A Yupiaq Worldview: A Pathway to Ecology and Spirit

Feb 15th, 1999 | By | Category: 10-3: Distance Education, Media Reviews

Published by Waveland Press, Inc., Prospect Heights, Ill., 1995, $10.95.
166 pages

Review by Lori Colomeda, Ph.D.

Oscar Kawagley is a Yupiaq indigenous educator on the faculty of the University of Alaska School of Education. As an educator, Kawagley’s goal is to discover ways of teaching science using methods that respect traditional knowledge and modern science. This work, based on teachings from his grandmother and his ideas as an educator, takes us on a journey of spirit, mind, and body to the Alaskan village where Kawagley was raised. Here, we are led on a wondrous adventure into ancient teachings of Yupiaq people.

Kawagley reinforces a worldview in which the balance of nature is of the utmost importance. Children from the Yupiaq culture are taught science and technology through observation, myths, legends, stories, and role modeling. By applying this ancient model to their survival skills in science and technology, Yupiaq elders teach their children how to survive in a harsh environment. Combining university knowledge with this traditional way of knowing, Kawagley demonstrates how to incorporate indigenous knowledge into teaching contemporary math and science to Native students.

Drawing on knowledge from their subsistence activities, Yupiaq people know about animals and plants, weather, chemistry, earth science, astronomy, the sacred, and the inner world of the individual. When teaching Native students, Kawagley tells us that all teaching must relate to the community’s knowledge of everyday life. Learners will be motivated if they can see relationships between learning and daily community activities. Once learners understand these relationships, he advises to let teachers, parents, and others determine how the modern explanations add to the Yupiaq understanding.

He admonishes Western science teachers to examine Native ways of knowing science—patient, long-term observation of the natural world; reflection individually and in groups; testing of ideas; intuitive thought from the natural and spiritual worlds; and “fish camp science and village education.” Kawagley’s work is both academic and cultural. A fellow teacher at Salish Kootenai College once told me, “When I went into my first biology class, I was so confused until I realized that this is just another way of looking at how the world works.” Kawagley not only takes this quantum leap for us, he shows us how to apply it to our students’ advantage.

Lori Colomeda is a medical ecologist whose research area focuses on the Arctic. She is the curriculum specialist for the Distance Education Department at Salish Kootenai College and teaches Environmental Health; Social and Environmental Ethics; and Personal, Community, and Tribal Health. She completed her Ph.D. in 1994 and is a descendent of French Canadians and Micmac people.

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