Interview with Gregory Cajete
Albuquerque and the Turquoise Trail, New Mexico
This interview was conducted (and later edited) by Nic Paget-Clarke for In Motion Magazine on August 21 and 22, 2015 in Albuquerque, New Mexico and also on the road from Albuquerque to Santa Fe to attend the Santa Fe Indian Market. Dr. Cajete is the author of seven books. Around the time of this interview, Living Justice Press published Dr. Cajete’s "Indigenous Community: Rekindling the Teachings of the Seventh Fire". This interview focuses, in large part, on themes presented in the sixth book "Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence".
In Motion Magazine: In your book Native Science you make reference to your childhood and the people who influenced you in your upbringing. Could you talk a little bit about your early years and how it influenced your current understanding?
Gregory Cajete: That is a very good question because I think that that is the basis, or the cornerstone, of my story as a teacher or becoming a teacher -- the road or the journey towards becoming an Indigenous teacher.
I’ve actually written an article about the making of an Indigenous teacher that describes this journey into Western education beginning very early in my own community, my own family, remembering my encounters with the natural world. Growing up in relationship to plants, to animals, to people, to a way of life, at least in the present generation, is very difficult to re-constitute.
I had a lot of influences as I was growing up because my parents worked in Los Alamos. Santa Clara Pueblo is about nineteen miles from Los Alamos, New Mexico. Los Alamos, because of the war effort, and because of the national laboratory that was established there, became the primary place where many people worked that were coming from the Española Valley -- the Santa Clara Pueblo, and other surrounding Pueblos. (Editor: the Los Alamos National Laboratory researches science and technology. During World War II it was the site of the Manhattan Project, researching for and creating the first atomic bombs.)
So, I grew up under the tutelage of my grandmother who influenced me in a variety of ways. In many ways she set the tone for the kinds of thinking that I do now, the kinds of work that I do in community building, and also the kind of work I do in taking a look at the concept of Native science.
She was a matriarch. She was very knowledgeable about farming; very knowledgeable about plants and animals; very knowledgeable about Pueblo traditions.
She grew up herself in a time when Pueblo communities were very cohesive and very self-sufficient in their social relationships and social organization. It was a time when what you learned in the community was what helped you to sustain and to remain sustainable within your family and community.
Those are the kind of influences that I had as I was growing up that I still remember today -- being taught about relationships, relationships to my immediate family and also extended family. The whole notion of who you are related to -- notions of respect -- working in different kinds of context where you are working to help others.
All of those kinds of notions of relationship, respect, and responsibility that I learned and internalized at a very, very young age, I think are the foundations of what I continue to do and elaborate on in my career as a teacher, as an Indigenous educator.
One of the most important lessons I learned from my grandmother was the significance of community and family. Community and family were not just relationships to other people, but a relationship to the place we lived and we live. In this case, the relationship to the land itself, the relationship to caring for the land. A kind of mutual, reciprocal kind of relationship that allowed for the land to prosper and to regenerate itself, while at the same time providing food and sustenance.
That concept is a very Indigenous concept that was internalized and, in a sense, personalized in my life and the way that I was raised so that as I grew older I began to examine my early life, my early upbringing. I began to see how Indigenous thought actually operated in the world through that sense of relationship and responsibility of community, of your relationships to other people -- but also the relationships to the land, and to all that it contained. And it is not only about relationship. It is about the responsibility that the community, as well as each individual within the community, has for perpetuating and nurturing both community and land. There is such an intimate tie between those two entities, those two contexts.
So, very early on, I internalized an Indigenous ethic of relationship and responsibility such that, as I grew older, I began to explore particularly in the area of science because I was interested in the natural world. When you grow up in that kind of context, you begin to wonder why plants grow the way they grow. Why animals behave the way they behave. You begin to explore and experiment in the natural world with these different kinds of questions in mind through the process of being allowed to be outdoors.
I would have breakfast and then I would spend the entire day outside and not come back until I was hungry, which was usually around late afternoon. I had the opportunity, which very few people have today, of actually being in an environment and exploring it and becoming intimate with it in ways that still have a great impact on me today. I think that was the basis for my interest in science, especially natural sciences and biology, because I wanted to know how things work, how things manifested in the world.
And certainly, Native people and my grandmother would tell me stories about how things came to be, how we came to the place in which we lived in Santa Clara Pueblo. How we learned how to farm and how we were also hunters and gatherers at one time. All of those traditions co-mingle in the expression of how we lived at that time. I became very interested in the cultural natural history of Pueblo people and also of other Indigenous peoples. I think that was what really grounded me in my interest in science.
And so I started very early learning about the natural world. In school, science was my best subject as I went through. But then, I also learned that the way I was being taught science was very different than the way I had experienced science in my community. It certainly was very different from the kinds of stories that we had about how things come into being. There was the beginnings of a sense of conflict of these two ways of looking at the world -- especially with the Western scientific perspective of objectivism, reducing the variables that come into play to focus on just a particular phenomena, to reduce it to its elemental level. While I appreciate that kind of thinking, I also realize that the contextual is just as important.
Then, in my undergraduate work at New Mexico Highlands University, I began to realize that there was a huge difference between the way Native people view and understood the relationships of the natural world and the way that that was taught about in science, especially in Western science. Very early on I was aware of this conflict between Western science and what I now call Native science.
