Native Versus European American Perspectives

Medin and his colleagues at Northwestern have been involved in a collaborative research partnership with the American Indian Center of Chicago and the Menominee Nation of Wisconsin. Four thousand to five thousand Menominee, who are the oldest continuous residents of Wisconsin and are well known for their sustainable forestry practices, live on tribal lands in and around three small communities. Interviews with Menominee and European American parents and grandparents revealed large differences in distancing discourse. When European American parents and grandparents were asked about the five things they would like their children or grandchildren to learn or know about the biological world, they talked about nature as an externality. They wanted their children to respect nature and know they have a responsibility to take care of it. Native American parents and grandparents were much more likely to say that they wanted their children to understand that they are a part of nature.

Another example of distancing discourse comes from depictions of ecosystems in publications by westerners. Virtually none include humans as part of the representation, suggesting that westerners generally think of themselves as outside of ecosystems.

Another demonstration of differing perspectives comes from an analysis of children’s books written by Native American and European American authors. The illustrations by Native Americans tend to have closer, more personal, and more wide-angle representations. As a result, they provide more alternative perspectives. The books by European American authors were more likely to have straight-ahead perspectives at eye level. The Native American books were more likely to provide the perspective of an actor in the scene by using an over-the-shoulder or embodied representation.

The texts of the books also differed. Native American–authored books were more likely to mention seasonal cycles, native animals, and objects that, in a western perspective, would be part of the background.

Conceptions of Nature

These results parallel those from cognitive experiments on conceptions of nature. For example, when Native American and European American adults in rural Wisconsin were asked to describe the last time they went fishing, the median point at which European Americans used the word “fish” was the 27th word, whereas the median for the Native American Menominees was the 83rd word. The Native Americans were much more likely to supply context and background information—so much so that some never mentioned fish at all.

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