Long ago, the crops must have made their way north, carried along trade routes that linked every forest and plain and coast, spreading from what is now widely known as Mesoamerica to the regions east of the Great Lakes. Maize, beans and squash.
To the Haudenosaunee, they became known as the Three Sisters, and those who farmed them thrived.
What those farmers knew then is that the three crops work together as if they were one. The corn stalk gives the beans a tall ladder to climb up to the sun; the beans hold nitrogen in the soil, which helps the corn; and the squash surrounds them both with a shady, prickly ground cover that guards moisture and keeps nibbling mammals at bay.
Planted this way, the three crops produce phenomenal yields, more than growing any one of them alone, and producing in a spot all the essential amino acids humans need, plenty of carbohydrate energy and a strong dose of protein. This innovation was powerful; as the Three Sisters flourished, so did the cultures and populations of the peoples that planted them.
When Europeans arrived, they observed this style of farming but did not adopt it. European farming preferred single crops planted in orderly rows. It would be hundreds of years before their science would learn what the Haudenosaunee and other peoples long knew about the benefits of the Three Sisters; before that, they weren’t much interested.
"Instead, they keep plowing single rows and keep doing monoculture, which then exhausts the soil, and then they have to add fertilizer, which runs off into the streams, and then you get algal blooms," Roger Dube says, shaking his head. "It just goes on and on and on. It’s very frustrating, when you have something that clearly works, that’s clearly sustainable.
"But they’re not going to do it, because it’s not the way it’s always been done."
"My feeling is that the fusion of traditional ecological knowledge and Western science methodology should rapidly lead the researchers to much more holistic solutions to problems." ‐ Roger Dube
Dube, a physicist, uses this example sometimes, when he speaks about the marginalization of Indigenous science. He used it again Wednesday morning, when he spoke to a packed hall at the University of Manitoba, where scientists, educators and students from across disciplines had gathered for the Turtle Island Indigenous Science Conference.
The conference was a landmark event, bringing more than 350 people to the U of M to hear talks from over two dozen researchers. The range of topics they presented on was vast — from Navajo mathematics to analyses of key ecological information encoded in Indigenous tongues — but all of it bore the same message: science is only enriched by Indigenous perspectives.
"My feeling is that the fusion of traditional ecological knowledge and Western science methodology should rapidly lead the researchers to much more holistic solutions to problems," Dube says. "They’re not going to fall down this hole that says ‘we have to cut down all this type of tree,’ and then they end up with some system that’s totally out of balance."
Dube, who is Mohawk and Abenaki, has spent his whole life in the mainstream science world. A professor emeritus at the Rochester Institute of Technology, he earned his PhD from Princeton and studied space weather and artificial intelligence; but he always saw how that world was skeptical, at best, of what Indigenous approaches to learning had to offer.
"They think it’s hocus-pocus," Dube says, bluntly. "That’s exactly the attitude. They think of this as, ‘Ah, you’ve got your bones and your feathers… go away.’ They just don’t have a lot of respect for it, because it’s not that Western methodology they’ve been taught to respect."
That skepticism, he thinks is, in part, rooted in a pervasive image of pre-contact Indigenous societies as static.
"If you’re in the sciences and you’re Native, you’re going to be challenged," he says. "The attitude is, ‘We brought you all of this technology, you gave us nothing except land.’ That’s how they view the situation, like nothing was happening (before contact). ‘They didn’t know how to farm, they’re just hanging out and hunting in the woods when they need to. That’s it.’"
Yet retained knowledge, oral histories and archeological evidence paint a much different picture, one that Dube emphasizes in his talks. Prior to European arrival, Indigenous societies were hubs of accelerating innovation and knowledge generation, of constant invention, of research gathered from distinct methods of observation that remain in the cultures today.
Colonialism damaged the pace of those innovations, and in many cases, sought to outright erase them. For instance, the Maya produced thousands of books to preserve their advanced knowledge of the stars and the movement of planets; the Catholic Church destroyed most of those books, naming them "lies of the devil." Only four are known to have survived.
What other knowledge was dismissed, or destroyed? And as Indigenous methodologies were summarily marginalized, what opportunities never even had a chance to blossom? Indigenous approaches to learning, Dube points out, tend to be holistic; he gives an example in which elders were able to identify a struggling watershed’s problems better than scientists did.
But how to bring those views together? The biggest challenge for the establishment, Dube thinks, will be how to accept work that makes room for Indigenous spirituality. But even here, he thinks, there are ways to build bridges; in a way, the question isn’t one of faith but one of perspective. Spirit can be an invitation to examine relationships from a different vantage.
"There’s going to be a tremendous amount of resistance, skepticism and unwillingness to accept that as (a) valid thing," he says. "‘What do you mean? Clouds don’t have a spirit.’ Yet when you include that, it helps you develop a more complete world view, when you think of things in that fashion that they have a purpose, as if they’re sentient and trying to do something.
"If you think of them that way, it gives you a much more balanced view of the entire picture that you’re looking at."
So the work for Indigenous science now, Dube says, is to continue to amass evidence that establishes the credibility of this fused approach in the eyes of the establishment. To that end, conferences such as the one at the U of M this week can help, he thinks. And someday, that could pave the way for creative solutions to the most pressing problems of our generation.
"The more we can get young Native students to begin to apply their Native way of knowing to the sciences, one of these days in the not-too-distant future, some Native student is going to come up with a breakthrough that’s going to shock everybody," Dube says. "I have no idea what that might be, nor do I know how long it’s going to be.
"But when that happens, all of a sudden there’s going to be a really wide awakening that, ‘Oh my God, how is it even possible that this person came up with this?’ You need that ability to demonstrate that we are creative on a level that’s on par with, or even beyond, what the rest of the world is doing."
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.