Native Village 
Youth and Education News

September 2013

Science vs. Traditional Knowledge in Climate Change: Can't We All Just Get  Along?
Condensed by Native Village

Colorado: The hydrologist had carefully studied the scientific data and knew that water would be present if he drilled.  He was so sure that he ignored a Hawaiian elder’s warning against drilling for water in that spot.

The scientist did indeed hit water—but it was red, brackish and undrinkable. He had drilled on a hill with an ancient name: Red Water.  Nearby, another site carried the ancient name Water for Man. That is where the drinkable water could be found.  It did not take a hydrologist with fancy instruments to find it.

“We assume contemporary knowledge displaces that of the past, but it’s not  true,” said Ramsay Taum, after sharing the story of indigenous knowledge overriding science.

Taum, a Native Hawaiian and faculty member at the University of Hawaii, is a director with the Pasifika Foundation. His comments were among many aired during July's Rising Voices of Indigenous Peoples in Weather and Climate Science conference in Colorado.

Relying on science while excluding thousands of years of careful observation is helping erode Native cultures.
And yet, there are many ways and times in which traditional knowledge can trump scientific knowledge. 

“The fear of our elders is that knowledge is running faster than wisdom,”  said Papalii Failautusi Aveglio, a hereditary Samoan leader and faculty member at the University of Hawaii’.

Native peoples and cultures are the first- and hardest-hit by climate change, and Native communities are very involved in addressing climate questions.   For example, water contamination stops people from eating locally caught fish, so tribes need money to buy replacement food. The loss of local food sources soon ends the daily fishing by grandfathers and grandsons in which traditions are passed down.

While traditional Native relationships with the natural world are undervalued by Western science, the people least affected had the most to do with creating climate change. The harsh effects could mean a “whole new Trail of Tears,” for Native people, said Daniel Wildcat from the Muscogee Nation and a faculty member at Haskell Indian Nations University.

During the conference, scholars and tribal college students grappled with readiness issues noted in President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, which he released on June 25.  In addition, the clashes between traditional and scientific knowledge seem destined to continue.

“I’m not interested in reconciling science and Native knowledge,” said Roger Pulwarty from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  “They mean different things.”

Pulwarty was concerned that asking tribal peoples to collect information might require them to share confidential tribal history. Taum countered that indigenous knowledge could be presented in different ways, sometimes  embodied in stories that had been passed down through generations.

“One of the things indigenous people bring to the table is a whole different concept of our place in the world,”  Wildcat said. “We have been treating life around us like resources—they’re not resources, they’re relatives.”

Rising Voices of Indigenous Peoples in Weather and Climate Science conference sponsors included

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