Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Menominee Native Americans and Epistemology: Merging the Old with the New

It is often not understood by individuals, policy makers, government officials, and the like exactly how indigenous peoples differ from others. If the indigenous peoples are living in modern houses, use cars, and watch TV, how are they still "indigenous"? And if they are basically "modern", should they get any special treatment or recognition in terms of policy decisions or actions that may effect their traditional homelands? These are tough questions, ones that cannot be easily answered. However, there is one way to begin to answer these questions: by looking at epistemology.

Epistemology is defined as: the method and theory of knowing. Basically, it is one's belief system and cognitive understanding of the world, from their eyes. The key point is that indigenous peoples have a very different epistemology than those of Europeans, Americans, or any other peoples. On top of that, each indigenous tribe often has a unique epistemology from any other indigenous tribe. So, one Native American tribe may have a very different epistemology than another, and these will differ from Canadian First Nation epistemologies and so forth. Sure, there are similarities, but they are not the same. So, rather than looking at the current cultural manifestations (i.e., housing, transportation, electricity, etc.) it is more sound to first examine the epistemology of a group to see exactly how they envision themselves.

An excellent example of this method, and the insights gained from such a method that can then be used in policy decisions, self-determination cases, natural resource management plans, and more is that of Norbet Ross, Doug Medin, and Doug Cox (Epistemological Models and Culture Conflict: Menominee and Euro-American Hunters in Wisconsin [2007], ETHOS, 35(4):478-515). Here is the abstract:

We describe how Menominee Native Americans and Euro-American hunters differ with respect to how they perceive and think about nature (here, specifically animals and plants of the forest) as well as the role of humans in it. We call these models epistemological frameworks - folk theories that allow individuals to make inferences in specific situations, guiding the acquisition and formation of new knowledge. Using an approach that combines ethnographic research from anthropology with experimental approaches from related cognitive sciences, we explore the within- and between-cultural distributions of ideas, values, and beliefs and their behavioral consequences. Findings indicate that stereotyping of other groups is largely driven by differences in epistemological frameworks and resulting categorizations and interpretations of observed or assumed behaviors.

What my colleagues are saying is that the Menominee Native Americans (and other indigenous peoples in general) have a very different epistemology from that of Euroamericans. This means they understand, and view, the world around them very differently. As a result, how each group treats the environment, deals with resource issues, and so forth will differ. All one has to do is look at how the Menominee have managed their environment on their reservation.

The Menominee Native Americans have an international reputation for sustainable forestry. The Menominee forest is richer in larger trees, has a richer mix of species, and is denser even than the Nicollet forest (a state forest preserve area) to the north. It also has a higher per-acre production of timber and maintains a higher number of board feet of commercial species. This is all because of the Menominee epistemology, one that allows them to actively use, and manage, their land economically, sustainably, and productively.

If we could include the epistemologies of indigenous peoples in policies, natural resource management plans, oil development plans, mining impact assessments, and the like, we may be able to better manage our environment and its resources. The logic is simple: a broader epistemology is better than a narrow one. Including indigenous peoples epistemological knowledge is key to the future of our planet. The Menominee Native Americans have demonstrated that if we do, everyone can benefit, the people, the environment, and even Mother Earth.

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