, they’re not going to be as motivated to graduate high school. Why would you want to graduate from an institution that continues to contribute to the erasure of your people? If Alaska Native and American Indian students felt their required classes were culturally relevant and inclusive of the Indigenous perspective, we would be more engaged with our education. This is what I found in my research. We shouldn’t have to study in an environment that fails to acknowledge the atrocities Indigenous people have faced. Western education dehumanizes the narrative of Indigenous people and doesn’t acknowledge the resilience and diversity of Native culture. We need to understand the history of those that came before to reconcile what happened in the past and what continues to happen to Indigenous peoples.
With the help of Dr Maria Shaa Williams, Director of the Alaska Studies Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and Dr Richard Manning, professor at the University of Canterbury, I developed an accurate and inclusive history sub-curriculum of Indigenous peoples that highlights the atrocities faced by my ancestors and focuses on an Indigenous perspective through readings, videos and movies. I incorporated Alaska Native guest speakers to talk about specific events, including the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and the Boarding School Era.
My work in education and science are the same. I often think about what sovereignty would look like in both fields. The use of STEM as a mechanism to validate the existing ecological knowledge of Indigenous communities is sovereignty. To give back the words to youth, the words that we already know and validate their ways of knowing are sovereignty.
I often think about what our world would be like if our ways of knowing weren’t systemically invalidated and excluded in STEM and education. I am proud of who I am and where I come from. I know now what sovereignty could look like in these fields.
I thank my mother, Elizabeth Lozano, and her family. They are the ones who gave me the words and courage to speak of our story of survival and brilliance.
Thank you so much for reading my words.
The International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples is commemorated annually on 9 August to raise awareness about the rights of Indigenous Peoples globally. This year’s theme, The Role of Indigenous Women in the Preservation and Transmission of Traditional Knowledge, is an opportunity to acknowledge and reflect on the different ways education systems impact the rights of Indigenous Peoples, particularly women and girls. On this occasion, Education International is launching a blog series featuring the voices and perspectives of Indigenous Peoples and their allies from across the world. The series explores the ways Indigenous education experts, activists, researchers, and teachers, are working to ensure quality education that centres Indigenous knowledge systems.
If you would like to contribute a blog to this series, please contact Lainie.Keper[at]ei-ie.org.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.