Interestingly enough, or maybe synchronistically, I did my student teaching at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) (http://www.iaia.edu) in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This was a Bureau of Indian Affairs-funded experiment. I would call it a cultural experiment. It was against the grain of what usually the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) did, or was about, in terms of Native education, which is basically assimilation.
The Institute of American Indian Arts was created as an entity that would focus on the artistic talents of Native American students who were brought from villages and communities throughout the United States to Santa Fe to become involved with what started out in 1932 as vocational arts in the old Santa Fe Indian School. This was commonly called the Dorothy Dunn Studio School.
Dorothy Dunn brought together Pueblo students, Navajo students, Apache, and other tribes, and formed a little art studio in Santa Fe. She taught art technique. The students were beginning to be introduced to Western art at the same time using their own cultural foundations as inspiration, if you will, for the artwork. (Editor: The Studio School continued until 1962 when the IAIA was established. Dorothy Dunn resigned in 1937.)
The Institute of American Indian Arts has a long history of a focus in the arts, a focus on culture, and the relationship of culture to the arts. And, as I was a self-taught artist as a result of my own family and community and the work I was doing in high school, I took a position as the high school science teacher. The IAIA had a high school program that was accredited by the state of New Mexico that fed into an un-accredited two-year college program in the BIA. It was a kind of middle school where it had the last two years of high school and the first two years of college program.
The reason I had been hired, I was told later by the president at that time, Lloyd New, was that he had seen me during my student teaching do a unit on Native uses of plants for food and medicine. He was very impressed by how I integrated culture, story, art, and an understanding of how plants were used -- from a Western as well as a Native perspective. He wanted me to continue that kind of teaching at the Institute and provided me with the kind of support that is uncommon today for teachers. The focus of that was that Native students attending the Institute at that time, they hated science. Why were they having to take science as part of their curriculum when they had come to the Institute to do art? Of course, in the high school the science requirement was required by the state, so students had to take science and pass it in order to graduate.
It became a dilemma that the students were actively rebelling against having to take any science courses, and he felt that there was a relationship between science and art, and that the cultural piece was very important. He had seen me applying the process of integration of those different perspectives and somehow making it work, which is what artists do. We bring different thoughts and perspectives and through the creative process come out with a new expression, a new product, something that engages and integrates some of those very diverse kinds of developments.
What I was doing in those days was applying the art process, the creative process, to the development of curriculum -- using art, using cultural perspective, using cultural history as a foundation so that the students were learning all three things simultaneously as they were creating work related to science concepts and ideas like, “How do you use plants in food and medicine?” “What is the Native perspective?” “What is the Western perspective?”
I began to explore these ideas of how to integrate science in ways that made more sense than I had been taught in college, which was a very Western reductionist, objectivist form of knowledge transfer without context.
In college, I also had intellectually rebelled against this kind of one dimensional perspective, but I had simply thought, “It is, what it is and I’ve got to get my degree and I’ve got to pass this course according to what the curriculum at that school requires and the teacher requires,” which is common of many Native students. They realize that if they are going to be successful they have to get with the program. But, in the process of doing that they have to subdue their own intuitive way of thinking about what they are doing, their own cultural perspectives of what they are doing. That still continues today in the way that Native students negotiate a science career. They put into compartments their cultural self and generally leave it out the door as they enter the laboratory or enter the science field.
What I saw in the Native students that were attending the Institute at that time was amazing talent, as far as their ability to do art, but, equally, huge alienation that they expressed and that they felt with regard to the assimilatory nature of Western education and the assimilatory perspective of Western science. That is what they were rebelling against.
I felt that if they were going to be successful and begin to appreciate that there is another way of looking at science that allows for an integration of cultural perspective, that allows for an application of creative thought and understanding in the way that you understand and learn about science, that that would be the better approach -- to begin to create a synergy between all those different strengths. So, I designed a curriculum to accomplish this.
Essentially, the intent of the design was to achieve that integration of two conflicting perspectives and understanding from both an Indigenous view and a Western science view. This was a key part of the conflict that many Native students felt as they took these science courses at IAIA: they saw there was no place for science in the Native world; and from the perspective of science, there was no place for the Indigenous view in science.
Of course, my own experience taught me that this was not the case and that it didn’t have to be the case. Those either/or dichotomies are problematic because, in reality, you bring your cultural self to the table when you learn anything. Finding ways to build on cultural strengths, to build on the creative process, to build on an understanding of the world from multiple perspectives -- which is indeed a very Indigenous approach to learning and thinking -- was a much more productive way to learn science.
Those early days of teaching and experiences with students placed me on the path that I’m still treading today. I’m continually looking at how I can empower Native students. Simultaneously helping them to understand their cultural selves and also creating ways in which they can apply their creative inclinations. I’ve never divorced science from art, and science and art from community.
For me, it has always been a culturally and creatively integrated orientation to understanding the dynamics and the beauty of life itself.
These are the kinds of ideas that I bring to the table which are problematic -- I have to say, very problematic -- especially in terms of Western education which is predicated on a worldview that objectivizes the world, that reduces the world to measureable outcomes, measureable entities. I teach from a perspective of always remembering that everything is always a part of a context and that context is always in dynamic flux.
