In the 1977 collection of Anishinaabeg stories Wisconsin Chippewa Myths & Tales: and Their Relation to Chippewa Life (compiled by anthropologist Victor Barnouw) there is a story titled "Wenabojo and the Cranberries."
Collected 30 years earlier, from a 70-year-old elder Barnouw calls "Tom Badger" (a pseudonym), the story goes like this:
As Wenabojo was traveling one day, he went along the edge of a lake and saw some highbush cranberries lying in the bottom of the shallow water. He tried to fish them out time and time again, but every time he tried, they stayed on the bottom. He finally gave up.
He tried to grab them with his mouth by sticking his head into the water. Then he dove down into the water. The little rocks in the bottom hurt his face. While he was holding his face, Wenabojo looked up and saw the berries hanging the tree above the water. He was so angry he just tore the berries off the tree and wouldn’t eat any. He walked away.
The story is about reflection, the way light reflects off the water and creates illusions for the human eye.
As the story proposes: if you believe the illusions you see, all you’re left with is hunger and a damaged face.
Indigenous creation stories such as this are not "legends" or "myths" but scientific theories. Indigenous knowledge — found in the stories we tell, the songs we sing, and the actions we perform — is, first and foremost, science.
While Indigenous knowledge is often classified as "art" or "literature," Indigenous peoples had to understand the world before they could talk about it. We were scientists before we were storytellers.
Regardless, Indigenous peoples and science have had a rough ride. Science has been used to define us as backwards, unevolved. Indigenous knowledge may be seen today as artistic or interesting but almost never scientific or mathematical.
As if proving this point, Indigenous students most often perform poorest in school at science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). A 2011 study by Glen Aikenhead and Herman Michell points out there is an "under-representation of Indigenous students in high school science courses" across Canada, resulting in few Indigenous professionals in occupations such as engineering, medicine, and chemistry.
Even though they come from scientific cultures, Indigenous students often perform poorly at science.
The problem may be in the way STEM is taught.
For five years, Anishinaabeg students at Wikwemikong High School on Manitoulin Island (in northwestern Ontario) have quietly been producing one of the top-performing STEM programs in North America.
These Odawa, Anishinaabe, Potawatomi and Cree students have been engineering, wiring, building, and competing with robots built from recycled metal and everyday materials — and succeeding against high schools across the world.
They’re Team 5672 — the first all-Indigenous team to qualify for the international FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics world championship. Featuring student teams performing competitions with robots they design and create, Team 5672 will take part in the April 2020 event in Detroit; it is the youngest team ever to qualify.
The group's motto (and name) is "AaniiDash" — "Why Not?" in Anishinaabemowin. The catchphrase came after their science teacher/coach Chris Mara asked the students if they wanted to try and build a FIRST robot.
The rest, as they say, is history.
"Now, I love science," Mary Pangowish, 17, co-captain of Team 5672, told the Free Press. "I love how logic and materials in the earth come together creatively, and I get to be a part... I want to be an electrical engineer."
The scientific achievements of Team 5672 have spread throughout Manitoulin Islands. The team has also helped mentor other students at nearby schools and inspire seven more such teams in Indigenous communities.
"My favourite part of science is when we are given a problem — like making a robot — and we work together to solve it," Team 5672 co-captain Aaryn Zoccole, 17, said. "Now, I plan on becoming a mechanical engineer."
The impact has to be expected, their teacher said.
"There are no acceptable reasons why on-reserve First Nations students should not be engineers, mathematicians, and scientists," said Mara, a non-Indigenous teacher who has been at Wikwemikong for 18 years. "Science has always a part of their cultures, alongside innovation, ecology, and physics.
"All I’ve done is provide some scientific language, while having the privilege of following their lead."
It’s amazing what happens when one isn’t tricked by illusions.
Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.
Updated on Saturday, November 30, 2019 at 4:09 PM CST: Fixes typo