"I don't know what I don't know"

Terri Plake, , Northwest Indian College

"I don't know what I don't know," is often on my mind as I teach students at the tribal college in the Pacific Northwest. I believe that I learn as much from my students as they learn from me. And it must be this way. This rich experience has changed my life in many ways, especially in opening my eyes and widening my worldview more than I probably will ever know. I do my best, but feel like I have so much still to learn. The courses I teach are Geology 101 (I am a geologist), Climate Change in Native Lands, and Humanities and Our Environment. Although I do not teach a course with environmental justice in the title or even in the course outcomes, most all topics covered in my courses, issues arise where justice is violated in lands and waters in Indian Country or homelands of other Indigenous Peoples around the world. Sometimes the challenge feels overwhelming to cover all of the important scientific content when the impacts to human beings are commonly overlooked in mainstream science textbooks and separated as different courses. Even courses such as Environmental Geology address too infrequently the true costs to Peoples and specific groups of Peoples in loss of their homelands, sacred sites, clean water in the quest for control and extraction of Earth resources that power the "modern" technological societies.

Students and I discuss EJ issues that arise and solicit ideas for finding solutions. I listen to my students. To offset the burden of despair that can arise, I do my best to focus on hope and encouragement that students are pursuing their college education in preparation to "be at the table" for decision-making at every level. "Through education, Northwest Indian College promotes indigenous self-determination and knowledge" – is the mission statement of NWIC. Most students are learning about or are already aware of the many social injustices to their People and other Indigenous Nations and want to do something about them.

Because I come from "mainstream" European descent and the dominant culture, my learning in schooling experiences was limited, more or less, to what the dominant culture had to say about stuff. Imagine my "Aha" moment when I figured out that the "objectivity" of history belongs only to the worldview of the storyteller. A paradigm shift in my thinking and understanding was, and still is, critical for my work at the tribal college. This will always be a work in progress for me. Will I ever be able to say that I "get it?" I have always viewed myself as an ally and as having deep empathy for my fellow humans.

In preparing myself for learning from perspectives different than my own, I have become painfully aware of the contrast in viewing Earth- from a "Western" science perspective and a perspective aligned to Native traditional ways. The Western perspective is well-illustrated, I think, in "The Story of Stuff," Annie Leonard's cartoon, showing the absurdity of today's linear system - from the continued extraction of Earth's natural resources, produced and designed for the dump, trashing the planet, trashing each other, and not even having any fun doing it - in our present consumer culture and profit driven economy. In this paradigm humans dominate and control all. Traditional indigenous perspectives view Earth as the interrelationships and interdependence of all living and non-living things, including humans. In Climate Change in Native Lands class we read Red Alert by Daniel Wildcat who writes:
"...it appears that in those cultures committed to the world-historical projects of civilizing humankind and nature, we have actually lost much of the biological and cultural diversity that constitutes this beautiful blue-green planet." "Humankind is presently immersed in a culture of self-termination ... that those of us living in modern industrial and postindustrial societies give every indication of attempting ecological suicide on a global scale. The uniquely calamitous feature of this culture is that we are killing ourselves by ending the lives of many of our other-than-human relatives on which our own lives depend." "...The integration or reintegration of human lifeways into the environments our Mother Earth gave us will require an indigenization of worldviews for scientists, policy makers, entrepreneurs, and humankind across all our social institutions."
Daniel Wildcat (Yuchi, Muscogee) in Red Alert, Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge.

My essay continues. I have much more to say. But I will stop here for now. Thank you. I look forward to this important workshop.

Downloadable version of this essay

"I don't know what I don't know" (Microsoft Word 31kB Apr8 13)