This notion of objectified either/or kinds of logic is problematic when you get into how things work in a much broader sense of natural reality. Even Western science, through quantum physics and some of the theoretical forms of science, is beginning to come to these same conclusions. Yet, the way that science is taught is still very reductionist, objectified. The whole notion of objectivity is, from my perspective, a big question because as long as you are a human being nothing can be totally objective. You are always going to bring your subjective human self to any thing that you do and that human self includes the cultural upbringing, your experiences in life... it’s a whole gamut of what it is to be a human. You are never going to reduce that to a point where you can say that anything is totally objective. There’s always going to be the subjective element in anything and everything that we do as human beings. And that especially includes culture. We bring our cultural selves to whatever we do in life, and certainly to education.
There are a lot of paradoxes in Western education that I think that even Western educators have realized and have talked about. But I think that particularly now, in our globally-challenged, climate-challenged world, we have to rethink the way that we understand education, the way that we teach for experiences in science; the way that we understand the role of culture and creativity in the teaching of science.
The notion of orientation
I began to creatively look at curriculum design because, for an educator, that’s your plan. How you plan for a certain outcome is what effects how you teach and learn, how students engage the subject matter. For a teacher, the curriculum is the canvas. Curriculum is the teaching plan and the content, learning activities are the colors of your palette. How you paint that picture, how you create that picture, is what creates the outcome for the learning process that students experience.
So, I developed a suite of seven units in the high school curriculum and took an integrated culturally-responsive approach to Western science. I organized both Indigenous perspectives and Western science and knowledge transfer and understandings of the processes of the natural world using an Indigenous metaphor. The metaphor that I used in this thinking was the whole notion of orientation.
There is not a word in many Native languages for what would be called education today, as there is not a Native word for science, as it would be defined today. But there are certain ways to describe the processes that one goes through in both of those realms.
I posed the question, "what is the Indigenous metaphor for education?” And, I began to look at cultural studies related to different Indigenous cultural groups which defined or in some ways described what we call education today.
I found this obscure book written in the 1960s (Editor: The Broken Spears was first published in Spanish in 1959, and in English in 1962) by a man whose name is Miguel Leon Portilla. He was teaching out of the University of Texas, Austin. He was Nahua, coming from Mexico, and he was studying Aztec history and philosophy. Portilla was looking at a poem, a segment of a poem in Nahuatl, that had been translated into Spanish and he was now translating it into English.
In this poem, there was a Tlamatinimine (professor) in one of the Aztec colleges, or Calmecacs. -- The Aztecs had two types of colleges: one was basically a military school, a school for warriors, and the other one was a school for philosophers, astronomy and the humanities. I would assume this was in the school of humanities. -- And the question of the professor to the students was, “What is it to be a person of knowledge?”
So, very much like the Maori and the Hawaiians, the discourse was chanted. Chants, and lyrics to chants, became the foundations of these epic poems that talked about and reflected on this dialogue about what is it to be a person of knowledge. And the students, they would hear the question chanted to them, and then they would go back and compose their response to that question. In this scene that Portilla is depicting, the students came back and they responded the following way: “To be a person of knowledge, one must first find one’s face.”
In metaphoric language finding face is really, “Who are you? How do you identify yourself?” -- all of the notions and all of the ramifications and expressions of identity. The perennial question, “Who are you?”
So, finding your face is the search for and the finding of your true identity.
Then, one must find one’s heart, which is that seat of desire, that passion, that sense of affectiveness that allows you to be in the world with some intent, some vision, and some passion.
And all of that happens in concentric rings of relationship, responsibility, and respect. First of all, of you to yourself; then: yourself to your family; yourself to your family and community; yourself to tribe; and then, finally, yourself to the whole cosmos. All of that is towards becoming a man or woman, to becoming a complete man or woman -- is how they phrased it.
Finding face, finding heart, finding foundation in relationship and respect and responsibility of yourself to yourself, yourself to your family, yourself to your tribe and community, yourself to the place in which you live, and then, your self to the whole cosmos towards becoming more complete as a man, as a woman.
That was the metaphor I was looking for, that interpretation of the poem. It is also an Indigenous curriculum for finding one's true life.
When I read that I said, “That is an Indigenous epistemology that guides an education process,” because all education processes are guided by an epistemology. The epistemology comes from the worldview of that particular culture or tradition. Epistemology simply means, how you come to know what you know, that process -- what guides you. What are the foundations, the ways in which you come to know what you know?
Epistemology becomes very important, particularly if you are looking at what I call culturally responsive curriculum design. You have to understand in designing a curriculum which epistemology is in operation. What are the characteristics of that epistemology that are going to inform that cultural responsiveness that you build into a curriculum?
For me, I was looking for that in my research. I looked at many different ways in which Native people expressed this whole notion of what it is to be a person of knowledge. Then, based on that, I looked around for the kinds of symbols that Native people used to describe that process in a reality. Of course, the most common one is the medicine wheel, the directions: the north, the south, the east, the west. And, if you add the above, the center and the below you have seven directions.
The closest way to describe from an Indigenous perspective what education is incorporates this idea of rightful orientation, or orientation to what you want to know about, or what you want to understand. In describing that so that the metaphor, or the symbol, of the four directions plus the above, the center, the below, forms a kind of sphere of learning, a context of learning.
