Of Science and Spirit: Leech Lake combines culture, inquiry in the lab

Nov 15th, 2000 | By | Category: 12-2: Land is Life, Features
By Michael Wassegijig Price

Anishinaabe canoe builders today use many of the same techniques developed by their ancestors, as portrayed in this 1895 photograph by Truman H. Ingersoll. Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

As students gathered for general ecology class at Leech Lake Tribal College, a pipecarrier from the Leech Lake community entered the front of the room. In a classroom lined with microscopes, computers, and digital measuring devices, he began to tell the Anishinaabe Creation Story. He talked about Sky Woman and the Great Flood, the muskrat, and the tiny morsel of soil that would become the North American continent. He talked about the sacred four directions and the spirit world.

The students, eager to delve into the study of environmental science, were a little surprised to hear tribal stories in a college science class. Afterwards, however, they realized that all Anishinaabe stories are related to science and the natural world.

Albert Einstein said, “Science is about the business of reality.” It is about knowing and understanding. Over the centuries, humans have developed ways of understanding and describing natural phenomena. Western science is one way. The foundation of Western science is measurement, using numbers and empirical equations to describe and predict natural phenomena. At one time in the distant past, the goal of Western science was seeking universal truths. But, today, perverted by the industrial revolution and capitalism, the goal of Western science is about what sells in the marketplace. But, that is another story.

Indigenous knowledge is another way of understanding reality. Indigenous knowledge is not based on measurement or quantification but rather on relationship and observation. Medicinal plant knowledge is acquired by observing what animals eat during sickness. Knowledge of weather patterns or seasonal trends is acquired by watching the characteristics of the sky or the behavior of animals. The Anishinaabe (otherwise known as Ojibwe or Chippewa) have their own distinct field of knowledge. As one Anishinaabe elder from Wikwemikong First Nations stated, “There are 19 different types of thunder, and each type tells something different about what’s going to happen.”

Birchbark canoe builders know that when the wild raspberries are beginning to ripen in the forest, it is the optimum time to harvest durable birchbark. Harvesting the bark earlier or later than this specific time, canoe builders run the risk of using bark that has prematurely dried and cracked, undesirable for canoes! From these observations comes an intricate and complex knowledge of cycles, migrations, and interactions in the natural world.

Knowledge and spirituality

Indigenous knowledge, unlike Western science and technology, has tenets of sacredness and spirituality. These ideas directly affect our relationship to and interaction with nature and one another. Thus we are not just invisible, objective observers but actual and accountable participants in the complex web of life.

Learning that plants have spirits and have been endowed by the Creator with the responsibility to provide all living things with food, clothing, and shelter may not mean much to a research scientist or technophile. It will, however, have an effect on the way we, as Anishinaabe, interact with plants. This interaction will maintain and protect the long coexistence between the Anishinaabe and the natural world.

Examination of the Anishinaabe language reveals that spirituality is the foundation of the Anishinaabe worldview. Unlike English, there are four versions of each verb in the Anishinaabe language: animate, inanimate, transitive, intransitive. Certain verb forms are used when referring to animate or inanimate things. For example, rocks are considered to be living; therefore, animate verb forms are used when referring to rocks. Cars are considered to be non-living; therefore, inanimate verb forms are used when referring to automobiles. Thus, the Anishinaabe language automatically identifies and acknowledges whether something has a spirit.

From this philosophical standpoint, the goals of the Science Department at Leech Lake Tribal College are to 1) provide a dualistic understanding, both cultural and Western, of the natural world; 2) reinforce Anishinaabe culture, traditions, and knowledge at the academic level; 3) provide a fully transferable Associates of Arts degree in Natural Science; and 4) increase student enrollment in natural sciences by presenting science as applicable to Anishinaabe society.

Cultural laboratory protocols

Before students venture out into the field to gather specimens or make observations, elders or knowledgeable community members teach them the specific cultural protocols and taboos regarding how to interact with the natural world. These cultural protocols are time-honored Anishinaabe traditions that have deep, spiritual significance and, therefore, must be maintained and acknowledged, even in the laboratory.

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