Indiana State University Newsroom

Science, traditional cultures topic of Earth Day speaker

April 8, 2015

Creating a partnership between traditional cultures and scientific innovation is possible and beneficial to the planet, says an environmental biologist who will speak at Indiana State University in observance of Earth Day.

Robin Kimmerer, professor of environmental biology at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, is the founding director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, which aims to create programs drawing on the wisdom of both indigenous populations and scientific knowledge for shared goals of sustainability.

"I believe that environmental science and traditional knowledge can be symbiotic in nature, where the strengths and limitations of each knowledge system are balanced by the other," Kimmerer said. "For example, the scientific method necessarily separates the observer and the observed, attempts to be strictly objective, rational and reductionist. Science engages the human powers of intellect, but explicitly excludes the other ways that humans have of understanding the world.

"Many of the questions of sustainability that we face involve the intersection between human culture and values and the natural world," she added. "So relying on a single knowledge system, which excludes human values, is inadequate to address the challenges we face. Traditional knowledge is more holistic and includes values, ethics and responsibilities ... so makes a good partner to balance scientific ways of knowing."

Kimmerer is this year's Earth Day Speaker at Indiana State and is set to present her talk, "The Honorable Harvest: Indigenous Knowledge and Conservation," at 7 p.m. April 21 in the events area of the Cunningham Memorial Library. The free event is part of the Darwin Keynote Speaker Series and is sponsored by Indiana State's University Honors Program and Center for Community Engagement.

"I will be talking about the indigenous philosophies of respect, reciprocity and responsibility - understanding that humans are more than just passive consumers in the ecosystem, that through practices of reciprocity, we can give back to ecosystems in order to sustain the beings who sustain us," Kimmerer said. "I will be talking about the philosophy and practice of the Honorable Harvest, an ancient protocol that governs how we take from the earth. In an era of hyper-consumerism and economies based on resource exploitation, this is an idea for our time."

Kimmerer said she hopes attendees take away an appreciation for how indigenous knowledge can be respectfully used as a partner to western science for conservation and ecological restoration.
Syracuse -- similar to Terre Haute -- is a post-industrial city working to become more sustainable. Kimmerer points to the restoration of Onondaga Lake, once known as the most polluted lake in the country, as a promising sign of progress there.

"It has taken enormous political will and pressure on the polluters, but alliances between the city, county, universities and the Onondaga Nation have helped create a vision and a pathway for its restoration," she said. "The partnership with the Onondaga Nation needs to be more fully respected and implemented, as they have much higher standards for restoration of the landscape than the responsible corporation or government agencies."

These types of partnerships must be replicated for future progress, she said.

"Making alliances is key to success, engaging people's visions of a whole and healthy landscape, restoring not only land, but most importantly, our relationships to land," Kimmerer said.


Contact: Rusty Gonser, associate professor of biology and director of The Center for Genomic Advocacy at Indiana State University, 812-237-2395 or

Writer: Libby Roerig, media relations assistant director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3790 or