Elders Sought for Traditional Knowledge Conferences

Feb 15th, 1995 | By | Category: 6-4: New Respect for Indian History, Tribal College News

Edsel Brown, assistant at the Navajo Community College Ned Hatathli museum, talks to Navajo Community College students within the inflated portable ''star lab" on loan to the tribally controlled college from the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. Photo by Ed McCombs, Navajo Community College

Hoping to strengthen traditional knowledge, Vine Deloria, Jr., and the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) are sponsoring a series of conferences. Through the conferences, tribal “lore keepers” share information on subjects including pharmacology, astronomy, veterinary science, botany, genetics, and evolution, and how they fit into their overall culture and traditions.

AISES encourages tribal college faculty and students to attend. The conferences are designed mainly to allow native Americans to speak to native Americans. Usually, nine to twelve tribal representatives speak. Invitations are available by contacting AISES. The organization hopes that each national conference will be followed by regional meetings. Through the conferences, Deloria and AISES hope that the knowledge keepers will decide to expand their contacts in other tribes and to consider working with AISES to produce curriculum, books, or videos. If they are interested, tribal colleges could possibly host regional caucuses and augment the colleges’ American Indian studies programs, Dick Pierce of AISES says.

As a result of the star conferences, AISES has purchased a “star lab,” a portable, inflatable planetarium which is being used by various Indian communities for a month at a time. Several tribes have developed their own cylinders that project their own tribal constellations. The cylinder becomes tribal property when the star lab leaves.

Nancy Maryboy, a Navajo who is studying for her doctorate in astronomy, is taking the star lab to Alaska where she will be comparing Navajo star knowledge with the northern Athabascan knowledge. “The stars tell you a lot about where you’ve been,” Pierce says.

In early August, AISES and Cornell University plan to host a conference on traditional agriculture. Since Cornell is a major land grant agricultural school and also has a renowned American Indian program, it seemed an ideal site, Pierce says. With their recently attained land grant status, tribal colleges might find this conference of particular interest, Pierce says.

Deloria is especially excited about the October 1995 conference, “Migrations, Creation Stories, and History,” which will be in Boulder, Colorado. He hopes participants will bring their tribes’ migration and origins stories, including migrations from the stars. He also hopes participants will bring stories about strange peoples who once taught them various techniques, such as how to make baskets, pottery, or weapons.

Next fall AISES and the Inter Tribal Bison Cooperative will co-host a conference on the buffalo culture of North America’s aboriginal peoples. Planned for either Denver or Rapid City, it will coincide with the cooperative’s first bison auction and thus be open to the public. Mark Heckert of the cooperative hopes the conference will attract elders with expertise encompassing all aspects of subsistence and spirituality related to buffalo.

Deloria organized the first conference in 1992 to address law, theology, and ecology. Subsequent conferences have focused upon plants, animals, and stars. Pierce of AISES says they plan to continue until they run out of subjects or participants. Conference organizers give first preference to the scholars themselves and then to Indian students, Indian parents and teachers, and finally a selected group of non-Indians such as teachers. In deference to the speakers and their information, press coverage has not been allowed unless specifically agreed to by a speaker, Pierce says.

Deloria (Standing Rock Sioux) is an author and professor of history and religious studies at the University of Colorado. AISES is a national nonprofit organization based in Boulder, which was established to increase the number of American Indian college graduates in science, engineering, and business. As part of this mission, AISES fosters bridging Native tradition with science and technology.

Anyone who would like to attend or to recommend elders to invite should contact Dick Pierce at AISES, 303 939- 0023 (voice) or 939-8150 (fax) or send e-mail to aiseshq@spot.colorado.edu.

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