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Exploring Nature's Mathematics to Build Indigenous Youth's Sense of Relational Reciprocity

Sun, April 15, 2:45 to 4:15pm, New York Marriott Marquis, Fifth Floor, Belasco


Drawing from data collected two years of an Indigenous STEAM camp, this paper explores how 20 youth make relations with the natural world through the historical practice of indigenous observation. Indigenous observation helped the youth understand the ways in which mathematics - the use of patterns and shapes - naturally occur from plant life. Following the theme of dreams, possibilities, and necessities of critical environmental education, we examine how indigenous observation was used to expand youth’s sense of “relational reciprocity” and their roles in creating possible environmental futures. Based on indigenous knowledge systems where relational reciprocity is a core part of its ontology, we find that indigenous observation expands the ways Native youth imagine their possible selves as relational actors in the work of environmental justice.

Theoretical framework

This paper draws from indigenous knowledge systems and understandings of possible environmental futures. Many Indigenous peoples’ worldview is shaped by their deep sense of interconnectedness with all living things including humans, plants, animals, and other elements of the natural world (Cajete, 2016). One core principle of such interconnectedness is that of reciprocity, which implies individual responsibility to maintain, protect, and perpetuate all life (Cajete, 1994). This is based in complex systems thinking where mathematical understandings is not isolated, but instead deeply embedded within other knowledge systems.

In this paper, we focus on how indigenous observation created the ground for Indigenous youth storywork (Archibald, 2008) and youth imaginations of themselves and their possible environmental futures. Similar to possible selves (Markus & Nurius, 1986), possible environmental future draw from and are intimately connected to representations of the past and the future. We thus also paid attention to youth future-making and their narratives of their roles in being in relation with the natural world.

Data sources and Methods
The STEAM camp is a community-engaged design research (Author et al, 2015) where video, audio, and photo data of youth observations was collected with 20 indigenous youth. Video data of emergent forest and beach trail walks with youth was analyzed using interaction analysis, with close attention to talk in context, body gesture and joint activity (Erickson, 2004; Jordan & Henderson, 1995) and how understandings of nature’s mathematics influenced youth as beings in relation with the natural world.

We explore how Indigenous Observation Walks (IOW) - a keen perspectival toggling through attention to mathematical patterns - revealed plant people’s nature to youth and thus expanded youth’s sense of relational reciprocity. Using mathematics as a way to understand the life of certain plant relatives, youth were able to 1) build upon their relationships with the natural world, 2) tell stories of their own narratives as relational beings as they deepened their sense of relational reciprocity, and finally 3) imagine their role in creating possible environmental futures.

Scholarly significance
Using mathematics as a way to understand the self-in-relation is relatively unexplored in environmental education. The uniqueness of this paper is that it uses mathematical understanding as a way for youth to dream and imagine themselves and possible environmental futures for their communities.


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