Indigenous innovations and environmental ethos inspire the future of engineering.
By Jennifer Pocock
According to myth, the Khasi people descended from heaven to earth by way of a great living root ladder that twines its way between the two planes. Historically, they probably arrived at their home—a remote and hostile pocket of land nestled in Meghalaya, India—by way of Laos around 2,100 years ago. The Khasi are ingenious engineers, building bridges strong enough to withstand the monsoonal winds and floods that occur in the land’s deep ravines, which experience some of the world’s highest levels of precipitation. You would never know the bridges’ strength by looking at them, however. They appear as if they were twisted by nature and the gods themselves, great roots and vines spanning rivers and paved with flat rocks.
The bridges were, in fact, grown and trained over generations. The rubber trees feed off the rains and surging floods. Rather than weakening in the harsh atmosphere, like bridges constructed from felled timber or concrete would, the living bridges become stronger and more resilient with each monsoon. These bridges, and ladders made with the same knowledge, not only prevent erosion and sequester carbon dioxide but also connect the Khasi villages with local trading hubs, powering the Khasi economy.
The Khasi bridge technology is undoubtedly ancient, but no one could call it primitive. The natural structures require little in the way of money or materials but grow out of extensive passed-down knowledge and the patience of a society that thinks in generations rather than fiscal quarters. The Khasis’ efforts—and similar ones—are finally getting recognized. A growing “Indigeneering” movement aims to tackle environmental problems and cultural injustices by combining Indigenous ethics, ancient innovations, and modern engineering.
A Holistic Approach
Modern Western societies tend to look to new technology to solve problems, says Julia Watson, author of Lo—TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism. The 2020 book describes ancient techniques for living symbiotically with nature that can be applied to current challenges. Westerners look back wistfully at the Egyptian pyramids and lament the loss of knowledge used to build them, Watson says, but they don’t tend to think about the ancient practices that are still alive and in use.
“Indigenous technologies are not lost or forgotten,” Watson writes in the bestselling book’s introduction. “While ‘modern’ societies were trying to conquer Nature in the name of progress, these Indigenous cultures were working with it.”
A landscape architect and urban design instructor at Harvard and Columbia Universities, Watson hopes that both her designs and teaching will help promote the notion of humans living in harmony with their environment. She also wants people to trust those who have lived on the land the longest and whose knowledge is based on familiarity with it.
Watson’s term Lo—TEK, or Local—Traditional Ecological Knowledge, highlights cultures’ seemingly seamless integration of daily living tasks, farming, water filtration, and respect for biodiversity and the local environment. To outsiders, the ecology looks effortlessly pristine and abundant—“then we throw Indigenous people off the lands,” she says, and the technologies they’ve developed to sustain it wither and die, along with the land. Instead, these practices should be learned from and emulated.
At the same time, non-Native engineers and professors must be careful of cultural appropriation. Steeped in in power dynamics, the practice occurs when one, more dominant, culture adopts the ideas and customs of another culture without respecting the significance of those practices and their originators.
Watson stresses the importance of obtaining permission before acting on cultural knowledge. For example, she is Australian and has taken courses on Aboriginal structures and landscaping, but no such examples appear in her book. “I couldn’t find a community that I had any relationship with that was interested in me publishing their knowledge,” she says. Thus, it wouldn’t have been appropriate to include that information.
Additionally, in crafting her book, she worked directly with Indigenous community leaders. Full interviews with them appear in their original language as well as in English. She is also giving them a portion of the book royalties. It’s important to give credit and compensation to sources, she emphasizes, and to preserve the languages and culture as closely as possible. And always do your own research—but defer to Indigenous people if they correct you, Watson adds.
The term Indigeneering was first coined by Deanna Burgart, a Dene and Cree engineer from Fond du Lac First Nation in Canada, in 2008. “I wanted a way to explain to Indigenous youth that it was not an either/or issue—that they could be engineers and also work to protect and preserve Mother Earth,” she says. In 2018, she founded IndigeSTEAM, an organization whose mission is to bring “Indigenous-led and culturally relevant programming” to STEM/STEAM through programs like Power to Choose, which introduces STEM activities to Indigenous children through events, workshops, and summer camps.
