Relevant Research

Compiled by Tim Tynan

Inigenous Science and Movie Making: a Wise Combination

Native Americans represent the lowest percentage of professional scientists in the United States. But tribal lands across the continent face a growing number of science issues: environmental, health, engineering, and energy. The result is a growing dependence on outside expertise to address tribal issues. Exacerbating the issue is an overwhelming recognition that traditional knowledge among Native communities is often as rare as the Native language speaker or endangered species. Some might speculate that an adoption of western science methodology is a certainty. We would argue that the research supports a strong hybridization of modern practices combined with Traditonal Ecological Knowledge is not only achievable, but necessary for Native students to feel like science is a field worth entering--a field not only for the foreigner.

There are noteable attempts across North America to improve science appreciation and literacy among Native youth. There is also a growing acceptance within the scientific community to adopt traditional ecological knowledge and its applications. Our work at the Tribal Youth Media program demontrates an indigenous education experience that includes many of the most accepted practices among Native educators and scientists alike.

Native educators point to improved youth learning when maintaining important elements of traditional learning practices. Elders are an important part of the education structure within many Native communities, including Ojibwe. We strive to facilitate as much of the instruction as possible in which respected elders are doing the actual teaching and discussion about important science issues. We also attempt to maintain the cultural norms like prayers, certain ceremonies, and customs the youth are already accustomed to and have come to expect. The experience becomes one of 'immersion'.

Tribal students are accustomed to taking science classes within a western science setting, often within a non-Native school. Tribal youth in Wisconsin are no exception. This is distressing. The literature abounds with examples of the difficulties Native kids have adapting to the norms and conventions of western science. The paradigms are different. The epistemologies are very different. For example, when it comes to environmental studies, spirituality is intricately linked to the overall Ojibwe understanding and applications. In western science classrooms, spirituality is discouraged and invasive objectivity is pushed as the better way of thinking. This is stressful and can be a subtle but powerful turn-off for tribal students.

Video production is a story telling process. Giving the students a chance to learn and share science knowledge as a narrative is a comfortable, achievable task with a high probability for success.
The approach used in the Tribal Youth Media programs bring to bear a unique assembly of pedagogy, epistemology, and methodology we call an Organic Video Approach or OVA. It is organic because it is rooted in the natural and cultural landscape of the Native community. It relies on indigenous knowledge systems, which not only involve observation, instrumentation, and other tools used by western sciences, but also includes “complex models based on ritual formulas, in which forms, symbols and representations express Indigenous cosmology, philosophy and Native intelligence”.

Embracing the ethnographic approach, OVA incorporates participant observation, in-depth interviews, video and audio analysis, self-reflection, and feedback procurement. It employs reflexivity, a distinctly self-conscious process of inquiry familiar to filmmakers and visual anthropologists. Young campers are encouraged to reflect upon their roles as producers and on the product itself, as well as on their relationships to the experts from whom they are learning. In this case, the experts include elders and Native scientists with whom they have kinship ties.

The OVA process is empowering. Participants are free to use their Native language to define the issues and objects of exploration, to explore science in a cultural context, and to reflect upon the ways in which the environmental issues on their reservation affect them as tribal members. The result is a learning experience that promotes activism and encourages children to see themselves as agents of change.