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Impact Magazine

The Garden of Scientific Perspectives

The following is an abridgment of Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s original speech given in January 2021 at the BYU College of Life Sciences Seminar Series and sponsored by the Department of Biology.

I am a Potawatomi Anishinaabe woman, a member of the Bear Clan and the Eagles. I am grateful to be with you and thank you for taking the time to listen and learn together. Today, we will talk about an interesting dialogue between p-values and cultural values, between what we do in science and what we sometimes overlook or leave out in science. But I also want to add another element of our traditional protocol—always begin with gratitude. We say that gratitude is our most important responsibility as human people. And so we can cast our minds back to the moment when we first put our feet on Mother Earth this morning and remember that we had everything we needed. We had water to drink; we had that first sweet breath of morning air; we had food; we had the companionship of birds, trees, clouds, wind, and one another; and we had the love and knowledge that surrounds us. I also want to give particular gratitude to the Ute and Shoshoni people whose homelands we are meeting today.


I live in the lake country of upstate New York. It is the ancestral and contemporary territory of the Onondaga people, and the central fire of the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, peoples. I acknowledge that my university—my home—stands on the unseated territory of the Haudenosaunee. I also remember the unpaid debt of land, history, loss, and certainly of scientific and physical knowledge of how we care for the earth. So give gratitude to the first peoples of whatever place you are standing in at this moment.

I want to address this notion of diversity and inclusion as an ecological imperative. The Ecological Society of America recognizes that diversity and inclusion are not marginal, but rather central, to our work. I would perhaps parallel Gus Speth’s words: “I used to think that the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, and climate change.” As a scientist, an ecologist, and an environmental biologist, I share with him this notion. I thought good science would solve everything and that by the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day we wouldn’t still be in the same—or indeed, to be truthful, worse—circumstances as we were in then. Speth said it’s not these p-values of science, but cultural values that are the key to positive change: “The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy . . . and to deal with these, we need a cultural and spiritual transformation.” It is this work that propels my current research and writing. And in these urgent times, I am driven to work with my students to think about how we could collectively conduct ecology —and, more broadly speaking, biology in a way that supports cultural change toward alignment with ecological principles.

Think about the word sustainability. An Algonquian biologist colleague of mine tells the story of talking to her tribal council about a sustainability meeting she wanted to attend. The council wanted to know what it was. She laughed and responded, “Well, it is the way our people have lived well in our homelands without damaging these lands and ecosystems for a millennium.” But she also gave them the same definitions you’re learning in your classes, the same ones we know in policy statements. Essentially, these definitions explain sustainability as ways we can live so that the earth can continue to provide for human needs. As my colleague tells the story, one of these elders said, “That sounds to me like they’re just trying to find a way to keep on taking.”

Looking at these definitions of sustainability through an indigenous lens points out the truth—we are trying to think about how we can keep taking. And this is not all right. When our feet hit the ground in the morning, we should be thinking about what we have to give. Those values of generosity and reciprocity are in return for the gifts of the earth. This is a different cultural lens for thinking about what we are about.

To care for and understand biodiversity, we need to safeguard knowledge diversity. As biologists, we know the consequences of monoculture. In nature, monocultures result in instability and reduced productivity. We know this. Why, then, are we tolerating monocultures of knowledge in the ways we do science? We know the raw material for evolution is genetic diversity. Therefore, if we think about what might lead us toward evolution in sustainability and reciprocity, what we need is intellectual diversity to fuel ideas that will lead us to a better relationship with the earth. We know that scientific innovation requires the full participation of all the world’s peoples to bring their intellectual traditions into the dialogue of how we collectively care for one another and for Mother Earth.

Illustration of Goldenrod and Aster flowers
Photo by Emily Tribe

I want to share with you a small fragment of my own story that shows how this plurality of ways has not always been the case. I was born a botanist and raised with traditional Potawatomi values, and I looked to the plants as my teachers, my relatives, my companions, and as wise beings. As a college freshman, I went to a forestry school to study botany and knew I would be one of the only women, and certainly the only native woman, in the entire institution. I wanted to be ready for the question I knew I’d be asked in my freshman interview: “Why do you want to study botany?” When asked, I said I wanted to know why goldenrod and aster look so beautiful together and how we keep it that way. You see, goldenrod and aster grow side by side. They can grow on opposite sides of the woodlands or the edges of wetlands, but they don’t. They grow right together in this amazingly beautiful display.

I thought I had given a really good answer, but I was wrong. Looking over his glasses, my professor said to me, “My dear, that is not science. If you want to study beauty, you should have gone to art school.” I was taken back, and I thought, “Wow, I’ll try again.” I then said I wanted to know why plants make medicines for us, and I wanted to know why some plants bend for baskets and others don’t, speaking from my relationships with plants and my indigenous values. He swept those aside too and said, “Nope, that’s not science. But you take plant biology, take botany with me, and you’ll understand what it is.” I had no vocabulary of resistance. I thought I must be wrong. He was the scientist, he was the professor of botany, so I figured that he knew what botany was all about and that I must have been mistaken. It was an earthshaking transition for me to go from one knowledge system to another and to a place where the knowledge that I brought was erased and unwelcome.

