The 27th of May, 1949, was a momentous day for Louis “Speedy” Wiley, my grandfather. In the span of 24 hours, he would witness both 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. Discouraged by this encounter, my grandfather quit college and never went back.
The story of my grandfather is not unique when it comes to the narrative of Native students struggling in college, especially in the math and science fields. The ability of Native students to persist in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics programs was discussed in 1977 by Native American scientists and educators in Albuquerque. At the Conference on Mathematics for Native Americans, they expressed their view that Native American skill and ability in mathematics was key to Indian self-determination. I am inclined to agree with them, and go so far as to say that math and science are crucial elements in tribal sovereignty. Utilizing math and science on behalf of the tribe will only enhance and increase our ability to govern ourselves the way we see fit. And it will impede non-Natives from coming into our spaces as “guardians,” whose actions can be a detriment to our cultural and economic sovereignty and self-representation.
Young Native students, when pressed to consider the origins of science, generally do not regard 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. At its core, this misunderstanding is 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. Native Americans have always had our own indigenous systems of science and mathematics, and we can still utilize them to augment the well-being of our tribes back home.
Appeared in This Land: Summer 2016. Portions of this essay were originally published in OU Forum.