Indigenous Science

Dr. Miigis Gonzalez is a member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe community in Northern Wisconsin. She and her partner are raising their two children within Ojibwe traditions. (photo by Ivy Vainio) 

When I was young, driven to excel, and motivated to provide for my community, I was enamored by the idea of a Western education. I had good intentions to leave the reservation, learn valuable knowledge and skills, and then return home to do something great for my people. It was what was expected, and it was a safe choice.

As a social behavioral health researcher today, however, it is not my Western education that informs my work. Instead, it is my Anishinaabe culture that informs prevention efforts, data discovery, and study inquiry. I believe, as do elders and young who are revitalizing our roots, that the answers to our health problems lay within our community, culture, language, and traditional lifestyles.

Adjusting the Roots

As a scientist trained in Western methodology, much of my profession depends on scientific evidence. As an Anishinaabe woman, however, I must be careful to balance the tools of Western science with the vast knowledge, beliefs, and truth that exist in our Indigenous ways of knowing, which were developed by our ancestors’ research and put into practice by generations of Indigenous people.

Western science has been dominated by white males, set outside of Indigenous communities. I am invested in utilizing the tools of my PhD training to provide empirical evidence around well-being for Indigenous people.

It is no secret that the current systems in North America are not set up for Indigenous people. Schools, healthcare, governments, workforce, and even our own contemporary tribal institutions have been created for the betterment of  the individual to align with Western values, Western beliefs, Western ways of knowing, and to advance Western ideals.

It is a struggle to maneuver these spaces as an Indigenous woman, whether or not you are aware of why and how these systems have been set up for someone else — and worse, that they have been set up to dominate and overpower people like us. I am blessed to have been raised within my culture and by people who are proud of who we are and where we come from.

This has set me up with a strong Anishinaabe identity that grounds my every move and protects my heart and soul as I walk through life. In addition, my family valued education as a means to become self-sufficient and a contributing member of community. From kindergarten to my doctoral graduation, the Western educational system is where I have spent countless hours. It affected my mindset, my actions, and my thought processes. For the next two years I will be a Bush Fellow, with the intent of becoming aware and able to rewire these Western thought patterns.

At this point in my life, I have already begun the process of  decolonization  or re-Indigenization, such as spending more energy learning my language, being more intentional about prayer and spiritual offerings, reducing my family’s carbon footprint, and aligning how I spend my money with my values instead of popular culture.

I am working to notice more and analyze more deeply the ways in which the Western mindset inhabits my actions, my thought patterns, and the protocols and structures of research.

My Bush Foundation fellowship enables me to self-design an Anishinaabe educational plan: engaging with our elders, our language, our ceremonies, our cultural practices, our way of knowing, and our values. I will re-evaluate how my time  might  best be spent to become the most effective leader that I can be for my community.

The Health Component

Health researchers, public health advocates, health providers, and community health workers deliver services from evidence-based or best- practice solutions. However, these solutions are not developed with Indigenous communities in mind. We modify evidence-based practices by adding certain items that make Native people feel more comfortable, but these solutions are often superficial additions to something designed by another culture. This is unfair. I hope to figure out how to bridge my  skills,  tools,  and status as a PhD with Anishinaabe culture in order to approach wellness from an Anishinaabe foundation.

How do we, as Indigenous people, measure our own levels of health and success?

To understand the elder perspective, my team interviewed First Language-speaking elders about the connection between language use  and  well- being. These elders speak beautifully about love, compassion, respect, relationships, and happiness as our standard of well-being.

Being well is not defined by measures of wealth, material gain, or economic development. In fact, these elders teach that the contemporary focus of money and economy are in dire contention with traditional ways of well-being.

Putting Science Into Practice

Ivy Vainio (Grand Portage), the photographer assigned to take my photograph for Minnesota Women’s Press (MWP), suggested that we meet at the shore of Lake Superior. It was a beautiful fall day, sunny and warm, with a gentle breeze off our big lake. I had my son with me. After the photo shoot, we put our feet in the water and said hello and miigwech (thank you) to the Manidoog (spirits) that reside there. It was a reminder to me of the question posed by MWP, asking me to explore how and why someone trained in science holds faith in community and culture for health solutions.

This lake is invaluable to our people. We know from our ceremonial stories that the Manidoog that reside there have chosen to help Anishinaabe people since time immemorial. Without them, we would not be the strong, resilient people that we are. We would not even be in existence.

This is also the lake my partner and I visited and offered our asemaa (tobacco) to after our daughter was born. She had a difficult arrival, and the doctors told us that she might never move, let alone walk. We took water from there to make her first cedar bath, and we return there when we need support.

The guidance I have needed in my life has come from our traditional way of life and teachings. Without them,  I would not be in a place to create the environment that makes me and my children thrive, or establish wellness opportunities for my people. The people that I lean on most also carry strong faith and practices, which undoubtedly makes them strong, resilient, and dependable people.