Summer Solstice Essay: How Will I Know?

I write this in the shade of my community – maple, cherry, pine, apple and lilac – enjoying the warmth of the new summer and the cool of the protection from the trees that create this space I call my outdoor office. This space, this place, this land, these trees, these birds, the sound of the water of the nearby pond have all contributed to the me who sits here today. So did the land, trees, birds, and waters of the place in which I was raised in upstate New York. My parents, grandmother, and extended family also contributed.  Today, though, it is my connection to the land and especially the trees and water, that I am feeling as I read the Introduction to the Third Edition of Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies. Oh. I realize that I have not mentioned my Western science education. Three university degrees worth of it, after completing high school taught from that paradigm also shaped me.

As I read the stories of how Professor Smith’s book supported, enabled, and catalyzed indigenous scholars from all over the world, I, too, felt supported and enabled, even though I am a non-indigenous scholar. It feels odd being labeled in this way, yet reading Smith’s book makes me keenly aware that the dominant paradigm of the academic world of which I am a part, has done just that to indigenous scholars – created boundaries and institutions that exclude.

You might have noticed that I said I felt supported and enabled by Smith’s work. I do. I also feel nervous about those feelings, desperately wanting to trust that I will somehow know when (or if, wishfully thinking) I cross the line into either appropriation or unconsciously pulling the ideas into the colonizer/settler mentality rather than this work pulling me out of it. How can I know, when my upbringing was in that colonizing/settler world during a time when there was no collective self-examination about it? It is this question that I contemplate in this essay.

Two strong answers leap out at me. I will know if I listen to my heart. I will know if I develop and maintain relationships with people who truly know and support decolonization, most likely from firsthand experience of its oppression. At the heart of all of this is “knowing”. What does that mean and who gets to decide?

More than two decades of formal education in or based upon Western science provides a particular answer that centers words like “objective”, “unbiased”, “prediction”, “data”, “testing”, and “measure”. My own environmental social science and complex systems studies pulled me away from “objective” and “unbiased”, and even from “prediction”, recognizing the emergence of novelty and the reality of ignorance, some of which is irreducible. It was the work of reconnecting with my own heart, though, that has brought me to questioning the rest of it. It feels a little risky to say that: “questioning the rest of it”.  Even as a full professor in a century-old institution of higher education, having held positions of authority in this institution and related groups, I feel risk in saying that I question the very foundations of Western science. This, of course, is ridiculous, if Western science is true to its ideals because questioning anything and everything is at its very heart.

The truth is more complicated. Ideals, when entangled in institutions, can be and often are, compromised. The focus becomes something else – the life of the institutions – which then shifts the focus to power, both economic and political. Once in those arenas, the gloves come off and the fight is often to the death.  Although we do not consider institutions in the same way we consider people, it is people and nature who suffer in these fights, from this war mentality, but that’s another essay.

Stepping away from blind acceptance of the definition and hierarchies of knowledge as given by Western science and Western scholarship, opens me to other possibilities. As with the release of anything, the opening created stimulates a pressure to fill it with something else. This natural reaction can lead to appropriation of more suitable ideas from others, without even realizing it. On the surface, this makes some sort of sense, when you come from a paradigm of power over, hierarchies, and war mentality. And it happens without clear realization, for this “blindness” is cultivated and nurtured in the domination paradigm. I’m starting to get into some of the more deeply underlying issues here. Again, these are for future essays.

What to do with this new opening then? (One more quick aside – the focus on what to DO is part of the conditioned response of the domination culture and it is frequently paired with time pressure to act quickly.) For me, the path of stepping away from acceptance of these given definitions was a process over time, recognized through self-reflection along the way. Because it happened over time, I was able to explore many other possibilities along the way. I now know that this was my path to heart. Exploring ideas and ways of knowing other than the Western Science analytical approach along with paying attention to my own experiences that fell outside of scientific explanation brought forward new possibilities.

I learned that when I slowed down and paid attention, I began to see and hear, and to know things that were not accessible through Western science. Eventually, some of these things were studied by scientists, and the “knowledge” they came to was the same knowledge that came to me in other ways. As an environmental scientist, this fell completely outside anything I had ever heard about. It was these instances that set me on a journey into other ways of knowing. One question that comes up in Western science when considering other knowledge systems is if that “other” knowledge is somehow externally verified, a strongly held principle in Western science. I came to learn that other knowledge systems are just that: systems, and the “verification” of “knowledge” happens in their own equally valid ways within those systems. Because they are entire systems, simply attempting to peek in from the outside does not provide valid basis for judgment, yet this is precisely what Western science has done.

Smith tells us in so many ways that building relationships with people with knowledge systems that are not Western science is critically important to developing respectful means of engagement. My exploration beyond Western science — what I call my path of heart — that brought me personally to this understanding, which explains why I felt supported by Smith’s words in Decolonizing Methodologies.

What is this “path of heart”, you may ask. For now, it is an incomplete way to describe something other than, more than, the power of intellect or the analytical mind alone. The path of heart, for me, is a path of love and respect for all, engaging with my full self all that I attend. It is explicit intention for all of this.

It is truly challenging territory to traverse, between paradigms, and it is fraught. The domination culture manifests in ways that we are taught to protect against, yet it may just be these very protections that keep us closed off from doorways to other paradigms altogether. Purveyors of doubt abound and many seek to take advantage where they can, without care for others. Skepticism and lack of trust, all based on centuries of experiences supporting these exact responses, may actually limit the possibilities of finding those long-overgrown pathways that have the potential to support our creation of a more just, equitable, and sustainable world. It seems it may be a game of tit-for-tat, that could be unending without clear intention and the courage to step out off that forever spinning wheel.

The question remains, how will I know, as I move forth with intent to create new paths that weave knowledge systems through love and respect. How will I know, as I move forth with intent to create new systems of being and knowledge that support all, human and non-human? How will I know? How will we know? Perhaps simply posing the question helps to open the way.

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