The Indigeneering idea is still new and relatively untested, however. A 2019 literature review in the International Journal of Qualitative Methods notes that “Two-Eyed Seeing,” incorporating both Western and Indigenous views, has been unevenly interpreted and applied in research, since “guidance within the methodical literature remains vague in its practical application.” But this is something Burgart hopes to rectify.
A self-described environmentalist who worked in oil and gas engineering for more than 20 years, she came to the profession by way of her father, who also worked in oil and gas. Her hope was to effect systemic change from the inside. She is now an education committee cochair and board member with the American Indian Science and Education Society and teaches chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Calgary. She also serves as the university’s teaching chair focused on integrating Indigenous knowledge into engineering, driven by a commitment to bring Indigenous issues and ethics to the forefront. One way she does that is through class discussions on Indigenous history, beliefs, and ways of living.
It’s essential for engineers to understand the impact of their work on air, land, and water, Burgart says. As they make decisions on development, infrastructure, and the use of land and natural resources, they must understand the effects.
“And all of this is very, very important to our Indigenous lands,” Burgart emphasizes. Any engineering projects—especially those involving infrastructure—should incorporate input from the Indigenous people of that area and take a holistic approach that respects the culture of those whose land they affect. When planning a dam project, for example, it’s imperative to ensure that companies are not cutting access to sacred fishing sites and to work with local people to generate solutions that will benefit the people and environment as well as the engineering company.
The first step she encourages when engineers are considering projects is to use a tool such as Native Land (https://native-land.ca) to investigate historic ownership of the land. That will enable them to begin familiarizing themselves with the culture and people they should talk to, and help them reach out to Elders if their project will affect tribal lands.
Sit With Discomfort
As Watson points out, Westerners’ mourning of “lost” cultures, languages, and people doesn’t reflect the reality: Indigenous Peoples’ displacement through widespread atrocities. And often, those atrocities are still recent memories.
In Canada, for example, the “Sixties Scoop”—which actually started in the late 1950s and continued into the early ’80s—was a governmental practice in which Aboriginal children were taken without consent from their parents and placed in residential schools and the child welfare system, where they were often adopted out to Euro-Canadian families. (These actions were not confined to Canada, either. Australia perpetuated a similar program from 1910 through 1970, which many now call the “stolen generations.” In the United States, an effort to “civilize” Native Americans by forcing them into boarding schools lasted from 1860 to 1978.)
The 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, published by a Canadian government-appointed group, highlighted Indigenous Peoples’ stories about how these actions impacted them and their families. The report resulted in 94 calls to action to businesses, educational organizations, and local governments to support reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, starting with the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Burgart herself was a child of the Sixties Scoop. She didn’t find out about her Dene and Cree origins or meet her biological mother until her early 20s. That experience drives her motivation to bring conversations on Indigenous issues to engineering. Learning about the history is not enough, she says. Individuals, and members of organizations and institutions, must reflect on questions such as, “What are the actions I can take to help address, reverse, or repair these damaged systems and relationships?”
These investigations are not easy at any level, Burgart says, and that’s OK. She has started running workshops through ASEE and IndigeSTEAM on ways that non-Native engineering professors can implement Native ethics into their courses. It is, she says, “the future of engineering.” Her Indigeneering workshops begin with a request for participants to “sit with your discomfort.” That means not shying away from the unpleasant feelings or thoughts associated with difficult topics, but actively feeling and exploring them instead. It also requires talking openly about atrocities and exploring concepts like cultural appropriation—even if they seem too fuzzy for an engineering course.
Thoughtful action is also critical. In response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report’s call for government and educational institutions to provide culturally relevant education, for example, “some universities basically added a stand-alone Indigenous studies course” and called it a day, Burgart says. Instead, she believes that Indigenous ethics and points of view need to be discussed broadly in classes as part of the curriculum. The question becomes, “How do we do that in engineering in a way that makes sense?”
At the University of Calgary, Burgart started small, with a technical elective class on environmental and energy engineering that had only 20, mostly upper-level, engineering students. The course included discussions about Indigenous ways of approaching the world. For example, many Native people live by the “seven generations” credo—that every choice they make should positively impact the world for the next seven generations—versus focusing on immediate profit.
