Widening The Lens On A More Inclusive Science

33:34 minutes

Learn more about Indigenous astronomy and the efforts to recognize it in North America.

an indigenous man with a laser pointer, pointing our indigenous constellations on a projection
Photo by Christie Taylor.

In 2012, the Obama administration projected that the United States would need to add an additional 1 million college graduates in STEM fields per year for the next ten years to keep up with projected growth in the need for science and technology expertise. At the same time, though, native Americans and other Indigenous groups are underrepresented in the sciences, making up only 0.2% of the STEM workforce in 2014, despite being 2% of the total population of the United States. Why are Indigenous people still underrepresented in science?

Ira speaks with astrophysicist Annette Lee and anthropologist Kim TallBear about the historical role of science and observation in Indigenous communities, and how Western scientific culture can leave out other voices. They also discuss the solutions: What does an inclusive scientific enterprise look like, and how could we get there?

Considering a broader definition of science, we asked our audience how they define science, in its most distilled form. You too can join the conversation on our SciFri Voxpop app.

Transcript: Ronnie: My personal understanding of science is the rational approach to acquiring and reevaluating knowledge. Barry: Science is a response to the human experience of wonder. Tom: I define science as investigating your curiosity by using the scientific method to prove or disprove your expectations. Randy: Science comes from the Latin word “scio” which means to know, knowledge, or to learn. Linda: I always get a bit frustrated when I hear definitions of science that exclude Indigenous knowledge and native ways of knowing and understanding the universe. I’m an Indigenous scientist and I value empirism, experimentation, data, observation, and objectivity just as much as my non-Indigenous colleagues. However, as an Indigenous scientist, I never forget about the importance of spirit, dreams, visions, and intuition as tools for attaining scientific knowledge. To be clear, I don’t think that Western scientists are somehow above all of this. I just think that they’re not as likely to admit that native ways of knowing are just as valid as the methodologies they’ve been taught through a Western worldview.

We re-aired this segment on December 25, 2020 and on October 15, 2021. 

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Segment Guests

Annette Lee

Annette Lee is an artist and an associate professor of Astronomy at St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

Kim TallBear
Kim TallBear is the Canada Research Chair for Indigenous Peoples, Technoscience and the Environment at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. When you look up into the night sky, you see all those constellations. Weren’t you taught as a child what the stories behind them were? Andromeda chained to a rock, Percy is staring down a sea monster, Hercules slaying a lion.

But even as the Greeks and the Romans looked to the stars and told stories about them, so did Indigenous people around the world. In North America, communities, the stars hold bears, sweat lodges, thunderbirds, and more. And some of those stories are also part of how Indigenous people made sense of the world around them, a kind of science separate from, but with similarities to these scientific enterprise built by Europeans.

So is there a way to connect the two? Well, in Canada, science museums and Indigenous educators are using star stories as a bridge. Science writer-producer Christie Taylor went to Canada to get the story, starting on the shore of Lake Winnipeg in rural Manitoba.

WILFRED BUCK: They’re coming out. They’re starting to come out.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: It’s a freezing cold night in Manitoba, and we are waiting for the stars. It’s early May, but I’m wearing three sweaters, and I’m huddled next to a campfire, listening to a man named Wilfred Buck tell us stories behind constellations that I’ve never heard of until tonight.

WILFRED BUCK: And that’s called Pakone Kisik, the hole in the sky. And the hole in the sky, this is where we come from. We come from–

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Wilfred is Cree, from one of Canada’s largest First Nations groups. And he’s telling us stories from Indigenous communities across Manitoba. He calls us tepees and telescopes. It’s a coming together of far-flung Indigenous teachers, community leaders, local youth, and one science reporter from the United States, me. It’s a weekend of stories, ceremony, and astronomy.

SPEAKER 1: Tell us about Venus.

SPEAKER 2: Tell us more about Mars.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Wilfred is telling star stories, but also tales of science. Take the peculiar path Mars takes through the night sky, because the Earth orbits the sun faster than Mars does.

