Rediscovering Blackfoot Science

How First Nations Helped Develop a Keystone of Modern Psychology

Researchers at Red Crow Community College in Alberta like to talk about influential American psychologist Abraham Maslow. When he visited the Blackfoot nation in the 1930s, he assumed that there was a big difference between European knowledge, which he saw as rigorously scientific, and Aboriginal knowledge, which he saw as folklore.

Maslow would entertain his hosts by developing psychological analyses of their white neighbours, only to discover that the elders had come to the exact same conclusions. Stories like that help disprove the idea that the only scientific method is the Western one.

“Blackfoot people have their own systems for developing new knowledge in traditional ways,” says Ryan Heavy Head, one of the researchers at Red Crow. “It’s less focused on categories and more interested in how things come together.”

For example, when the Blackfoot observe something that may prove enlightening, they present it to four elders, who function as a peer review committee, sharing their own experiences. If the new observation holds up, it may become part of a ritual, so that other people can have the same experience by, in effect, duplicating the experiment.

In some instances, Blackfoot science has been ahead of Western science. “Maslow thought a lot about his time with the Blackfoot, and you can see in his journals how that affected his thinking,” says Heavy Head.

For example, Maslow discovered that we only tend to our higher “self-actualization” needs once we address our basic survival needs. This pyramid-shaped “hierarchy of needs” appears to have been inspired by Blackfoot teepees, which depict a similar hierarchy, from the mushrooms struggling in the dirt along the bottom to the celestial beings depicted at the apex.

As the Red Crow research uncovers more links between Western and Aboriginal science, we can begin a new cross-disciplinary conversation between two great scientific traditions. Understanding the Blackfoot approach to science can also shape how Blackfoot children are educated, making the system more responsive to their way of seeing the world.

Research by Ryan Heavy Head and Red Crow Community College on the Blackfoot approach to science was funded in 2005 through a SSHRC Aboriginal Research Grant.