TEK and other Reflections for Teaching: A Rain of Night Birds

a conversation with author Deena Metzger

I want to call you, as academics, to heartbreak for this time, and letting that be the standard by which, ultimately, you decide how you are going to be in relationship to your students. — Deena Metzger

This month, the Ultimate Cli Fi Book Club met (on Zoom, of course, which allows the group to host over 40 teachers, librarians, counselors, and sustainability professionals from various colleges and universities) to discuss A Rain of Night Birds, by Deena Metzger, who joined us for the discussion. This essay summarizes and expands the book club conversation, and I am grateful to Deena as well as to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, which hosts the book club. (Please post in the comments if you are interested in attending future sessions.)

A Rain of Night Birds, which was published in 2017 by Hand to Hand press, includes a plot twist about the 2007 IPCC report, which was the first to include mention of Traditional Ecological Knowledge or TEK. (Note: the preferred term is now Traditional Knowledge or Indigenous Knowledge but TEK was the term used at that time.) The novel is set in a university, thus it is not only cli-fi but might be considered alongside the academic satire novels of David Lodge, or Moo U by Jane Smiley. For a group of academics to discuss a novel about a group of academics is an opportunity to stretch the way we see our work and our role as teachers. This is the point of the Ultimate Cli Fi Book Club ‑ to consider how fiction can help us have new conversations and ideas about climate change. As Deena put it:

“Fiction has the possibility of introducing an entirely different way of knowing,”

“To some extent,” she continued, “TEK is another way of knowing. But it isnʻt about TEK. It’s about what the experience is of really knowing something. That’s one way of looking at A Rain of Night Birds, that in the course of writing it I came to know differently, and what fiction can give us is an entirely different way of holding the consciousness that ‘information’ provides.”

Deena welcomed the group by acknowledging that she herself, “and probably every other person on this screen are from the Western culture that destroyed the world.” The book begins with a similar intensity, a preface in the form of a prophecy:

At last Sweet Medicine said to the people: “I shall not be with you long now. I am getting to be old and have lived as long as I want to: but before I die I have something to tell you…Soon you will find among you a people who have hair all over their faces, and whose skin is white. They will be looking for a certain stone; they will be people who do not get tired, but who will keep pushing forward, going all the time. They will keep coming, coming. They will travel everywhere, looking for this stone, which our great-grandfather put on the Earth in many places. These people will not listen to what you say; what they are doing to do, they will do. You people will change; in the end of your life in those days you will not get up early in the morning, you will not know when day comes. They will try to change you from your way of living to theirs. They will tear up the earth, and at last you will do it with them. When you do, you will become crazy and will forget all that I am teaching you. The white people will be all over the land and at last you will disappear. I am sorry to say these things, but I have seen them, and you will find they will come true.”

— The Prophecy of Sweet Medicine to the Cheyenne People (quoted in A Rain of Night Birds, p. 1)

Photo by John Middelkoop on Unsplash

There are four characters in the book. Let’s begin with Terrence, who wears the “formal informal outfit of a Native professor of science. Pressed dark jeans, denim shirt with the plastic pocket…A bolo tie with a rectangular silver and turquoise slide and silver tips on the ford. A perfect disguise for shapeshifting into the Chair of the Department of Earth and Environmental Studies” (p. 184, modified for clarity). Terrence holds two knowledges and has learned how to balance his university role and his worldview.

According to Deena, who writes in the Introduction about how Terrence made himself known to her and insisted on being in the story, “Terrence went from the reservation as a young person to the Western world because it seemed to his people that it would benefit them if there were bridges, people who knew what we know, so that they could survive. Not because the information was important to them but because it allowed them to be in some kind of dialogue and know how to deal with us.”

For me, Terrence represents “two eyed seeing” which is a phrase that I myself first encountered in the books of Kent Nerbern (another non-indigenous author seeking to deeply understand indigenous perspectives). His character, Dan, is a Lakota elder who literally has different colored eyes (one blue and one brown if I remember correctly). Dan left his people in order to try and protect his little sister in the boarding schools of that terrible era.

I’ve also encountered Two Eyed Seeing as a framework, in the papers of Bartlett, Marshall, and Marshall (2012) as well as Wright et al. (2019). This is an important conversation in higher ed, particularly in STEM fields where increased Native student success rates are needed. A conversation held this past summer by the Global Council for Science and the Environment (GCSE) had hundreds of attendees (all recorded on Zoom and available here.)

It really isn’t about if, or whether, but HOW to engage indigenous perspectives in teaching, research, and institutional policy.

Getting back to the characters, the other main character is Sandra Birdswell. (If you read my last post about Blaze Island and the fictional panel of fictional climate scientists, Dr. Birdswell was my second invited panelist — particularly because she has the unique perspective of two eyed seeing, and even did her (fictional) dissertation on TEK in climate science.

We first meet Sandra in the midst of a somatic experience of a solar flare. According to Deena, “What was so particular about Sandra Birdswell is that she was not only a scientist and trained in that way, but she could FEEL in an entire way, what all of it meant. It opens with her knowing in her body-spirit-mind, she knows that there is this solar flare.” (See p. 7). That is information, in science, but it was feeling the entire thing and knowing it that was information to her.”

