Creating More Inclusive Spaces in STEM for Native Americans

By Ruth Plenty Sweetgrass-She Kills, PhD and Jennifer Harrington, MS

Willow Research Team (2017)

More and more, Native Americans are entering STEM fields, but there is still a lack of representation in the classroom. Most higher education institutions are guided by western worldviews, which lack culturally relevant inclusion and support strategies for Native American students and faculty.

As two Native American women in STEM fields, we have seen the need for representation and inclusion in our field firsthand — as graduate students, professionals, and as researchers.

We know that the challenges present for Native American students in STEM are not necessarily challenges for all students, and the changes (both incremental and systemic) to create access and inclusivity will begin to increase the representation of Native Americans in STEM.

Our work addresses the need for systemic and institutional changes through recruitment and retention of Native students, and our research explores the Native American Faculty experience in STEM.

This piece reflects our experiences and a few components in the complex and multi-layered process of creating more inclusive spaces in STEM for Native Americans.

Our Journeys Are Rooted in Our Traditional Ways

Jennifer: My grandmother’s hands were always connected with the earth. In the rich soils or harvesting berries, roots, food and medicines, her hands… her actions, were in sync with what Mother Nature was doing. If the berries were ready in one area down in a certain valley, then that’s where she would be.

Picture of my Kookum (Jen’s Grandmother) holding flowers she picked while we were visiting the Bison Range

The soil let her know when it was time to plant, and she would do what she could to take care of the soil. That relationship was interrupted by the trauma of boarding schools and policies that attempted to colonize and extinguish her way. Her grandmother taught her mother about the relationship with the natural world through traditional practices related to food, gardening, and harvesting and my mom shared that relationship with me.

Trauma brought me back to the land. I started to walk, then hike, then camp out for days in places with no signs of man. I began to question the colonial patriarchal paradigm that insisted women were inferior, that food had to be mass produced in a mono-cultural system, genetically modified while slathered with poisonous herbicides and pesticides, and the goal of this system was to gain wealth and power over the people and over the land.

Trauma is humbling and I felt no superiority over the water, the land, and the animals. I felt indebted and honored for that reconnection with the natural world.

I do not live in a way that attempts to conquer or separate humans from the rest of life on earth. I live in a way that is an ongoing developing relationship, bound by responsibility, respect, and reciprocity.

Ruth: My research has been multidisciplinary and has grown to focus on conservation biology, natural resources, and Native & Indigenous topics. I began conducting research as an undergraduate at Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College where I was a research assistant on projects related to diabetes compliance, archeology, disease transmission, water quality and access, and traditional tribal knowledge on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.

Bear Research (2008)

Having my foundational research experiences at a tribal college strongly influenced my beliefs about why I should do research, what kind of research I should do, and how I should conduct that research. I had witnessed how non-tribal scholars had conducted research “on” Native people or Native issues and advanced their own careers or generated funding for their institutions without contributing anything substantial to the communities they had researched.

I learned about how some of this research was inaccurate and perpetuated negative beliefs and ideas about Native people, or was interpreted through a western lens. I chose to leave home to hone my research skills and earn the credentials to do research as a Native scholar for and with Native people.

It is also my hope to contribute to creating new Native scholars by mentoring them as they develop their own research skills and abilities to contribute to the literature written by Native authors in my field.

Costa Rica Sample Collection (2005)

As a Native person, it was challenging to conduct this research in ways that recognized and incorporated my cultural identity. I had excellent academic mentors, but they were unable to provide the kind of support I needed to overcome those challenges. I was fortunate to have other Native scholars on my campus also pursuing graduate degrees in various STEM fields to discuss some of these issues with. I also returned home periodically to seek the counsel of an elder on some of the issues related to the culturally significant species I was working with.

Creating Inclusive Spaces for Native American Scholars

Some strategies for increasing Native American representation in STEM fields include: identity, inclusion of Native American pedagogies, and continued support for recruitment, retention, and development of Native Americans in STEM.

