When one looks only at their differences, Alaska Native ways of knowing (traditional knowledge and wisdom) and Western science might appear to be incompatible. Alaska Native knowledge seeks holistic understanding of the world and the interconnectedness of nature. Knowledge is acquired through personal experience, trial and error, and from inherited wisdom passed down through stories and metaphors. Western science is broken into scientific disciplines and seeks explanations grounded in physical evidence and the accumulation of data. It relies on measuring tools and reproducible methodologies.
However, just as there are differences between these two knowledge systems, there is important common ground. Both seek truth, deriving knowledge from observations of properties and behaviors and the ability to recognize patterns. Both bodies of knowledge rely on communicating understanding and are subject to revision. Finally, both knowledge systems rely on the inquisitive and persevering nature that individuals possess.
As Richard Glenn explains in this interactive resource, Alaska Native ways of knowing and Western science need not be mutually exclusive. In fact, integrating the two can be the key to solving some of today's complex problems. In this way, they can be complementary approaches, or as Glenn puts it, "two flashlights shining down the same path." The different lights may reveal different information about an object or problem, but both are relevant and can be applied to enhance one's overall understanding.
For example, Western scientists can utilize remote-sensing technologies onboard satellites to analyze sea ice cover and track ice extent. However, as the following story from Richard Glenn's experiences demonstrates, the ground-level knowledge of the ice that Alaska Native people possess includes subtle but important details that cannot be picked up from space.
"I once led a field trip out onto our frozen ocean with researchers trained in interpreting sea ice from satellites. These folks had little experience actually being on sea ice. Some were experts in recognizing multiyear sea ice from space, yet they had to be told when they were traveling on it in the 'real world.'
"I led a few of them to the ice edge, where things are more active. I cautioned them about what we are all taught as young Iñupiat hunters—that we have to watch wind, currents, and ice conditions, as they are always changing. When we reported back to the rest of the group, the researchers wanted to return with a few of their colleagues. I led them along the same trail. Upon nearing the edge, I slowed down. Where we had just visited an hour earlier had broken off and was floating away. The formerly emboldened researchers looked at me with eyes wide like golf balls. What is taught to most teenagers who hunt on the ice was suddenly very important to these folks who look at ice from the vantage of satellites."