Can Science Be Anti-Colonial?
Featured Art by Ava Kremling
The Legacies of Science and Colonialism, Indigenous Knowledges, and a New Way Forward
What if we learned about nature by forming relationships with all different parts of our world, and cared for them as if they were kin? For millions of Indigenous people around the Planet, this is their way of life, but this way of understanding the world differs drastically from what some consider the only way of seeking legitimate knowledge: science.
Many traditional knowledges are met with disrespect by the mainstream when they don’t meet the standards of academic science, but I argue we should change that. After all, is what you know about yourself, your friends, and family, substantiated by peer-review, hypothesis testing, or reproducibility? Does that make you any less of an authority on yourself and those around you?
It is possible to know oneself in many ways—why not the world?
Scientists are trained to think in very specific ways, to focus on the individual by disconnecting our subject from the complex factors that affect it. We do this in an effort to make it easier to understand our discoveries and avoid bias. This method has brought us a wealth of knowledge about our world: helping to cure and prevent disease, develop technologies that connect us in meaningful ways, and identify and help to solve our problems. But, too often, it is seen as the only or best way of knowing. I argue that is not the case.
Science as an institution prides itself on its objectivity, neutrality, and secularity, but this ignores the fact that science cannot divorce itself from the politics of our world. The elevated position in society that science holds, as a way of thinking, may not be attributed solely to its merits. It was also made possible by white supremacist and colonial suppression of traditional knowledges held globally by Indigenous peoples.
Science can serve colonialism—and has on many occasions. But science can and should be anti-colonial.
SCIENCE AND COLONIALISM
The Western world as we know it was made possible by a ruthless genocide of Indigenous peoples, and science and academia were not innocent bystanders. As States murdered, dispossessed, or “re-educated” Indigenous peoples, they were bolstered by their perception that their possession of scientific knowledge demonstrated the superiority of Western civilization.1 This perception greatly undervalued Indigenous knowledge, which is different, but far from unscientific.2
Just as science has aided in colonization, science, in turn, has benefited from colonialism.
The mountain Mauna Kea holds significant spiritual value for Indigenous Hawaiians, but since the 1970s, scientists have used the mountain as home for now 13 telescopes they use to study the cosmos. Indigenous activists oppose the building of yet another one, the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). The telescopes already there were only made possible by the seizure of Indigenous Hawaiian land by the U.S. government in 1898. Scientists in favor of building the TMT at Mauna Kea have benefited from colonialism and want to continue to do so.3
The UC system isn’t innocent either. With Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Morrill Act in 1862, the U.S. government handed out thousands of acres of seized tribal land as land grants to universities across the entire country. That land could have been used for development in some cases, but was often sold to private buyers for the money. The University of California alone was granted over $13 million in today’s dollars from 2,335 parcels of illegally seized Indigenous land.4
Indigenous protesters against the TMT have been painted as anti-science, but they indict this as a misportrayal.3 For hundreds of years, Indigenous people and the knowledge they hold has been misunderstood and misrepresented by Western scholars. Today, more and more communities are trying to rewrite the narrative in their own words, and take back what was wrongfully stolen.
In California’s central coast, the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band are among those leading this charge. They are a community descended from the Indigenous peoples of California’s central coast, whom the Spanish rounded up and enslaved at Mission Santa Cruz and Mission San Bautista from 1797 to 1833. Though they originated from different Indigenous communities from around the area, they became united by their common experiences at the Missions and their shared cultural practices, to become the Amah Mutsun. When released from the Missions, their rights to land were never restored, and they faced harsh labor regimes, disease, and violence at the hands of the Mexican government, settlers, and eventually the Californian and Federal government. In spite of this relentless persecution and the loss of cultural knowledge that resulted, the Amah Mutsun maintained their sense of cultural identity and formed a government in 1991. The Amah Mutsun Tribal Band is not yet one of the 65 federally recognized tribes and still holds no lands, but strives today to fulfill their responsibility to the Creator in their stewardship of Central Californian lands.⁵
Things are beginning to change, but colonial attitudes towards Indigenous people run deep. Indigenous people still feel greatly disrespected by the scientific community. “They have no idea who we are. They don’t care,” says Valentin Lopez, who has been Chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band since 2003. “The textbook teaches them that we’re hunters and gatherers, we’re just cave people that go along randomly and hope we get lucky and find a rabbit somewhere….They did not recognize that we have worked to identify nearly 100 different food plants that are very important to our diet, and that we took care of those resources, we managed them, and we stewarded them.”
