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.