In many Native traditions, each of the directions has a plant, has an animal, has a color, has even a way of thinking, or perspective of thinking, a color of thinking associated with each of those directions. And, to define what education means in an Indigenous sense, it’s about rightful orientation to your world, to your community.
Also, this whole notion of orientation implies that in order to know something -- that would be in the center. That which you want to know would be in the center. You have to look at it from different directions: the north, the south, the east, the west, the above, the center and below. Only by looking at it from these various kinds of directions do you really understand the different kinds of dimensions of what you are looking at, what you are trying to learn about, what you are trying to understand.
So, when I found that idea and I made those connections, I said, “How can I create a contemporary expression in an education curriculum, Western education curriculum, that gets at what is the essence of an Indigenous perspective of coming-to-know?"
What I did in Native Science is each of the chapters is one of the units that I began in the high school curriculum. Later, as I transferred into the college curriculum, I turned them into courses.
There’s a course in the center that describes: what is the nature of creativity; what is the process; how have Native people described the whole notion of creation in the natural world; the creation of the universe -- which are our origin stories, our stories of emergence. And then, how has Western science described the creation of the cosmos?
What I get going there is a comparison, a contrast, or in some cases a kind of integration of those two thoughts and ideas, those two ways of looking at something -- like the creation of the world, of the cosmos.
What that does is it helps students develop skills in creative thinking, creative processing of information, understanding that in any given case its orientation and how you are looking at something, that usually describes how you think about it. But, if you move that orientation to another place then that also changes. Everything becomes relative to where you are standing, to from what viewpoint you happen to be looking at it from. And that understanding, that knowledge, is relative to your space and place and, what I am also implying, to your culture and to your worldview.
I began with helping students through that first unit to think creatively, to understand how the creative process works, and how to look at what they are going to be learning in science and in Native science from those perspectives. Then, the next circle, the next chapter in this book, begins with philosophy from a Native perspective. I associate that with the dawning of the first sun of the day, sunrise, and all the metaphors that are associated with that.
I take a look at what the next circle would be, aside from philosophy, which would be the South, which is associated with the healing winds. And the next one, which would be the community and the notion of social community -- relationship and community. How the community is related not only to the people but also to the plants and the animals and to the places within that community.
Finally, on into relationship to plants, relationship to animals, relationship to places, and then relationships to the cosmos as a whole.
That’s the sphere: the south, the north, the east, the west, the above, the center, the below.
My intent was to deliberately upset the apple cart, even Western curriculum thinking. And, as it turns out, there are a lot of Western curriculum people who are beginning to move in this same direction. Especially using the new methodologies and new insights that are being gained from brain research to actually observe how the brain operates and how the brain is processing information through the process of learning something. Some of these ideas are, interestingly, coming into education from science itself, but the science, in this case, of how we process information through our brain processes.
From the Indigenous standpoint, I saw the similarities because Indigenous forms of education and teaching are primarily built around natural insights, insights about how relationships and things get transferred in natural places, natural worlds. It is a very logical way of thinking about this whole notion of relationship and how information gets transferred in systems. There are a lot of relationships between Indigenous ways of thinking and knowing and Western theories about systems ecology or complex adaptive systems -- the notion of place and how different elements of the place synergize with each other to create a full expression of a natural community. And those same notions of those ideas -- because Native people were so involved with their places in which they lived -- move into how we approach the notion of education, the notion of knowledge transfer.
So, I’m getting very theoretical, but that is the essence of what Native Science is. Native Science represents the content of those circles of relationship, respect and responsibility - those circles of knowledge, those orientations to knowledge. What happens when the whole system is working is that you learn something from multiple perspectives because you are learning it from different angles, so to speak, different parts of the circle. The learning is more comprehensive; the learning is more internalized in the being of the student. I think it’s a much richer way of understanding ourselves in the world. It does not exclude Western science. It includes it, but includes it appropriately within a large context, a cultural, natural complex of relationships and understandings, perspectives, and experiences.
From what I am reading about brain processes that are being described, that is what I think the new forms of education can be and should be about. This form of education engages more of our brain capacity than current forms of very discreet, very reduced bits and pieces of information. It’s an education of context and it’s founded on how we learn naturally as human beings.
I’m thinking, as we move into the future, that these forms of thinking about education hopefully will begin to take hold and take precedence over our current paradigm of education which is still very objectified and reduction-oriented -- discreet bits if information that have no context.
In Native Science, I have multiple story tracks. (For example) I’m using the story of Watakame, who is the Huichol culture hero. There’s a story where he goes through the processes of discovering different elements -- fire, wind, water -- and his relationship to these elements.
As is true of many Native stories, there are multiple levels of meaning and multiple levels of interpretation. That’s why they are really good for teaching. There are a lot of different angles you can come from.
There’s this “big myth” that somehow myths, especially Native myths and fables, are children’s stories. And, yes, there is a children’s version to all of those stories, but there is also, as you move on, much deeper meaning and much deeper perspectives in those stories. This is one of those stories that come from the Huichol Indians of Mexico.
Watakame is the culture hero and he goes through a sequence of different kinds of encounters with natural elements. Examples would be fire, and wood, and growing things, and corn. In each of these encounters in the story -- and I didn’t tell the whole story in the book, I only told parts of it -- he has to develop a relationship to those entities or they cause problems for him.
