everyday SCIENCE Merging Native Culture and Language with Science
During one of their after-school field trips, youth participating in the Blackfeet Native Science Field Center went out to gather willow. Before they began, the group huddled in a circle, recited a prayer in their language, and held hands while making an offering of tobacco. Helen Augare, director of the center, explained that the youth are learning that this is the respectful way to proceed before picking plants. By practicing this tradition, students learn that they have a reciprocal relationship with Mother Earth and that they should take only what they need.
The participants then started their hike through knee-deep snow and thick brush to find and gather willow for their projects. They planned to travel back to their meeting place on the campus of Blackfeet Community College and use the willow to learn the process of constructing backrests and snow-shoes—technologies that their ancestors engineered generations before them.
Activities such as this one are part of the Native Science Field Centers, whose overarching goal is to merge Western science concepts with traditional ecological knowledge of tribal communities. The program, launched in 2006, is held year-round, with four 6-week sessions that run in concert with the seasons. During the school year, participants meet three times a week, and during the summer they come every day. The Blackfeet site is designed to provide science, technology, engineering, and mathematics learning opportunities for youth and adults by introducing them to culturally significant sites, birds, plants, and animals. Activities incorporate their tribal language and offer learning enrichment through presentations by tribal elders and professionals.
The program is a community-wide effort. An advisory board ensures that program developers are implementing traditional knowledge in an appropriate way and provides guidance and support in developing cultural curriculum materials and finding resources. Parents, teachers, and tribal elders contribute by donating materials for youth projects, sharing their knowledge, and volunteering their time during activities.
Buy-in for recruiting and retention is achieved during the program’s orientation session for parents, who are generally amazed at how much their children are learning. “We’re trying to do more than just teach biology and ecology, and even more than just teach culture or history,” Augare explains. “We’re trying to show kids the spiritual element—how to take that in and make it a part of their worldview.”