Increasingly, people are starting to realize the immense value of Indigenous Knowledge, especially when it comes to our environment.
WHAT IS INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGE?
Indigenous knowledge can be defined in many ways.
Rick Flores, who stewards the Amah Mutsun Relearning Program at the UCSC Arboretum, refers to the definition Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) of applied ecologist Fikret Berkes: “a cumulative body of knowledge, practice, and belief, evolving by adaptive processes, and handed down through generations by cultural transmission, about the relationship of living beings, including humans, with one another and with their environment.”6 This definition boils down the concept to its key components and speaks the language of scientists. While science is often focused on isolating phenomena, TEK is about having and understanding sets of relationships.
Alexii Sigona is a PhD student at Berkeley studying how the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, his tribe, carries out their stewardship obligations to the Creator. He defines Indigenous knowledge as “a framework that is derived from being tied to a place and having specific cultural values.” “It’s just the ways of knowing that come about from an Indigenous worldview,” he says. “It’s distinct, often, from other forms of knowledge, and it’s built over generations.”
Chairman Lopez personally describes Amah Mutsun Indigenous knowledge as “the knowledge of our ancestors that they used to manage cultural resources. It was the knowledge of the ceremonies,…our gathering locations, our hunting locations, our places of power, our places for renewal ceremony, coming of age, rites of passage…it’s also knowledge of how…Creator gave us the responsibility to take care of Mother Earth and all living things.”
Lopez speaks of many ways in which the Amah Mutsun used their knowledge to steward the land. For instance, they cared that the geese had ample food when they migrated through the area, and they did what they could to help that. Often this meant very intentional management of the ecosystem. “All of our plants had a responsibility to take care of a full community,” says Lopez, “And that full community included the fungi, the insects, the birds, the four-legged, and people. And because of that they had to be very hardy…Our plants grew a lot slower than those European grasses, but at the same time, our plants developed much deeper roots…But that makes our Native plants very resistant to fire, to flood, to drought…It made them very resistant to disease.” Lopez cites the dissemination of Native grape rootstock to wineries across the globe due to its disease resistance. A 1999 New York Times article corroborates this story. A microscopic insect called phylloxera nearly wiped out European and Californian vineyards in the late 1800s, but Indigenous American vines were resistant to it. By grafting European and Californian vines onto the roots of these Native grapes, the wine industry evaded catastrophe.⁷
Science vs. Indigenous Knowledge
Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) is different from academic conceptions of science. While science is heavily grounded in written records, TEK is transmitted culturally, through oral tradition and otherwise. In general, while science is often aimed at the isolation of variables, TEK recognizes the interconnectedness of all things, and works within that to develop an understanding of the relationships at play. Unlike science, Indigenous communities accept spirituality as a legitimate part of knowing, using stories to communicate knowledge.2
It would be a mistake, however, to conceive of Indigenous people and their knowledge as unscientific or anti-science, as it often is. Lopez says, if science is the study of knowledge, as it can be defined, “our ancestors were absolute scientists because they had to study…how to take care of the world, and all parts and elements of their world, and all creatures of their world.” But the differences in the process of acquiring knowledge can alienate Indigenous voices in science. Flores says, “at times within academia there’s pushback to Indigenous knowledge because it’s not a knowledge that has been necessarily proven through the rigors of Western scientific research. And so because of that, some people dismiss it.”
