Student Commencement Speaker Stephanie Muise Interviews 2015 Keynote Speaker Robin Wall Kimmerer
Stephanie: When did you begin to have your interest in science? Botany?
Robin: I think that I was born a botanist that the plants must have tapped me on the shoulder at an early age, because I cannot remember a time when I haven’t been fascinated by plants. I was lucky enough to grow up in the woods and fields and my parents really encouraged us to know the trees and wildflowers and birds. For me that’s one of the joys of being a field scientist, you can follow childhood passions and still go play in the woods, only we call it work.
Stephanie: Was there any one person or experience that sticks out in your mind that really cemented your love for the outdoors?
Robin: It’s hard to choose one experience or person because there were so many, but I do recall that the strong sense of curiosity about the botanical world came from family canoe trips where we would just drift through boggy rivers and wetlands, without any goal except for looking at things. I learned that curiosity could be a pursuit. And the plants there were so unlike any I’d ever seen, the pitcher plants, the sundews, the brightly colored Sphagnum mosses, I couldn’t help but wonder why the world was so full of different beings and what their lives were like.
Stephanie: How/when did it strike you to begin integrating traditional values into westernized, “hard” science? Was this a natural progression for you?
Robin: When I was a college student—many long years ago—I was made to realize pretty quickly that the strictly materialist, reductionist ways of scientific thinking left very little room for other ways of knowing. Traditional knowledge was not recognized as valid. So I learned botany in that scientific framework and was hungry to learn everything that I could about plants. While I recognized that something important was missing, I had no vocabulary to articulate it. But, after earning my PhD and beginning to teach plant ecology myself, I was invited to a gathering of traditional plant elders and it was a pivot point for me. In listening to them, to their holistic perspective, which was simultaneously spiritual and physical, it re-awakened the desire to embrace both of these ways of knowing. I’ve been blessed by having good teachers along my path, who helped me begin to renew my indigenous thinking about plants. I felt as if I wouldn’t be a good teacher, or an honest one, if I didn’t share both of these ways of knowing with my students.
Stephanie: Can you explain what your definition of Traditional Ecological Knowledge is? How can this shape modern science in the future?
Robin: There are a lot of definitions of TEK out there, some proposed by academics, some by native peoples. For me, traditional knowledge is deeply empirical, observation-based understanding, but it is more than information about the living world, it is a way of thinking, a way of being which is based on learning from the land herself, from acknowledging the land as a teacher. It is the knowledge of the web of relationships among living beings that is grounded in mind, body, emotion, and spirit. It couples knowledge with our responsibilities for the natural world.
Stephanie: As a Native person, how does traditional knowledge shape your teaching methods?
Robin: As much as I love teaching, I am always aware that it is the land that is the best teacher, so I try to teach outside or with living beings as much as I can. I also incorporate story and first-hand experience into my classes, which takes learning from “information” to real understanding and building of relationships among people and the “more-than-human beings” with whom we share the Earth.
Stephanie: If you could give young Native people a piece of advice in regards to their education, what would it be and why?
Robin: To honor the multiple ways of knowing which are available to us: indigenous knowledge, scientific knowledge, artistic knowledge to master more than one so we can be fluent and flexible and creative and whole. Each kind of knowledge is a lens, each gives us a different tool—and then its up to us to learn how to find a balance among them. The Native writer and educator Greg Cajete has written that we humans have the gifts of using mind, body, emotion,and spirit to understand the world—and that we cannot claim to truly understand unless we learn to use all four.
I am so grateful for the way education has changed since the time I began as a student. Science is still the dominant paradigm in most universities, but there is growing recognition for the importance of embracing multiple ways of knowing. Indigenous studies was not an option back then—and now I love to see students doing both. This kind of integrative thinking is what we need if we are to evolve as a society toward sustainability.
Stephanie: Thank you.
Robin: Thanks Stephanie. I’m really looking forward to seeing you again and was delighted to learn that you will be speaking at commencement.