Forty years ago the musical band, The Eagles, reminded us that once we call a place 'paradise,' we may as well "kiss it good-bye." For more than four hundred years indigenous people have been kissing good-bye to their paradise. The argument could be made — and of course it sometimes is — that indigenous people have benefited in that time by having their societies replaced by a culture based on science. Without such change it is unlikely that I would have found these Tzeltal Maya children in a science class at their school in Chiapas, Mexico.
We were also reminded last month that when it comes to customer service in the airline industry, we have already kissed it good-bye. But Nagao Kunaw, a young, indigenous Atayal traveler from Taiwan, kissed good-bye last month to common sense. Not having been born in an English-speaking country, he has no 'English' name. So he booked his flight under his indigenous (real) name. On checking in, though, the airline denied him boarding of his flight. Taiwanese law requires its indigenous population to adopt a second, arbitrary name that is easily represented using Mandarin pictograms. They are, however, also allowed to use their real name. So their government-issued identification lists both names. Since the Atayal language has never had any specific writing system devised for it, his name appears on his identification using Latin letters. Airline boarding passes in Taiwan, like in most countries, are printed in English as well as the local language. But the Taiwanese airline's check-in staff only searched for his booking using his 'Mandarin' name.
While he was eventually allowed on the flight, the airline told him that in future he should only book flights under his 'Mandarin' name. In their later apology, they referred to him using his 'Mandarin' name. It may seem like an insignificant incident to the rest of us, but the whole situation could have been avoided with just a little education about indigenous people, languages and writing systems.
Last month we also celebrated Earth Day. Oddly, the biggest event was a series of marches in defense of, not Earth, but science. Commentators said it was because science is coming under attack. That is even odder since science cannot come under attack: its truth remains the same no matter who may try to attack it.
"Kiss it good-bye" is a quote is from The Eagles' song, The Last Resort. The song chronicles, among other things, the destruction of indigenous culture as European colonizers migrated to the west coast of North America. "There is no more new frontier./We have got to make it here" it proclaims of the settlers' final destination.
When it comes to science, though, there are many new frontiers. Its status as a work-in-progress is a strength, not a weakness. Not surprisingly, scientists of indigenous descent also marched for science last month. But they went a step further. They authored a declaration proclaiming the importance of 'indigenous science' — the kind known to these children's ancestors long before it was known to their European colonizers. The importance of science is also revealed by science: if we kiss it good-bye we may as well kiss good-bye to our survival.