“Even the way I teach is more inspired by Indigenous ways,” says Burgart. “It’s experiential.” That means introducing concepts such as “talking circles” to the class, in which students take turns listening fully to their classmates instead of competing to talk over one another.
The students have been receptive. Burgart required them to write a report at the end of class in which they chose a form of energy—whether renewable, like solar or wind, or nonrenewable, like fossil fuels—and include the perspectives of Indigenous people on that form of energy. Burgart was “moved and blown away at the care and compassion and depth of the research.”
Burgart acknowledges that some of the Indigenous concepts can sound like magical thinking to engineers, stereotypically focused on logic within siloed disciplines. In her Indigeneering workshop, she outlines the seven sacred teachings of the Anishinaabe people, a group of culturally related Indigenous people in what is now Canada and the United States. They are love, courage, humility, wisdom, respect, honesty, and truth. People in corporate or classroom settings exhibit a definite discomfort talking about “love,” she says—especially in engineering. But she incorporates discussions of how students can arrive at a place of listening and compassion, with their whole selves—that is, their hearts, creativity, and beliefs—in addition to their mathematical logic.
“And that’s when the conversation gets fun,” she says. “Because then you start to think of how we show up in the world.…How we show up in conversations about politics. How we show up in conversations about [oil] pipelines,” as in the highly publicized protests of the Standing Rock Sioux and others over the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Western engineers tend to want things clean, compartmentalized, and copyrighted, says Burgart. That’s completely antithetical to most Indigenous teachings. Rather than depending on copyrights and patents, Indigenous people often rely on sacred ceremonial knowledge held by Elders.
Breaking down silos also enables traditionally educated engineers to take on additional roles. Kear Porttris is a member of the Métis Nation, one of the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada. He serves as the relationship manager at Gwaii Engineering, a civil and environmental engineering firm run by and for the Indigenous people. He recently graduated from the University of Victoria with his master’s degree in civil engineering—but his work with Gwaii can often seem more like social work. By bringing Indigenous ways of being to engineering practice, his professional life embodies Indigeneering.
Porttris’s goal is not only to respect the culture and traditions of the people, but also to contribute modern scientific and engineering practices where they can help. He stresses that like anyone else, Indigenous people “want to have modern homes and central heating; they want to have drinking water come out of their tap.” Yet, many Indigenous communities lack running water and sanitation. (In the United States, Native American households are 19 times as likely as White households to lack indoor plumbing, according to a 2019 report from two nonprofits focused on water issues.)
Most of Porttris’s work is translational. He navigates the needs and experiences of the communities he works with, keeping in mind the “complicated relationship” they have with the government, and helps hold representatives accountable. “The Canadian government has a legal and fiduciary responsibility to take care of the First Nations people,” he says, but they often don’t follow through. “You can’t force people to inhabit a part of the land and tell them they can’t go anywhere else, but then, if they need a boil water advisory because the pumps fail, you’ll get around to it eventually.”
The government often wants the community to fix these municipal problems, and the community wants the government to do it. Porttris challenges bureaucracy’s “moral compass” in order to right the wrongs he sees. “What can we do to ensure that our governments take more responsibility [for] their impact?”
He spends a lot of his time clearing up bureaucratic bottlenecks by talking to officials on behalf of communities about urgent needs and why it’s the government’s responsibility to resolve them. It’s his way of bringing his whole self and acting with love, as Burgart says—as well as ensuring clean water and healthy living conditions for people who have historically been taken advantage of by governing bodies.
Life Force Meter
Also working to promote Indigenous values in engineering is Kēpa Morgan, an engineering project manager from the Ngāti Pikiao tribe of the Te Arawa people in New Zealand. From 2002 to 2017, he served as associate dean of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Auckland. He’s now a general manager at the Ngāti Mākino Iwi Authority, where he develops environmental and educational programs on behalf of the Ngāti Mākino people. (Most Americans would know them as Māori, which is a catchall term like Native Americans. And Iwi can mean a tribe or a nation.) Morgan’s upbringing and community work make him keenly aware of the impact of so-called civilization and experts on the land.
Indigenous people often have decisions made for them and their land by others who do not understand either. As an engineer, Morgan wanted to connect his cultural heritage with his engineering education. The result was the mauriOmeter, a project framework to help engineers make decisions that consider people and culture. (While Māori are the people, mauri is a principle that means “life force,” or, as Morgan describes it, “the force between the physical and the spiritual aspects of something.”)
