Journal of American Indian Education

Volume 21 Number 1
May 1982


Murray R. Smith

MOST science educators agree that science is an "approach in process development. " Native students have well developed processes and can apply them well to science activities. By teaching science using activities which capitalize on the processes best utilized by Native American students, both teacher and students will experience a great deal of success.

In Manitoba the science curricula are based on the following basic processes: observation, classification, communication, measuring, using space/time relationships, inferring and predicting. These processes are strengthened using the hands-on or concrete manipulative approach. Native students collect and deal with information well in this way. It is therefore advantageous in the classroom to incorporate many hands-on experiences. Through these experiences Native American students develop subconcepts, concepts and finally generalizations. In this way they gain understanding of the world around them.

However, in teaching Native American students one must be aware that not only do we strengthen the processes but also the cultural background. In this article the processes will be discussed first and then applied to the content in a cultural framework. By attempting to teach science this way the author believes it is possible to enhance the attitudes and perspectives of Native American students.

Observation, one of the basic processes, is described as using the senses to denote objects and events. These observations result in qualitative and quantitative statements. To state that Native American students do not have good skills of observation would be absurd. Native students are most perceptive and do well at observing both natural and physical phenomena. However, they may state their observations differently than their white counterparts due to language and background experiences. Here questioning and objectives must be clearly presented by the teacher.

Classification is a useful scientific process which is inherent to all people. It is a way of organizing oneís perceptions of the world around oneself. This process consists of sorting objects, ideas or events into groups according to their properties. Classification systems can be developed on the basis of one or more properties, directly observed or indirectly observed (see Note 1). Classification systems are arbitrary and their usefulness depends on the function they serve. For example, scientists classify plants and animals according to their structures. Native people (Cree and Ojibwa) classify plants and animals according to their function and use. Both are similarly valid.

Example: If a teacher asked a student to classify a plant, the student might respond, "I donít know. " However, if asked in his native language, he might identify the edible part of the plant or seasonal changes that the plant undergoes.

Another scientific process is communication. Usually in a science lesson this means written communication. A number of teachers ask students to either copy notes or write up an experiment or activity. When Native American students are communicating in a second language, this only compounds the difficulty of the assignment. Teachers should however consider models, maps, graphs, as well as oral communication. Not only will this create enthusiasm but will help Native students better convey ideas. These methods can be used to evaluate a lesson, experiment or unit.

Measuring Observations

Measurement, another scientific process quantifies observations. Important information as distance, size, proportion and time are aptly described among native peoples. Hands or any concrete articles such as stones or cigarette packages along with a very definite oral description may be used to qualify observations. In teaching measurement one should attempt to achieve applicability of the unit being taught. Many students have no difficulty with the process of measurement but may have difficulty with some of the standard units. Difficulties may arise in any class where new standard units are being introduced.

All objects occupy points in space at a given point in time. This process concerns spatial relationships and the ability to describe such things as shape, symmetry, direction and spatial arrangements, motion, speed and rate of change (see Note 1). It is a skill based on perception. Many Native students have well developed spatial relationships as it is an adaptation to their environment. If this skill is well developed the Native American student should be able to apply it to physical and environmental classroom activities. Appropriate choice of activities would depend on teacher awareness of the skills inherent in the individual and the class.

Predicting which is the process of forecasting future events on the basis of data is not a new skill to native students.

For example: "At the end of the trapping season, trappers can predict an increase or decrease in muskrat population by examining the femaleís reproductive organs. Eight small dots (about the size of rose hip seeds) on each side of the tubes indicate that an increase in number of young can be expected. Fewer than four dots means a decrease in number (see Note 2).

Another example of how native people used the skill of predicting is: "Muskrat activity before freeze-up in late September or early October helps trappers to predict winter snowfall levels. The muskrat needs a thick snow cover to keep the interior passage of its lodge from freezing. Therefore, if the muskrat builds an unusually big lodge out of the bullrushes and cattails that line the marshy river banks trappers "know" the snow will be light-the muskratís lodge must be large to trap as much snow as possible. On the other hand, trappers anticipate a heavy snowfall if muskrats delay their lodge building until after freeze-up. Then most of the muskratsí efforts are carried on beneath the ice. They work in the air pockets created by the dropping water level and build a small shelter which is not easily visible once the snow falls" (see Note 2).

There is, however, one scientific process that may be culturally biased. This is inferring. Inferring is defined as suggesting more about a set of conditions than is observed. Such assumptions not only require perceptions, but depend on a personís understanding of how the world about him operates. That is to say if one believes that there are unseen forces interacting about us it would predetermine the inferences one would make. Since this is a skill that requires extrapolation one must be aware of the other personís "base of operation." If the teacher asking the student for inferences does not understand this his statements would seem odd or even ridiculous.

For example: In many Cree communities it is believed that person can call the Northern Lights down by whistling at them. This belief would have a great deal of bearing on any inferences the Native American student may make regarding the Northern Lights.

Other examples of inferencing well developed among native peoples are tracking skills and relationships between weather and animal behavior. Some of these understandings and skills could easily be incorporated into the science curriculum.

In the science class a teacher should become aware of the childís "base of operation. " This can be done by accepting all the childís answers. If some of the answers seem strange ask the child how he "knows."

