Sovereignty, Open Source, and Sacred Knowledge: Learning about STEM Education for Indigenous Peoples

May 13, 2013 at 1:17 am 4 comments

Now that the semester is ended, I can finally write about some of the events of this last semester. The most transformative for me, in terms of insight and new issues I’d never even thought about, was a trip to the Center for Indian Education at Arizona State University. Their director, Bryan Brayboy, and Yasmin Kafai of Penn have a project to introduce computing education into American Indian schools through EthnoEtextiles (e2textiles). The idea is to use computational textiles, or etextiles (like Leah Buechley’s LilyPad) to connect computer science education to indigenous communities’ existing craft practices. I’m on the advisory board, along with Megan Bang (U-W) and Leah.

Kristin Searle, a PhD student working with Yasmin and Bryan, made a presentation on education and indigenous groups that introduced a whole set of new ideas for me. She was talking about how STEM education only succeeds with indigenous peoples if it starts from issues of “sovereignty.” I didn’t understand why a political notion like sovereignty was an issue in schools and education. Kristen, Bryan, Megan, and Cristobal Martinez (another PhD student on the project) explained why it’s critical to an intervention’s success.

The US government promised the American Indian peoples their sovereignty. (The US government didn’t give the indigenous peoples their sovereignty — they had it long before.) The definition of “sovereignty” includes control of education for one’s own people: “self-education, self-determination, and self-government.” Most of American Indian schools are controlled by the Bureau of Indian Education, not by the local communities. This creates a tension between local values and a sense of having control over one’s own destiny, with having a curriculum imposed by the federal government. Megan told a great story about a project in which she introduced GIS and GPS technologies into an American Indian school. She went into the schools with a design ready, then realized that it wasn’t going to work until she came to understand the issues and values in that community. She spent over a year talking to the leaders and elders of that community and re-designing her curriculum. In the end, she went into the schools with a design that wasn’t too dissimilar to what she originally intended, but now, infused with the values and choices of the community.

During this day-long conversation, the advisors suggested that Leah’s LilyPad software was well-suited to this kind of re-design and transformation since it was open source. Bryan explained that American Indians find “open source” problematic. American Indians believe in sacred knowledge, knowledge that is held by only certain members of the community and not by others. Cristobal pointed out that there are songs in his community that you might be allowed to hear, but not be allowed to sing. Bryan told me that sacred knowledge cannot be shared, because doing so violates community protocol and lessens the power of the knowledge. Knowledge is something that is valued in the community, and certain people are charged with “caring” for this knowledge. Bryan said that the community members sometimes say “Go ask Grandma Google.”

By the end of the day, I thought I was starting to understand the issues, and offered some of my stories as a way of connecting. I told them about Glitch, which used a similar process of creating an educational intervention with community involvement. I also told a story that I’ve heard from Alan Kay about Smalltalk-72, and about what he’s taught me about metaprogramming. Metaprogramming is where one can use the language to change how the language works. Smalltalk-72 made metaprogramming easy, and Alan has talked about the challenges raised by that ease. Not everyone should be metaprogramming, because it sets up a situation where you can’t trust the language that you’re using — you don’t know how somebody might have changed the semantics on you. Metaprogramming is a kind of sacred knowledge. It should only be used by people who can be trusted, who will not abuse the trust of others using the language. Bryan liked that story, because it connected to the way that American Indians see the problems with open source.

I was only able to be at ASU for a single day, because of my teaching schedule. I got a lot out of the day, and learned about a whole set of issues around value systems and how they inform our educational choices. More pointedly, I learned about how education systems in opposition to community values can lead to ineffective interventions, and how it’s possible to design effective educational interventions through community involvement.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. rdm  |  May 13, 2013 at 6:53 am

    I am cautiously enthusiastically skeptical about this idea.

    I don’t like it, as stated, but I think you might be onto something significant here. The part about being able to rely on meaning is, I think, important. The reference to “open source” ironically reminds me of you which brings up the distinction between the “amoral commercial” term ‘open source’ and the “morally philosophical” term ‘free software’.

    An irony, here, is that free software could be described as “free as in markets, not free as in lunch”. The economic issues and parallels seem significant. On the other hand, there’s something not quite right with economic curriculum today: The concept of “market efficiency” is mathematically implausible and probably only an approximation which is mostly valid at certain time scales (I can expand on this if relevant, but keeping this comment small enough to fit here demands I try to only hit the more significant aspects of these issues).

    Another tie-in, though is the tension between life and liberty. In some senses, liberty is important – for many (in some contexts: most) kinds of decisions, it’s best if individuals are given full reign over their choices. In other senses, though, you have to be alive for your decisions to be meaningful and that imposes constraints on meaningful freedoms.

    Ultimately, I think what we are facing here are weaknesses in our abstractions and in our abilities to abstract. And that shows up as limitations in our engagement with many people. It’s difficult for me to imagine, though, how to distinguish between “good” and “bad” long term stability.

  • 2. Tiffany Barnes  |  May 17, 2013 at 8:19 am

    Thanks for the insightful post. It reminds me of Ron Eglash’s work to make culturally relevant design tools for kids to learn math through native practices, Also reminds me that we should take into account the teachers when we make interventions for computing education in high schools

  • […] is interesting to me both as an example of connecting Native American students with STEM education and as something cool that my alma mater is […]

  • […] Searle and Yasmin Kafai (see paper here) about the e-textiles work with American Indians that I blogged about here.  Kristin had so many interesting insights, like the boys in her project telling her that “I […]


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