Morgan’s framework measures how a project will affect a place’s sustainability using four well-being indicators: the state of the economy, community, environment, and culture. When Burgart first encountered Morgan’s mauri model for engineering, she burst out, “This is exactly what I mean by Indigeneering!”
“He worked with Elders and knowledge keepers to create traditional engineering key performance indicators [KPIs] that wove in the communities’ and the Elders’ way of being and seeing,” she explains. The revolutionary aspect, she says, is that Morgan had created something process-driven—“something engineers can understand. There are KPIs. When you say that to engineers, they know what that is.”
The model has been applied to massive disasters, most notably in 2015 to help clean up after an unprecedented oil spill. When the MV Rena, a fuel and oil cargo ship, ran aground on the Ōtāiti reef in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty in October 2011, the ship dumped nearly 2,000 metric tons of oil, diesel fuel, pesticides, and other toxic chemicals on the reef and beach. After the government’s cleanup, most of the oil was gone, but the Rena’s hull remained lodged in the reef and the pollution damage was extensive. Community members couldn’t make their living by fishing on the damaged reef. They were also living with poisoned sands and mass wildlife die-offs. And Ōtāiti was an important wāhi tapu—sacred site.
Morgan was tasked with engaging the tangata whenua (people of the land), who were wary of more experts who didn’t understand their needs coming in to bring the area back to its “pre-Rena state.” The first step was using the model to quantify what, exactly, that state was 100 years before the disaster; the second was to lay out implementation plans to achieve the previous state. The beauty of the model is that “it removes the authority of the so-called experts to make decisions on behalf of the people,” Morgan said in a 2015 interview with Te Karere News, a Māori-language news network. To be valid, the solutions must include the input of the Indigenous people.
The mauriOmeter is now being used across the world, from conducting sustainability assessments in Indonesia’s Southern Papua region to addressing fracking damage in Ontario. It’s free to access at http://mauriometer.org.
“Rewilding” is a concept that is gaining momentum around the world, and this is where Julia Watson’s specialty as a landscape architect lies. As city and suburban dwellers start to realize that human life is closely intertwined with nature and biodiversity, many look for ways to return to their green roots while still being able to walk down the street for a cup of coffee. One high-profile example is the High Line project in New York City, which transformed an old railway trestle into a greenway park where people can walk, bike, and hike—and where wildlife is also welcomed.
But green infrastructure projects aren’t just for bringing nature to cities; they also can help regenerate cultures.
The Ma’dan people may live in the Garden of Eden. According to the Book of Genesis, the garden was a fertile golden land situated among four rivers: the Pishon, the Gihon, the Tigris, and the Euphrates. As best as many Biblical scholars can tell, this describes the wetlands of southern Mesopotamia—known today as Iraq, Iran, and Kuwait.
The Ma’dan, also known as the Marsh Arabs, lived in this area, peacefully secluded, for thousands of years—no one can agree on exactly how many, but estimates range from 2,000 to more than 5,000. They poled tarred boats between free-floating islands they created from qasab reeds, bamboo-like grass, to qasab huts with arch designs dating back to ancient Babylon. That all ended in 1991, when the Ma’dan rebelled against Saddam Hussein’s rule. In retaliation, the dictator ordered tens of thousands of the Marsh Arabs to be killed, and hundreds of thousands more were driven from their lands. He drained the marshes by constructing dams and dikes that blocked the flow of the rivers that sustained the wetlands.
The marshes turned to dust. The wetlands—once the largest in the Middle East—shrank to 10 percent of their former size, and the Ma’dan population to less than 20 percent of its previous number. It wasn’t just the people who died, according to a 2001 United Nations Environment Program report. The region lost an important way station for migratory birds and major fisheries. Several endemic species of plants and animals went extinct.
As soon as Hussein was deposed in 2003, the Ma’dan started to return from their exile, dismantling the dams and dikes along the way. Some of the water returned. Since then, the Marsh Arabs have struggled to rebuild their way of life. One tyrannical government and 12 (relatively) short years, however, seem poised to destroy thousands of years of life, language, and culture. In the Ma’dan’s time away, much changed. Even without Hussein’s intervention, a planned dam project by the Turkish government would have blocked the rivers and permanently changed the landscape. That project is still underway.