Her father, John Birdswell, is “a real country doc”. His wife dies in childbirth and he raises his daughter as what Deena called “mother-father” — an integrated masculine and feminine, two roles and two ways at the same time. “John went to the reservation instead of the Vietnam War and on the reservation he begins to learn what indigenous medicine is, what it means to be a Navaho medicine man and he begins to understand that place where western medicine doesn’t do what it’s called to do. What becomes very central for him is what is very basic — or used to be — about western medicine. First, do no harm. There is a scene (p. 24) where John and Sandra recite the Hippocratic oath together. Deena said:

That’s something all of us, physicians or professors should understand. What would happen if we all agreed that no matter what was called for, first we did no harm? How we live our daily life, what we do to take care of each other. What we do because we have to earn a living. Imagine that: first do no harm.

Some years ago, Deena began to wonder, “what would a literature look like that did no harm? A literature that did not lead directly to extinction?” The first premise of such work, which today she calls the Literature of Restoration and teaches in an annual Writer’s Intensive, is that “the literature would recognize the ongoing primary context of the earth and all the beings. If that isn’t our ground then we are creating literature that’s based on technology and what we as humans have created, that has taken us where we are. And it’s not only the content but the form.”

Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

Having taken the writers intensive three times, I can tell you that the process might begin with something that happens (a plot), but then you expand your thinking to include the land where it happened, the birds and animals and trees that were there. You might write about dreams, or write without using “I”, or write something that has no “things” in it. Deena also gave an example about the New Yorker, and the contradiction of the content of the writing and the advertising that accompanies it. That’s what she means by harm. The Hippocratic oath of the writer.

Deena is equally interested in healing, and teaches a Healers Intensive with the aim of Revisioning Medicine. This brings me back to the last character in the book, Hosteen Sveda, the medicine man, who becomes best friends with John. “Hosteen takes care of the patients after the docs go away, doing what is necessary for them to get well. He explains to John what the difference is.”

In reading the book what we really do learn is what is the difference between western ways of seeing things and indigenous ways of seeing. We begin to learn what has happened in this great divide and how we might bring it together.

In other words, through fiction, the reader perhaps softens their right and left brain and can experience a different way of knowing. Rather than talking “about” TEK, as an object of intellectual inquiry, the reader gets into the worldview of the indigenous epistemology.

Another great teacher and indigenous scholar, Dr. Manulani Meyer, tells a story about how she first started teaching and writing about “indigenous ways of knowing” in her studies at Harvard, then developed Holographic Epistemology, but now just calls it “Native Common Sense.” I love that (and you can view an interview with Aunty Manu here, on the e-pub Dark Matter Women Witnessing). As Deena said, this is the knowledge of thousands upon thousands of years.

Western academics probably ought to be interested in that.

One participant asked a question about indigenous perspectives on climate change, and Deena replied:

“I think the indigenous perspective is what all our perspective needs to be. Climate dissolution is threatening all life. Thatʻs really simple. Itʻs threatening all life by the way we live our lives. Done. Really, climate dissolution is happening, and you donʻt know if there’s a future. If our culture hadn’t taken over the entire globe it would not be happening. Therefore, how are we going to change our lives?”

She continued, “Sure, you can integrate TEK once you recognize that what it reveals to you is what is real, and you shake what you’ve been taught and trained by western ways of knowing to accord with what’s real. And also, to allow yourself to teach in such a way that what you know what you deeply know in your heart and your experience is allowed to be transmitted, so that those that you are teaching get to really feel what is going on. And you’re along with them.”

We sit together as in council for the only possible goal, can we save all life?

Can we do this in a university setting? How does that influence how and what we teach? Deena pointed out that in the novel, Terrence teaches with the students sitting in a circle, or looking outside. She said, “People I work with take their students outside at the university if the weather allows it, teach out side and give permission to go to talk to the other beings.”

I can feel some of the participants squirming here….take Biology students out on campus and invite them to talk to trees? Create a writing assignment told from the perspective of a bird? Interview an ancestor using clouds? Surely our students would scoff. But Deena shared a story about a university talk in which she shared where communication with the Elephant Ambassador in Africa. She asked the audience about mystery and knowing. After an awkward silence the campus chaplain shared a story about a visit from the “other side” and then someone else shared and then, she said, they couldn’t stop sharing such stories.

It’s about giving the permission for students to know what they know, or what they knew before their educational training kicked in.

Deena’s concluding advice was important for teachers and readers:

Look for books of fiction that represent very very deep knowing and provide that for yourself and your students so that we can enter, all of us, into the knowing that can be so much deeper than information and data and statistics. The reality is that A Rain of Night Birds came to me, as many of my books have. I can’t pretend I really understand it, but I know that it is true that a different level of knowing comes through me in the writing.

Me, Deena, and the land (author photo)

“How do we open to that in this critical time?”