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Decolonizing Education: Native Americans

This guide was originally created for the use of instructors and students in the reACT Decolonizing Education Experiential Learning Program funded by the 2022-2023 TLTC Curriculum Grants. Specifically: ARCH460; ARCH478; ARCH601; ARCH678; CHBE473; ENCH648


Indigenous knowledge is a systematic way of thinking applied to phenomena across biological, physical, cultural and spiritual systems. It includes insights based on evidence acquired through direct and long-term experiences and extensive and multigenerational observations, lessons and skills. It has developed over millennia and is still developing in a living process, including knowledge acquired today and in the future, and it is passed on from generation to generation. -- SOURCE: Inuit Circumpolar Council (2022) Indigenous Knowledge

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. (2011) Traditional Ecological Knowledge Fact Sheet.
Traditional Ecological Knowledge, also called by other names including Indigenous Knowledge or Native Science, (hereafter, TEK) refers to the evolving knowledge acquired by indigenous and local peoples over hundreds or thousands of years through direct contact with the environment. This knowledge is specific to a location and includes the relationships between plants, animals, natural phenomena, landscapes and timing of events that are used for lifeways, including but not limited to hunting, fishing, trapping, agriculture, and forestry.


President Biden is committed to strengthening the relationship between the Federal Government and Tribal Nations and to advancing equity for Indigenous people, including Native Americans, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, and Indigenous peoples of the U.S. territories. These commitments include ensuring that Federal agencies conduct regular, meaningful, and robust consultation with Tribal officials in the development of federal research, policies, and decisions, especially decisions that may affect Tribal Nations and the people they represent.

Consistent with the Administration’s additional commitment to scientific integrity and knowledge- and evidence-based policymaking, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) issue this memorandum to recognize Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge (ITEK)—a form of Indigenous Knowledge3—as one of the many important bodies of knowledge that contributes to the scientific, technical, social, and economic advancements of the United States and to our collective understanding of the natural world. Source: MEMORANDUM FOR THE HEADS OF DEPARTMENTS AND AGENCIES, (November 15, 2021) White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ)

White House Commits to Elevating Indigenous Knowledge in Federal Policy Decisions (2021). White House Press Release.

Whyte, K, et al. (2016) Weaving Indigenous science, protocols and sustainability science.  Sustainability Science, 2016
The proceedings of the National Science Foundation supported WIS 2 DOM workshop state that sustainability scientists must respect the “protocols” of practitioners of Indigenous sciences if the practitioners of the two knowledge systems are to learn from each other. Indigenous persons at the workshop described protocols as referring to attitudes about how to approach the world that are inseparable from how people approach scientific inquiry; they used the terms caretaking and stewardship to characterize protocols in their Indigenous communities and nations. Yet sustainability scientists may be rather mystified by the idea of protocols as a necessary dimension of scientific inquiry. Moreover, the terms stewardship and caretaking are seldom used in sustainability science. In this case report, the authors seek to elaborate on some possible meanings of protocols for sustainability scientists who may be unaccustomed to talking about stewardship and caretaking in relation to scientific inquiry. To do so, the authors describe cases of Indigenous protocols in action in relation to scientific inquiry in two Indigenous-led sustainability initiatives in the Great Lakes/Midwest North American region. We claim that each case expresses concepts of stewardship and caretaking to describe protocols in which humans approach the world with the attitude of respectful partners in genealogical relationships of interconnected humans, non-human beings, entities and collectives who have reciprocal responsibilities to one another. We conclude with a discussion of the implications of Indigenous protocols for future dialog between practitioners of sustainability and Indigenous science.

Subramanian, S. M., & Pisupati, B. (2010). Traditional knowledge in policy and practice: approaches to development and human well-being. United Nations University Press. Traditional knowledge (TK) has contributed immensely to shaping development and human well-being. Its influence spans a variety of sectors, including agriculture, health, education and governance. However, in today's world, TK is increasingly underrepresented or under-utilized. Further, while the applicability of TK to human and environmental welfare is well-recognized, collated information on how TK contributes to different sectors is not easily accessible. This book focuses on the relevance of TK to key environment- and development-related sectors, discusses the current debates within each of.

Dei, G. et al. (2000)  Indigenous knowledges in global contexts: multiple readings of our world. Toronto: University of Toronto.  Indigenous knowledges are understood as the commonsense ideas and cultural knowledges of local peoples concerning the everyday realities of living. This definition refers to the epistemic saliency of cultural traditions, values, belief systems and world views that, in any indigenous society, are imparted to the younger generation by community elders. It is also refers to world views that are products of a profoundly direct experience of nature and its relationship with the social world. Bringing new and complex readings to the term 'indigenous', this collection of essays from Canadian and international contributors is an invitation to critically engage in the discussion of indigenous knowledges and their implication for academic decolonization.