WILFRED BUCK: –as fast as Mars. And when it does that, it looks like Mars does a circle in the sky. Then it continues its journey. Retrograde motion, so they called it kitom pampaniw. It circles back. And another name to have for it is mooswa acak– moose spirit. Because what happens is when a moose is startled, it’ll run, and it’ll run in a big huge circle. And then it’ll come back. Then it will continue its journey.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Three days and 2,000 miles later, I’m in Ottawa, at the Canada Science and Technology Museum.

DAVID PANTALONY: We have here then the wall called One Sky, Many Astronomies. Five different languages here– French, the Ojibway, and Dakota, Lakota, and the Cree languages.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: David Pantalony, curator of physical sciences, is showing me around. Here, you can hear more star stories told by Wilfred and other Indigenous elders through headsets. This time, they’re part of the space exhibit, alongside a 100-year-old refracting telescope and displays about radio astronomy.

The constellations themselves are painted gorgeously on one wall– moons, fishers, thunderbirds, and the hole in the sky where we come from. And here’s a question David gets sometimes– what is a series of star stories doing in a museum devoted to technology and science?

DAVID PANTALONY: People are surprised. But then it makes sense. Oh, of course. Cultures would have different constellations and different stories and different world view based on this massive canopy from horizon to horizon every night that unfolds before our eyes.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Because a story about how Mars circles around in the sky like a startled moose is an instrument of astronomical observation, just like the telescope that also sits in this museum. In 2008, Canada began a major effort to right the wrongs of colonization, recognize the rights of Indigenous groups, and shape a new relationship of respect and partnership, a process referred to broadly as truth and reconciliation. At the museum, this took the shape of a conscious effort to include Indigenous culture and technology in the story of Canadian science.

ANNETTE LEE: So as much as there’s this idea that’s embedded in the identity of science itself that science is all rational, science is immune from culture, that that’s simply not true.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: The museum was so serious about getting the details right that they brought in Lakota astronomer Annette Lee as a co-curator.

ANNETTE LEE: Science itself actually is not separate from culture. It came from culture. And it came from a specific culture, and that’s Western European.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: What Annette means is that our very picture of what science is has been shaped by Western European history and the biases of that culture. But science is also something anyone can do, and Annette says everyone has done it. Just closely observe the world, organize and test what you learn, and transmit it to future generations. That Indigenous cultures have done so without test tubes doesn’t make them unscientific, she says– just different.

On the day I visit the museum, a group of students from nearby Gloucester High School is there. They’re all Indigenous.


Hello, I’m Jordan. I’m [INAUDIBLE] from Red River Nation. I use they/them pronouns because I’m two-spirited.

JESSIE: Hi, my name’s Jessie. I’m from Northwest Angle 37, and I’m Bear Clan.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: At the museum, they explore the constellations as newcomers. They rotate the images of the sky to see the stars overhead on the day and the time they were born– a turtle, a spider, a thunderbird, and a marauding bear named Mista Muskwa. One student, Jessie, tells me the stories she’s reading on the walls aren’t ones she ever learned growing up.

JESSIE: I’m 18 and I’m learning this now. And I still don’t know anything about it. I feel like I know more about– what is it– Greek or Roman, their constellations, than I do my own.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Wilfred says Jesse’s experience is common. It’s actually a direct fallout from the ways in which colonizing Europeans killed Indigenous people and weakened their ties to their culture. In more than 14 years of collecting star stories in Manitoba, Wilfred’s only found two dozen.

WILFRED BUCK: Every visible star in the sky had a name, had a story, had a sacred story attached to it. And due to the historical trauma of our people, we lost anywhere from 75% to 85% of that knowledge.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: At the museum, none of the students, all 17 and 18 and thinking about the future, thought they wanted to be scientists. And I’m talking about nerds. I’m talking about students who said that they loved learning about botany, medicine, engineering, or even designed whole science curriculum for kids at summer camps. Jessie and her classmates are exactly the kinds of students you would want pursuing STEM degrees. And yet–

JESSIE: I don’t want to do Western science. I don’t want to have to write everything down all the time because it’s the most annoying thing, and I’m not good at writing everything down. I keep it in my head, because that’s how– like, it’s in my blood to do that, you know?