The Ma’dan are fighting back in the wake of two decades of struggle and loss. They’re using their traditional cultural knowledge of the land to bring back wildlife, water buffalo herds, and qasab-reed islands and houses. Engineers are contributing modern solutions to dismantle the dams, recover the water, and make the area livable again. One of them, hydrology engineer Azzam Alwash, was born and raised in the marshes and is CEO of Nature Iraq, an Iraqi NGO. Working alongside him within a network of nonprofits is a motley crew of individuals who are all passionate about bringing the marshes back and helping the people who have lived there for thousands of years.
Waste Not, Want Not
Helping to regenerate the marshes is Meridel Rubenstein, an artist and photographer who “does not merely document the world but seeks to save it.” In 2010, she was working on a book called Eden Turned on Its Side, which explored “intersections of nature and culture in relationship to ecological and social imbalance.” Her research turned up information about Iraq’s Marsh Arabs in the land of Eden.
Rubenstein has long woven studies of science, culture, and the environment into her work. The practice started with a colleague and friend—the director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment—who asked her to make carbon cycles into poetry “so that he could pierce the hearts of energy CEOs that he had to work with.”
So Rubenstein started learning about carbon cycles. Her studies carried her around the world, including to a wastewater management course at Synergia Ranch, a retreat, farm, and “innovation center” in Santa Fe, N.M. The course was taught by Mark Nelson, chairman of the Institute of Ecotechnics and head of Wastewater International.
Nelson designs wastewater gardens—natural waste management systems comprising strategically planted gardens with drainage that filters and cleans water as it passes through—based on decades of research in closed ecological systems. The organic material (“humanure”) fertilizes the plants, and the system thrives symbiotically with the people living nearby.
When Rubenstein and Nelson arrived in Iraq, they were struck by the horrific conditions the Ma’dan were living in. The lack of sewage management meant that it was being discharged without treatment into rivers or marshes, resulting in odor and damage to the marshes’ long-term ecology and community members’ health. They knew they wanted to build a wastewater garden. Not only could it filter the human waste, but it could also be a testament to the local culture.
Rubenstein and Nelson teamed up with Jassim Al-Asadi, a Ma’dan native, water resource engineer, and regional director of Nature Iraq, and Davide Tocchetto, an Italian agronomist and environmental engineer. In the spring, the Eden in Iraq garden will start with a reed bed that will immediately begin growing and working to diminish waste odor. The full garden will grow out of a collaboration between engineers, artists, and native Ma’dan. It is revolutionary as a wastewater treatment system where people can also “rest, restore, and experience beauty in a distressed land,” says Rubenstein. “Cottage industries, where locals can make and sell art and fruit, grown in secondary gardens, will be added to supplement the local economy.” And the garden will incorporate edible, medicinal, and culturally relevant plants. Tocchetto, the plant expert, has pinpointed exact species of plants mentioned in the Bible and the Koran that will work with the filtration system and take up nutrients from human waste.
Eden in Iraq is designed as a colorful nod to ancient Mesopotamian culture, with its design inspired by traditional Iraqi wedding blankets. The project has brought international publicity to local artists, mostly women, who make the blankets—creating both demand and a marketplace for them to sell their work.
The gardens still have a long way to go. Because of political and economic instability in the region, they will receive the first infusion of funding from the Iraqi government in spring 2021. But the project has generated excitement around the world. In 2016, UNESCO recognized the Mesopotamian Marshes as a World Heritage Site. In October 2020, the United Nations agency selected Eden in Iraq as one of “100 Green Citizens Projects” for that year.
The project team hopes that, with the aid of the local people, they will be able to create more gardens across the Iraqi wetlands and bring more of the people—and the wildlife—back to Eden. With the wisdom of the ancients, modern creativity, and innovations from both, paradise may once again be found.
Jennifer Pocock is associate editor of Prism.
Design by Francis Igot
Access “Indigeneering: The Future of Engineering Education,” Deanna Burgart’s Distinguished Lecture from ASEE’s 2020 Virtual Conference: www.asee.org/annual-conference/2020.