Nations of Scientists: Reclaiming a Legacy of Leadership in Science and Technology

Nov 15th, 1991 | By | Category: 3-3: Math, Science and Medicine, Editor's Essay
By Paul Boyer

Math and science is part of the native American heritage. With skill and creativity, indigenous peoples manipulated their environments and struggled, like all cul­tures, to understand their place in the cosmos. From the creation of precise calendars to knowledge of healing and nutrition, the principles of scientific investigation are deeply rooted in American Indian societies.

But it was a different kind of science. For Native Americans, math and science was believed to be seamlessly connected to all aspects of a culture. More than a way to track the progress of time or to heal a sick child, it was also an expression of religious faith and a way to link an indi­vidual to the community.

In contrast, Western science—what we now call “modern science”—believes that it must be untainted by tradition and religious doctrine. Fearful of superstition, today’s science stresses the observable fact and believes that truth exists inde­pendently of culture and emotion.

It is not surprising, then, that science has become an academic black hole for many Native Americans as they struggle through courses that seem alien and detached from their lives. Unable to find connections, poorly prepared in school and fearful of failure, few Indians study math and science and even fewer enter math and science careers.

However, native Americans still have much to contribute. There is, for exam­ple, a growing belief that Western sci­ence, for all of its accomplishments, has lost sight of its larger role in society. The traditional American Indian concept of science working in greater harmony with the community and land is being recog­nized and increasingly respected. American Indians can be a leader in this movement.

But most urgently, American Indians must contribute if they are to fully partici­pate in the future. Math and the sciences are the foundation of America and Canada’s economy. American Indians cannot be strong players, or be fully pre­pared for self-determination, without the skills that are built on math and science literacy.

Tribal colleges recognize both the bar­riers that Indian students face and the growing need for trained scientists. In this issue we offer a sampling of the many pro­grams created by these Indian institutions that are preparing Indian students to suc­ceed academically, pursue science-related careers and, ultimately, contribute to the nation.

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