Interestingly, right down the hall from where that professor said to me, “Your knowledge does not belong here; indigenous ways of knowing are not here. But you come to my classes and I’ll teach you what plants are about, I’ll teach you what land is about,” is now the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. The Center’s mission is to bring together the powerful tools of Western science and the concept of living well on the land from indigenous philosophy.

Three sisters and their garden where corn, beans, and squash grow together.
Photo by Emily Tribe

Native peoples comprise the smallest minority within the scientific community. One of the powerful reasons that we see such low representation of native peoples in science is that, for the most part, our knowledge is not welcome in the university. Indigenous ways of knowing are marginalized in how we teach, what we teach, what questions we ask, and how we answer them. The indigenous worldview, the oldest science on the continent, has been rendered invisible. We have prioritized quantitative, hypothesis-driven science and omitted cultural values.

By people of color—marginalized peoples all over the world—science is perceived as “the fortress” because it exerts power over biological and social systems. With carefully guarded boundaries, the scientific community can be—but isn’t always—a perpetrator of intellectual imperialism that says, “Our way is the only way to understand the biophysical world.” This kind of attitude displaces and devalues other ways of knowing. How do we open the doors to that fortress of science and expel some of these monocultural ideas toward pluralism? How do we engage indigenous knowledge? And we need to ask ourselves in this monoculture, which we have created intentionally in some cases and unwittingly in others, “What are the ideas that are lost when we look at the world through only one lens and not with both?” I teach entire courses on this concept. Let me give you a couple of examples.

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"We need to ask ourselves in this monoculture, what are the ideas that are lost when we only look at the world through one lens?"
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When looking at the United Nations’ biodiversity reports, one can see that biodiversity is in crisis. We are in the age of the sixth extinction, with levels of biodiversity loss that rival when a meteor caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. But did you know that there are places where biodiversity loss is not nearly as sharp as in others? These locations are in indigenous homelands.

An interesting correlation emerges when a map of cultural diversity, as measured by indigenous language, overlays a map of biodiversity hotspots. Biodiversity is thriving in the indigenous homelands. If we care about our planet, we need to know why. What is the source of this correlation between indigenous cultures and biodiversity? A lot of interesting work is being done in this arena, and the answer has everything to do with indigenous land management—the way that people care for their lands.

Indigenous science is practiced in these homelands with long-term monitoring of human and climatic changes. These homelands are places where people are giving back to the land, where cultural values are practiced. Indigenous science, also known as Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), integrates values, science, culture, and nature. In many cases, TEK balances some of the limitations of Scientific Ecological Knowledge (SEK) and can be an agent for thinking about adaptation to ecological changes. We know that Western science alone has not brought us to sustainability. We know that we need to look at the world from more than one perspective. The question is, how do we do that? As Kenny Ausubel suggests, “We’re going to need the enduring knowledge of indigenous science as well as the best of leading-edge Western science. It’s high-tech meets high-TEK.” And here I take my lead, yes, because I’m an indigenous botanist from an indigenous garden.

I extend a new metaphor, not of a fortress, but of a garden where we cultivate a mutualism between Western and indigenous knowledge. This garden comes from the genius of indigenous science in agriculture, where corn, beans, and squash are not grown apart in isolated monoculture fields but are grown together in this metaphorical garden polyculture known as Three Sisters agriculture. In this garden, both TEK and SEK come from the earth as our teachers. We grow and develop together by bringing both knowledges into the right relationship. Very importantly, there is no compromise of identity in the Three Sisters Garden. We sometimes hear people say, “I’m going to blend traditional knowledge and Western science.” But blending is not what we’re about. We know what happens when there is a power differential and blending is suggested. No, there will be no compromise of identity. The corn doesn’t become the squash, the squash doesn’t become the beans—but they work together. It is so important that they are integral to themselves to bring their gifts to this symbiosis. And when you plant beans, corn, and squash in the Three Sisters polyculture, you get more food. The three are more productive together than when they are apart, yielding mutual benefits for people and land. This is true in a Three Sisters Garden, and it’s true in a knowledge garden that we plant in our universities.

We could talk about this all day, but the principles of environmental philosophy from an indigenous worldview include the five R’s: respect, relationship, responsibility, reciprocity, and reverence. What if we guided science by these values? In Western science, we uncouple knowledge and responsibility; we do knowledge for knowledge’s sake. This approach is impossible in an indigenous worldview, wherein knowledge is always coupled with the responsibility for that knowledge. P-values alone are not enough, and we need cultural values as well. And so my charge to all of us is to think about how we can plant this garden led by traditional principles—by those five R’s that guide the power of scientific tools—but to do so in an ethical framework of cultural values, not only p-values. Can we envision this symbiosis, that scientific knowledge is guided by these principles of indigenous framework, so that all can be fed?

Three sisters garden description
Photo by Emily Tribe