Building a rocket with indigenous knowledge

August 22, 2023 • 12:15 pm

It might seem churlish of me to discuss a federally-funded program for young people to integrate “indigenous values” into space exploration, but I discussed a similar aim before with respect to New Zealand, and the article below, from Nature, applies the same aims to an American program. And both programs wound up convincing me of the same three points:

a. “Indigenous values” and “indigenous knowledge” don’t really add much of scientific value to a modern program such as space exploration,

b. The truly “indigenous” aspects of this supposedly salubrious combination of indigenous and non-indigenous knowledge are often superstitious-add ons

c.  Dividing up knowledge and researchers in this way serves only to validate race and indigeneity as the defining traits of one’s persona, and makes science, supposedly a worldwide unifying endeavor, divisive.

Click the screenshot to read the Nature piece:

The gist of the article is that a Native American (Oglala Lakota) student at MIT, Nicole McGaa, entered a NASA-sponsored contest that was limited to Native Americans, who were tasked with designing a rocket that not only “incorporated indigenous values” into the design, but also flew went to the highest altitude. Already you can sense that the “indigenous values” won’t be of much value in overcoming gravity, but here’s the task:

McGaa, who is Oglala Lakota, is entering her fourth year of undergraduate studies in aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. In April, she led MIT’s all-Indigenous rocket team to the 2023 First Nations Launch National Rocket Competition, an annual contest organized by NASA. The competition, held in Kenosha, Wisconsin, provides a platform for Native American students from universities across the United States and Canada to demonstrate their engineering skills through rockets that use high-powered motors. McGaa tells Nature about how she and her team incorporated Indigenous values into their work, why they smudged their rocket before launching it into the skies and her dreams to help astronauts to stay healthy in space.

Somehow something rubs me the wrong way about limiting this competition to Native Americans (why not make it a competition for everyone?) and about “incorporating indigenous values into the work”. That’s already divisive, assuming that Native America values can change the way you design rockets, and perhaps the performance of the rockets themselves. This is in contrast with the assumptions of modern physics and engineering, though I’m willing to admit that perhaps there are some indigenous values that might help. I just don’t know what they are, and rarely are any of them specified.

McGaa describes three, but I find none convincing. Two are not truly “indigenous values”, and the other one is pure superstition.

The first involves cooperation:

Our team operates in a unique way. We have a distributed leadership structure that prioritizes relationship building and taking care of each other. Even during intense periods and crunch weeks, we created a culture of community in which people felt supported and free to declare their other commitments, so that their teammates could accomodate them. We bring snacks to writing sessions, and sometimes go out together to get brunch during the day.

It’s not clear whether this really is unique (except for the snacks and brunch-going), as my reading of how teams building the Mars Rover or the Mars helicopter operate seems to have also been very close and cooperative. Further, it’s not clear that this “culture of community” really does improve the design of rockets, as there’s no control group.

And of course empathy towards your co-workers is not a trait limited to Native Americans. Women, for example, seem to be more empathic and cooperative than men, and I can imagine an all-women team saying the same stuff about their “culture.” But again, no control. In general I don’t think that these competitions should be divided by race or gender. After all, in contrast to sports, there’s no inherent advantage of any group who gets into MIT at building rockets.  If some group of friends who share an ethnicity want to form a team, that’s fine, but I’d say “engineering and science belong to everyone, so let everyone compete against each other.”  Why have a separate contest for any ethnic group of gender if it involves simple engineering?

The second “indigenous value” involves conservation of materials for weight.

Efficiency was inherent in our design: we minimized the material used, and our rocket was low weight. Such efficiency is a feature of care and avoiding excess — key Indigenous principles.

Well, they are also principles for building rockets in general.  And of course there are examples of indigenous excess as well, like driving a gazillion bison over a cliff when you can eat only a few.

The last “indigenous value” resembles some problems with Māori “indigenous knowledge” because it involves superstition:

Our rocket was named MIT Doya. Doya means ‘beaver’ in the Cherokee language; the name was suggested by team member Hailey Polson, who is from that nation. After the rocket was completed, we performed a smudging ceremony, a blessing and purification ritual that typically involves burning sage and which is an important cultural practice for us, by Lake Michigan before the competition. At the contest in April, we successfully blasted our rocket into the sky, and it reached a height of 1,290 metres. We won second place in the competition.

