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  • Subverting the Captor's Language:Teaching Native Science to Students of Western Science
  • Jefferson Faye (bio)

The American Indian Studies Program (AISP) at Michigan State University uses the Tier I Writing Requirement (first-year composition) as an entry point into the specialization in American Indian studies. Three AISP faculty members offer Tier I courses in the Department of American Thought and Language (ATL), and their courses are founded in significant amounts of American Indian content, so using these courses as a gateway makes sense from an administrative perspective. This is especially true when the courses function as recruiting tools: the courses are fairly small, and there is a substantial amount of faculty–student interaction in each section. Each semester, the AISP faculty offer between four and eight sections of writing-intensive courses for first-year students, which provides opportunities for Native students to satisfy their writing requirement with Native faculty—and those students are encouraged to enroll in AISP faculty's sections. However, with only sixty or so new Native students entering the university each year, these courses end up serving other purposes. In my case, almost all my students are Anglo, many from the suburbs of Detroit and Grand Rapids, and most are scientists (premedical, preveterinary, agriculture, and engineering), so my job is to teach the cultural construction of science in the Western paradigm while teaching Native American studies.

The course I teach, ATL110 (Writing about Science and Technology), has no set curriculum, so my course covers topics such as environmental racism, the relationship between humankind and the natural world, soft technologies, and the biases and assumptions of Western science. Frankly, for many of my students—the ones who were hoping to write about the Internet and cloning—this is a frightening scenario. I can only imagine the looks on their faces when they receive their ATL book lists: while their roommates are reading Richard Wright's Native Son, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, and Willa Cather's My Antonia, with a little Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau, and Ben Franklin thrown in for context (all the books they [End Page 270] hated in high school), my students end up with Winona LaDuke's All Our Relations, Gregory Cajete's Native Science, A. Oscar Kawagley's A Yupiaq Worldview, and Vine Deloria's Red Earth, White Lies. The recent presidential elections notwithstanding, they recognize no names, and the content seems all wrong: These books are all about Indians! But I thought this was a course on science! I thought this was AMERICAN thought and language!

The first day of class is always a treat. To use Little Crow's (and others') words, I have to speak "the Captor's language." I offer students a history of Western science from a Cartesian view, talk about the separation of humankind and nature, discuss mechanistic models of the world and the death of the Earth (including the evolution of the engineering mentality), and describe what it is like to work at a software firm. We talk about Darwinian natural selection, Newtonian physics, Einsteinian relativity, and quantum mechanics. I ask them to tell me about the different models used to illustrate molecular structures. I tell them about the half-life of plutonium and the bioaccumulation of PCBS (shoot, I can even tell them what a PCB is!). And when I have done all that, I drop the bomb on them: stepping into my own mukluks, I tell them that all these things they believe to be TRUE are culturally constructed, that the science they have been taught to revere is only one worldview, and that the incontrovertibility of scientific proof is a fallacy. Then I tell them about Native sciences, about the living Earth, and about the prevalence of spirits everywhere. Even if I explain the interconnectedness of all living things in quantum terms, it remains incredibly shocking to them.

Sometimes I can see that they are getting scared because it shatters their illusion of a safe passage through "freshman comp." Other times I can see that they are trying to figure out if they can sneak out early and drop the class before they get "contaminated...


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pp. 270-273
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