The 27th of May, 1949 was a momentous day for Louis “Speedy” Wiley, my grandfather. This was a day which would eventually lead him on an entirely different life path than he had originally intended. In the span of 24 hours, he would both witness the birth of his first son, Roger, and the death of his father, Mose Wiley. Life and loss, overlaid and intertwined. At the time, Speedy was a student at East Central University in Ada, and was taking a college algebra class. In order to settle family affairs surrounding his father’s passing, my grandfather was obliged to take some time away from school, but he came back to take his final in college algebra. He looked at the paper in front of him, aware that he had missed many days from class, and still managed to create his own mathematical formulas to solve the problems. When he got the results of his algebra final, he saw that he had achieved the correct answers using his own formulas, yet the professor flunked him anyway. When pressed, the professor stated that even though my grandfather had the correct answers, he didn’t use the “proper” formulas the students were instructed to use, and this was why he failed him. Discouraged by this encounter, my grandfather quit college and never went back.
On the topic of culture, many young Native students, when pressed to consider the origins of science, generally do not think of their own tribe or other Native nations as founders in these disciplines. This is the direct result of the false narrative that we Natives neither knew much about technology nor did we have our own systems of mathematics.
This narrative is at its core a product of scientific imperialism and Western hegemony. True, it would be naïve to make a line-item comparison of the two, as they are fundamentally different in epistemology and goals, but this is not to say the Native or indigenous ways of thinking and conceiving science and math are in any way inferior. We have a different system of perception (arguably a more finely tuned one than what Western science has to offer), but it is often misunderstood. This misconception was clear in my grandfather’s encounter with mathematics and his math professor, and it left a negative imprint that lasted for the rest of his life. Additionally, it is also important to reinforce the sense that Native students pursuing math- and science-related disciplines do not diminish their tribal identity or culture in any possible way. This is one of the aims of my own chosen career path. Further, all students (but especially Natives) must be taught that Native Americans have and always had our own indigenous systems of science and mathematics, and that we can still utilize them to augment the well-being of our tribes back home. Fvccvn okis.
American Indian Science and Engineering Society
This organization is for indigenous engineers and scientists. They focus on increasing the number of indigenous students involved with STEM. They also hope to increase communication between Native students and the general public. More info: www.aises.ou.edu
Apollonia Piña is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Nursing. She is a member of the Mvskoke Nation. After graduating, she plans to become a Nurse Practitioner and midwife before obtaining a doctorate in Nursing. She plans to utilize her university training to bridge cultural gaps between indigenous traditional medicine and Western models of medicine, and foster synthesis between the two in order to better provide culturally appropriate patient care. Her research interests include Native American perspectives in science and math, midwifery, indigenous womanism, and promoting Natives in STEM. She is a McNair Scholar and an undergraduate researcher on the NIH Native American Student Achievement Study at OU. When time allows, she enjoys scouting rare books and antique medical equipment, origin stories, and connecting the dots.