What does the smudging ceremony and building the rocket mean to the team?

The smudging ceremony signifies sending the rocket to the sky with good intentions and the smell of sage. The rocket, propelled by flames, is visiting Father Sky. Everyone on the team comes from different Indigenous tribes and nations. But this ceremony is deeply rooted in our Indigenous identity. For us, having an Indigenous team is not just about building rockets for the sake of it. It will have a lasting impact on Indigenous students at MIT.

I don’t care if they do this, but of course it’s pure superstition, like a Christian team saying a prayer before the launch. It may perpetuate indigenous acts and culture, but there can be no pretense that it makes the rocket fly higher.

At the end, they ask McGaa “what hurdles do you face as an Indigenous student”? and McGaa, who is surely privileged as an MIT student, lets loose with a veritable laundry list of oppression:

There are few Indigenous students at MIT. This means that it’s hard to find mentors and people that can understand and relate to your background and cultural values. People feel uncomfortable when you speak about the specific needs of Indigenous students; it’s as if they don’t want to hear it. And, until 2021, MIT had no Indigenous faculty members. So, there’s almost no one to speak for us. This places a crushing responsibility on us as students to advocate for ourselves and by ourselves. It feels exhausting and lonely, but I am proud to be here. I want to continue to inspire and forge pathways for Indigenous students at MIT.

I wish people would be able to accept and benefit from mentors who didn’t “look like them”. With the new ban on affirmative action, it will be a long time, if ever, until there is equity in university faculties, and there are plenty of professors willing to help Indigenous and other minority students. I’m not sure what “special needs” Indigenous students have: do they involve making up academic deficiencies, or something that’s missing in the psychology and behavior of mentors?. It seems to be the latter based on the assertion above of “crushing responsibility”. But if the needs are purely academic, they can be taken care of by academics. If they’re psychological, they can be taken care of by therapy.  What distresses me is the assumption that, to prosper, a student needs a mentor who “looks like them” because only those of the same ethnic group can truly meet their needs.  I appreciate that faculty should not all be white or male, and I don’t dismiss the value of role models, but I also wish that we could create diverse faculties by hiring on the basis of merit alone.

46 thoughts on “Building a rocket with indigenous knowledge

  1. All the equity in science people have to do is say they’re elevating “wisdom” (but not that it’s the same as science) from other cultures, just as justice is sometimes tempered with mercy. That this is not done is evidence they’re just toeing a line.

  2. The incessantly repeated demand for mentors and teachers who “look like me” overlooks the most fundamental of all disparities in the educational process: schoolchildren are children, while the teachers are adults who do not look like them. But somehow, amazingly, education occurs, and children learn to read, write, and do sums—or at least used to do so. Perhaps DEI doctrine in the educational establishment will manage to end this anomaly.

    1. I forget. At which point are we supposed to be embracing difference? Don’t diverse teams make things awesome?

  3. Can’t wait to hear about the CDC-sponsored Native People’s Epidemiology contest. I can’t wait to hear how traditional methods of doing “Indigenous Science” of going to stop the next global pandemic.

  4. Another example of Dialectical synthesis – roughly :

    thesis : Indigenous ways of knowing
    antithesis : “Western” science
    [ do alchemy ]
    synthesis : (see article)

    Hegel, Marx, Stalin, Mao wrote about dialectical things e.g. Stalin wrote “Dialectical and Historical Materialism” – Maybe Engels too.

    1. Arrgh, I forgot:

      The result of synthesis is aufheben – a simultaneous cancellation of the dehumanizing aspects (I guess) of, here, antithesis – retention of the thesis (not sure if all of it) – and uplifting of both to a humanizing (I guess) level (of humanity, I guess).

    2. I just realized :

      aufheben is synonymous with “sublation”.

      I thought “sublation” was Marcuse’s idea, but no – both are Hegel’s.

