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Perspectives on Indigenous Resilience: Learning from Women in the Sciences at Northeastern’s First Annual Indigenous Resilience Event

For decades, many Indigenous people have been calling for an end to the public celebration of Columbus Day on the second Monday in October, and for recognition of Indigenous People’s Day, a holiday that commemorates Native Americans and honors their history and culture. This symbolic reorientation can be understood as a necessary first step in recognizing the repercussions of colonization for indigenous populations globally.

On October 3rd, community members from Northeastern University and beyond had the opportunity to participate in the First Annual Indigenous Resilience Event and to learn from scholars who center their work on Native people’s resilience through science, technology and Indigenous knowledge. The events of the day were supported by the Northeastern Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion and the ADVANCE Office of Faculty Development. Participants attended a breakfast and community conversation for women in the sciences at Wentworth’s Accelerate Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center. At an evening event hosted by the Museum of Fine Arts, visiting scholars Ranalda Tsosie, Ciarra Greene, and Grace Bulltail spoke with panel moderator, Northeastern Chemistry and Chemical Biology Professor Mary Jo Ondrechen, about incorporating indigenous research methods in their work, impacts of technology on Indigenous communities, and sources of hope, inspiration, and strength that they draw on as scientists and educators.

From left to right: Kylie Bemis, Grace Bulltail, Mary Jo Ondrechen, Ciarra Green, and Ranalda Tsosie. Photo credit: Danzel Jones

The speakers drew from their personal experience to emphasize that indigenous wisdom could help us survive the climate crisis and related grand challenges of our time. Panelist Grace Bulltail, assistant professor in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin and member of the Crow Tribe, underscored the point that there are many capable, driven and passionate young Indigenous scientists, but that in order to succeed they need encouragement and positive mentorship.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge and indigenous science approaches are often not recognized in the academic world. “A new kind of science is needed if we want to use our study to protect and heal cultural resources,” says Ciarra Greene, faculty member at the Northwest Indian College and citizen of the Nez Perce tribe. She argues that an ongoing challenge in the peer review process stems from the fact that indigenous knowledge cannot be formally cited, making it “a struggle to share Native knowledge outside the community,” and specially for this knowledge to be recognized as science and not as folklore.

Ranalda Tsosie, member of the Diné Nation and doctoral candidate in the department of Chemistry and Environmental Science at the University of Montana, argues that despite the concerted effort to suppress Native languages and culture, including throughout the era of US government-forced boarding schools, indigenous peoples are resilient. Native Americans have continued to share stories, and traditional languages are resurging. Ranalda reflected, “the land, plants, and animals were our first teachers– we may have forgotten how to listen, but our teachers are still here.”

The panelists encouraged people interested in furthering their exploration of indigenous knowledge systems and resilience to learn directly from Native people, and to engage with local native community centers and tribal colleges. The American Indian Science and Engineering Society is also a valuable resource for indigenous peoples pursuing STEM careers. For those who are local and are seeking to broaden their knowledge of indigenous traditions and cultures, the Museum of Fine Arts will be holding a free admission special event for Indigenous People’s Day on Monday, October 14th. The event recognizes and celebrates the heritage of Native Americans and the histories of their nations and communities.