Hiwasaki, L. et al. (2014) Process for integrating local and indigenous knowledge with science for hydro-meteorological disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation in coastal and small island communities. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction. Volume 10, Part A, December 2014, Pages 15-27. The important role that local knowledge and practices have yet to be commonly used by communities, scientists, practitioners and policy-makers. This paper presents a process for integrating local and indigenous knowledge into climate change with science. The process allows communities to (1) identify knowledge that can be integrated with science, which could then be further disseminated for use by scientists, practitioners and policy-makers, and (2) safeguard and valorize those that cannot be scientifically explained. By introducing a process that can be used in other communities and countries, we hope to promote the use of local and indigenous knowledge to enable communities to increase their resilience against the impacts of climate change and disasters.

Agrawal, Arun. (1995) Dismantling the divide between indigenous and scientific knowledge. Development and Change 26:413-439. Indigenous knowledge is a significant resource for development. This article interrogates the concept of indigenous knowledge and the strategies its advocates present to promote development. The article suggests that both the concept of indigenous knowledge and its role in development, are problematic issues as currently conceptualized. To productively engage indigenous knowledge in development, we must go beyond the dichotomy of indigenous vs. scientific, and work towards greater autonomy for ‘indigenous’ peoples.

International Council for Science (ICSU). (2002) Science and traditional knowledge. Report from the ICSU Study Group on Science and Traditional Knowledge.  For many sustainable development problems at the local level proper interaction between science and local and indigenous cultures is crucial in order to find viable solutions. In this connection, paragraph 26 of the Declaration (Annex 1) observes: "...that traditional and local knowledge systems as dynamic expressions of perceiving and understanding the world, can make and historically have made, a valuable contribution to science and technology, and that there is a need to preserve, protect, research and promote this cultural heritage and empirical knowledge."

Mihelcic, J. et al. (2007) Integrating Developed and Developing World Knowledge into Global Discussions and Strategies for Sustainability. 1. Science and Technology. Environmental Science & Technology 2007 41 (10), 3415-3421.
Sustainable development in both the developed and developing world has the common fundamental themes of advancing economic and social prosperity while protecting and restoring natural systems. While many recent efforts have been undertaken to transfer knowledge from the developed to the developing world to achieve a more sustainable future, indigenous knowledge that often originates in developing nations also can contribute significantly to this global dialogue. Selected case studies are presented to describe important knowledge, methodologies, techniques, principles, and practices for sustainable development emerging from developing countries in two critical challenge areas to sustainability:  water and energy. These, with additional analysis and quantification, can be adapted and expanded for transfer throughout the developed and developing world in advancing sustainability. A common theme in all of the case studies presented is the integration of natural processes and material flows into the anthropogenic system. Some of these techniques, originating in rural settings, have recently been adapted for use in cities, which is especially important as the global trend of urban population growth accelerates. Innovations in science and technology, specifically applied to two critical issues of today, water and energy, are expected to fundamentally shift the type and efficiency of energy and materials utilized to advance prosperity while protecting and restoring natural systems.

Davidson-Hunt IJ, and O’Flaherty RM. 2007. Researchers, Indigenous peoples and place-based learning communities. Society and Natural Resources, 20: 291–305. In the field of resource management, the potential for conflict over research is increased by the politics surrounding control over the resource management decision-making processes. In this article, we propose the creation of dialogic networks that engage researchers and indigenous people as collaborators in a process of knowledge production. Such an applied research process can produce context-specific knowledge networks that support management and planning decisions by indigenous people; these networks we refer to as place-based learning communities.

Kimmerer, R. (2013) Braiding Sweetgrass. ebook.  Kimmerer explores reciprocal relationships between humans and the land, with a focus on the role of plants and botany in both Native American and Western traditions. The book received largely positive reviews, appearing on several bestseller lists. Robin Wall Kimmerer is known for her scholarship on traditional ecological knowledge, ethnobotany, and moss ecology.

Kimmerer, R.  (2021) The Democracy of Species. ebook. Over the past 75 years, a new canon has emerged. As life on Earth has become irrevocably altered by humans, visionary thinkers around the world have raised their voices to defend the planet, and affirm our place at the heart of its restoration. Their words have endured through the decades, becoming the classics of a movement. Together, these books show the richness of environmental thought, and point the way to a fairer, saner, greener world.

Fergusen, N. (2011) Civilization: the West and the Rest. print book.

Marchand, M. (2014) The River of Life: Sustainable Practices of Native Americans and Indigenous Peoples. ebook. Sustainability defines the need for any society to live within the constraints of the land’s capacity to deliver all natural resources it consumes. To be sustainable, nature and its endowment need to be linked to human behavior, similar to the practices of indigenous peoples. The River of Life compares the general differences between Native Americans’ and the Western world’s view of resources and provides the nuts and bolts of a sustainability portfolio designed by indigenous peoples. It also introduces ideas on how to link nature and society to make sustainable choices, aiming to facilitate thinking about how to change destructive behaviors and to integrate indigenous culture into thinking and decision processes.