Context is Everything
I grew up with two posters that reminded me of who I am and where I come from. One hung on the wall in Nome, it listed Inupiaq values like respect for the land, respect for our elders, sharing, and being humble. I was very young and I found these values repeated in the Native communities we lived with as we moved across the continent. I remember reflecting on the second poster in Neah Bay when I was older, it said "I walk in two worlds with one spirit". When I was in college I would finally learn how the federal government's assimilation policies had lead to this split between worlds.
What does it mean for me to have one spirit but two worldviews, how can I be both humble but also have this urge to tell you about my childhood and my life's journey?
In my Native worldview, the earth is a complex, dynamic, and ever changing place. What we know is connected to how we are going to use the knowledge as well as where in time, place, and perspective the knowledge came from. There is no singular answer or final truth because there are an infinite set of lives all travelling in their own journeys through the world we share. What is true for me on the path I took is not true for all and I can listen to their knowledge and respect our differences in understanding.
At the same time that information has the freedom to breathe and change, there are foundations that are unspoken and solid. What it means to be human and our roles is as true for me as it was for my great-grandmother. I am related to all life and I belong to the land, my actions have consequences and I was raised to have a strong sense of responsibility. I am not royal, I am not above or below any other creature. Without a hierarchy, without a need to control other lives, my focus is on building reciprocal relationships with people, animals, and places. We take care of each other.
As author Paula Gunn Allen said in 1986, "In tribal systems relationship is central". Relationships are complex and not easy to report in quantitative data. When I introduce myself and my work I take the time to provide the context to the relationship I have with my knowledge, which came from my family, the places I've lived, and the people I've known.
The urge to quickly paint a story of my life is one that other Native academics share and this concept is foreign and easily misinterpreted by those who don't share the same worldview. In western science, information belongs to the individual who 'discovered' it and to speak of one's life, which is outside of the clinical data, is in poor taste and boastful. My intention is to provide context before I share what I know.
In Native science (that's how I chose to label our view of knowledge systems), information is earned through experience and passed on only if the receiver proves they will use the information properly. Information is qualitative, abstract, intuitive, holistic, and informed by our cultural values. Data that comes from and informs complex systems needs context in order to be fully understood and have meaning.
The more I think about it, the more those two posters were very important parts of my academic journey. In college, I attended a Native American student leadership conference where a presentation describing key themes and differences in worldviews between Native and non-Native cultures really opened my eyes and stuck with me. I lived with the differences and I knew them intuitively and I was given the keys needed to see the patterns. From that lesson on, I was always asking and looking to see the underlying foundation of systems.
While I enjoy understanding the differences between worldviews, I also want to acknowledge that compartmentalizing everything doesn't really feel good to me. In the future I hope that we don't separate ourselves too much and that we are able to see the blending spaces among worldviews.
Context is also about putting the human back into the data. Our values are reflected in our scientific systems, no matter how much we tell ourselves that data is value-free. When I introduce myself, I remind you of the cultures that influence me and I want you to know the values that guide everything we know.