When Dawn Pratt walked into her first day of physics class at the University of Regina, she was stunned. In her 14 years as a student, she’d never been taught science by someone who looked like her—yet here was an Indigenous man standing at the front of the room. While she was growing up, “it would have been nice to see more of us, or more females that were Indigenous and liked science,” says Pratt, who is one of the roughly 1,600 registered Anihšināpēk members of the Muscowpetung Saulteaux Nation. That lack of representation is something she’s working to change for the next generation of Indigenous youth. Since 2016, Pratt has made it her mission to Indigenize science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) through mentoring, consulting, and creating K–12 curricula that blend Indigenous knowledge with Western science.
“To me, [Indigenizing STEM] means bringing in land-based education, bringing in the culture, bringing in the language, bringing in the Elders and the Knowledge Keepers,” Pratt says. She started the educational consulting company Askenootow STEM Enterprise in 2020 to fully devote her time to that goal. Her intent is not to replace Western science but to offer an additional system of knowledge, equal in importance, that’s culturally relevant to Indigenous people.
Her work ties into a broader movement in Canada and around the world that is pushing academia to recognize the value of Indigenous knowledge and acknowledge that Western science reflects only one cultural perspective.
▸ Name: Dawn Pratt
▸ Tribe: Muscowpetung Saulteaux Nation, whose reserve is situated in the Qu’Appelle Valley, about 97 km north of Regina, Saskatchewan
▸ Education: BS, chemistry, University of Regina; MS, chemistry, University of Saskatchewan
▸ Company: Founder, Askenootow STEM Enterprise, named after her great-great-great grandfather, who spoke three languages and was an interpreter for Treaty Four between several First Nation tribes and the British government, which encompasses much of present-day southern Saskatchewan and beyond
▸ Hobbies: Looking at fashion (like at the Met Gala, which got her thinking, “Why don’t we do that here [in Canada]? There’s so many local fashion designers.”) and browsing Pinterest for home-decor ideas (her front door and yard furniture are all lime green)
As she builds curricula, Pratt draws inspiration from Indigenous Ancestors, Elders, and Knowledge Keepers, who hold knowledge that has been refined over thousands of years through field observations and experiments.
As a chemist, Pratt also draws inspiration from the discipline that she fell in love with as a little girl. “I started my chemistry career when I was in grade 4,” Pratt says. Pratt was an inquisitive kid, and she remembers reading the names of chemical ingredients on a tube of toothpaste and wondering, “What is all this stuff?” When Pratt was about 8 years old, her parents bought her a chemistry kit—including a little lab notebook, in which she dutifully logged her experiments—“and from there, my love just grew.”
When she got to university, studying chemistry was an obvious choice—but not by any outside measures. Indigenous women account for less than 1% of the science and engineering degrees awarded in Canada.
“I never had First Nation or Indigenous role models when I was younger,” she says, but at the Regina campus of First Nations University of Canada, she finally found other Indigenous students like her. She recalls the chemistry lab fondly as a playground and loved the feel of donning the lab coat and working with analytical instruments.
Pratt’s passion for Indigenizing STEM was ignited while pursuing her master’s degree in chemistry at the University of Saskatchewan. She was invited to be the Indigenous student ambassador at the school, a role that involved traveling to First Nation schools to help teachers, largely those in elementary classrooms, make science more hands on. She tried to make lessons more engaging by connecting them to the students’ own lives.
For example, in an ecology lesson discussing omnivores, herbivores, and carnivores, Pratt turned to a familiar item: a buffalo jawbone. Pratt recalled her memories of watching her uncle hunt moose, so she “knew that these children on the reserve had some kind of an experience with hunting and seeing an animal being harvested,” Pratt says. She asked the students to guess what creature it came from by looking at the teeth and deciphering what it ate—an activity that was fun, educational, and relevant to her students’ own lives.
Pratt also taught lab and chemistry to first-year students at one of the colleges on a reserve in Saskatchewan. She says the First Nation students were just as shocked to see Pratt as she was when she’d first met her physics professor.
After finishing her master’s degree in chemistry, Pratt got a job at the Saskatoon Tribal Council, which represents about 11,000 people from seven distinct First Nations. Part of her role was to bolster science education at First Nation schools, which was a challenging task because the schools often lack resources like lab space and equipment. But Pratt had a creative flair. Now, she has mentors in the tribal council who can teach her more deeply about Indigenous culture. The Elder Albert Scott was a particularly important mentor for Pratt. “I would talk to him about something in science, and then he would tell me about a teaching or how [Elders] would see this particular topic,” Pratt says. As she talked to Scott and other Elders in the community, “it was really intriguing to me that they understood so much about the world around us,” Pratt says.
Pratt, too, is a keen observer, and while developing her curricula, she draws inspiration from the world around her. She points out that Knowledge Keepers have a deep understanding of the medicinal properties of plants, as pharmacists do. Native people have for thousands of years tanned the hides of animals for use in clothing and shelters, developing chemical processes to make the hide soft, flexible, and waterproof. And to build tipis that can withstand the extreme winds on the Saskatchewan plains, Native people have had to use the same principles of aerodynamics that underpin space travel, Pratt adds. Pratt also wants her students to feel empowered to tap into the many forms that knowledge can take. To illustrate this point, Pratt often uses the traditional metaphor of the medicine wheel. “The medicine wheel has four quadrants to it, or four spheres, and they’re physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional,” Pratt says. Western science contributes the physical part, and Indigenous knowledge contributes the spiritual. Western scientists tend to adhere to objectivity, but she tells students that “creativity is part of your spirituality” and that embracing that creativity is an important part of Indigenizing science.Pratt points out that Dmitri Mendeleev created the periodic table of elements by drawing a deck of cards featuring all the known elements. Then, legend has it that Mendeleev had a dream about their proper arrangement. “There is creativity in science,” Pratt says.
With a Western science education and a grounding in her culture, Pratt is in a unique position to blend Indigenous and Western teachings. With her company, Pratt is creating curricula geared primarily toward elementary and middle school teachers, mentoring Indigenous students, and consulting on Indigenizing science. Pratt hopes that non-Indigenous teachers can also use the materials to Indigenize science in their classrooms. Her ideal is to have an Indigenized science textbook that Indigenous students could use as a reference alongside their Western textbooks and that would include their languages and traditional knowledge.
Outside the classroom, Pratt has fun developing new ways to teach an Indigenized view of science at home with her daughters, currently 9 and 10 years old. For her daughters, her students, and the audiences she speaks to, “it’s all about changing people’s perception of ‘what does the scientist look like,’ ” Pratt says. Scientists “like to dye our hair green. We like jewelry. We like shopping. We like fashion.” (Pratt’s hair is green, and she makes jewelry.)
In addition to working with younger kids, Pratt is also receiving international attention from educators, science professionals, and organizations that are interested in using her curricula or learning how to increase Indigenous representation in science. Though Pratt is keeping quite busy, she feels there is much work yet to be done, since “these changes should have been done yesterday,” she says.