By Joanna Chin | Staff Writer

The National Guard had gathered along with three state agencies. They were armed with sonic weapons to disperse opposition. The opposition: hundreds of kia’i, or mountain protectors, sleeping in the parking lot in front of Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain in the world. It was also the site of an ongoing battle between scientists who wanted to study the heavens from the mountain’s peak versus the Indigenous peoples of Hawai’i trying to prevent further desecration of land they hold sacred. 

The proposed Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) embodies the ongoing tension between perceived scientific advancements and the rights and voices of Indigenous peoples. The telescope was planned without consultation of the locals, and scientists defended the decision by asserting that building it would provide a unique view of the stars, something that could progress scientific research. But to many Indigenous peoples, it was another sign of the continuing impact of colonialism where Indigenous voices are sidelined or considered as an afterthought in the narrative of scientific research. 

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This history is well-documented, including examples such as in 1989 when the Havasupai were not credited or told that the blood samples they gave towards research on type 2 diabetes were used for other studies without permission. The tribe filed a lawsuit in 2004 against the Arizona Board of Regents and Arizona State University, reaching a settlement in 2010 but leaving no legal precedent to protect against this happening again. 

A more recent example is the resistance of the Sámi people – the Scandinavian tribe that inspired Frozen 2 – to Harvard researchers testing a climate change counteractive agent in their atmosphere. And just last October a coalition of Indigenous groups held protests challenging President Biden to declare a climate emergency and make a concerted effort to reduce fossil fuel usage.

Colonization and Racism Live on Today

As many groups have pointed out over the years, the impact of environmental harm and change tends to fall heaviest on the most marginalized and poorest of society. 

The dynamic where scientists conduct research projects without considering or actively inviting Indigenous voices to inform them mirrors patterns of colonization. While those approaching Indigenous peoples in previous centuries may have perceived their efforts to “civilize” and help them “progress” as well-intentioned, they did not account for all the scientific discoveries Indigenous people had already made, dismissing their knowledge as “primitive” or too folkloric to be valuable. 

They also did not anticipate the immense environmental and cultural trauma that would result from the effects of land dispossession, forced migration, violence, and profound ecosystem changes.

The effects of this generational trauma are still present today, even as popular media tropes depict Indigenous peoples as lovers of nature, without acknowledging how pervasive the effects of colonization continue to be on present-day tribes. 

To contest this romanticization of Indigenous peoples and resulting scientific racism, Indigenous climate justice has been gaining more and more notice as frameworks that, in the words of York University’s Professor Deborah McGregor, “frames the challenge of global warming – along with other environmental injustices – as inevitably tied to, and symptomatic of, these ongoing processes of colonialism, dispossession, violence and violations of Indigenous and human rights.” 

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Reframing Science in Light of Indigeneity

Indigenous science approaches seek to acknowledge and bring awareness to the unique relationship Indigenous peoples have to the land as well as their stewarding right to protect it from harm.  

With this is also a recognition that while science is considered an “objective” pursuit, scientific research and projects have always been contextualized by culture. They need to take into account the historical baggage of colonization and collaborate with Indigenous peoples in setting boundaries on how these projects are conducted. 

Greenpeace activist Kaitlin Grable adds, “There is a spiritual and religious component unique to Indigenous environmentalism since many of our ancestral and traditional practices are tied to the natural world.”

Grable and other advocates reinforce how crucial it is that Indigenous voices speak into scientific discourse since their lands span nearly a quarter of Earth’s surface and house 80% of its biodiversity.

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Current Actions to Center Indigenous Voices

Many Indigenous peoples are leading initiatives to advocate for the inclusion of their voices in discussions on scientific research and the environmental challenges of our time. 

In 2015 a Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform was established along with a working group within the United Nations climate change conference (COP) focusing on climate change. (The most recent COP was last year.) Its goal is to increase the involvement of Indigenous peoples in climate negotiations and minimize the negative impact on their communities, though there is still much room for improvement

The Native BioData Consortium is another example of Indigenous scientists taking DNA research into their own hands to address their health needs and counteract a history of exploitation.

While historically underrepresented in STEM fields, there is a diversity of Indigenous scientists contributing to scientific advancements in ecology, conservation, astronomy, and more. They are doing so in ways that value Indigenous ways of knowing and incorporate long-held practices of interacting with the land in the pursuit of examining it holistically.  

There are also movements on the government side to acknowledge the vitality of Indigenous voices in the pursuit of environmental restoration, equity, and innovation. President Biden issued a memorandum in November 2021 to establish investing in tribal nations as a priority for the following year along with the “Establishment of Interagency Working Group on Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge.” 

Additionally, NASA’s partnership with the Nez (Navajo) Nation resulted in the Navajo language being used to name Martian landmarks last year, in line with their goal of advancing the use and preservation of the language. 

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Bringing It Home: What We Can Do

However, even with these initiatives, further concerted efforts are required from all of us to ensure we hold ourselves accountable to Indigenous peoples as we engage the urgent environmental needs of our time and devise scientific methods to address them. 

We must go beyond words and channel intention into action. We must seek opportunities for solidarity and scientific partnerships so Indigenous voices are not only prioritized and their expertise acknowledged, but also have more spaces opened up for them to lead these scientific conversations. 

Zapotec and Maya Ch’orti’ environmental scientist Dr. Jessica Hernandez asserts: 

“Oftentimes when it comes to Indigenous knowledges or lived experiences, they’re ignored because we don’t have what they consider valid forms of citing or valid forms that kind of support our lived experiences or first-hand observations…

“I think that’s hard because when we look at how Indigenous communities see the world, we see it through a holistic lens where everything is interconnected. I think that in sciences, in the name of objectivity, we tend to remove ourselves and our entire spirituality from practicing science because it has to be objective…

“I think that part of that is us redefining what we view as science and pushing against the narrative where we have to continue separating ourselves, where we have to just focus on the numerical data without incorporating the lived experiences.” 

For those of us not directly involved in big business, environmental preservation, or other similar fields, we can still actively center Indigenous voices in our lives and work. 

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Particularly within research and community development, we can move forward with Dr. Jessica Hernandez’ six principles:

  1. Follow and create fluid and dynamic approaches that do not follow the linear research method.
  2. Respect tribal sovereignty and Indigenous autonomy.
  3. Follow Indigenous protocols and their way of being and doing things in their communities.
  4. Respect intellectual property.
  5. Embrace all Indigenous epistemologies relevant to the community.
  6. Be an Indigenous-led project.

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