Another aspect of TEK under-recognized by the scientific community is what scientists might term an extremely long-term “base-line data set.”2 Lopez, once confronted by a man who claimed to only believe in “evidence-based science” laughed. “For us, evidence-based science is hundreds perhaps thousands of years. That’s the kind of evidence you need. You don’t need 2, 3, 4 years’ science—that tells you nothing! That’s just a huge flaw and arrogance and ego that they think that they know those damn answers after three months or six months.” Lopez refers directly to the use of agrochemicals, which may seem effective for a period of time, but ultimately in the long-term, as scientists observe today, cause pollution to waterways, disrupt ecosystems, and threaten the longevity of our food systems.⁸ Lopez decries the disrespect of Indigenous Knowledge by the scientific community, “We’ve got 15,000 years or more of knowledge and they just throw it to the side.”
AN ANTI-COLONIAL PATH
The science community has not been sufficiently respectful of Indigenous people, both in its complicity in their oppression and dismissal of their ideas. How can we change that? How can science be anti-colonial?
One way is to diversify science. Lack of diversity in the scientific field limits accessibility, reinforces whiteness, and prevents new ideas from emerging. Flores says, “in terms of academia, decolonizing means bringing in more voices than just the typical ‘white male researcher’ voice.”
Ana Escalante, Outreach Coordinator for UCSC’s chapter of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), has noticed the ways in which coming from an underprivileged background makes it more difficult for students of color to thrive in the sciences. She noticed that many of the requirements for research positions posed as a major barrier for underprivileged students. “It’s a lot more difficult to not only find a mentor, but also look for these positions, because they either have to work or study really hard in order to catch up with all the assignments and compete with other students who had a more privileged…K-12 education.” Ana speaks from her experience as Latinx, but Native American communities, too, suffer from impoverishment that puts them at a great disadvantage in academia.
Although at least 1.2% of the US population was Native American in 2012, they only made up 0.0-1.0% of the academic faculty of the 50 top departments of 15 different disciplines.⁹ Nonetheless, Native scholars are present in every field, and are bringing new ideas and perspectives to the sciences and beyond. However, there is much room to improve. Organizations like SACNAS continue to work hard to help scientists of color enter the field.10
That said, entering science shouldn’t mean that Indigenous people check their traditional knowledge at the door. This idea resonates with Escalante: “I feel like sometimes as we go [further] in education our identities get taken away.” In bringing more Indigenous voices into science, the goal should not be to teach Indigenous people to just think like scientists, but rather to have a little humility, and welcome the Indigenous perspectives that Native scholars bring with them.
For example, Alexii Sigona recalls his undergraduate days, during which an ecologist argued to him that California condor conservation was a waste of money, since millions of dollars are spent on them when they don’t have an ecological benefit much greater than other animals. Sigona later learned how important the condor was for his Amah Mutsun community, and that, like all other life forms, humans have a responsibility to care for them. Even if condors cost millions to conserve, Alexii reasons, “settlers have extracted millions of dollars from this Earth and changed the landscape here in California, and that’s the reason why condors can’t survive.” In a sense, humans owe this debt to the condor. Sigona had criticisms of his education as an Indigenous person, but at the same time, he explains, “being an Indigenous student, sometimes you have to just hear those things, and it takes too much energy to really call it out.” Sigona now works in critical social science, where he places his energy wherever he likes in voicing his perspectives. Still, his experience shows how many dominant ideas in academia lack an Indigenous perspective, and the work to call those ideas into question shouldn’t fall on Indigenous people alone.
Beyond diversity and indigenizing, scientists can also align themselves with Indigenous people in anti-colonial struggle. In the case of the Amah Mutsun, oppression of their people has meant losses in cultural knowledge and dispossession of lands. Both of these things are greatly important for carrying out their spiritual obligation of stewardship to the Creator. The Amah Mutsun Tribal Band works today to restore both their cultural knowledge and to regain access to their ancestral lands, and they’ve enlisted the help of scientists along the way.