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: In 2012, the Obama administration set a goal of increasing STEM college graduates by 1 million to meet growing need in the next decade. But how do you recruit that many young scientists? And how do you invite everyone, like Jesse, who feels left out? In Canada, David Pantalony, the museum curator, says broadening the image of science and who does it is a first step. Give credit to more non-Western scientists, both past and present, and look beyond the stereotypes of lab coats, test tubes, and particle accelerators.

DAVID PANTALONY: When you find out what science really is– observing, making, doing, asking good questions, sharing with people, being embarrassed about not knowing something, failing– and you even hear that– like, you hear that from kids, and you hear that from Nobel Prize winners.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: For both Annette and Wilfred, bringing star stories to the mainstream halls of Canadian science museums isn’t just about sharing Indigenous knowledge with Western visitors, or even about expanding the vision of what science is. It’s also about the future of Indigenous communities still recovering from the damages of colonization.

In both Canada and the US, Indigenous youth have the highest suicide rate of any other racial or ethnic group. Indigenous communities have also been hit hard by the opioid epidemic, and young indigenous people also have high rates of homelessness. Literally and figuratively, Annette says, youth are leaving. There’s a lack of hope.

ANNETTE LEE: That’s part of what the star knowledge brings– this sense of purpose, this lifeline that each person is connected to the bigger whole. The universe, right? The stars.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: So can stories about the stars bring broken communities back together? For Wilfred, that connection to his history was a key part of his thriving. As a teenager, his family scattered by poverty, he was homeless on the streets of Vancouver, until Cree elders invited him and other youth to come back to Manitoba to learn about their culture.

WILFRED BUCK: I found a piece that was missing in my life. I found something that made sense to me. I found something that was ours. It was [INAUDIBLE]. It was Cree. And it was a sacred thing, and it was a powerful thing.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: It was a journey that led him ultimately to the stars. In New York, I’m Christie Taylor.

IRA FLATOW: And you can see the Cree, Ojibwe, and Dakota, Lakota star maps and hear more of Wilfred’s stories on our website. It’s ScienceFriday.com/stories. We want to talk more about Indigenous knowledge, science, and culture. And if you would like to join the discussion, please give us a call, 844-724-8255. 844-724-8255. You can also tweet us at @scifri.

And to begin that conversation, let me introduce two guests– Dr. Annette Lee, who you just heard in that piece, associate professor of astronomy at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. She describes herself as mixed race Lakota. Dr. Lee is director of the Native Sky Watchers Research Program. Welcome to Science Friday, Dr. Lee.


I’m here. Thanks, Ira. Happy to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you. Thank you for coming. Dr. Kim TallBear, an associate professor and Canada Research chair of Indigenous Peoples, Techno Science, and the Environment at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. She was also a citizen of Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate. Welcome to Science Friday.

KIM TALLBEAR: Hi, nice to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Let me begin with a submission we have from one of our listeners, who herself is an Indigenous scientist.

LINDA: I always get a bit frustrated when I hear definitions of science that exclude Indigenous knowledge and native ways of knowing and understanding the universe. I’m an Indigenous scientist, and I value empiricism, experimentation, data, observation, and objectivity just as much as my non-Indigenous colleagues.

However, as an Indigenous scientist, I never forget about the importance of spirit, dreams, visions, and intuition as tools for attaining scientific knowledge. To be clear, I don’t think that Western scientists are somehow above all of this. I just think that they’re not as likely to admit that native ways of knowing are just as valid as the methodologies they’ve been taught through a Western worldview.

IRA FLATOW: Hm. Thanks to Linda, an ethnobotanist from the Mille Lacs band of Ojibwe for her submission. That was on our Science Friday VoxPop app.


IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Linda just referred to the, quote, “Indigenous ways of knowing.” What are these, Annette?

ANNETTE LEE: Well, “Indigenous ways of knowing” are different in Western science in a few ways I can point to. One is that we have four parts of being human. What does being human mean? So in native way of knowing, we have our bodies, our minds, our hearts, our spirits. Our bodies, our minds, our hearts, our spirits. And in Western science, it’s really very much focused on just the body and the mind. And that’s where it stops. It leaves out the other half, the spirit in the heart.

Another way that Indigenous knowledge is different is that there is a very deeply embedded idea that we are related to all living things, that all living things have spirit and we are all related. This includes things in nature– trees, rocks, stars, and people. Animals, right?

And I would say the third thing I could point to is that in Indigenous ways of knowing, there is a strong concept that we can practice logical thinking, observation, measurement prediction. But there’s always a space for the mysterious, the unknown. That’s a part of it.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, talking with Dr. Annette Lee and Dr. Kim TallBear about Indigenous ways of knowing. Annette, when you say that science is inseparable from culture, what are some of the places where culture is affecting how we do science?

ANNETTE LEE: Well, I would just look at many examples. I mean, we could look at historical examples. Like, when we used to think that the Earth was the center of the universe, right, and everything that happened with Galileo, how he was put on trial, and thrown out, and restricted to not do any more research. People like Bruno were burned at the stake for believing that stars had planets going around them.

So this idea that science is embedded with culture and beliefs that are strong at whatever particular time. Now our society today is full of technology and science. And so we are just saying, instead of just looking at science that comes out of one particular culture, Western European culture, that’s very good and very strong, and we can do a lot of incredible things. We can send people to the moon. We can send spacecraft to Mars. We can use the Hubble to look back 13 billion years in time, right?

We love this kind of science. But what we’re simply saying is that that just comes– it has grown out of one culture, and that there are many other cultures that are a part of this planet, and that those cultures have also done science. And so we need to widen what we mean by science.

And if you think about the definition of, let’s say, physics, it originally meant the philosophy of nature, this relationship with nature. Why can’t all cultures have a way of having a relationship with nature, right? And contributing to the conversation, contributing to the body of knowledge.

So that’s simply what we’re saying, that there’s engineering, there’s technology, there’s ingenuity. How many people alive today could make a means of a transportation– for example, a canoe– out of a birch bark tree completely or make their home out of a buffalo, right?


ANNETTE LEE: There’s so many examples Indigenous cultures have made contributions. But with our history of colonization, somehow we just got trapped. We got stuck on one way, one particular culture’s way of doing science. And now it’s time to widen that definition to let other cultural contributions join our human resources.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. Interesting aspect. Yeah, and we do have– as you mentioned, we certainly have a precedent with the history of science about how our cultures have influenced the progression of science. We’re going to take a short break and come back and talk lots more about this. Our number, 844-724-8255. 844-SCI-TALK.

You can also tweet us at @scifri, talking about Indigenous science. Maybe you are part of that movement that is interested in Indigenous science. Give us a call, 844-724-8255. You can also, as I say, tweet us at @scifri. We’ll take a break and come right back and get to the phones also. Stay with us.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking this hour about science and specifically how science can be more welcoming to Indigenous people and cultures that have been building other systems of knowing for thousands of years, with my guests, Dr. Annette Lee, associate professor of astronomy at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. She’s also a mixed race Lakota. Dr. Kim TallBear, an associate professor and Canada research chair of Indigenous Peoples, Techno Science, and the Environment at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

Let me begin with you, Dr. TallBear. You come from anthropology. How do you point that lens at the culture of science itself? Because you know what? I’m listening to these stories being told. And they have sort of a familiar ring that I’ve heard in other cultures before. Like the Chinese, and herbal medicine, and all kinds of things that used to be denigrated years ago, now we’re taking other looks at them.