Identity — Having a teacher or instructor who shares the same identity or lived experiences is not typical for Native American students. When asked to visualize a scientist, how often do people describe a white man in a white lab coat?

Research has shown that having a professor who comes from a similar background and lived experiences can increase recruitment, retention, and the success of underrepresented students. Representation matters.

AISES UM student chapter together cleaning up the University of Montana neighborhood

We know there are Native Americans pursuing degrees in STEM fields, so we must include more Native American instructors in STEM fields and support a diverse and inclusive way of learning about and understanding STEM. Additionally, the hiring committees for faculty positions must include Native American members.

Inclusion of Native American pedagogies — In addition to identity, there is a palpable issue of underrepresentation of Native American pedagogies, epistemologies, and ontologies in STEM fields. One of the foundations of western science considers humankind in a superior position to all other life. A western science approach takes credit for knowledge that Indigenous peoples have understood for millennia. Western science fails to be objective because it has not included all perspectives on science, technology, engineering, and math.

Inclusive pedagogies, epistemologies and ontologies can create a more accessible and supportive STEM learning environment for Native Americans, as well as enrich the scholarship in those fields.

Continued support for Native Americans in STEM — For decades, different education and outreach programs from K12 to college have been working to recruit Native Americans into the STEM field. For example, a few that we have been engaged with, the National Science Foundation’s Rural Systemic Initiative, supported tribal communities in strengthening their STEM content in their K12 schools. For decades, the Louis Stokes All Nations Alliance for Minority Participation has been working to support the number of Native Americans receiving bachelor’s degrees in STEM. The A.P. Sloan Foundation has provided scholarship funding through the Sloan Indigenous Graduate Partnership for Native American graduate students pursuing degrees in STEM. An example of a program focusing on the professoriate is the Willow AGEP Alliance, which is a collaborative project working to develop, implement, and study a model for professional success of Native American faculty and instructional staff in STEM.

Cosmos Indigenous Student Mentorship float on the Salmon River (2019)

These programs have prepared Native Americans to enter into the STEM field that is a western dominated field in its representation, philosophies, practices, and pedagogies. The next stages of emphasis should include systemic changes within the field and institutions.

Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math embody disciplines of understanding that Native peoples have known. In western education, this knowledge is not included in in any substantive way, and our representation in STEM has been detrimentally limited.

Our goal is to shift the dominant paradigm to work towards the vision of greater representation of our people in STEM through our teaching and research. Creating inclusive spaces in STEM is complex and requires systemic change at both the institutional level, and within the field itself.

Living and learning are not about our individual gains, but about the benefits to our children and to our place. Our motivation to increase Native American representation originates from a love for our people, the land, and our plant relatives. We continue to learn and practice our traditional lifeways, as well as practicing traditional land stewardship. A grandmother’s lessons on respect, reciprocity, and responsibility for the land taught future generations about positionality and the importance of representation.

About The Authors

Dr. Ruth Plenty Sweetgrass-She Kills, Hątáde Wį́yą (Night Wind Woman), is an enrolled citizen of the Three Affiliated Tribes and a member of the Maxoxadi (Alkali Lodge) Clan. She earned her associate’s degree in Environmental Science from Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College, bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education from the University of North Dakota, master’s degree in Organismal Biology and Ecology from the University of Montana, and her doctorate in Forest and Conservation Sciences from the University of Montana. She is a Ford Foundation Fellow and Sloan Indigenous Graduate Fellow. Currently, she is the Director of Native American Studies at Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College and a Co-PI for the University of Montana’s NSF-funded Willow Project where she leads the social science research team.

Jen Harrington is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. She earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Resource Conservation and her Master of Science degree in Resource Conservation from the University of Montana. She is a Sloan Indigenous Graduate Fellow and has received funding awards from Indigenous Research and STEM Education (IRSE), the Roberti Fellowship, and Hopa Mountain. Currently, she is the Director of Native American Natural Resource Program and a social science researcher for the University of Montana’s NSF-funded Willow Project.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store


Dedicated to advancing Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in science. Science, culture, and community in the movement for true diversity in STEM.