At the UCSC Arboretum, Rick Flores stewards the Amah Mutsun Relearning Program, a project started in 2009 to support the Amah Mutsun’s relearning of their ethnobotanical knowledge. Flores explains, “we have the California Conservation Gardens, which is a 40-acre garden here at the Arboretum, and the Tribe has given us a list of plants that are culturally important to them…and we’ve been doing our best to get those plants and put them out in the gardens for tribal members to use in their relearning efforts. So the Tribe does come here to harvest plants on occasion as they see fit.”
Another important way that science has helped the Amah Mutsun is by using scientific techniques to unearth cultural knowledge. However, the Amah Mutsun’s use of science to reconnect with their cultural knowledge is done carefully and intentionally. In many cases, Flores explains, “researchers, they just go into Indigenous communities and take. They just take the knowledge and then they write a paper on it or include it in some data set. And that’s it, and there’s nothing that goes back to the community.” Sigona, too, emphasizes the importance of non-extractive research. “If you’re going to publish a research paper with us, cool! — Get our consent first. We have that intellectual property—that’s our knowledge, as opposed to…the scientists’ knowledge. And it needs to inform us and it needs to serve us if it’s going to be good science.”
An example of this was a study co-authored by UC Berkeley Anthropologist Kent Lightfoot and Chairman Valentin Lopez which was able to find evidence of Indigenous peoples’ pre-colonial fire management practices near Point Año Nuevo.11 Scientists have now established a link between controlled burns and the prevention of buildup of “fuel loads,” which, when ignited, can burn through thousands of acres of California, like what happened in Fall of 2020.12 Today, California Natives are starting to be sought after for their knowledge of fire management, after being dismissed for their practice for hundreds of years.
Science can also play a hugely important role in regaining the Amah Mutsun’s access to lands. “Land Back,” a call to restore stolen lands and rights to Indigenous peoples, is one of the foremost goals of Indigenous activism, and the Amah Mutsun are no exception.13 Over the years, the Tribal Band has been engaged in many federal processes in order to regain access to land or protect it from capitalist extraction. Since 2015, they have been fighting the digging of a sand and gravel mine on their sacred mountain Juristac, which lies just outside of Gilroy, and scientists are helping the cause. “TEK is not seen in the same light as scientific knowledge in these federal policy processes,” Sigona says, “and so it’s important for us to utilize this [scientific] knowledge, these terminologies, these forms of expertise in order to get what we want, which is to protect that land.”While it should not be the case that scientific evidence is considered more authoritative than Indigenous knowledge, scientists can align themselves with Indigenous people by lending the authority of science to the fight for Land Back. For Chairman Lopez, work he has done with scientists is validation. “I used to call [it] scientific research. I don’t call that research, and I don’t call that science. All that is, is validation. They are validating the knowledge and the ways of our ancestors related to taking care of Mother Earth.”
Decolonizing can also take the form of stepping back and, as Chairman Lopez urges, “letting Indigenous people lead.” In a world where capitalism and colonialism, aided by science, have led to today’s climate crisis, this would be a win not only for Indigenous people, but for the entire planet.
Sigona sees how climate policy can act in tandem with Indigenous liberation. “Our money that we’re getting to restore the landscape at Quiroste Valley is fuel reduction funds, because the State of California is worried about fire. What we’re really doing is we’re restoring a coastal prairie that has these cultural values and has all this biodiversity; we’re returning to this landscape.” Sigona is begrudging of the fact that Indigenous people’s rights to land in this case are primarily being recognized due to the attention being paid to climate change and TEK, not because it’s simply the right thing to do.
