By: Rebecca Dzombak, 2020–2021 GSA Science Communication Fellow

Editor’s note: To honor the beginning of Native American Heritage Month, we’re sharing excerpts from conversations with three Indigenous geoscientists who spoke at GSA’s 2020 Connects Online Annual Meeting last week. GSA’s official position statement on Diversity in the Geoscience Community may be found here

“I’m an Indigenous scientist. I’m not one or the other. I’m both.”

Fitting into academia, particularly STEM fields, and very particularly geoscience, can mean burying a part of your identity in an effort to be accepted. For individuals who code switch on a daily basis, that search for security can be perpetual.

Fitting multiple identities into one scientist

Wendy Smythe, wearing a red and tan shirt, smiles into the camera.
Dr. Wendy Smythe (Alaska Native Haida) is a geomicrobiologist

Dr. Wendy Smythe is an Alaska Native Haida geoscientist at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. She is, as quoted above, an Indigenous scientist. For Smythe, identifying herself as an Indigenous scientist represents ownership of her multiple identities. In her view, outlined in her GSA talk, until Indigenous students can own their identities without fear of stereotyping or negating their experiences, the sense of security necessary for belonging won’t come.

Paulette Blanchard, wearing purple and raising her fist as she speaks from behind a podium.
Paulette Blanchard (Absentee Shawnee/Kickapoo) is an environmental geographer and climatologist

Paulette Blanchard, an Absentee Shawnee/Kickapoo climate geographer, shares that experience.

“I’m a citizen of the Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma. I’m also of Kickapoo descent and mixed race,” she says. “I learned how to negotiate those multiple identities required to survive, but I didn’t go to college until I was in my thirties because I didn’t think that college was a reality for people like me.”

Having people feel empowered to fully express themselves in academia is a critical stepping-stone to increasing inclusivity, but it can be difficult to reach that strong sense of self when surrounded by a self-similar community. American academic institutions are developed by and cater to White Western Culture and are rife with implicit norms about what is acceptable, both in terms of scientific practice and individual qualities. This creates barriers for anyone struggling to fit multiple identities (whether race, language, gender, or something else) into that academic space. 

“[They] get to be Indigenous at home, and then in academia… It’s not welcome to look Native, to act Native, to think Native,” Smythe says of students’ experiences. “If you’re in an ecology class, and you start asking about Traditional Knowledge, it’s dismissed as myth and not real. So you have to shift your identities and code switch all the time.. We don’t own our whole identity.”

“[Western] science is racist, assimilative institution,” Blanchard says on the topic of identity exclusion. “If you don’t assimilate, you’re not allowed. Your knowledge base is negated, delegitimized, relegated to anecdote… Science looks at itself for validation and doesn’t include critique or allow any other perspective. That is, in itself, problematic.”

Rejecting identities excludes perspectives, knowledge, and ideas

Beyond causing personal harm to those whose identities are not historically welcome in Western science, the practice of excluding identities limits the diversity of perspectives brought to the academic table. As that practice is perpetuated — implicitly or explicitly — data, knowledge, and ideas are lost or ignored, to the detriment of the field.

Blanchard has insight into how mainstream science has excluded Indigenous perspectives through her collaborative research with dozens of Indigenous tribes across the country on intergenerational knowledge about climate change. Excluding Oral Tradition and data that Western science would deem qualitative, such as observed changes in insect populations or seasonal rainfall, isn’t just ignorant, she says, it’s holding back science and society.

“It’s when we start bringing these sciences back together, and sharing our siloed knowledges, that’s when you’ll start getting a more holistic understanding of the problems that we’ve not only created, but are trying to repair,” she says. “You can’t geoengineer your way out of everything.” 

On this point, Smythe agrees. In addition to posing issues of data loss, excluding one knowledge base and requiring a less-familiar Western approach can be a barrier to success for students. 

“We have different ways of thinking, though holistic knowledge, a holistic way of knowing,” she says, linking the idea to students’ classroom experiences. “When we do the Western science part, you’re looking at something different, and not the holistic system. They’re both okay to do. And people need to recognize — our students need to recognize, too — that the students are struggling because [professors are] asking them to think a different way.”