      Also : I am reading that :

      “… Hegel characterizes his philosophy as “speculative” (spekulativ), rather than dialectical, and uses the term “dialectical” only “quite rarely.” ”

      A substantial footnote with references is given for that quote which can be found here:

  5. In general, I agree with the critique expressed here. But, it should be obvious that on an emotional level, for some, being taught or mentored with someone from a familiar background can be important. Especially, if the young person’s background involves cultural suspicion of fear of the white male. I would not condemn any student of wanting that.

    1. I think that young people should have the opportunity to be mentored by someone of their ethnicity, which is why I wished for more diversity at the end of my piece. However, I don’t want that diversity to come at the price of sacrificing academic quality. Also, I think it would do people good to LEARN to be mentored by people who don’t look like them, as they learn that what’s important is the knowledge imparted rather than a shared cultural background.

      1. I went to MIT as a female graduate student, and shared an apartment with another woman student in the same department. I can’t recall a female faculty member in any department at MIT at that time, I and my apartment-mate managed. But I think for both of us, it would have been much harder if we hadn’t had each other. It was a totally male place. We both left MIT, though not because of the absence of women. And I certainty think it was good for me, there and later, to be mentored by outstanding men teachers. But I would also add that the women’s colleges at Cambridge and Oxford were very supportive of women.

      2. I think it might also do the mentors some good to mentor people who don’t look like them. If there is a problem here, it’s a two way issue and I think both sides may benefit.

    2. So avoiding anything that involves some kind of “cultural suspicion of fear of the white male” is the best way to deal with “cultural suspicion of fear of the white male”? that seems odd.

  6. Why do you say: especially if the young person’s background involves cultural suspicion or fear of the white male?
    All such ‘free passes’ worry me. Can’t theistic students be expected to learn from atheist teachers? Atheists from theists? Women from men? Men from women? Indians from Jews? Jews from Indians? And so on and on. The culture where I live and work considers the educated, white female such a lowly and detestable creature that ‘indigenous’ males will take courses run by such women but will not submit work to be assessed by them. This is condoned by the universities, some of which maintain official ‘no-fail’ policies for some demographic groups, allowing these students graduate with their bigotry unchecked.
    When we allow free passes because of culture aren’t we perpetuating the bigotry? Can’t we expect university students to be mature enough to be willing to learn? Committed enough to work to overcome their own biases? Fear of white males is just one particular flavour and not a good reason to lower our expectations of our students.

  7. For decades, NASA has run programs that targeted involvement of groups that were under-represented in the disciplines required by the Agency for future mission success. Early on, seeing that a significant number of women and black students (and as I was about to retire around 2008, also indigenous students) were not entering engineering disciplines out of K-12 and that engineering itself was not a discipline generally available in K-12, NASA focused SOME specific effort to bring these kids and their teachers into STEM projects in general and engineering specifically. It was to some extent altruism to ensure that all children had opportunity, but also simply a practical recognition that as the U.S. population become more heterogeneous, selecting from the ever decreasing proportion of white males would be unlikely to guarantee a probability of an appropriate number of the best and the brightest among futureNASA employees.

    In my day, there was no mention of indigenous or various cultural aspects. It was simply assimilating young people into NASA disciplines and a possible future profession that would not otherwise have been readily available to them.

    1. So, did those SOME specific effort actually produce results? Giving students opportunities and having them seize the opportunities are two different things. Lots and lots and lots of effort (and money) has gone into these kinds of programs over many, many years by now, but to what end? We’re still complaining about the paucity of women (although that’s gotten better), black, and indigenous workers. I think the reason women have increased has less to do with these kinds of programs than the general rethinking of women’s capabilities and interests through time. Some would argue that it’s because of programs like these that the rethinking has occurred, but I disagree. I think it’s been a more general cultural change. WRT to mentors, all my mentors were men, and I never gave moment’s thought to wishing there were more women, and I don’t remember any of my female peers giving it much thought, either. Now I hear that a lot, and I wonder if it isn’t just that students are conditioned to think that way. In my day, if you were a woman interested in geology, you knew you were going to deal mostly with men and it was so obvious that you just didn’t give it any thought.