He has to develop a relationship to fire. He has to develop a relationship to wood. He has to develop a relationship to the corn and how he treats corn. And the story itself, it exemplifies a sequential process of learning how to live in your world. How to interact with these elemental forces of the world in respectful and responsible ways -- otherwise there are problems.
Being very human, Watakame always starts with a very human solution of just taking without giving back -- or simply dismissing something that is important to know about that element. The story is very instructive in the sense that it is kind of the way that we as humans tend to treat the natural world. It’s through the issues that arise as a result of our mistreatment, if you will, of the natural world that the lessons begin to unfold as to why you have to respect fire; why you have to respect the trees that grow around you; why you have to respect the tools that you use. He’s using an axe, for example, to cut down certain trees, and the axe then rebels against him because he’s not treating the axe respectfully.
There are a lot of different kinds of nuances of the story that describe how we as humans tend to interact with the natural world in a very human-centric anthropomorphic way. And what the Indigenous perspectives and Indigenous ways of knowing help you to do is to think about that relationship, think about those responsibilities, think about that respect that is accorded to something that it is related to you, that sustains your life in certain kinds of ways. It’s a primal lesson about relating to the natural world. It’s a primal lesson about responsibilities that we should cultivate in that relationship to the natural world.
Also, this whole notion of what it is to respect something that gives life, that is the foundation of your life -- that then becomes the whole foundation for the kinds of ceremonies and rituals that Native people have. The intent is to embed in the minds of the community and participants these central notions of relating to the world in ways that allow for human life, as well as the life of the world, to continue in a balanced and mutual respectful kind of way.
The essential teaching of Native Science is that through the examples that I give in each of those chapters, from each of those directions, the central message is the notion that to be a human in the world requires a form of education that instills and embeds this understanding of relationship, respect, and responsibility for our natural world. I use the metaphor that comes from many of the Native languages where the focus metaphorically of the ritual or ceremony is introduced by the term “for life’s sake we do this,” which implies that we do this for ourselves, for the perpetuation of our community, but also for the purpose of perpetuating life as a whole.
It’s that life concept, that understanding that life is a dynamic process that requires not only our learning about it and our attention to it, but also requires our participation in its perpetuation. That’s really what the intent of our ceremonies, our rituals, our stories, and our ways of relating to the land traditionally were about.
Of course that has changed, you know. I’m a Native man living in the 21st century. I have been exposed to the Western world. I’ve been exposed to the Indigenous world. And through the mechanism of education I’m trying to, in a sense, create a curriculum of self as well as create a curriculum for others of how to negotiate those worlds in ways that move us towards the life-for-life’s-sake perspective, versus for-the-objectified-material-gain idea of the world.
For me, I think Indigenous science, Indigenous education has a lot to offer Western thought, Western education. It’s beginning to happen in very small ways -- (although) not in universities. I’m going to emphasize it’s not happening in universities because that is very much towards the worldview of knowledge as material, (laughs) of objectified knowledge, which in and of itself I think that even Western academics have to admit comes from a Western cultural perspective.
It’s not that the Western cultural perspective is so problematic, but it’s the fact that it is being touted as the only way to understand and look at the world. And, as I said, the comprehensive knowledge of something happens as a result of you looking at it from multiple perspectives, multiple orientations, multiple directions.
I call it the Indigenous mind rising. The fact is that all human cultures at one time or another were Indigenous, were oriented to the world for life’s sake because they knew intuitively that human life depended on the life of the world as a whole.
I think that we are just coming back to that, coming back to understand that notion, at least in Western terms with sustainability science coming into its own. It’s developing. The whole realm of environmental and ecological sciences -- we are beginning to understand those ideas. Those ideas are re-surfacing in the thinking that is going into these disciplines and I would like to encourage that happening more.
I think that the curriculum I created at IAIA, although it was created for Native students specifically to address their alienation in Western science, what I have experienced since that time is that many young people, regardless of culture, are alienated from Western science as the only way to look at the world. They are searching for new angles, new perspectives to understand their story in the world. I think that this kind of thinking about science offers a very different lens, a very different way of understanding how science, how the natural world, how we as human beings, are related to that world.
I hope that in time this will be the way that science gets taught. That it is not taught as a separate discipline unto itself -- although in some cases because of specialization it’s moving in that direction but at another level, that it is taught in connection with or in context of this broader view of the world. That it begins to move again to this notion of for-life’s-sake.
In Motion Magazine: Can you explain a little more how to understand “Indigenous”?
Gregory Cajete: I’m looking at it from two angles. One use of the term “indigenous” is defined as a people of place. How people of place have a unique kind of identity and a sense of relationship with each other. That they are people who have lived in a place for a long period of time, so they become, in a sense, Native or indigenous to that place.
That notion comes from the idea that human cultures tend to settle in certain places, and then, because of the need to survive in those places, they influence the place and the place influences them in terms of culture, language, technologies, etc. You have people of the mountain, you have people of the plains, you have people of the ocean, because these are distinct places and these people become indigenized or indigenous to these places. Over periods of time, generations, they become identified as indigenous to those places.