KIM TALLBEAR: Well, I’m an anthropologist of science, and I wrote a book called Native American DNA, Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science. So I study as an anthropologist genome scientists, who are largely– have been– straight white men. So I’m not really looking in my anthropology at Indigenous cultural practices around science, although certainly I have had to look at that as I examine the culture of genome science. So I can sort of address both of those issues, but I definitely, my lens is focused on looking at the “cultural biases,” quote unquote, of Western science. So I can give you a couple examples of that if you like.

IRA FLATOW: Yes, absolutely.

KIM TALLBEAR: So one of the things that I learned in spending so much time with genome scientists, and particularly those who look at human migrations, they’re really obsessed with the Bering Strait. They’re obsessed with that particular geographical trajectory into the Americas. They’re obsessed and shaped by, I would say, an immigration narrative.

We often hear this inappropriate, overly generalized claim that we, in the US, are a nation of immigrants. Well, of course, that’s not completely true. It forgets Indigenous people, and it forgets enslaved people who were forced to come here.

So that’s one bias that I think it’s shaping their over attention onto migration narratives, versus, say, looking at trade routes and other kinds of travel routes within the Americas that Indigenous people undertook because they were trading with one another and relating with one another.

But non-native genome scientists have been overly interested in how people got here from the, quote unquote, “old world.” And that terminology, old world versus new world, that’s a biased terminology. Old to who, new to whom, right?

The other way is they assume a certain set of ethics that are not universal ethics. So for example, in Western bioethical practices, the bodies of our ancestors– dead bodies, human remains– are not considered human subjects. They’re not subject to human subject ethical guidelines.

But in our Indigenous cultures, there’s still a sense of a vibrancy or a life force. And so we have a different ethical relationship to our ancestors’ remains. There is more of a sense of they’re still with us. Their presence is still with us and vibrant and must be respected. That kind of world view is not written into the federal bioethical guidelines in terms of the way that genome science gets done.

And then there’s also these kinds of– all of these ethics are what I would call biased value choices, and they are focused on some narratives and not others, some histories and not others, some worldviews and not others.

IRA FLATOW: Well, let’s get our listeners in, 844-724-8255. Let’s see if we can get a question from Florida. Lolita, hi. Welcome to Science Friday.

LOLITA: Hi, hello.

IRA FLATOW: Hi, go ahead.

LOLITA: I was listening, and I’m hearing all the great steps Canada is taking towards incorporating Indigenous people into science and just to, I guess, it gets students involved. But I wanted to know if the US has taken any steps, or have they tried to incorporate it in schools?

Because I felt like my education was very Eurocentric. And everything that I know outside of what was taught in school is pretty much what I looked up on my own, as far as history and science is concerned, for groups of people that you don’t see in your textbook going to school.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Good question. Annette, Kim, would you like to respond?

ANNETTE LEE: Sure. I would say we’re trying. Canada’s definitely taking a leadership role in this effort. But in the US, for example, I started a revitalization effort called Native Sky Watchers back in 2007, and so where basically started the idea of, like, we’ve lost a lot, but we haven’t lost everything. So let’s start with our own communities and remember this star knowledge, Ojibwe and Lakota, Dakota.

And so we began to talk to elders. We began to make resources. So we made the star maps, Ojibwe Giizhing Anung Masinaaigan, right? We now have four star maps– three Indigenous and then the Greek star map. We have workshops, Native Sky Watchers Teacher and Community Workshops. So we’ve created workbooks and lesson plans. So you can even go to the website or come to a workshop.

I think that this is one example. And there are many examples that people are trying, like grassroots efforts. But we definitely need– we need help. We need allies. We need support. We need funding. So please join in and help us out however you can.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. When we talk about the drastic underrepresentation of Indigenous people in STEM careers, I mean Indigenous people make up something like 0.2%. What do you think the source of this is, Kim?

KIM TALLBEAR: I think there’s a couple of reasons. I think the first obvious reason is genocide. I mean, we saw 90% or more reduction of the number of people that we have. So when we’re looking at the fact that we’re 2% tops of the population of Americans, that makes sense that there’s very few of us in science.