      1. I did not follow the follow-up data assessments that the office of education always took. But if I simply look at today’s astronaut corps, launch control room floors, or watch any NASA or JPL or APL mission press conference and compare it with similar events of the 60’s and 70’s, it is a night and day difference. My observations have been the changes are due to both having a heterogeneous workforce educated and assuming entry level jobs as well as a changed NASA management and supervisory culture that has to some meaningful extent broken away from the traditional expectation that engineers be white males. And, yes, from participating in a number of these activities as an engineer, i saw both the excitement on the part of the students AND attitude changes among my colleagues who also worked with the kids or even attended the end of program presentations.

  8. These initiatives are simply neo-racism being promoted by those previously discriminated against. It is the pendulum swing inverse of the ugly discriminations of the past. These initiatives are a striking contradiction to Martin Luther King’s dream of a world in which no man or woman would be judged on the basis of color of their skin (or genetic makeup).

  9. I can see having a contest limited to a particular demographic (such as Indigenous peoples) that issues awards for the best, most stable, highest flying rocket. But it makes no sense to limit the builds to those that valorize use of that demographic’s values or techniques. Limiting the builds like that will produce inferior rockets. Why? Because the builders are by definition building limitations—and limited thinking—into their designs.

    I rather doubt that the world of rocketry can benefit from this. Can students benefit? Maybe they will feel good and take pride in working with their group, so there could be some social benefit. But to be good engineers, the students really need to broaden their perspectives, not narrow them. That’s why Science (capital S) has become a global institution where all perspectives can be tested. A Balkanized science will do no good.

  10. All well and good, but how long before the bureaucrat who ticks off the colour of faces in your department notices that despite casting the net wider, you’re still only getting white males who make the cut? Yet that bureaucrat had received a directive to increase the number of faces on the payroll who aren’t white men by some specified quantity by some specified date.

    So what does he do? Does he tell his boss that good intentions are nice but the only people with the right stuff (and who are interested in space flight) are white men and so forget it? Or does he tell you, “Come on Jim, work with me on this. The President told the Director of the Agency to hire more blacks and women and it’s my job to make you make that happen. Fortunately we have lots of brilliantly qualified South Asian engineering graduates and immigrants but you and I both know that’s not what the boss meant, don’t we.”

    1. This is not hiring, which proceeds by civil service competitive rules. As I read jerry’s write-up and from my, admittedly dated experience, these are little projects most often conducted by NASA’s office of education with technical support by engineers and scientists who volunteer from the engineering and science organizations. Much of the mishigas such as cultural components come from the professional educators, but the aim of getting a broader spectrum of interest than traditional white males in the early years of their formal education is an important strategic aim of the Agency which will simply promote more qualified applicants for NASA civil service jobs than we would see from public education business as usual.

  11. I suggest a competition open to groups of engineering students from indigenous backgrounds, and to any other groups of engineering students. Then see who makes the best rockets.

    Thus we can test whether students who have access to both “Western” science and indigenous “ways of knowing” have an advantage over students stuck merely with boring old, narrow-minded “white” science.

    1. Well, let’s extend the principle a bit wider. Who would volunteer to fly in an aircraft that had been manufactured in part by reference to ‘indigenous ways of knowing’? Or drive a car constructed on a similar basis? Or submit to a medical operation? I might buy a beer, or a pizza, or an ice-cream, based on ‘indigenous ways of knowing’. Not a lot else.

      1. I might add: what does ‘indigenous’ mean anyway? In the UK, the acronym BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) has been widely replaced by BIPOC, which has been inappropriately imported from the US. The only original indigenous population in the UK is the Welsh.

        Swansea University is one of the leading designers of small satellites in Europe, but I’m sure that even they would not claim to use unique ‘Welsh ways of knowing’ in marketing their products. If they did, I doubt they would remain as a leading designer of satellites for much longer.

  12. You’re dismissive of indigenous rocket science but did you know that no indigenous Siberian groups smudged herbs on the ill-fated Russian moon lander?

