Ruth Hopkins

Indigenous Biology

Colonization sought to separate us from nature

Before presenting this information, I would like to apologize to tribal elders for speaking on things of a sacred nature as a young person. I am still learning. However, I speak these words respectfully, abiding by protocol, and in a good way. I hope to build on what Western science teaches the public by using their tenets and vernacular to show readers how Indigenous knowledge can help society protect Mother Earth and all life here.

My grandmother told many stories. They were often ancestral instructions, although I didn’t realize it at the time.

I’m scared of rodents. She needed me to understand that even the smallest creature has value, so she told me about bean mice. When conditions were harsh and the People were starving, the mouse fed them. These mice stored caches of beans. The women would visit these food stores and take what they needed, but they would leave something behind for the mouse and her family, or replace it with additional nourishment, like corn. In this manner, different animal nations sharing the same ecosystem kept each other alive.

Colonization sought to separate us from nature. Yet in the past century, western science has begun to explore the idea of connectivity and how living beings interact and affect one another. Chaos Theory says small causes can have large effects. As species are endangered and go instinct due to manmade causes, ecologists and conservationists began to pay attention to the role we all play within our environment.

Some organisms are ideal for biomonitoring. Biologists call these life forms indicator species, because they reveal the state of the environment within a given region. The presence or absence of these specific sentinel organisms, as well as their population fitness, discloses the impact of pollution, disease, and climate change. Often these organisms are sensitive to ecological changes not readily apparent and act as an early warning of things to come. If indicator species disappear, others will follow. Biodiversity, or the variety of life forms, is vital to the survival of life on planet Earth. A wide variety of species makes Earth livable. Biodiversity provides us with an array of foods, medicines, and materials. Everything has a job. Various plants clean water and absorb chemicals while providing us with oxygen to breathe. Biodiversity also allows ecosystems to bounce back faster from disturbances, like disease outbreaks, floods, fires, and storms. About 1.9 million species have been identified, but more are found every week.

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Western scientists have studied indicator species to collect information about the environment for decades. Indigenous peoples have been doing it for millennia. Our Native ancestors were consummate observers of the natural world. They were intuitive scientists who chronicled their understanding of perceived phenomena through oral history that was passed down through the generations as ancestral teachings.

Unlike western science, Indigenous science is centered on relatedness; the connectedness of all things- and the spirit world is accepted as fact. As a result, some Indigenous scientific knowledge is hidden within spiritual beliefs and ceremony.

Among the Oceti Sakowin (Dakota/Lakota/Nakota), some sentinel organisms that predict environmental health are not called indicator species; rather, they are referred to as being associated with wowakan, sacred energy.

Dragonflies (order Odonata, suborder Anisoptera) are welcomed at summer ceremonies. They signify the presence of wowakan, and ancestral spirits.

Biologists know that dragonflies are an indicator of a healthy biophysical environment. The presence of dragonflies signify good water quality, because they require it to thrive. They are also a strong indicator of biodiversity and robust aquatic environments.

Western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) song is considered a sign of sacred energy at Sundance ceremonies. Biologists have named the western meadowlark as an indicator species for prairies and grasslands. Their population fitness indicates the health of other species, and therefore, translates to biodiversity. Their presence also reveals good water quality.

These are just a few examples.

During ceremony, we connect with all our relations. Mitakuye oyasin. We depend on animals showing themselves to us. Each life form is important, not only environmentally, but spiritually. This is why the presence of two legged and four legged creatures is crucial to the preservation of sacred sites.

We are taught that when these signs disappear, the spirits will not come. Environmental protection is not only vital to life on Earth, but our spiritual belief system and ceremonies. Life needs clean air, land and water. Our spirits require clean air, land and water. Environmental conservation mends the sacred hoop. Remember this as we manage our lands.

Regardless of what buzzwords employed, this is certain: we are all related, and we are all in this together.

Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton Wahpeton & Mdewakanton Dakota, Hunkpapa Lakota) is a writer, blogger, biologist, activist and judge.


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Indigenous Biology