Today, scientists are some of the world’s loudest voices for climate action, and that should not be taken for granted. Science is necessary to address climate change at this scale. However, for all its warnings, science consistently props up the systems that cause said destruction. It begs the question: can the same thinking that created a problem be trusted to lead the way to fix it? Indigenous knowledge offers a value system that once preserved a healthy ecosystem and today disrupts the systems of power that threaten it. “Our people did not look to domesticate or dominate resources,” Chairman Lopez says, “[The extraction industry] is trying to dominate the lands, the mountains, the waters, etc. And doing it at a tremendous, tremendous cost. So a big important part of dealing with climate change is dealing with those issues of extraction.” Native peoples are at the frontlines of the fight against oil pipelines, mines, and other extractive activities, as seen at Standing Rock and Juristac. In these cases, and probably many others, Indigenous liberation is climate action.
An undeniably powerful and valuable way of knowing, science should not be abandoned. Wielded responsibly, it can benefit everyone on Earth. At the same time, it is tangled in a web of colonialist mindsets and value systems.
Indigenous knowledge presents a stark contrast against scientific knowledge, but that is what makes it strong. It is grounded in a worldview in which the universe is a gift from the Creator which must be cared for in kind. It is deeply personal. It is grounded in generations-long relationships with the land and water and all that live on it. Everything and everyone is connected to one another like family. To judge it by scientific standards, one might dismiss it as “anecdotal,” “biased,” “subjective,” “confounded,” or mere mythology.2
But science must come to grips with its own weaknesses. It is excessively authoritative when based on shorter periods of research, as opposed to thousands of years of adaptive processes. In its determination to be value-neutral, it can be used to destroy the entire Planet.
Decolonizing science starts with shedding disrespect and judgement of Indigenous knowledge. It continues with liberation.
- Roy, R. D. (2018, April 9). Science Still Bears the Fingerprints of Colonialism. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/science-bears-fingerprints-colonialism-180968709/
- Knopf, K. (2015). The Turn Toward the Indigenous: Knowledge Systems and Practices in the Academy. Amerikastudien / American Studies, 60(2/3), 179-200. Retrieved April 26, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/44071904
- Prescod-Weinstein, C., Tuck, E., Casumbal-Salazar, I., & Maile, D. U. (2019, April). Beyond Decolonizing Science [Webinar]. Union of Concerned Scientists. https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/beyond-trend-decolonizing-science
- Lee, R., Ahtone, T., Pearce, M., Goodluck, K., McGhee, G., Leff, C., Lanpher, K., & Salinas, T. (2020, March). Land Grab Universities. High Country News. https://www.landgrabu.org/
- Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. (n.d.). History. http://amahmutsun.org/history
- University of Manitoba Natural Resources Institute. (n.d.). Fikret Berkes. https://umanitoba.ca/institutes/natural_resources/Faculty%20Members/nri_aboutFB.htm
- Prial, F. J. (1999, May 5). WINE TALK; After Phylloxera, The First Taste of a Better Grape. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/1999/05/05/dining/wine-talk-after-phylloxera-the-first-taste-of-a-better-grape.html
- Mateo-Sagasta, J., Zadeh, S. M., Turral, H., & Burke, J. (2017). Water pollution from agriculture: a global review. The Food and Agricultural Organization.
- Nelson, D. J., & Madsen, L. D. (2018). Representation of Native Americans in US science and engineering faculty. MRS Bulletin, 43(5), 379-383.
- SACNAS. (n.d.). Mission + Impact. https://www.sacnas.org/who-we-are/
- Lightfoot, K. G., & Lopez, V. (2013). The study of indigenous management practices in California: An introduction. California Archaeology, 5(2), 209-219.
- Cuthrell, R. Q., Striplen, C., Hylkema, M. G., & Lightfoot, K. G. (2012). A land of fire: Anthropogenic burning on the central coast of California. Contemporary issues in California archaeology, 153-172.
- NDN. (n.d.). LANDBACK Manifesto. https://landback.org/manifesto/