An Indigenous Scientist On Purging Colonialist Practices From Science

Western science is built upon harmful research practices in Indigenous communities. Jessica Hernandez writes about how this can change.

The following is an excerpt from Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes Through Indigenous Science, by Jessica Hernandez.

a book cover of large dark green tropical banana leaves over an orange background. the text reads 'Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes through Indigenous Science by jessica hernandez, phd; “a must-read for anyone interested in indigenous environmental perspectives.” -emil’ keme (k’iche’ maya nation), member of the ixbalamke junajpu winaq’ collective'

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Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes Through Indigenous Science


According to the National Science Foundation, in 2017, 71.1 % of doctoral degrees in the sciences were awarded to whites in comparison to the 0.4 % awarded to Indigenous students. Thus the uncomfortableness of these conversations that acknowledge how settler colonialism is rooted in the sciences impacts mostly whites. However, it is important to realize that for Indigenous peoples, settler colonialism and its impacts continue to be our everyday experiences. While white scientists can choose to ignore these conversations, as Indigenous peoples we are reminded every day of how our culture, identity, lands, and other parts of our lives continue to be threatened and impacted. We see how white scientists continue to be oblivious to settler colonialism and how deeply rooted it is in the environmental sciences, physics, medicine, and other science fields. There is a failure to reflect on the founding history of these fields and how these founding histories continue to play a major role within the fields and disciplines that have been created from within.

Settler colonialism grants certain scientists from wealthy countries such as the United States permission to go to other impoverished countries throughout Latin America and create their own research projects, centers, and other endeavors while further displacing the Indigenous peoples of those areas. Ecological and conservation research is often conducted by scientists from the United States, Canada, and other European countries that have the resources and autonomy to decide where they want to do research. In higher academia, we are taught that we can create a research grant proposal for “anywhere in the world.” I have come to learn that most of the time this statement refers to impoverished countries, and in the Americas that is Mexico and Central and South America (Latin America). This perpetuates the cycle of helicopter research where researchers from wealthy countries go to an impoverished country, conduct their research studies, and then return to their countries to analyze the data they collected and publish it, oftentimes not even including or consulting the local people of those countries. In Latin America, oftentimes this helicopter research leads to having white and Westerner researchers from countries that have a long history of colonization write our stories instead of supporting Indigenous peoples so that we can write our own stories.

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I remember my visits to Oaxaca when my grandmother was still alive. Oftentimes I would go to the local shops or outdoor markets to help her purchase fresh fish and other produce. We would sometimes see white men and women with fancy cameras and equipment coming down from their trucks. My grandmother would always roll her eyes and tell me to keep on walking and not to engage or talk to any of them. I did not understand why she despised them, because I thought they were journalists or newscasters, similar to what we had in the United States. Oftentimes many of the people in our pueblo ignored them and their Spanish interpreter as well. Under her breath my grandmother whispered to me, “M’ija, these are people similar to anthropologists. They are here to collect our stories and statements because they say they are conducting ‘research.’ However, they have offered so many people stipends for their stories and interviews but did not pay them anything. On top of that, they are working on a book to write our stories. What do you think about that?” At such a young age I replied to my grandmother, “Why don’t they help everyone in the pueblo instead to learn how to read and write so that our people could write their own stories instead?”

Obviously, researchers who conduct helicopter research are not interested in what they can offer or what the community might benefit from, as their main goal is to collect data and then publish it to advance their careers. Helicopter research is the most common form of this top-down approach that the sciences continue to teach and amplify in academic institutions. Determining what kind of research is helpful without consulting the community or asking them what might benefit them is a top-down approach that can further harm the community, especially Indigenous peoples. In conservation, scientists are also taught that if something worked in one country, it might work in another one. This creates this mentality of one-size-fits-all.

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Utilizing the top-down approach promotes the creation of one-size-fits-all conservation solutions and practices that may not necessarily work for all Indigenous communities because Indigenous communities are not monolithic and their way of life is place based. Given that coastal communities are different from inland communities, the same conservation approaches will not work as they have to be adapted to meet the community’s needs. This is why it is best to center the community first, which derives from the opposite spectrum, following the bottom-up approach.

I recall in my graduate school that a professor was very mad that his potential research project was cancelled because the local federally recognized tribes of the state of Washington were not interested in creating marine protected areas (MPAs) in the Puget Sound and Salish Sea. For him this was a great way to protect salmon because he had done other research projects in other developing countries to create MPAs for conservation purposes. MPAs are the conservation frameworks that have been applied to many impoverished and global south countries. He mentioned how he had “wasted” a lot of money trying to get this project started just for the tribes to say no to his proposal. This is an example of the combination of different top-down approaches I have discussed. He thought he knew what was best for the community as opposed to the communities, in this case tribes, knowing what was best for them. This is the settler colonialism that is embedded in conservation, where non-Indigenous scientists have not developed the same relationships with the local environment as tribes who have been cherishing these relationships for generations. He wanted to apply the one-size-fits-all model to tribes in the state of Washington because he had done similar projects on MPAs with other Indigenous communities in other countries.

In conservation, we are taught that practices and approaches that were successful should be what we apply to different regions, places, and communities. This tends to ignore that every community holds a different set of values and relationships with their environments. Also the success of conservation practices and approaches is often determined by the scientists, not the local communities. Lastly, he had already decided his research project, because he was the scientist, instead of asking the tribes what kind of conservation projects they wanted to do in regard to their marine resources.

We need to start discussing this top-down approach that is embedded in the sciences, in particular anything related to our environment, where scientists believe their academic credentials and experience can outweigh lived experiences and local knowledge. This is why reversing this topdown approach to become a bottom-up approach is crucial and essential to benefit local environments and communities.

From Fresh Banana Leaves by Jessica Hernandez, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2022 by Jessica Hernandez. Reprinted by permission of North Atlantic Books.

Meet the Writer

About Jessica Hernandez

Jessica Hernandez is author of Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes Through Indigenous Science, and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington.

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