But there’s another sense of indigeneity, “indigenous,” that can be defined as what is innately human, what is indigenous human. And what does that mean? If you trace human lineage, and this has been done of course in science, genetically and otherwise, you find that we have lineages that go all the way back to Africa. (Lineages) that began with the first humans that are described as a part of the human chain, so to speak, in which there is a certain development of being human that is recognizable in terms of skeletal structure. And, certainly, if you were able to examine the development of the brain in each of those stages of human lineage, you would begin to see the development of this notion of what it is to be human in the world, a human being in the world.
There is a definition of indigeneity, from my perspective, that goes beyond just being indigenous to a place. It’s being indigenous human, which is much older and is inclusive of everyone, every human being.
For me, the difference is that we have to begin to look at how different Indigenous groups adapted to the places in which they live, and how that evolved into the culture of those places, of those people. How it affected their language; what influenced their language. How it influenced their ways of viewing themselves, and each other: social organization, etc., etc., -- the very academic aspects of that.
There’s a deeper level of that which I think we are just beginning to understand. We are now understanding that the brain is much more complex than anyone ever imagined. I think that people who are studying this brain development phenomenon are beginning to realize that the brain is amazing, but it’s connected to that indigenous human in a kind of way that we are yet to understand. It is the source of all that we express today in our cultures, in our traditions, and our ways of living, and even in our psychologies -- both good and bad.
For me, those are the two ways of looking at “indigenous” and, because I’m a creative thinker, I’m capable of keeping more than one conflicting thought or paradox in mind simultaneously. That’s what allows me to operate in different worlds, in different contexts. I am able to understand that there are different kinds of orientations and different ways of looking at something. As I play a role in each one of those, I am able to facilitate my process in relating to that.
I think that also goes back to what it means to be indigenous human. The human being evolved because of the capacity to do things in multiple kinds of ways: to begin to think in terms of relationships and to piece things together. Certainly, all of that was a result of human beings having to adapt to different kinds of environments as they moved through the world. Those environments and the needs that they had to adapt to those environments are what caused the human being to develop and evolve through time.
Later, that role was taken over not so much by nature but by culture. Culture became the former of the human mind. And then, a little bit later on, as I think is happening today, technology and globalization are becoming the environment, if you will, that is forming our human ways of being, human ways of knowing.
So, there are two different tracks that I’m looking at. I’m looking at my experience as being the Native person, Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico, and my upbringing, and the very specific focus on Indigenous education, Indigenous knowledge. But also there’s another track and that track I think is that broader track of what it is to be human in the world, what it is to relate to the natural world in ways that sustain both humans and the natural world. In that bigger picture, I think, we are evolving the mechanisms to be able to do that but I think that also there are aspects of our society, our culture, that are mitigating against that development.
I think that a lot of the kinds of thinking that have to happen in education today are about how do we educate for a sustainable future -- and not only in terms of technology. How do we begin to sustain human life and the life of the planet in ways that are synergistic and in many ways echo what Indigenous culture and traditions have always been trying to do within their places? We have to globalize that thinking because, essentially, that is what is needed at this time.
I think we have to go back to think about what it is to be an indigenous human on the planet Earth and the ramifications of that with its multiple expressions of culture, tradition, technology, the economic system as it exists today -- and how we begin to change that towards a sustainable future.
In Motion Magazine: And the word cosmology?
Gregory Cajete: Yes, it is the word cosmology; it’s the change of the cosmology. Or, I would say even more, it’s a re-conscienizing. I’m going to invent the term here -- a re-conscienizing of the cosmology that echoes what many Indigenous cultures have always been doing. And that is understanding that it is not only human community but it’s also all of the concentric rings of natural community that the human community is embedding in. Those (rings) are part of this relationship, respect, and responsibility paradigm that I’ve described in Native Science.
I’ve alluded to that but I think there is still a lot of work that is yet to be done. I think that education is both the solution and the problem, simultaneously. The reason I’m saying that is that it is the way that we look at education today that causes us to have to get out of that whole system of education in order to rethink this re-conscienizing of the human cosmology.
It’s a very difficult thing to describe. But it’s simply the fact that because we are all involved with some aspect of education in a modern society, it impacts us in so many different kinds of ways that we are not aware of -- we are largely unconscious. If we are going to solve some of the issues that face us today, in terms of global climate change, in terms of relationship and community, I look at two quintessential issues in terms of education as a whole and two questions.
What are we going to do about the environmental issue, the environmental situation? That’s relational. And what are we going to do about our relationship to each other? That’s social cultural, but it’s also relational. What are we going to do with regard to our relationship to the whole world? -- that’s the global perspective, the global mind.
I think we have to begin to truly, truly question the forms of education that are currently in play today that many times mitigate against understanding all of the kinds of relationships and responsibilities that are necessary for us to address the challenges that are before us today.
As a university professor, I don’t think that almost anything that is done in the university is up to the challenge of what we actually have to educate for. Universities are still very predicated on the notion of education to vocation. It’s not education to consciousness anymore. It’s education to vocation. And that’s a certain kind of paradigm that locks you into a certain way of thinking that in many ways is the cause of the problem in the first place.
The problem, essentially, is how do we relate to the natural world in a way that is sustainable and that perpetuates our life and the life of the natural world? How do we relate to each other in the face of the diversities that are part of the human world in ways that allow us to synergize rather than to conflict with each other?
While Western education addresses many of these issues, it addresses them in a de-contexted form and I think we have to begin to take a look at what are the kinds of things we have to do to change education, to re-context knowledge in ways which allows us to address the issues that are so challenging today.