The other thing is we, like other people of color, other poor people, are tracked away from STEM fields early on in school. And I think that is also related to the fact that there are a lot of native people who are living in rural areas. Or if they’re urban, they’re living in poorer school districts and there is a dearth of lab facilities, math and science education in those schools. We know in the US that we have a shortage of math and science teachers. And I think that’s particularly problematic in rural areas and other poor school districts. So there’s a lot of factors coming together that are both about race and class intersecting.

IRA FLATOW: Annette?

ANNETTE LEE: Sure. So there was a big report done back in 2012 that studied this question that came up with three main barriers. And the first one was mathematics as a barrier to going into STEM. The second one was uninspiring introductory STEM courses. And the third–

IRA FLATOW: What does that mean? What does that mean?

ANNETTE LEE: That means lecture-based memorization and fact-based courses, mostly PowerPoints with maybe a few demos sprinkled in. This is the old style of learning.

So the third barrier, why we have a national crisis in STEM right now, we do not have enough young people in general going into STEM careers, is unwelcoming environments, unwelcoming atmospheres in the departments. And this was particularly bad for females, so for women, and for people of color.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. Let’s go to the phones. Lots of people would like to talk about this. Michael in North Carolina, hi, Michael.

MICHAEL: Hi, I’m glad I made it. I’ve got to go in to work. But I’m a Cherokee from North Carolina, and I was always interested in the subject.

But what really sparked my intuition on the whole thing and even taught me a few things about how I am myself, I read a book by Gregory Cajete in his book Native Science. And it’s a real eye-opener to our culture and how we view in a science type way with cosmology and a lot of things. But I just want to put it out there that’s a really good book to learn on.

IRA FLATOW: All right, thanks–


IRA FLATOW: Thanks for that tip. Annette, we can talk about why science feels like it’s leaving Indigenous people who might otherwise be interested in becoming scientists. But also is science losing out important perspective when it does this? What are we losing?

ANNETTE LEE: Exactly. I think there’s a couple issues here we can speak to. One is simply fairness, and we’ve kind of talked about this before. Like, STEM jobs are often higher paying jobs by quite a bit. So why should only certain segments of the population have those opportunities to even consider doing a higher paying career STEM type job?

The second big reason is demographics. So you’re probably aware of this, but the United States is quickly becoming more and more of a brown nation, right? So by some predictions, by 2040, 2044, we will be a majority minority society. Right? So we can’t afford to leave out so many of our people in science.

What’s going to happen, we will not be able to be at the leading edge of research and development if we just don’t have enough of our numbers, our population, going into the sciences. So I think, increasingly, this idea of diversity is it’s going to be more and more on the forefront as our nation is becoming increasingly populated with people of color. Right?

And I think the third reason why this is relevant here, the idea of including everyone, especially Indigenous people, especially people of color, everyone in science, is because the idea of science itself– like how well can we really solve and tackle the really hard problems of today– climate change, the idea of colonizing Mars, the idea of engineering the genes in babies, right? The idea of artificial intelligence and jobs changing, right?

All of these ideas are difficult problems, just to name a few. How are we going to tackle those problems if we are limited to one way of thinking, one cultural perspective?

You know, Ira, I’d like to offer this simple analogy. Think back on the electromagnetic spectrum. And we know that our eyes are tuned to see the visible spectrum, right? The colors red through violet, the rainbow of optical wavelengths. What if we never had known about or discovered or allowed the other wavelengths of light– infrared, ultraviolet, gamma rays, right– all of that to be a part of our knowledge base? How much would we be missing out on? Do you see what I’m saying?

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I see that. And that’s a very interesting point because you never know where a new idea is going to come from.


IRA FLATOW: And bringing other cultures, other ideas is– I cannot see a reason not to do that. Let me just remind everybody that I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.

And we actually asked some of our listeners to tell us how they define science on our Science Friday VoxPop app. And here’s some of what they had to say.

