Theorizing an Alliance Between Western Science and Indigenous Knowledges

Posted by on Aug 16, 2017
Theorizing an Alliance Between Western Science and Indigenous Knowledges

**This piece is a shorter version of Amy Kuritzky’s essay, which was awarded an Honorable Mention for the 2017 Greene Prize for Environmental Writing.**

For such an inhumane yet ongoing situation, indigenous environmental injustice remains highly overlooked. Oftentimes in the United States, when we talk about Native Americans, we tend to romanticize their culture and lifestyle but in such a way which deems them a relic of the past. In reality, there are 567 existent tribes and each represents a self-determining, sovereign nation. These tribes face severe structural injustices, many of which are environmental in origin. Given the U.S. history of disregarding treaty rights and exploiting the political and economic vulnerability of Native American nations, a disproportionate number of environmental hazards or locally unwanted land uses (LULUs) – industrial facilities, active and abandoned mines, pipelines, and toxic waste sites, to name a few – are located on or adjacent to tribal lands. Some corporations will target Native American communities for harmful environmental development, exploiting their lack of an equitable political and legal voice which has been dampened from years spent under the brunt of colonialism. However, it is a widespread lack of awareness and apathy in the American public which allows these injustices to persist, injustices we must recognize as indicative of an ongoing colonial relationship.

In considering how to generate awareness, how to catalyze a societal outcry against this environmental injustice, scientific data comes to my mind. Scientific research provides a means to measure, and then expose, how the environmental conditions faced by Native Americans disproportionately endanger their wellbeing and livelihoods. And I am certainly not alone in my conviction that science can serve as a political tool for advancing environmental justice.

Stacy Alaimo, a feminist science studies scholar, provides a theoretical framing for science activism through her concept of “trans-corporeality,” which describes the movement of matter across bodies and their external surroundings, asserting that “the substance of the human is ultimately inseparable from ‘the environment’” (2). Trans-corporeality proves valuable for thinking about environmental justice because it accounts for how the environment shapes human bodies through invisible, or often undetectable, material flows. Promoting environmental justice necessitates an understanding that the physical world impacts people inequitably.

Accordingly, trans-corporeality delineates how science can take an activist role in advancing environmental justice because we “require scientific knowledge in order to navigate through the mainly invisible dangers that surround us” (22). In uncovering these dangers, scientific research arms environmental justice movements with empirical data which can operate as a political tool.

However, when placed in conversation with indigenous worldviews, the new materialist theory of trans-corporeality seems to reach a limit. In working to deepen my understanding of indigenous environmental justice, I was struck by a certain commonality across all the indigenous speakers and writers I had exposure to: the emphasis on spirituality. Everything has a spirit – us, nonhuman animals, trees, flowers, but also rocks, soil, air – and it is this ubiquitous spirit which interconnects us all to each other and the surrounding world. Matter and spirit cannot be separated. Considering indigenous spirituality from my vantage point as a scientifically-minded student with (unfortunately) ingrained assumptions of “rationality” got me thinking. Perhaps the stark difference in worldview between indigenous knowledges, which regard matter and spirit as inseparable, and Western science, which dismisses spirit as irrational, hinders the potential of science to advance indigenous environmental justice.

In solely “[e]mphasizing the material interconnections of human corporeality with the more-than-human world,” trans-corporeality seems unequipped to engage an indigenous worldview which does not separate matter from spirit (Alaimo 4). I am interested in how trans-corporeality provides a framework for Western science to ally with environmental justice movements. However, the way trans-corporeality focuses on matter and Western science dismisses spirituality may problematize the utility of science activism when engaging issues of indigenous environmental justice. Recognizing spirituality as a point of contention between indigenous and Western scientific worldviews prompts the question: in order for science to play a role in advancing indigenous environmental justice, how can science-activists and indigenous communities form a respectful and productive alliance?

To address this question, I draw on indigenous scholar Jeannette Armstrong’s work with the Okanagan term naw’qinwixw. Armstrong characterizes naw’qinwixw as “a decision making tool, or a dialogue tool, or it’s a tool that can be used for conflict resolution” (8). While Armstrong discusses naw’qinwixw in the context of decision-making within an indigenous community, I believe it proves valuable when applied to the tension between Western science and indigenous knowledge. Armstrong explains naw’qinwixw with an image of water slowly permeating through cotton. This, she asserts, is a metaphor for how to deliver knowledge – “a slow infusion” such that “it becomes integrated into the whole person” (8). Herein lies a lesson for science activists: even if scientific research is well-intended to benefit an indigenous community, researchers still cannot enter abruptly and superimpose Western ideas of knowing. Armstrong continues, “knowledge must be brought in in a way which takes into consideration the feelings of a person, the level of knowledge or information or facts a person might have, the background that the person might have been exposed to” (8). Applying this idea to science activism stresses that when bringing in Western notions of science to indigenous communities, scientists must account for differences in worldviews, understandings of matter, and/or spiritual backgrounds.

Armstrong stresses the importance of accounting for such differences because “you have to respect diversity…to seek the most diverse view is what naw’qinwixw asks for” (8-9). Considering this respect for diversity in the context of Western and indigenous relations advocates for regarding Western science and indigenous knowledges as two separate, legitimate forms of knowing. It is important to not only identify the differences between the two belief systems, but to embrace their differences – rather than trying to reconcile them. Attempts at reconciliation contradict naw’qinwixw by disrespecting diversity and putting indigenous knowledge at risk of losing its autonomy.

