Lessons from NZ for indigenous scientists in Chile

Professor Marta Silva, from Universidad Austral de Chile, with Associate Professor Nick Roskruge.

Finding out how Māori knowledge (mātauranga) and cultural perspectives and practices (tikanga) are woven into the teaching of sciences at Massey University is providing a visiting Chilean anthropologist with ideas for how to encourage more indigenous Chileans to study sciences.

Professor Marta Silva, from Universidad Austral de Chile (UACh), has spent two weeks at Massey’s Manawatū and Wellington campuses meeting with academics and postgraduate Māori and Pasifika students who are teaching, researching or studying STEM (sciences, technology, engineering, mathematics) subjects, as well as with educators teaching te reo Māori by immersion, and Māori psychologists.

She is leading a government-funded research project in Chile on academic trajectories of indigenous graduate students from south-central Chile. “I am looking at how indigenous students in science navigate through the higher education system,” she says. 

Her project also explores; “how these students perceive science from their own perspectives as intellectuals, STEM students, and future scientists who self-identify as members of indigenous communities. The life history interview methodology will be used because it is highly reliable in exploring life events, perceptions, and experiences related to science.”

Professor Silva says most indigenous people in Chile opt to do social sciences. However; “it’s very important for any culture and country to have indigenous scientists – they bring their local knowledge to merge and add to Western science knowledge.”

Indigenous knowledge can be beneficial, for example, to how farmers and land workers contribute to and complement mainstream approaches, she says. Her aim is also to rescue and revive indigenous knowledge so that “we don’t lose what big companies tend to destroy. 

She feels strongly that an indigenous perspective on science brings with it a deeper environmental awareness. “There are other ways of thinking about the value of land and nature.” 

Professor Silva hopes her insights from New Zealand will help her develop a framework for integrating traditional knowledge into a conventional science curriculum.

One of the people she says she’s learned the most from while at Massey was Nick Roskruge, an associate professor in horticulture from the School of Agriculture and Environment who specialises in the production and business opportunities of traditional Māori crops, such as the taewa (Māori potato).

She learned about several research projects involving postgraduate students from Fiji and Papua New Guinea who are part of Dr Roskruge’s ethnobotany programme, which focuses on traditional foods and tree species.

Around 12 per cent of Chile’s population is made up of indigenous people, with the largest group the Mapuche people. Many come from economically and socially disadvantaged backgrounds, with little access to good schools, she says.

Professor Silva feels sure she has indigenous blood, despite not finding evidence of an indigenous name. “I am Chilean and that means I’m part indigenous.” 

She was hosted by the head of School of Humanities, Associate Professor Kerry Taylor, following a meeting with Massey’s International Relations manager Angela Drake, during her visit to UACh two years ago. Professor Silva’s visit was the result of a round-table discussion about collaboration between humanities and social sciences academics at the universities.


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