How can you study something that’s not there?
Next week I deliver a campus-wide lecture on my work in science communication. Thing is, I navigate the intersections between Western and Native sciences, but there’s no word for science in most Indian languages.
If you ask someone “what is science?” she will likely have an answer. We learned early on that blokes like Galileo and da Vinci are credited with scientific discoveries.
You can find textbooks and magazines on science, walk by the river in Portland and enter an entire museum dedicated to science, watch and listen to science programs on television and radio, read comic books and graphic novels that engage in science, and take courses in science.
But how do you find out about science when it’s not called science?
The Yu’pik exhibit, Yuungnaqpiallerput, opens with a message to the viewer that “the Yup’ik have no word for science.” Then, the exhibit, which I described in the blog after seeing it this summer at the Smithsonian, features item after item wrought by rational thought, tradition, scientific discovery and technological insight.
For the Yu’pik the exhibit describes knowledge systems. For viewers, it has been labeled “science and technology”—a rhetorical device meant to frame the information in a certain vein. But without the title and scientific packaging, the exhibit simply reveals knowledge systems and lifeways of the Yu’pik. If not for the label, you might not find a description of the exhibit on the Internet.
So how does one reveal what constitutes science in Indigenous cultures when science isn’t separated into a category distinct from other ways-of-knowing? One might argue that science is embedded in Native epistemologies, part of the fabric of everyday living.