In believing it is imperative here to step beyond just theorizing a framework for science activism, I turn now to a case study in which scientific researchers engage respectfully and productively with an indigenous community. Staying attuned to the particular issue of spirituality, I focus on how the research alliance here contends with differences in worldview.

In chapter one of her book, All Our Relations, Winona LaDuke gives an account of PCB contamination on the Akwesasne reservation. Descriptions of how, through industrial pollution, “GM has tainted the land, water, and ultimately the bodies of the Mohawk people, their babies included,” illustrate Alaimo’s concept of trans-corporeality. Human bodies are permeable to their surrounding environments and the material flux between, specifically of PCB, poses severe health risks. However, for the Akwesasne people, PCB contamination is not just an issue of physical harm but of spiritual disturbance. Katsi Cook, a Mohawk midwife and activist, focuses on the accumulation of chemicals in female bodies, and specifically breast milk, saying “that through our own break milk, our sacred natural link to our babies, they stand the chance of getting concentrated doses” (19). Furthermore, “everything the mother feels, eats, and sees affects the baby. That is part of the Mohawk belief system” (22). From a Mohawk worldview, contamination does not just endanger human health; it endangers the spiritual ties between kin. Similarly, for the Mohawk people, healing the environment is not just a question of physical restoration. Katsi explains how people bless and pray to the natural world. “That process of remembering and restoring the relationship between people and the earth is a crucial part of healing the community from the violations of the industry in their way of life” (20). Action intended to benefit the Mohawk community must consider “everything in a bigger picture,” a web of spirituality which weaves together human and environmental well-being in non-material ways (20). This case of PCB contamination on the Akwesasne reservation exemplifies how, when addressing indigenous environmental justice, scientific intervention which fails to account for spirituality neither acknowledges the scope of the problem nor works towards a comprehensive solution.

However, a trans-corporeal understanding of this Akwesasne case is still invaluable for conceptualizing science as a political tool. Scientific research and findings on the health implications of PCB equip the indigenous community to take a stance against environmental injustice. In 2005, a research team from the University at Albany – SUNY took a community-based participatory research (CBPR) approach in an attempt to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the health risks associated with PCB contamination. CBPR involves a research partnership between scientists and a community, in this case the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation. The abstract of a paper describing the project outlines how, as a partnership with community participation, the project acknowledges the impact of research on the community and uses strategies to ensure equality between partners (Schell et al. 1826). The authors of the paper acknowledge that “[o]ften, research at Akwesasne progressed with research agendas dictated by researchers…and there was no clear presentation of any results or findings by scientists to the community” (1828). In response to how previous research lacked activist implications and did not attempt to serve community needs, the authors proclaim “the first step in [their] partnership was recognizing the mutual and individual benefits of research and consciously apportioning group efforts towards achieving each partner’s goals” (1829). Such delineation of the interests and values at stake suggests that the CBPR approach, at least in this case with the Akwesasne nation, criticizes the dispassionate practices of traditional Western science by adopting a method which facilitates direct community benefit.

A material understanding of contamination, as it manifests in scientific facts and figures, is critical for advancing environmental justice broadly-speaking. However, as clear from the LaDuke text discussed above, advancing indigenous environmental justice also requires a spiritual understanding. There are many instances throughout the paper, a discussion of the CBPR project by its participating parties, which demonstrate that the scientists recognized and embraced their indigenous partners’ worldview. The researchers acknowledge the scope of the problem as more-than-material by explaining that because a “fundamental component of Mohawk identity is that the ties linking individuals, families, and groups to specific locations have symbolic and sacred meaning…being asked to avoid activities that reaffirm Mohawk identity is not a solution to this problem but a bigger problem in and of itself” (Schell et al. 2005). In order to engage with the non-material implications of environmental injustice, the research project “focuse[d] on cultural inputs into health disparities” and likely incorporated an understanding of the indigenous worldview in “produc[ing] what the community calls a ‘good research agreement’” (1828). The CBPR approach demonstrates naw’qinwixw by embracing the diversity of viewpoints, between university scientists and indigenous community members, such that the research process and results will provide mutual benefit of all parties involved.

Through this case study, I hope to exemplify how Western scientists and indigenous communities can engage in a respectful and productive research partnership while working to advance indigenous environmental justice. Scientific data can serve as a political tool for exposing the structural injustice many tribes face, including their disproportionate proximity to environmental hazards. However, when scientific data is collected in such a way which disregards tribal worldviews and dismisses the spiritual component of their endangered well-being, such studies certainly do not advance justice. On the contrary, dismissing indigenous systems of knowledge in favor of perpetuating Western assumptions only serves to further marginalize Native American tribes. Instead, alliances between Western scientists and indigenous communities must uphold naw’qinwixw and value both Western scientific practices and indigenous knowledge systems as legitimate in their own right, yet able to coexist. It is only through this respectful partnership that scientific data can be configured as a means for promoting indigenous environmental justice. And in turn, such potent scientific results can combat the lack of awareness and apathy in the American public through which indigenous colonialism, now in the form of environmental injustice, has been able to persist.