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Research project

The Potential Contribution of Indigenous Knowledge to Teaching and Learning Mathematics

The Foundation for Siberian Cultures recently completed an interdisciplinary and cross-cultural research project with the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. The project ran from 2012-2015 and was funded by the National Science Foundation. The research team identified the mathematics in indigenous knowledge systems by working with elders as they performed and described everyday activities. The project's main thesis is that these mathematical knowledge systems are embedded and encoded in everyday activities. The project spanned three different arctic cultural, linguistic, and geographical regions: Yup'ik (Alaska), Greenlandic Inuit (Greenland), and Koryak and Even (Kamchatka) with a comparative site in Yap (a Federated State in Micronesia) as a control group. The research team consisted of Jerry Lipka, David Koester, Dora Andrew-Ihrke, Evelyn Yanez (Alaska); Ylva Jannok-Nutti (Sweden); Don Rubinstein and Calistus Hachibmai (Micronesia), and Erich Kasten (Germany).

Erich Kasten, the director of the Foundation for Siberian Cultures, led the Kamchatka team. He worked with his main indigenous collaborator, the late Aleksandra Urkachan, and with David Koester of the University of Fairbanks. For the Koryak part of this cross-cultural research, one particular focus was on decorative arts, i.e. the documentation and analysis of designing patterns that adorn clothing. The results not only give us insight into the embedded mathematical processes used in constructing and making everyday tools and artifacts. They also have the potential to establish an alternative learning trajectory, one based on indigenous knowledge systems, which may help in teaching of mathematics in indigenous and non-indigenous contexts.

The basis for this is that within these indigenous communities today, cultural practices continue to exist that contain specific and identifiable mathematical knowledge. As experience from indigenous language school programs in Kamchatka have shown, the indigenous curricula are felt to be foreign as soon as relevant knowledge is no longer practiced and experienced in everyday life.

Toward this end, a number of special editions will be published on this theme by the Foundation for Siberian Cultures within its DVD series on Koryak and Even language and culture. These print- and electronic (on DVD and Internet) learning tools are set up in such a way that – using modern technologies – endangered local knowledge can also be transmitted beyond the regular school curricula using such familiar traditional means as by watching and imitating.

Interim results were discussed at a series of workshops, such as from November 30 to December 6, 2012, in Sisimiut (Greenland), from July 13-18, 2014, in Fairbanks, Alaska (USA), and from October 10-18, 2015, at the Foundation for Siberian Cultures in Fuerstenberg/Havel (Germany). » more

Initial results relating to Kamchatka have been summarized in an article by Erich Kasten.