Western educational practices should evolve to address identity-specific needs

Sapóoq'is Wíit'as (Ciarra Greene) smiles into the camera
Sapóoq’is Wíit’as (Ciarra Greene; Nez Perce) is an environmental scientist and hydrologist. 

The transition between ways of thinking (part of code-switching) can be difficult for students to handle, says Sapóoq’is Wíit’as (Ciarra Greene), a Nimiipuu (Nez Perce) environmental scientist and faculty at Northwest Indian College (NWIC) – Nez Perce, an NWIC satellite campus located in present day Idaho. But grounding new knowledge in familiar concepts can improve the learning experience. Doing so is easier at a tribal college than at an external institution because tribal colleges, which cater specifically to Indigenous communities, were established with the goal of integrating Native culture, experiences, and traditions into higher education. 

“I’m at a tribal college in my own tribal community, and we get to teach from a Nimiipuu cultural perspective,” C. Greene says. “We discuss our traditional foods, medicines, and sacred places in the classroom —contextualized learning— with the concepts of Western science alongside, woven together.” 

“I think the purpose of bringing culture in the classroom is to teach values,” C. Greene continues. “To teach culture requires building a reciprocal relationship with our homelands, and carrying forward traditions responsibly, and we can emphasize that in our courses.”  Communicating values centered around culture is a hallmark of the Indigenous Speaker Series, a collaboration between NWIC – Nez Perce and the University of Washington -Tacoma that brings Indigenous scholars’ and students’ voices to a broad audience and builds connections. “We’re trying to elevate voices that talk about their academic research, and about lived experiences,” C. Greene says. “The values that are shared in those conversations, might be something [people] share with their children, or share with their aunt, or share with somebody else in their community.  The sharing of values is what people take away from the series, inspiration, new vision…”

Community expectations and norms around education, including the values C. Greene references, can be complex within Indigenous communities due to a combination of historical and modern factors. “Education and research in Indigenous communities are tied to trauma,” Smythe says, referring to both the violent history of forced assimilation and boarding schools and to the extractive, one-way nature of much of modern research involving Indigenous communities. When young people want to leave for college, that move can be questioned.

“What that shows is that trauma, the idea that education and research have negative connotations,” Smythe says. “When students want to go into academia, or want to go away to school, it can be difficult, because there’s no support within the community. They might rather have you home than leaving to go where you may get hurt, right? … So there’s a variety of social stressors that keep the student from going to school, or alienating them if they do.”

One option that’s often underutilized by academia is educational programs held within communities themselves, rather than requiring students leave home, putting students at ease with familiar people and places in addition to concepts. A program C. Greene established with colleague Maggie Picard, ‘Nimiipuu’neewit: Lifeways of Our Homelands,’ connects Nez Perce community members with tribal and local natural resources agencies and local academic institutions to share perspectives of protection and healing of the territorial Nimiipuu homelands which span into present day Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. The program sessions are on place-centered topics around the air, fire, land and water.

“To invite ‘professionals’ to come into your community, which they have a trust responsibility to do through the treaties, and to be engaged in your safe space to hear your perspective is a systematic shift, a power shift, and creates a whole other dynamic,” she says. “A scaled up example of how agencies —US Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife, the EPA, et cetera— can and should do this is instead of doing internships, do ‘externships’ for high school and college students. Students get to stay in their communities, look at their own community and see, ‘What is it that I can do here with the information that I just learned?’” This effort is not just Indigenous-led, but requires systematic decolonization of these establishments.

Some students pursue outside education with the goal of returning to solve problems in and care for their home. That motivation can facilitate discussions around education and help them explain their actions.

“A lot of students go to school because they want to go back home [to help],” Smythe says. “I’ve done a lot of work with students to teach them to be proud of that multiple identity (Indigenous scientist), and how to talk to these different stakeholders, how to engage with someone in your community about why you’re going to school, and how you want to come back and help your community.”

