Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Another Frame of Mind: Through New Center, SUNY Professor Leads Effort to Recognize, Retain Indigenous Knowledge

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Another Frame of Mind: Through New Center, SUNY Professor Leads Effort to Recognize, Retain Indigenous Knowledge

Article excerpt

The SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry announced the creation this year of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, the first of its kind in the Northeast. According to its mission statement, the center will create programs that draw on indigenous and scientific knowledge to support the goals of environmental sustainability. The establishment of the center was announced last October at a teach-in at the college entitled, "Finding Common Ground: Indigenous and Western Approaches to Healing Our Land and Waters." The event was co-sponsored by the Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force and other community organizations.

The teach-in, according to Dr. Robin W. Kimmerer, director of the center, was a holistic effort to educate the general community about indigenous land rights issues, land stewardship and the environment. The Haudenosaunee have a long history of community involvement and activism relating to preserving the environmental health of the region. Often referred to as Iroquois by English speakers, the Haudenosaunee Nations include the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca and Tuscarora tribes. The creation of the center was an evolutionary process spurred on by community and university interest, says Kimmerer, a professor of environmental and forest biology. The motivation was also partly personal.

Kimmerer's family story is far from unique in Indian country. She says her grandfather, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, seldom spoke of his days at the Carlisle Indian school in Pennsylvania. Open from 1879 to 1918, the school was part of a government program in which American Indian youth were brought from their ancestral homes and "transformed" into "civilized" Americans. The Indian schools, run with military precision, stressed abandonment of traditional tribal ways and encouraged students to embrace Western knowledge and values.

"So much was taken from us," Kimmerer says, adding that over time she began to wonder if there might be a way to give some of it back.

Using an approach called Traditional Ecological Knowledge, or TEK, which Kimmerer describes as a "way of knowing" the center is working to bring an American Indian mindset into the scientific conversation. She says TEK is deeply empirical and is based on long-term observation. But because it incorporates spiritual and cultural elements, TEK has often been dismissed by Western scientists. But the work of established scholars is beginning to lend credibility to the approach.

Kimmerer says TEK had an early intuitive influence on her life. …

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