    1. The Russian Luna-25 probe which crashed on the moon was not “ill-fated”. Its crash was part of a Special Lunar Operation which will authorize the Russian Federation to annex those parts of the moon on which fragments of Luna-25 landed. We can soon expect a statement from President Putin, explaining that the moon and Russia have always been “one planet” through history.

  13. “Why have a separate contest for any ethnic group or gender if it involves simple engineering?”

    Because otherwise, the winners would be overwhelmingly Asian and male.

  14. I’d like to see a competition that pitted a rocket built entirely using Indigenous “Ways of Knowing” vs Ways of Knowing aka science.

    Both teams have to reference every principle they use to build said machine to their respective knowledge system.

  15. I’m with PCC on the tenor of this critique but there is an “indigenous way of knowing” (loosely) that did occur to me: use of the Japanese art of origami to fold the solar panels of spacecraft into as little volume as possible and to deploy without fouling. This is not the “rocket science” of the MIT program which was meant as community outreach to minority groups by NASA as a DEI initiative sponsor. Noble enough in intent, to inspire young people to pursue careers in science and influence the “pipeline problem” of fewer minorities going into STEM fields starting with early education.

    Frankly, I find many of these “projects” scientifically banal – not encouraging young people (of whatever indigenous group or skin color) to think creatively to solve problems (the rocket equation, drag elimination, etc. rule the roost here) but to signal virtue with emotional appeals to judges. A reasonable judge of this contest should’ve constructively critiqued this solution by asking ‘and how does burning sage add ascent distance to their rocket?’ This is pandering of a scientifically dishonest sort. I would even grant something like ‘we reduced our rocket weight by building it from epoxy and dried sage (abundant in my culture and I remembered very light when dried) which was structurally sound and had the benefit of smudging our rocket all the way to its apex.’ At least that borders on material science though

  16. I agree with all you’ve said, with one exception. I agree that all scientific questions should be open to free exploration, but could the word “indigenous” not also signify a certain awe, value, reverence, about the natural world of which we are a part (even if we know of examples of habits of individual nations that are cruel or wasteful which the confirmation bias won’t fail to find). The indigenous, after all, are versions of human society #1, and we can surely learn, which would be anthropological science, a lot about the social and political forms to which the human species tend to in those overwhelmingly majority cases, after all, of our species’ social normative curve, in which we did not develop empires, employers, money, banks, corporations, churches with power of your life and mind, and the continuation of that culture today that is literally based on the destruction of our habitat, without snubbing them? I would assume that thousands of scientists played significant parts in all the plastic that fills a continent’s dimension of ocean, in consulting with the animal farmers that destroyed unimaginable proportions of Brazilian rain forest with all its diversity of life which also contributes to climate change, to building the giant cars that have returned to the market and, studies show, reversed the actions of millions aimed at reducing climate change, in creating foods we don’t need that make us obese, and just a saturation of junk in the market that wastes precious resources and creates the illusion that owning stuff alone will make us happy (of course, paradoxically a third of the planet barely eats). Science as a method is fantastic, love it, the bright light in our world as far as I can see (along with the arts), the road to truth, and certainly sufficient by itself to feed our need for meaning for the rest of time if we can also find a way to live that is gentler, less destructive, less oppressive, and also closer to the freedom and equality of the indigenous, our human society #1. When some indigenous societies changed in the Middle East thousands of years ago to developing agriculture and cities (which has happened before throughout our history on all continents but wisely abandoned when oppressive power structures took hold), they did so by also changing themselves, to the point to which that reverence for the natural world, for the other creatures in it, and that reverence for kinship and freedom, were lost. That was not a necessary outcome of creating a civilization, but it was the outcome in ours, and we are its inheritors, its maintainers, struggling in a deformed society to make life better with our knowledge. The development of science was fantastic, but it also was part of that divergence, often sharing its values (I did not say always). Why do scientists today not have the same ethical standards as, say, psychologists have about what behaviors are acceptable and what not, or doctors’ Hippocratic oath that they will do no harm? I am not condemning science at all, but there lacks a fundamental ethic (which should not interfere with any research) about what the fruits of science should serve. Scientific knowledge has of course cured so many illnesses and done so much good, but the “bad” required scientists who shared their knowledge because it fueled their career, their need to eat and support a family in a capitalist society where you need a job to survive (whether the political form was right-wing, center or left-wing). That “ethic” for lack of a better word I am prepared to call “indigenous” not to valorize hocus-pocus or ritual or some “knowledge” purported to be equal to that of the scientific method, but because the word means “originating.” I think it should be part of science, not the method but how its fruits will be served, I think it should be part of life, I think that without it we destroy our planet but also our humanity, and that is the open question that I am not prepared to close for as long as scientists sell the fruits of their knowledge for money or fame or status at the expense of the natural and human world.

