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Indigenous science to be focus at UMass Amherst center on climate change research

Indigenous science is the focus of a new $30 million environmental research center, housed at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The Center For Braiding Indigenous Knowledges and Science (CBRIKS) aims to highlight the traditional knowledge of Native tribes across the country to address climate-related problems in a way that Western science often misses.

Center director and anthropologist Sonya Atalay, a member of the Anishinaabe-Ojibwe tribe, said indigenous tribes are more likely to approach scientific questions through storytelling and respect the priorities and expertise of local communities.

She said one project in the Pacific Northwest will focus on how Native tribe members preserve clam gardens.

“They turn over the sediment, they do a selective clam harvest, they return the actual clam shell to the beach,” Atalay said. “It's this way of thinking about caring for the environment, caring for food, that's kind of cyclical.”

Other research will address the impact of climate change on land and water resources, on indigenous cultural sites and on food systems.

Atalay said one goal of the center is to make use of indigenous knowledge in an ethical manner, “working with indigenous peoples as partners so that we're doing research with them rather than on them, and the research questions are coming from communities.”

Historically, she said, indigenous knowledge has been marginalized and, to some degree, exploited, such as taking cultural artifacts from Native lands to be put in museums.

“A lot of what we see is very extractive, literally pulling bodies and materials from the ground,” she said. “Or talking with Native people, recording their knowledge, and then anthropologists, archeologists, scholars claiming it as their own.”

Another objective of the center, Atalay said, is to transform the way mainstream science is practiced.

“Right now, science is practiced in a global, top down approach. What indigenous knowledge does is say, ‘Let's look at the local. This research has to be place based. It has to come from communities and rely on community specific knowledge to that place.’”

The Center For Braiding Indigenous Knowledges and Science is funded by a five-year grant from the National Science Foundation – one of four new Science and Technology Centers announced this year.

Although the center is based at UMass Amherst, Atalay said research will take place at 8 international hubs and involve 57 indigenous tribes. No field research will take place in western Massachusetts in the short term.

Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.