In modern classrooms, science is science. Earth and space sciences are taught from a textbook with roots reaching back to Greek philosophers. Nobody stops to question the fact that everything taught is very colonized. As a result, not many people stop to take a moment to investigate Indigenous input that may expand upon or provide additional viewpoints. But, if science is science, then what could additional viewpoints add? For starters, science is expanding every day; new viewpoints and new thinking lead to scientific breakthroughs all the time. As for how Native American or First Nations or Indigenous viewpoints can further science? There is very little known research to provide any conclusive result right now. Through the NATIVE EARTH | NATIVE SKY project at Oklahoma State University (OSU), NASA hopes to help close this gap in our understanding of our universe and inspire future Native American involvement in STEM careers.

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Lessons from History

The knowledge we have today is built on the lessons from yesterday. The scientific method is a continuous process. Observation, hypothesis and testing, with the final step of reaching a conclusion simply feeding right back into the next hypothesis. An oversimplified example would be that we see a bird flying. The bird has wings so we build wings to try to fly ourselves. But, the flight is not achieved. Why? The shape of the wings was wrong – we build new wings and test for flight.

Maybe there is success in the new pair for Test Pilot A. But no positive effect for Test Pilot B. Why? We then compare the test pilots and determine there is a size difference. So, we observe the birds and determine there must be a wing-to-body magical ratio. We fashion two new sets of wings, one for each test pilot. Do these work? Why or why not? 

We take the successes and failures of each previous experiment and apply them to the next. Sometimes, that next experiment is the next generation. In Western cultures, the history of experimental data has been compiled into textbooks or lesson plans and taught to children in an official classroom setting. However, for Indigenous cultures, that experimental data is often just oral stories or craft knowledge passed on from Elders. In today’s modern Eurocentric educational world, it is considered informal and unreliable and thus it is often ignored.

The thing is, through the limited research into Native and Indigenous oral histories and teachings, there is proof that a non-Western view is valid in the scientific community. For instance, we know that some Native herbal medicines have been shown to be as effective as their pharmaceutical counterparts (or used to derive pharmaceuticals). We have seen that medicinal smoke has been shown to kill harmful bacteria. Medicines aside, oral histories have also proven to be informative on historical events, such as the lost expedition of Sir John Franklin.

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It is these oral histories that NASA and OSU lead investigator, Dr. Kat Gardner-Vandy, want to embrace. Through the NASA Science Activation Program, NASA is partnering with OSU to create the NATIVE EARTH | NATIVE SKY program. This is a $3.3 million cooperative agreement to develop a culturally relevant educational program for Native students. OSU’s goal is to create a “holistic” STEM curriculum for middle school students from the Cherokee, Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations.

Not only will NATIVE EARTH | NATIVE SKY use oral histories and legends relevant to the subject matter, but the Native language words will also be used where possible. In addition, OSU plans to work with tribal leaders and elders to properly document and incorporate the stories and teachings. 

“One of the main reasons Native Americans are so underrepresented in science and engineering fields has a lot to do with culture and community… By adding that Native American culture and language into our curriculum, we’re including Native American communities in the conversation.”

– Dr. Kat Gardner-Vandy

In addition to working with these three Oklahoma tribes to create the curriculum, they will also study the program’s effectiveness. They will teach the curriculum at summer camps within the tribal nations in 2023, 2024 and 2025. They will also teach it through professional development courses for teachers. The end results and feedback from the summer camps and the teachers will provide direction for any additional tweaking that may be needed before the full curricula are available to the general public for wide use. 

Beyond Inclusive Education

While the initial main objectives are to create educational programs that incorporate tribal histories, there is a secondary initiative. It’s to inspire the next generation of Native Americans in STEM fields. By fostering this cooperative program, which merges and connects the past and present, there is hope that introducing students to concepts they may already be familiar with will excite them.

Cherokee Nation’s Deputy Chief Bryan Warner wants to use the new program to help the children realize that all their hobbies are related to STEM careers. He uses the example of video games, something most kids play in their downtime. It is “directly related to software engineering,” which is exactly what “it takes to get a rocket into space, to get a get a moon lander to land and what we’re doing on Mars.”

NATIVE EARTH | NATIVE SKY will be an interesting program to keep an eye on. As it develops and is implemented, who knows what will come from the summer camps and future educational material. We have already seen the first enrolled tribal member in space with Astronaut John Herrington (Chickasaw) and the first Native American aerospace engineer with Mary Golda Ross (Cherokee). While we are still in the generation of firsts for many careers and positions, we hope the future is filled with Indigenous voices. With Dr. Gardner-Vandy and the OSU team, historical underrepresentation may soon be a thing of the past.

First tribally enrolled Native American in Space, NASA Astronaut John Herrington (Chickasaw Nation) and first Native American aerospace engineer Mary Golda Ross (Cherokee Nation)

First tribally enrolled Native American in Space, NASA Astronaut John Herrington (Chickasaw Nation) and first Native American aerospace engineer Mary Golda Ross (Cherokee Nation). || Image credits: NASA and Museum of Women Pilots


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