    1. a. You are mixing up science with ethics–what is DONE with scientific results. That’s not really part of this discussion.
      b. Please keep your comments short; we want comments, not essays.


  17. I don’t have a problem with this. There are other rocketry competitions that are open to teams of any composition, so non-indigenous people are not being deprived of opportunities to challenge themselves.

    As for the “incorporating indigenous values” part, two thoughts occur to me:
    1) Perhaps someone has a unique insight that a non-indigenous engineer never considered. You won’t know until you ask people doing actual engineering, and not just tossing word salad on Twitter or in academia.
    2) If I was trying to come up with a way to demonstrate how little “other ways of knowing” contribute to engineering/science without sounding dismissive, I could hardly do better than to come up with a program like this. Anyone who looks at this entrant’s response would realize those values/knowledge had nothing to do with successfully putting a rocket into the air.

  18. Much missing from the Nature story. The over-all winner of the competition was a team from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.

    Madeleine Duncan from Curve Lake First Nation is one of the incoming Team Leads, and a third-year student in Geological Engineering.

    “It’s an amazing feeling to have our achievement recognized in this way,” says Madeleine. “The team has worked very hard to get to this point and it will be a once in a lifetime experience to have access to Kennedy Space Centre. I’m very excited to see what this next year will bring with our 2024 rocket!”

    No mention of smudging or any other indigenous ways of knowing.

    NASA’s funding rules don’t allow it to award money prizes or other financial support to foreigners. But on the most difficult Mars challenge, Queen’s did win more points than the two teams awarded prizes and the Queen’s Gaels get to visit KSC along with the American winners.

    It’s also worth noting that NASA specifies the baseline rocket kits and the commercially manufactured and self-contained high-power solid-fuel rocket motors that the teams must design and build around. The teams are not free to buy any motor they want.
    (High-power is a designation used in the hobby and the industry for the most powerful range of motors and airframe kits designed to handle the thrust and energy of these motors. They require certification to use and this compliance is written into the handbook available to teams.)

    There is nothing in the handbook that specifies that the entrants into the Indigenous Rocket Competition must be provably or even self-identified as of indigenous origin. Teams are drawn from schools that host chapters of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, as Queen’s does. The AISES does not explicitly restrict membership in its chapters to indigenous people.

  19. I wish to apologize for my extremely long diabtribe (#19 above). I will never enter such a long reply again, it’s embarrassing. Reading the entry about indigenous rocket making on my phone, I did not see the actual article until now, on my computer. Having now read it, I agree there is no alternative indigenous ways of knowing that have anything to do with building a rocket. I do appreciate the reply that said basically I was taking up too much space or that my reply was even off-topic, both of which I see. However, the reply to my reply also suggested that discussing the uses of science have no relevance to the doing of science. I am able to conceptualize that, of course, but surely that separation is not so solid, given many scientists who do the research are themselves also contributing to the uses? The argument about ethics in the use of science is one I have only recently been thinking about, but I am sure that those of you who actually do science have been engaged in the topic of ethics in scientific use years ago. Are there books or websites that you know of that on the one hand celebrate scientific inquiry for its own sake but which on the other also bemoan how the principles of science get used, often with scientist involvement, in environmentally destructive ways?

    1. Satirist/singer Tom Lehrer (who really was/is a professional scientist and mathematician) wrote a song about Nazi/SS rocket scientist Sturmbannführer Wehrner von Braun who was happy to collaborate with his American hosts after the war. Sang Lehrer:

      “Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
      That’s not my department,” says Wehrner von Braun.

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