Indigenous Science Network Bulletin

October 2000

Editor: Michael Michie

The lead article in this bulletin comes from Glen Aikenhead. Glen has been working with some Indigenous people from Canada on the Cross-Cultural Science and Technology Units (CCSTU) which have now been completed. They can be found at the website, This is an extract from the teacher's guide. Ed.

Treating Aboriginal Knowledge with Respect

 From: Teacher Guide to Rekindling Traditions

Glen Aikenhead, College of Education, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, S7N 0W0 Canada

Understandably it is quite easy, at first, to misunderstand culturally embedded meanings when we do not fully share the other person's culture. Culturally sensitive instruction consciously acknowledges the potential for misunderstandings. Wise science teachers are vigilant, flexible, and open-minded. Showing respect for Aboriginal knowledge was discussed at several meetings held by the Rekindling Traditions R&D team. We formulated nine principles to guide our work when we incorporated Aboriginal knowledge into our units. Elder Henry Sanderson found them to be satisfactory. They are repeated here.

 1. Let us learn from the story of the people in the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) who attempted to translate Project Wild into a First Nations context. The people quickly realized that the worldview of Western science was hidden within Project Wild. (This concealed worldview is like a Trojan Horse - when an ancient Greek army fought the city state of Troy by hiding Greek soldiers in a huge wooden horse, and then leaving the horse outside the gates of Troy where the curious Troy people brought it into their fortification and were subsequently overtaken by the hidden soldiers.) The worldview of Western science implicit in Project Wild was at odds with a worldview of First Nations science. The FSIN people felt that the worldview of Western science was going to distort the meaning of nature for First Nations children. As a consequence, a new parallel project was developed, Practising the Law of Circular Interaction. Aboriginal knowledge must be taught within an Aboriginal context or framework. The act of "translating" Western science into an Aboriginal context (or visa versa) can unintentionally force a Western worldview onto Aboriginal students. Thus, in spite of our best intentions, we can inadvertently engage in assimilation, rather than empowering students to walk in two worlds. Each of our units should establish an Aboriginal framework of a community, to which Western scientific knowledge can relate without distorting that Aboriginal worldview. Beware of Western Trojan Horses.

 2. Always acknowledge diversity within a First Nation or Métis group and among Nations or groups. This can be done, for instance, by associating a group's name with the knowledge that is described, or by recognizing that others may have a different understanding. Avoid representing Aboriginal peoples as all the same (homogeneous).

 3. Let the reader know about the origin of any particular knowledge, and about the permission we have to describe that knowledge. All Aboriginal knowledge found in our units should have gone through a partnership process of involving Aboriginal peoples. Aboriginal knowledge found in a unit should contribute to the empowerment of Aboriginal peoples. One way to do this is to make the reader aware of how the representation of the Aboriginal knowledge (found in the text) was obtained and rechecked later by those whom the knowledge represents. This will remind the reader that stories and information that come from Aboriginal peoples belong to that community unless explicit permission is granted to repeat the story or information in one of our units. Avoid appropriating Aboriginal knowledge to suit the purposes of the author. The purposes of the Aboriginal community must be served.

 4. Clarify what "traditional" means whenever the word is used. Recognize that culture changes. It is not static. What is traditional knowledge today in a community may not necessarily have been traditional knowledge in the days before contact with Europeans. People in a community must decide what is traditional for them, not an outsider. It may help if we use phrases such as "ways of living three hundred years ago" or "pre-contact technology" instead of "traditional ways of living" or "traditional technology" (respectively). Avoid prescribing what is authentic to a group of people. The people themselves must decide what is authentic.

 5. Remember that gaining Aboriginal knowledge is a journey towards wisdom. This process of learning is described by the phrase "coming to knowing." Avoid thinking of Aboriginal knowledge as something to be accumulated and possessed (like money in the bank - a Western European view of knowledge), but instead, as a process of coming to knowing.

 6. Ensure that Aboriginal knowledge is acknowledged as being inter-connected with many areas or fields of thought, to remind the reader that Aboriginal knowledge fits into a "wholistic" point of view. Avoid being bound to a narrow context in which the knowledge is described.

 7. Think of the content of each unit as being taught to your community's grandchildren. Chances are very high that, as future parents, our students will pass on to their children (the grandchildren of the community) important ideas they learn from our units. Our vision should be multi-generational. Avoid the short-term perspective on what we write.

 8. Incorporate Aboriginal language into the unit's text (with the appropriate English word in brackets) and continue to use the authentic word or phrase. Avoid tokenism which uses Aboriginal terms just for "window dressing."

 9. Pay attention to the verb tense when we write about Aboriginal knowledge. The present tense indicates that the practices and knowledge are useful to some people today in contemporary society. On the other hand, the past tense gives the impression (connotation) that the practices and knowledge have been superseded by "modern" scientific or Western views. Avoid dismissing powerful ideas as being applicable only in the past.

 These principles, for instance, guided us through a potential conflict related to spirituality. It is challenging, yet crucial, not to distort local knowledge by making it conform to a Western worldview endemic to school culture. Inadvertent assimilation will take place in a science classroom if the local knowledge is taken out of its cultural context. Disrespect can occur, for instance, if the teacher ignores the unifying spirituality that pervades Aboriginal science (Ermine, 1995). Spirituality, whether pre-contact Traditional, Roman Catholic, Anglican, or Fundamentalist Christian, has force for most Aboriginal students even though it is purposefully absent from science classrooms where an adherence to a Cartesian duality is the cultural convention. It is not the case that the community's spirituality is integrated into Western science in our units, but it is the case that the community's spirituality is given voice in the context of Aboriginal knowledge in order to ensure the authenticity of that knowledge. Although content from both cultures is studied for the purpose of understanding it, students are not expected to believe (to personally adopt) that content. The culture-brokering teacher engaged in cross-cultural (bi-cultural) instruction simply identifies spirituality in Aboriginal knowledge and identifies its absence in Western science concepts.

