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AIM-UP Workshop: Native Americans and Natural History Collections


(Front row left to right: Stefan Sommer, Joe Cook, Neil Cobb)

(Back row left to right: Melvin Foster, Corey Welch, Gary Albert, Melody Basham, Ed Galindo, Beverly Maxwell)

Education and Outreach specialist Melody Basham spent this past weekend (August 16-17, 2014) in Flagstaff attending an AIM-UP workshop at Northern Arizona University (NAU) where the focus was on natural history collections as teaching tools serving undergraduate Native Americans. Joe Cook from the University of New Mexico is the Principal Investigator of this National Science Foundation funded program: (“Advancing integration of Museums into Undergraduate Programs”) which has been active for the past four years in developing learning modules that connect and teach undergraduates using natural history collections. This past weekend scientists, students, and educators and representatives from several Native American tribes attended the workshop aimed at addressing the challenges and needs to involve and retain undergraduate Native American students in the natural sciences.

One issue that came up at the workshop was the fact that little is known about the biodiversity currently found on Native American reservations. This is especially significant when you consider that the Navajo Nation covers some 27,673 square miles over four states (see Map). Discussions at the workshop also proposed how biodiversity data might be gathered from reservations and represented in biodiversity research and databases. However there are several challenges and barriers that have made this difficult. Firstly there do not appear to be any formal Natural History institutions or museums on Native American reservations. Secondly, there are many barriers related to cultural values and beliefs involving the process of gathering natural history objects and specimens.


Area of the Navajo Reservation. Retrieved from

The Navajo Ant Project

The Navajo Ant Project was founded by Beverly Maxwell of the Navajo Nation (also a graduate student at NAU) and is in partnership with Dr. Gary Albert of Harvard University. The Navajo Ant Project is the first scientific and formal field study undertaken involving the collecting of ant species on the Navajo reservation. This project is a successful cross-cultural model in that it demonstrates how scientific methods and field study can be done while integrating and respecting Native American cultural values.

Ants are culturally “sensitive” as they are associated with the origin story of the four worlds in the Navajo creation story. In this story there are as many as a dozen insects that make up the first world and are referred to as “insect people”. The ant people were the first home builders. The Red Ant Way is a chant that describes the emergence of the ant people from the underworld to the world above (Rodgers 2008).

Each summer prior to collecting and field work the  Navajo Ant team must gain approval from a medicine man or from tribal elders in order to collect ants. It is the belief of the Navajo (as in many Native American populations) that you do not kill life for any reason and before ants can be collected you must make an offering to the ants. Therefore a three-week collecting trip can easily turn into one week of actual collecting by the time proper ceremonies, prayers, and blessings are obtained. Dr. Gary Albert states that he has learned much in his relations with the Dine people and culture, especially patience. Apparently this patience has paid off as so far the project has identified 24 genera and some 98 species. Images and data of their work can be found here.


Myrmecocystus mexicanus; Contributed by Gary Alpert.

Navajo Perceptions of Specimens and Insect Classification

In a study on Navajo perceptions of insect taxonomy and classification, researchers presented their Native American subjects insects in a collection box to classify. It was found that because the insects presented were dead and not moving the subjects were unable to classify them as they depended on insect movement and behavior (Wyman & Bailey 1964; reference # 23 as cited in Rodgers 2008: 55). The subjects also asked the researcher as to where the specimens were found suggesting  that space and place and context were also important factors in enabling them to properly identify and classify the insect specimens (Rodgers 2008).

The issue of movement is interesting in that one of the participants at the workshop, Dr. Ed Galindo – a Yaqui, activist, chemist, physicist, and engineer from the University of Idaho – made a comment that supports the above study. Dr. Galindo took out an exoskeleton of a tarantula from a box and set it on the table. He stated: “This here means nothing…it is dead. For it to have meaning it needs to move and it needs to have a story.” The discussion opened to that of technology and the use of computer animation and 3D technologies to accomplish this. Dr. Basham gave her input in this area with her presentation on 3D technologies for natural history collections and asked the question as to how these technologies might be used to promote cultural ontologies and world views alongside those directly supported by scientific data.

Clearly there is much research needed in the field of ethnoscience and “folk taxonomies” which has been a special research focus and interest of Dr. Basham. She is now a working member of AIM-UP as they proceed to develop additional learning modules aimed at serving Native American undergraduate students. The Navajo Ant Project will of course be considering the development of their own learning module that will integrate Navajo cultural beliefs and world views while teaching collecting methods and concepts related to the natural sciences.

Related Resources


Rodgers, Diane M.  2008. Debugging the Link Between Social Theory and Social Insects.  LSU Press, November 15, 2008. Nature. Available via this link.

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