Cultural events, including a pow wow, are part of the lineup at this year’s Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) annual STEM conference, which has attracted more than 3,000 attendees so far.

'Our Ancestors Warned Us': SACNAS Conference Melds Traditional Knowledge and Science


From connecting tribal colleges and communities for climate change adaptation, to using traditional knowledge to identify and cope with natural hazards, this year’s Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) annual STEM conference has a lot to offer budding Native scientists.

White House advisors, business leaders and top public officials are set to address more than 3,000 people who will gather from October 29–31 at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention center just outside Washington, D.C.

“The SACNAS National Conference motivates, inspires and engages participants to achieve their highest goals in pursuing education and careers in STEM fields,” the conference’s website says. (STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.) “Conference programming is specifically tailored to support undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and career professionals at each transition stage of their career as they move towards positions of science leadership.”

Speakers this year include U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell from the White House; Jon R. Lorsch, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences; Monica Basco, Assistant Director for Neuroscience, Mental Health, and Broadening Participation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Clifton Poodry, Senior Fellow of Science Education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Among several compelling topics, the workshop Looking at Eagles from Biological, Cultural, and Conservation Perspectives will connect traditional and cultural perspectives with Western science in regards to eagles, complete with a live Numu Kweeni (Comanche Eagle), according to the SACNAS agenda. The Department of the Interior will sponsor a reception with speakers who will talk about the twin influences of science and tradition on their careers. And a workshop titled Natural Hazards— the Power of Places—Our Ancestors Warned Us will cover the complementary approaches of traditional and scientific knowledge as key to understanding and mitigation natural hazards.

“Native cultures dealt successfully with hazards before scientific approaches were used to understand them,” the SACNAS site says. “Together, they often confirm what we now recognize via scientific methods.”

STEM has many proponents in Indian country, not least of them astronaut John Herrington, Chickasaw, who was among the first Natives in space.

“I was honored to have the opportunity to fly in space, but I realize there were thousands of people who made it possible; technicians, engineers, scientists, medical personnel, and administrators,” he told Indian Country Today Media Network in an interview earlier this year. “Our ability to fly in space and explore is due to the collective efforts of a multitude of talented people, many of them trained in the STEM fields.”

RELATED: From Space to Indigenous Ancestral Engineering: Commander John Herrington Charts New Territory

What indigenous people in particular can contribute is a melding of modern scientific method with traditional knowledge, as SACNAS member Dr. Jacquelyn Bolman put it.

“As a Native scientist, I use more than a millennia of environmental observations by my people to understand how the four elements—earth, air, fire, and water—interact so that I can bring harmony to nature,” she said in a profile on the SACNAS site. “As an environmental scientist, I draw on a wide range of scientific disciplines to understand the environment and the many interactions that take place on a physical, chemical, and biological level.”

In addition, diversity is as important in science as it is in the environment, education experts pointed out.

“Lack of diversity in STEM fields is detrimental to the success and competitiveness of our nation as a whole,” said SACNAS Executive Director Antonia Franco in a statement. “This year’s conference at the National Harbor brings a diverse group of STEM leaders to the nation’s capital where we hope politicians from both sides of the aisle will recognize the need to make diversity in STEM a top priority. Our leaders have a fundamental responsibility to ensure the makeup of the STEM field is reflective of America’s growing diversity, especially amongst U.S. Hispanics and Native Americans, who are so often underrepresented.”

Hundreds of exhibitors are on hand to engage with budding Native and Hispanic scientists, mathematicians, engineers and technology experts. (Photo: SACNAS/YouTube)

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