UMass Amherst Partnering with Indigenous Communities to Launch $30M NSF Center for Braiding Indigenous Knowledges and Science
Researchers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst have been selected by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) to help lead the newly announced NSF Center for Braiding Indigenous Knowledges and Science (CBIKS) – a five-year, $30 million international NSF Science and Technology Center based at UMass Amherst. The center, funded by the largest grant ever received by the university, will focus on connecting Indigenous knowledges with mainstream “Western” sciences to address some of the most pressing issues of our time in new ways.
The center will work on complex, evolving challenges brought on by climate change, including dire impacts affecting land, water, plant and animal life; the danger posed to irreplaceable archaeological sites, sacred places and cultural heritage; and the challenges of changing food systems, all of which disproportionately affect Indigenous communities.
By taking a transdisciplinary approach, CBIKS will use community-based research to undertake place-based studies and projects in partnership with institutions and 57 Indigenous communities in eight international “hubs” in the U.S., Canada, Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia. The center’s team of over 50 scientists — including more than 30 of the world’s leading Indigenous natural, environmental and social scientists, representing Native American, First Nations/Métis, Native Hawaiian, Alaska Native, Māori and Aboriginal Australian peoples — will work cross-culturally, involving Indigenous community members and scientific researchers. Among the 40 partner organizations are 29 universities, two tribal colleges, five NGOs, two national museums and two industry partners, and CBIKS intends to grow these partnerships to include additional Indigenous community partners and regional hubs.
Sonya Atalay, provost professor of anthropology at UMass Amherst, will serve as director of CBIKS, while Jon Woodruff, UMass Amherst professor of earth, geographic and climate sciences, will serve as co-principal investigator. They will be joined by fellow co-PIs Ora Marek-Martinez, assistant professor of anthropology and associate vice president of Native American Initiatives at Northern Arizona University, and Bonnie Newsom, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Maine.
“Combining Indigenous and mainstream Western sciences involves the ‘plural coexistence’ of two very different knowledge systems, a process the Mi’kmaq peoples call ‘two-eyed seeing’ and which we refer to as ‘braiding knowledges,’” says Atalay. “We have evidence of Indigenous science’s potential for better understanding and adapting to long-term environmental shifts, changes in biodiversity and the appropriate and respectful consideration for and preservation of cultural heritage. Geoscientists, archaeologists and climate scientists demonstrate an interest in knowledge co-production with Indigenous people, yet Indigenous knowledge remains at the margins of scientific research. Our vision is that braided Indigenous and Western methodologies become mainstream in scientific research – that they are ethically utilized by scientists working in equitable partnership with Indigenous and other communities to address complex scientific problems and provide place-based, community-centered solutions that address the existential threat of climate change and its urgent impacts on cultural places and food systems.”
Atalay continues, “We envision a new generation of students, scientists and Indigenous community members with the skills and training to conduct research ethically using braided methodologies and to apply the results to improve quality of life through a healthier planet.”
“We know from scholarship in Native and Indigenous studies and from research in climate science, archaeology, environmental and geosciences that Indigenous and Western sciences are complementary and can be effectively brought together,” says Woodruff, who is also co-director of the Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center. “Research using a knowledge methodology that includes Indigenous communities increases scientific understanding, can enrich the wellbeing of Indigenous communities and benefits broader society. We now need to better understand how to bring together Indigenous and Western sciences effectively and ethically, without replicating the past legacy of problematic scientific practices that often ignored or exploited Indigenous communities and their knowledges.”
UMass Amherst Chancellor Javier Reyes says, “The university is honored to partner with this outstanding group of scholars and institutions to advance the CBIKS mission. We are committed to learn together how to appropriately include Indigenous knowledge in our understanding and approach to these critical global challenges.”
We envision a new generation of students, scientists and Indigenous community members with the skills and training to conduct research ethically using braided methodologies and to apply the results to improve quality of life through a healthier planet.
Sonya Atalay, Provost Professor of Anthropology and Director of CBIKS
The NSF Science and Technology Centers Integrative Partnerships program has supported research in areas of national importance since 1987. Science and Technology Centers (STCs) focus on establishing new scientific disciplines and developing transformative technologies that have the potential for broad impacts on science and society. The centers will shine light on emerging STEM fields to develop a globally competitive STEM infrastructure and conduct outreach to inform the public of breakthrough science. CBIKS, the first STC to be based at UMass Amherst, is one of four new STCs announced by the NSF.
“Scientific discovery is the engine that drives human progress and underlies all of the technologies that we benefit from today,” says NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “NSF’s Science and Technology Centers enable our most creative scientists and engineers to open new vistas of scientific inquiry and make the discoveries that will keep the U.S. in the forefront of scientific discovery. I am delighted to see the impressive originality in ideas and approaches in these new STCs and know they will have a tremendous impact.”
In addition to research, the center has an important educational mission to train postdoctoral researchers and graduate research assistants, many at minority-serving institutions. Its Indigenous Science Scholarship Program and Study Abroad Program will provide undergraduates and Indigenous community members with research experience in braiding Indigenous and Western science, while Indigenous science camps and after-school programs will provide place-based learning experiences for K-12 students. The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian and National Museum of Natural History are key partners who will assist in Indigenous science education efforts. Trainings and workshops on braiding Indigenous and Western sciences will be developed for government agencies and museum scientists. The center will also braid art into its STEM research, such as with Indigenous Science Theater performances by Native groups led by the Anishinaabe Theater Exchange.
Upon completion of the initial five-year award, the center will be eligible to receive further funding from the NSF to continue its mission, one which Atalay says is critical to Earth’s future and to ethical science practices.
“A growing number of national and international agencies are recognizing and mandating that Indigenous perspectives, knowledges and rights be incorporated into climate and environmental science, policy and governance,” Atalay says. “CBIKS will directly speak to these directives, while also building a future workforce of Indigenous and non-Indigenous scientists to conduct and train others in carrying out this work. CBIKS is proactively designed to develop methods to mindfully bring together Indigenous and Western sciences in ethical ways. The future of this planet, our peoples, and other-than-human relations depend upon new approaches, to learn the lessons that braiding as an action – and as a remedy – embody. CBIKS’ work, along with that of others doing research in this area, can help lead to healthier Indigenous futures and new possibilities for science.”
More information about CBIKS, including lists of partner institutions, researchers and Indigenous communities, can be found at www.umass.edu/CBIKS.
Visit the CBIKS website for more information about this new NSF Science and Technology Center based at UMass Amherst, including a complete list of partner institutions and full biographies of the center’s leadership team.
Learn more about the vision and goals of CBIKS, the NSF Center for Braiding Indigenous Knowledges and Science, in this July 2022 article about the background of the project, including work in Michigan near the Cass River to uncover a rock art site with ancient petroglyphs carved by local Native Americans.