I think this kind of movement is going on worldwide, but it’s not going on in the universities. One would say that the university is the problem. Our ways of government are the problem. Our economic system, our economic paradigm is the problem.
You can’t educate for change with regard to those issues or those paradigms using the same education system that led to them. You have to step out of that. Many people have said this. Many thinkers have said this. You have to step out of that paradigm in order to be able to see it, understand it, and to create something new that is going to begin to change and transform things in new directions.
Western education does not do that. It does not do that -- not in its current institutionalized form. I think that many Western thinkers are doing it, but in their own context and their own kinds of ways out of the paradigm of mainstream Western thought.
Does that make sense?
In Motion Magazine: Yes.
Gregory Cajete: The big curricula issue for an educator like me is how do you create a curriculum that moves people in that direction versus the same old same old, repeating the cycle. That would be a big task. I have a sense for it because I did it at the IAIA, in terms of transforming students’ thinking, in moving it in a different direction. For me the question is, “How do you do that in a much larger context in Western education as a whole?” I don’t know.
The interview’s location changes to a car on the Turquoise Trail: driving on a back-road from Albuquerque to Santa Fe.
In Motion Magazine: One metaphor you talk about in Native Science is the coyote, often referred to as the trickster. Can you talk about the trickster’s role in the ordering of chaos?
Gregory Cajete: In a lot of Native stories you have a trickster playing a role of being the foil, the one who misbehaves, the one who is a very shady character, so to speak. The tribes in their story traditions created these metaphoric, symbolic characters in their stories primarily to teach something about human psychology and our tendencies to do wayward things. The trickster figure is very much a part of world folklore because you have a variety of different kinds of tricksters that come forward in many stories, folktales around the world.
Here in the Southwest, we have the coyote who plays that role of trickster. The coyote is, of course, an animal that is very common here in the Southwest. You can see him in a variety of different kinds of context. He plays the role of the fall guy, the one who misbehaves, the one who takes the easy road. The trickster is meant to remind us that the world may seem at times very chaotic, and certainly human behavior and psychology tends to be unordered.
He reminds us of a particular characteristic that we have as humans to outsmart ourselves. Many of the roles and parts of the stories that the trickster plays, in the Southwest at least, remind us that we always have to take a deeper look at something, a second look at something. Taking our time to make decisions and not jumping into something haphazardly.
The trickster is that character who himself represents the whole nature of chaos -- (the idea) that chaos is around us, that many times chaos, particularly with regard to human actions, results from our mis-thinking, mis-stepping, or outsmarting ourselves, as I said before.
I’m reminded of one story where the coyote is looking for food and can’t find it. He’s walking along and then he meets Crow and Crow is a trickster as well. And Crow tells him, “Well, if you are going to look for something, you should expand how far your eyes can see. And one way to do that is to pull your eyeballs out and then throw them into the air. That way you can see farther and for much more area.”
So, Coyote being Coyote and wanting the easy way out of finding food, he takes the Crow’s wayward advice. He takes his eyes out of his sockets and throws them into the air. Of course he can see things, but Crow then takes one of his eyeballs while it is still flying in the air and hides it so just one eyeball comes back to Coyote.
But, he still didn’t learn his lesson and Crow tells him, “Why don’t you throw the other one into the air and you can find the other one that you lost?” And so he does. He throws his other eyeball into the air and Crow gets that one too and hides it. The coyote then wanders around, stumbling, crying, looking for his eyeballs.
That’s just one sample of a story. There are many examples that describe our tendencies to try to find the easy way out and in that process end up in more chaos than we started with. The trickster is the role that many of our traditions tells us about in terms of presenting our selves, mirrors of ourselves to ourselves, with regard to our behavior.
Also, although I won’t go into the role of clowns clowns, you know, are one of the Pueblo tricksters -- we do have roles that are played in various tribes of the trickster that remind us to not take ourselves so seriously.
(Additionally), the whole notion of responsibility is implied in kinds of situations that the trickster gets involved in because many times it reminds us that we are responsible for our behavior, and that not taking responsibility for our behavior has dire chaotic consequences.
Many tribes have whole complexes of stories that describe this wayward nature of human behavior through the exploits and through the kinds of things that Coyote does in the world.
But tricksters also create the world, just as chaos creates. Out of chaos comes some sort of order in the natural world. This happens with Coyote in his role in many of the kinds of creation stories that we have related to the coming of fire, related to stories that talk about how things have come into being.
I’m reminded of another story that the Navajo tell about Coyote, again, being very impatient. He is given the task of carrying stars in his blanket or in his backpack. He is told very specific instructions that he’s to keep each star in order, certain kinds of order. But, being lazy, he puts them all in one blanket and then, rather than placing each star in proper order, he simply throws the blanket into the air and all of the stars get placed in a variety of different places and positions. In this particular Navajo story, he’s associated with star lore and how the stars were placed in the sky.
Trickster has a variety of different roles that remind us that, first of all, we have to take responsibility for our behavior. Don’t always try the easy route, just because it’s the easier way to go. Think about what you are going to do and how you are going to do it -- and don’t be lazy.
In Motion Magazine: In Native Science, you pinpoint the Age of Enlightenment as a turning point which broke with the ancient human mystique. Can you explain this?
