I attended the 2011 SACNAS Convention in San Jose, California, October 27-30. I had an amazing time. SACNAS is a society of scientists dedicated to advancing Hispanics/Chicanos and Native Americans in science. We are a national nonprofit organization of individuals and organizations interested in quality science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) research, teaching, leadership, and policy.

The organization, founded in 1970’s by a handful of Native American and Chicano Scientists. According to legend (and the History section of the Society website) it was founded in a elevator at a AAAS meeting. I’ve been familiar with the organization for years, through my Ph.D. Advisor – Dr. Zuleyma Tang-Martinez, named one of the most influential Hispanic Academics by Hispanic Magazine. She had been trying to get me to attend this amazing, inspiring, and supportive community of scientists for years, but my school schedule always got in the way.

It’s very hard to describe the SACNAS science conference experience with words. It’s more a feeling. It felt like I was invited to a most special convocation of elders (in science and engineering) and able to sit at their feet and learn – about science and about life. And perhaps the reason why it resonated so strongly with me was because of the many strong the cultural parallels between the Native American and African-American experiences. Specific to my interests in science and environmentalism, I was especially glad I attended the meeting and sat-in on the session of Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Western Science: The Pitfalls and Promise of Conducting Community-Inspired Research.

My perspective and philosophy about outreach and inclusion of under-represented audiences in environmentalism, ecology, and conservation have been permanently influenced by Dr. Daniel Wildcat and Dr. Margaret Redsteer. Traditional Ecological Knowledge, TEK, is defined as those ways of knowing and comprehending nature and the world by original people of a land. It includes how aboriginal people, in particular, live and interact and use and commune with the land, animals, plants, water, and other natural resources. And before listening to these two sages, it never occurred to me to consider all the scientific knowledge that has been known and lost by people simple because they didn’t attend university or speak in technical jargon. Is the knowledge of our ancestors less true or important simply because they may have been illiterate or didn’t travel far and wide? Does the fact that my grandmothers (who both happened to be part Native and black) were both very aware of how plants grew, what herbs to prepare (and how) to cure sickness, or how to keep pesky animals at bay without fouling the earth, but neither never attended classes beyond high school mean their comprehension of biology and chemistry was less valid than my own? No, it doesn’t. And that’s precisely the knowledge tracts we all potentially lose when fail to appreciate the richness of TEK. And as Dr. Wildcat put it:

There is no fundamental divide between people trained academically in Western traditions in science and the life and personal knowledge of people who have inter-generational relationships with an environmental region.

I nodded in agreement and sat in that session literally soaking up every word and ounce of essence from Dr. Wildcat and Dr. RedSteer.

Some of the more salient points of Dr. Wildcat were to comprehend the inherent cultural differences of TEK and Western Science. For example, he told us to “Do away with the idea of ‘collecting’ methodologies of western science disciplines. Collecting implies taking away, ownership of something that belongs to or is a part of another. It is considered disrespectful to indigenous peoples. Once, again I was reminded why semantics matters. And if a western trained scientist hopes to work with or better yet, learn from a TEK sage, then becoming aware of the unintentional faux pas is essential.

Unlike the western tradition of education, Traditional knowledge -- ways of making, doing, and knowing -- are passed down often through custom, habit, ritual. It is a slower, more patient way of learning and working. But in its more deliberate way of learning and acting, native culture is more about foresight as opposed to hindsight. Because native peoples are stewardship-centric, they approach science and natural resource use with a lot of thought put into consequences of actions BEFORE doing them. The idea is what you put out comes back to you. However, Western/Anglo culture deals with consequences after action. Technology is thought to be a tool to save us from our environmental misbehavior.

Yet it is these fundamental differences that have kept the larger scientific community from accepting fully. But I hope that soon changes. Our planet can’t afford to ignore the wealth of knowledge that resides with the indigenous people all over the world

Dr. Margaret Redsteer, who is scientist with the US Geological Survey, has talked with indigenous people from all over the world – Amazon, Himalayas, Native Americans, East Africa. She has found that they all are realizing that the environment is off. They can’t raise animals and crops like they use to. The rains have stopped, the rivers have dried up or been diverted. They realize that they can’t follow their traditional calendars any more. They believe it is because they no longer follow their traditions. They are blaming themselves. The truth is these disruptions are the result of climate change. And if we’re not very careful, we risk more than species going extinct, we risk entire people, languages, and unimaginable insight about life and love and survival in all of its complexities dying, too.

Below are my tweets of the TEK Session at SACNAS 2011. I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences of TEK in your life and career.

» traditional ecological knowledges=#TEK the cultural relationships really have an lot of "know-how" #SACNAS2011

» #TEK elders have an intuitive attentiveness and tutor elder interactions to pass this knowledge/work down #SACNAS2011

» #TEK is implicitly SYMBIOTIC it is important to bring humans back to the equation of ecology/conservation #SACNAS2011

» Daniel WIldcat is the AWESOMEsauce! He's got me remembering my own #TEK experiences from my part-native grandmothers #SACNAS2011

» western science has constraints that really interfere with incorporating #TEK into #ecology #conservation #science. #SACNAS2011

» Daniel Wildcat's talk on #TEK reminds me of why public science events don't grab my (community's) attention #SACNAS2011

» What we're calling #TEK is listening/learning from elders/passing on #informal knowledge/tradtions between generations. I'm loving this

» did you know that wild rice actually grew -wild- in North America? learning about it from A. Myrbro #SACNAS2011 #TEK

» pickerelweed outcompetes wild rice in its natural habitat. I see pickerel in #STL streams alot! #TEK #SACNAS2011

» Native lobstermen see their fishing ground as managed landscapes. They are stewards of the bay, environment #TEK #SACNAS2011 ~E. McClean

» Native local lobstermen can tell the heath of the environment just by looking at their traps #TEK in action #SACNAS2011

» Working with #TEK info and people you MUST speak the language of the people you serve #SACNAS2011 ~Margaret Redsteer

» Using #TEK information/working with people takes patience. Ppl must trust you, must be able to communicate with the, #SACNAS2011