Recent papers

John Morieson forwarded copies of two papers he presented at the recent Australian Rock Art Research Association conference held in Alice Springs in July. They are

 Astronomy and continuity: The Boorong example

It is possible to make deductions about a disappeared Aboriginal group from north-west Victoria by interpreting their use of celestial phenomena as recorded halfway through the nineteenth century. The night sky of the Boorong was like a giant blackboard filled with potent images representing a range of ecological knowledge and moral suasion. Inferences are made of how this multi-functional mnemonic device supported the oral culture in which the family played a key function. (Abstract)

 Rock art and Indigenous astronomies

In Victoria, a number of Aboriginal legacies executed in stone indicate cardinal directions. To what extent these formations were deliberately engineered is not known. At two sites, the setting sun provides the clue to the way in which an east-west line of symmetry was established; at stone arrangements known as Wurdi Youang in Wathauraung country, and at an abraded pond at Kooyoora in Dja dja wrung country. (Abstract)

Past National Association for Research in Science Teaching conferences

 There are a number of interesting papers available through conference publications on the NARST website. These include

 Nancy Allen (1997). Indigenous models for science-and -culture curriculum development.

Bill Cobern (1998). Defining "science" in a multicultural world: implications for science education

 Jill Slay (1999). The nature of nature: Chinese culture and science education.

 Deborah Tippins and Sharon Nichols (1999). Cultural myths in the making: The ambiguities of science for all.

Sharing our pathways

The latest issue of Sharing our pathways (vol. 5, issue 4) is now available on the Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative website ( One article worth reading is Paul Ongtooguk's Aspects of traditional Inupiat education.

5th Vincent Lingiari Lecture - Malcolm Frazer

Malcolm Frazer, prime minister of Australia from 1976 until 1982, presented the 5th Vincent Lingiari address at the Northern Territory University in August. Entitled The past we need to understand, he criticised the present Australian government for its policy regarding Indigenous Australians, particularly in areas such as reconsiliation, the "stolen generation" and mandatory sentencing in the Northern Territory and Western Australia.

New book - Why warriors lay down and die

 Richard Trudgen. (2000). Why warriors lie down and die. Darwin, NT: Aboriginal Resource and Development Services Inc. (AU$29.95)

 This book looks at some of the reasons why the health of one group of Indigenous Australians, the Yolgnu of Eastern Arnhemland (to the east of Darwin) is breaking down and causing premature deaths. In some ways, Trudgen is ghost-writing the book for the people. He sees that problems of communication, particularly the lack of language speakers in the dominant culture, is the basic problem. This has lead to a lack of understanding of their cultural background by westerners, creating systems and organisations which conflict with Yolgnu law. High levels of stress, accompanied by the takeover of Indigenous jobs by Balanda (white people) on communities, is seen as causing many of the health problems. More information is available from the ARDS website. (Ed)

Book review - Culture counts: Changing power relations in education

Russell Bishop and Ted Glynn. (1999). Culture counts: Changing power relations in education. Palmerston North, NZ: Dunmore Press.

This book continues a trend in Maori education research looking beyond the Western research paradigms to those appropriate to the culture the indigenous peoples of Aotearoa New Zealand, and which is instructive to researchers working with other indigenous peoples. Both authors are highly placed academics in New Zealand universities and experienced researchers with Maori people. Bishop is himself of Maori and Celtic origins.

In Aotearoa the Treaty of Waitangi gives a legal standing to the relationship between the colonised and coloniser which is lacking in many other postcolonial societies, particularly in Australia. Although the treaty may be considered to have failed Maori people in the past, its presence is now being used to promote self-determination and power-sharing in a more articulate Maori society. The treaty is fundamental to the purpose of this book but this doesn't compromise the book's applicability elsewhere.

The book is organised into five chapters. The first takes a historical perspective on the development of the pattern of dominance and subordination of Maori, even with the presence of the Treaty of Waitangi, its impacts on New Zealand society in general and on Maori in particular. A model for evaluating power relationships is devised using five issues: initiation, benefits, representation, legitimation and accountability. This becomes a template used in further chapters. The second chapter looks at recent Maori educational initiatives using the model of power-sharing relationships, as well as developing community-controlled education facilities.

The third chapter relates to power and control relationships in educational research with Maori, and in a wider context Indigenous, peoples. It questions who gets the value from the research, the researched or the researcher, and looks to ways in which the imbalance can be rectified. It suggests moving towards structured "interviews as conversation" as a research methodology with some examples. The template is used again to allow a researcher to evaluate the purpose of their research, which they would also need to place in the context of those they are researching.

The last two chapters deal with power relationships in classrooms, the first with dealing with unequal relationships and the second with new approaches. These chapters should not be seen as separate from the rest of the book and the last chapter is synthesised from the experiences throughout it.

I found the book very engaging and easy to follow. The template with its five fields should be useful to researchers working in similar situations, as a way of orienting their research. The lack of a glossary of Maori words makes it difficult for an outsider to remember their meanings while working through the text. Many of the references are from New Zealand but I would have liked to see, for instance, how their research methodologies relate to some western ones, such as Guba and Lincoln's hermenuitic cycle.

Michael Michie

(The book is available from Russell's previous book, Collaborative research stories:  Whakawhanaungatanga, also published by Dunmore Press in 1996, is apparently out of print.)

Last updated: 1 October 2000

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