SPEAKER 3: My personal understanding of science is a rational approach to acquiring and re-evaluating knowledge.

SPEAKER 4: Science is a response to the human experience of wonder.

SPEAKER 5: I define science as investigating your curiosity by using the scientific method to prove or disprove your expectations.

SPEAKER 6: Science comes from the Latin word scio, S-C-I-O, which means to know, knowledge or to learn.

IRA FLATOW: Kim, what do you think of those definitions?

KIM TALLBEAR: Well, I think about science in a couple of ways. We can go with those definitions, which I think are focused on the literal interpretation of scientific method. So that’s what I would call little S science.

But because I’m an anthropologist of science, because I study the culture of science and the politics of it, I think a lot about big S Science, which is a science tightly wed to capitalism and colonialism historically, and settler colonialism in the Americas. So the scientific method, rational knowledge production, as I think one of the previous quotes said, is part of that, but that’s not all that it is.

And so I look at the role that science has played in, again, narrating a history of discovery, the way that it talks about frontiers, the way that it uses its cultural and political cachet to help build US empire. And as an Indigenous person who’s been critical of that, because that resulted in the massacre and marginalization of my ancestors, I’m really interested in us being more critical about science and not just viewing it as a scientific method, but really paying close attention to the politics and culture of it, so we can do it in a different way. So that we can do it in a way that is more inclusive, that is more critical.

And so I’ve really geared my energies towards not only studying scientists who I think are getting it wrong, but also helping other critical scientists train Indigenous scientists to do things right in some of the ways that Annette is talking about.

IRA FLATOW: And you talk about bringing Indigenous people to genetic science, specifically.


IRA FLATOW: New ways, you mentioned how sacred the remains of a person is. And you found that it was really not a good idea to grind up bones to bring out DNA, but you found a different method of doing it.

KIM TALLBEAR: Right. Well, not me in particular, but yeah, some of the scientists that I work with. So there were a couple of Colville tribal members who are scientists, who were commenting on the Kennewick man remains that, of course, were maybe 9,500 year old remains found in the Columbia River in 1996. And there was a big lawsuit where non-native scientists wanted to examine those bones, and a lot of native people were pushing back and saying that that’s the Ancient One. That’s our ancestor. Let’s rebury them.

And there were a couple of Colville tribal member archaeologists, who one of them came up with an idea that we could not grind up the bone because that’s one of the issues that some native people have. It’s viewed as the desecration of those remains. But we could actually take the calcified plaque off the teeth of the Ancient One and then use that to get DNA out of it.

So Indigenous scientists who come from cultures who view dead bodies as still having– that we still need to respect them will have an incentive to come up with alternative methods to do science in a way that, according to our ethical framework, is more respectful of those ancestors’ bodies.

And then so that’s part of the kinds of discussions that we have in the summer internship for Indigenous Peoples in Genomics were saying, which was founded in the United States in Illinois at University of Illinois, actually, in 2011. And we’ve since expanded to Aotearoa in New Zealand because there are Maori scientists down there. Well, we expanded to Canada in 2018, and I’m one of the leaders of that initiative up here. And then we’re just expanding to Australia in January. So we have a four-country Indigenous genome training program now.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, very interesting. I think I want to thank you both for taking the time to be with us this hour. It’s quite interesting discussion. Dr. Annette Lee, associate professor of astronomy at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota and director of the Native Sky Watchers Research Program. Dr. Kim TallBear, an associate professor and Canada Research chair of Indigenous Peoples, Techno Science, and the Environment, University of Alberta in Edmonton. Thank you both for taking time to be with us today.

ANNETTE LEE: Sure. [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] Thank you. Great show.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome.

KIM TALLBEAR: Thank you, Ira.

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About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor was a producer for Science Friday. Her days involved diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.

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D. Peterschmidt is a producer, host of the podcast Universe of Art, and composes music for Science Friday’s podcasts. Their D&D character is a clumsy bard named Chip Chap Chopman.

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Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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