Research and education need to be two-way paths

The promise of returning to improve the community is not always enough for a scientist to re-engage with the community, as Smythe has experienced. Any researcher looking to work within an Indigenous community has to recognize the history of one-directional research done by non-Indigenous scientists and adapt their protocols to respect the community.

“Communities are very aware of researchers coming in, extracting, and leaving,” Smythe says. “It’s just now getting to the point where [community members] start speaking out about it and ask, ‘Well, what are you going to do? How are you going to do it?’ They want you to invest in the community and learn who they are before they grant you permission. And I can say that because… I had to work with the elders and tribal leaders for two years before I got permission to go into school, and I’m from the community.”

“[Non-reciprocal research] is basically sanctioned plagiarism in academia, which has gone on for generations,” Blanchard says of research where the community does not benefit, or where knowledge is disseminated without permission. “It becomes a heightened violence because you’re taking Indigenous knowledge and an Indigenous lens and and trying to present it as a non-Indigenous person, which is really a hubris that science needs to rectify.”

For any ethical collaboration between an Indigenous community and outside researchers, building trust and meaningful relationships is key – whether it’s a research project or recruiting for college. “Having programs where you’re developing those relationships early on with either tribal communities or indigenous individuals” is mandatory; no longer can we accept less than this standard”, C. Greene says.

“It’s the responsibility of the researcher to do all parts of their research in an ethical way,” Smythe says. “We expect when someone publishes something that they didn’t falsify their data. Right? There’s an ethic to it. The same is true when you engage with a diverse community, or any community.”

“Work with us, not on us,” Smythe ends simply.

“When you’re designing your research proposal, put another six months of funding in so that you can spend the time at the kitchen table or out in the garden,” Blanchard says. “The community needs time, because relationships are more important than the research, sometimes, when it comes to working with Native peoples. That reciprocity is critical. So if you’re considering working with an Indigenous community, you better have something more to give back than, ‘Here’s my paper that I got published.’”

Center respect to foster security and belonging

Being mindful of the violent history that is associated with education for Indigenous communities is also critical for establishing a thoughtful partnership. “Don’t show these pictures of these big [campus] buildings built in 1880,” C. Greene says, referring to university brochures. “You know what was happening in the late 1800s with our people… that building is a structure of assimilation and a structure of extermination. So I’m not like, ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s so beautiful. I want to go there.’ I think, ‘Man, that’s so disheartening,’ because the people in that place were displaced by that structure.”

“If [the school] puts on their website whose homelands they’re on, I see that they honor that already,” C. Greene adds. “As Indigenous students, we come to institutions to learn, but when we show up, we are asked to teach too. Teach the institution about colonization, then do work to decolonize and indigenize. Institutions need to do this work, and the land acknowledgement is barely the tip of the iceberg.”

Ethical and culturally-aware practices around research and recruitment are essential, but recognizing and respecting students’ multiple identities and the value in Traditional Knowledge is at the heart of creating a more inclusive academic environment where Indigenous students can reach that sense of security and belonging. 

“At the core of it, we’re scientists, whether we’re a cultural practitioner, or an academic,” Smythe says. “Science is about innovation, discovery, knowledge. And if we disregard a knowledge system because we’re not familiar with it, we’re not being good scientists. diversity brings richness, innovation, new ways of thinking, new ways of seeing problems. And that benefits all of us.”

“There are two ways of looking at the world,” Blanchard says. “The two [approaches] are not going to be synonymous, nor should they be, because the objective of diversity is to have multiple perspectives, not just blend them together.”

“Every aspect of life is a bidirectional teaching and learning. Among our faculty, our students, and any guests that we invite, we all have so much knowledge to offer, but also from the land,” C. Greene says. “For me, a lot of it goes back to the values that are shared,” “and not necessarily the concepts of science or academia, but really the values that we’re able to honor within each other.”


The full recordings of GSA 2020 Connects Online sessions will be available within three weeks, but individual presentations (including those from the authors featured in this post) are available now for on demand viewing by registered attendees on the meeting’s eAttend platform. Poster presentations will be added to the platform by the end of this week.