For example: In one lesson the author was asking students if oil and water mixed. One Grade Six student said "no" when his classmates all said "yes." When asked why he had responded this way the student related his experience with oil on the water after his motor boat had started.

It is important to accept all answers, for if the student is ridiculed he might tend to lose confidence in his ability to think rationally.

Science Utilizes ĎKnowledge Baseí

Science programs are not only constructed of the basic processes mentioned above but are applied to a body of knowledge, knowledge which can be culturally or environmentally specific. On referring to Native American students or students of native ancestry, one must define the environmentónot necessarily the studentsí cultural affiliations. This assumes that Native American students in an inner city situation share in the interests and knowledge base of inner city students. Likewise, Native students on reserves have different perceptions and a cultural affiliation more closely aligned with the traditional culture. The objectives of examining the studentís background in this way is to understand his "knowledge base" and promote his cultural affiliation.

The following examples presume that the Native student has strong cultural ties and understanding. In Manitoba there are many communities that are isolated and semi-isolated. These students must learn to compete with rural and urban society while preserving their rich cultural affiliation. Some difficulties arise when teacher and student come from different cultural perspectives.

When studying plants in Grades Five and Six, local plants and habitats should be utilized. Reference to native plants such as tobacco, corn, wild rice and seneca root should be stressed.

"In all of North America, north of Mexico, native people are known to have utilized 1, 112 species of plants as food. Of these at least 19 were cultivated. The Indians of the Great Lakes region utilized an estimated 275 species of plants for medicine, 130 for food and 27 for smoking (see Note 3).

Unless such facts are discussed in the classroom, Native American students can easily get the impression that their forefathers had nothing to offer the discipline of botany.

In Grade Two, students are asked to classify animals. At times Native American students classify rabbits as food rather than in the anticipated group of pets. It should be noted that both answers were correct and should be accepted. Here also is an opportunity to demonstrate sets and subsets. Many things such as this can set up discrepancies and lead to emotional turmoil within Native students.

Another example is the hunting of the snow bunting in some northern communities. Both in the spring and autumn, boys of 7-12 years hunt snow buntings. They are encouraged to do so by their fathers. Slingshots are used in order to develop good eye-hand coordination for the rifle that is to follow. At one time even these small birds were used as food for the family. In school these boys are taught conservation and told to stop this practice. Hence a double standard exists that challenges the studentsí values.

Astronomy Is a Neglected Field

Astronomy is a study which is many times poorly handled in the school curriculum. This is due to the fact that many teachers lack a background of this ever-expanding discipline. Again Native students are forced to study Greek mythology without realizing that native peoples had a rich tradition and legends relating to the heavenly bodies. Teachers who lack a clear understanding of the discipline tend to rely heavily on written materials. Hence the problem with this particular study. Little is recorded of native awareness and tradition relating to astronomy.

In Alberta and Saskatchewan, there is evidence that native peoples studied the stars and planets, for in these areas there are huge circular rock formations called "medicine wheels. " It has been suggested that these were used to track the changing seasonal star patterns. An excellent activity for any intermediate student is to be given a star chart and asked to create his own "constellations. " Evidence that native people did this is found in an Ojibwa legend. The legend focuses on a star group called "The Fisher." When asked where the constellation was, the story teller pointed to the "Big Dipper. " The author believes that by teaching these legends, Native American students would develop a greater pride in their culture as well as an understanding of astronomy.

Archaeology should also be incorporated into the school curriculum. In archaeology students compare, classify, and observe artifacts. They can also develop hypotheses, interpret data and make inferences. If archaeology is viewed in this manner it could be classified as a science. Certainly these skills are transferable to many subject areas. In many native communities history, or in this case prehistory, is a readily available resource.

"By incorporating archaeology into the school curriculum, a more practical, integrated innovative approach to science and education would result" (see Note 4).

Archaeology is actually the science of history. It therefore is integrated with social studies. Whether a social or a pure science, it can be used to develop an understanding of a culture. Native students need to understand both their own and the white cultures to function in the modem society. It is imperative that the school and community share in developing a studentís self image.

Science is an integral part of the world today. It is a vehicle that helps us understand the world we live in. Many science topics can be altered so that Native American students could become aware of their past and present culture. More occupations involving science would attract Native students if science education were improved in native orientated classrooms.


1. K-6 Science Curriculum, Manitoba Department of Education, Winnipeg, Manitoba, 1976, 14-15.

2. Scribe, Murdo, "How Native People Used ĎScience,í" Native Education Branch, Manitoba Department of Education, Winnipeg, Manitoba, 1980.

3. Mueller, Ursula, and Walker, Robert, Park Naturalists, "Useful Wild Plants of Manitoba, Riding Mountain National Park." Unpublished.

4. Smith, Murray, "Archaeology as an Aid in Cross-Cultural Science Education," Journal of American Indian Education, 19(2) January, 1980, 7.

Murray R. Smith holds a B.A. degree in anthropology from the University of Winnipeg, a B. Ed. in administration and science and a M.Ed. in science and education, both from the University of Manitoba. He taught in elementary and middle schools from 1964-1977, and then co-ordinated off-campus centres for Brandon University. At present he is a consultant for the mathematics and science curriculum at the Frontier School Division No. 48, Dauphin, Manitoba, Canada.

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