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Connecting Traditional Knowledge and Science

U of I grant project shows Native American students how to apply traditional knowledge and storytelling to scientific research.

Long before people roamed the Earth, in the time of the Great Flood, Crawdad was a huge monster. He roamed the seas, conquering his enemies. As the waters of the Great Flood dried up, Crawdad found himself stranded on dry land. His large form shrank slowly as he struggled to find water. Finally, Crawdad found a small creek that had just enough water for his now significantly smaller form. And from then on, Crawdad was no longer a giant of the waters, but instead a tiny resident of ponds.

Many young children learn fantastical stories about how our world was formed and animals and mountains came to be: Native American tales of Coyote and his mischief; Paul Bunyan and his blue ox. But Karla Eitel and her team are using the tradition of storytelling, particularly in indigenous cultures, to show Native American youths that their ancestry is not one of myths — but of science.

An associate research professor in the College of Natural Resources and director of education at the McCall Outdoor Science School (MOSS), Eitel is leading a team entering the second year of a three-year, $1.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation that uses unmanned aerial vehicles — known as UAVs or drones — and other technology to help Native students build an identity as scientists and become interested in STEM careers. Their work marries the use of remote sensing and drone technology with traditional ways of learning.

“We are using the tribe’s cultural teaching standards to guide curriculum development, including the use of oral history, and thinking about how we can bring a new technology into a way of doing science that draws on traditional ways of knowing,” Eitel said.

During a project at in November 2017, Eitel and her team of University of Idaho graduate students worked with students to study macroinvertebrates living in water taken from Lapwai Creek. After viewing the organisms under a microscope, identifying and drawing them, the teams of students took turns making up stories that could explain how the critters ended up the way they were.

And the myth of Crawdad was born.

Eitel pointed out to the students how each of their stories included details about the organisms they saw — the foundation of observational science.

“You all made observations communicated through our stories,” Eitel said. “That’s how science gets passed down.”

Karla Eitel
Karla Eitel
“I wanted to work with a minority group and be the role model that I didn’t have — someone that looks like me, talks like me.” Christina Uh, graduate student

Building an Identity

Originally from Portland, Oregon, Christina Uh has struggled with creating her own identity as a scientist despite having been involved with research projects for years.

“I didn’t even call myself a scientist until a year ago, and I’ve been doing scientific research for five years,” said Uh, a first-generation student who has Navajo and Mayan ancestry. “I was always trying to figure out what my role was in doing science. I said I was just a tech. And my mentors said, ‘No, Christina — you’re a scientist. You’re doing this.’”

Uh is working toward her master’s degree in natural resources and taught the program curriculum at Lapwai for fall semester. She has her undergraduate degree in environmental science from Portland State University.

“I wanted to work with a minority group and be the role model that I didn’t have — someone that looks like me, talks like me,” Uh said about why she joined the project.

Christina Uh
Christina Uh

Lapwai High School graduate Ethan White Temple has been involved with research at U of I since high school. Originally from North Dakota, White Temple — a member of Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and a Nez Perce descendant — moved to Idaho as a child and participated in camps at MOSS in high school. He also participated in HOIST (Helping Orient Indian Students and Teachers into STEM), a six-week college preparatory summer program held at U of I. Through HOIST, he worked at a biology lab on the Moscow campus, studying zebra fish.

He earned his bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Lewis-Clark State College and now is working toward his graduate degree in natural resources.

“I joined the project I think to show them something different — open their minds up to different career paths,” White Temple said.

Learning from Tribal Elders

The project goes beyond work during the school year. Each summer, Eitel and co-principal investigators Teresa Cohn and Jan Eitel, research assistant professors at MOSS; Lee Vierling, professor and head of the Department of Natural Resources and Society — along with Kay Seven, director of adult education for the Nez Perce Tribe — bring high school students from Lapwai, Kamiah and Orofino to the MOSS campus to study environmental science and learn from tribal elders and leaders.

“We’re really trying to connect students to this idea that Nez Perce people have been doing science since forever,” Eitel said. “It might have some different names and be thought of differently than Western science, but the process of observing and understanding the land — communicating those ideas and the values that come from the land — that’s part of what has made the Nez Perce people thrive. A lot of that information is passed down through stories.”

At camp, the students study the tools used by forestry technicians and fisheries workers. Tribal elders — including Silas Whitman, who was awarded an honorary doctorate from U of I last fall — serve as mentors during the camp, sharing stories and knowledge that have been passed down to them.

“I was absolutely amazed at the eager participation of our tribal students in drone demonstrations and the scientific topics brought out to support cultural and traditional resource depictions,” Whitman said. “I am very optimistic for the future and share the eagerness expressed by the students in this unique program in our beautiful homeland, using the science to support and strengthen our culture and traditional beliefs while protecting and giving voice to those natural resources.”

Ethan White Temple
Ethan White Temple

Nez Perce Employees Involved

In addition to working with Native college students, the Lapwai students involved in the program also get exposure to the diversity of careers available in natural resources within their own community. Ten Nez Perce tribal employees are involved with the work.

Alicia Wheeler works for the as part of the State Tribal Education Partnership grant. She’s also working toward her master’s in curriculum and instruction from U of I’s College of Education, Health and Human Sciences.

Wheeler has been part of the effort to create nine culturally-responsive educational standards for the tribe that align with both the Common Core and Charlotte Danielson teaching practices. She attended the summer camp to talk with the youth about the standards and how they reflect Nez Perce culture.

“Native people have passed on their knowledge orally since time immemorial. That’s why the oral history is so important,” said Wheeler, who is Nez Perce. “We also want them to understand that Native people have been scientists since time immemorial. It goes hand in hand. It’s important to pass on all of this knowledge that we have. Number one, it's not yours to keep. Number two, we don't want to lose it.”

Other tribal employees involved in the project include Travis House ’98, a project leader at Lapwai Creek, tribal employee Abe Yearout ’15, and watershed coordinator Marcie Carter, who is working toward her doctorate in natural resources at U of I.

Carter earned her master’s in wildlife from U of I in 2010. Eitel encouraged her to pursue her doctorate and join the grant project. With the project, Carter serves as a mentor and is developing a field project so the students can get more hands-on research and analysis experience.

As a tribal member and a woman, Carter hopes that she inspires the youths to know that they can succeed and bring knowledge back to the tribe.

“The tribe wants our own people running our own programs, making our own decisions. The only way we can do that is to get our own students interested and educated and coming back here,” Carter said.

Lapwai High School agricultural economics instructor Devin Boyer, a 2003 graduate of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, said she’s seen the project have a good impact on her students.

“They apply what they learned in class outside the classroom,” Boyer said. “Bringing the employees from the tribe in helps our kids see the relevance of what’s going on in the classroom to the community.”

Learn more about the McCall Outdoor Science School and how you can support its programs at divinedestinations.info/moss.

Article by Savannah Tranchell, University Communications & Marketing

Published in the spring 2018 issue of Here We Have Idaho.

“Native people have passed on their knowledge orally since time immemorial. That’s why the oral history is so important.” Alicia Wheeler, Nez Perce Education Department

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Phone: 111-111-6291

Fax: 111-111-5841

Email: [email protected]

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