Gregory Cajete: The Age of Reason and Enlightenment has a very particular history in the West, and particularly in Europe, as being the foundation for the development of modern science. One could also say it leads to what we know today as capitalism and the far-reaching effects of the free market.
It was a time that one can say that human beings, very much like the trickster myth that I described related to Coyote, placed such a value on reason, such a value on objectivity, that they forgot about the play of the universe, and particularly this notion that there is an ordering principle within chaos that is described, again, by the trickster myths. Human beings are more than just reason -- we are very complex beings. Our stories and mythologies relate this about human nature, about human circumstance.
I think that what happened in the Enlightenment was that there was a conscious divorce of mind from soul. And in that divorce soul was subsumed to a lesser role within human interactions. I think that is what the myths and stories and traditions and rituals were really about. They were about connecting mind and soul in ways that allowed us to create a balance in our psyche, with our mind.
As the Enlightenment became more pronounced in Europe, that divorce of mind and spirit became more obvious. And there were repercussions for that, in terms of a view of the material as being more important. The worldview of the West became very specific to mechanics versus the soul, in terms of its attention, especially in science. The world was reduced to an object versus a tapestry of relationships that had feeling and soul.
I think that is what I was referring to as the loss of the participation mystique. Human beings actually do participate in the creation of their world and that it is more than just the intellect that becomes involved in that participation.
In Motion Magazine: Can you talk about Kokopelli?
Gregory Cajete: Kokopelli is a metaphor that is both symbolized in Native stories as well as given a lot of different kinds of roles particularly in the creation of bridges. (For example) he is actually a he/she.
The metaphor of Kokopelli is interesting and it has a relationship to the place that we are visiting now, going the back road, the Turquoise Trail as it is called, to Santa Fe from Albuquerque. There’s a small town called Cerrillos and Cerrillos since ancient times was a place where a very high grade of Turquoise was mined by the Anasazi and by various tribes on into the times of the Spanish, who also mined Cerrillos for turquoise. It was the basis of trade.
Cerrillos turquoise has been found as far away as Mexico City; as far away as areas in Southern California; and as far away as the Mississippi Valley. We know that because it was a trade item very specific to this region and, as I said, mined by many of the Anasazi. Kokopelli, and more particularly the humpback flute player, was a trader who carried a pack of trading goods on his back. And, as he came to each village, he would play his flute to notify the inhabitants of the communities that he was going to trade with that he was coming in peace, and coming to trade.
That whole notion of trading that was pretty extensive from Anasazi territory, Pueblo territory, on into other parts of America, is a story that still is yet to be told, I think, to the extent it was an amazing trading system developed from this region in the Southwest, connecting to other cultural traditions such as the Mound Builders, the tribes in California, and all the way into the Valley of Mexico, as well.
The humpback flute player, which is what Kokopelli is sometimes called, or the Ant Man, which is also one of the versions of Kokopelli, describes this notion of trade, or travel, and of making connections between cultures, between peoples.
Kokopelli is a mythologized symbol that represents this idea of interdependence. We give things, we trade things, but we get things in return. We are all related. We are related not only in terms of people to people, but we are also related to the land, to the places in which we live, and we depend on these places for our life and our sustenance, and our well-being.
The concept of interdependence becomes very important as you begin to think, or re-think, what are the kinds of things that are important to understand with regard to creating economic systems around the notion of mutual reciprocal behavior and action -- very much mimicking what happens in the natural world.
This is what Indigenous people did in terms of the ways in which they expressed their communities, their forms of trade. It was symbolized in mythology and stories like the Ant Man or Kokopelli.
This idea of interdependence is an idea that must come back in some new ways, in new expressions. The period of Enlightenment essentially set the tone for the industrial age, also science and technology, also what we would call globalization and capitalization of commodities and such. This idea of interdependence was somehow changed from mutual benefit and reciprocity to bottom-line economics in which only a few benefit fully from economic gain or situations.
I’m thinking that as we begin to look at how Indigenous peoples expressed the whole notion of interdependence and mutual reciprocal relationships that we begin to not forget that this also has applications to how one conducts business. How one looks at business ethics. How one begins to understand that we have to encompass what we do with regard to restoration of the environment, with restoration of an economic system that is more sustainable and works for the benefit of all, and naturally applies the principles of mutual reciprocal relationship once again in ways that allow for everyone to prosper, as opposed to just a few.
Again, these ideas that I’m speaking about in Native Science have application not only to science. They have application to other areas such as business, trade, how we relate, and how we create a new economy as we face the challenges of climate change and begin to attempt to create a more sustainable way of living on the Earth.
If you have any thoughts on this or would like to contribute to an ongoing discussion in the
What is New? || Affirmative Action || Art Changes || Autonomy: Chiapas - California ||
Community Images || Education Rights || E-mail, Opinions and Discussion ||
En español || Essays from Ireland || Global Eyes || Healthcare ||
Human Rights/Civil Rights || Piri Thomas ||
Photo of the Week || QA: Interviews || Region || Rural America ||
Search || Donate || To be notified of new articles || Survey ||
In Motion Magazine's Store || In Motion Magazine Staff ||
In Unity Book of Photos ||
Links Around The World
Copyright © 1995-2016 NPC Productions as a compilation. All Rights Reserved.