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Getting to Know Dr. Gregory Cajete

Dr. Gregory Cajete’s, current role as director of the Native American Studies Department at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, presents an irresistible irony. Seated in the very same room in which this interview was conducted, he recalls a meeting there years ago with one of his former professors. Cajete, Tewa, earned his master’s at UNM in adult and secondary education and hoped to pursue his doctoral studies there as well.

In that meeting long ago, as he explained the subject of his thesis —science from a Native American perspective —it was clear that his professor had no idea what he was talking about.

“Culturally based science, with its emphasis on health and wellness, was so far off the radar in the academy at that time that the professor suggested I take my proposal to the physical education department,” Cajete says with a chuckle as he recalls the discussion.

Fortunately, while teaching in the Indian Education Department at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, he was recruited for a new Independent Graduate Program accredited through the California State Department of Education. He received his doctorate in 1986 from International College, Los Angeles, in its New Philosophy Program in Social Science Education, with an emphasis in Native American studies. Today, Cajete is one of the foremost scholars in the field of sociocultural studies as it relates to Indian education and curriculum and native science. He has long been a well-known figure in Indian education circles and has become a popular speaker in the mainstream science and education academy conference circuit. As disciplines such as ecological and environmental studies have broadened to indigenous knowledge and pedagogy, Cajete and his work have gained mainstream attention.

He is the principal investigator for several prominent studies relating to native science and education supported by grant funding from institutions such as the National Science Foundation, New Mexico Endowment for the Humanities and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He has received fellowships from The Newberry Library’s D’Arcy McNickle Center, the U.S. Department of Education and The School of American Research. His books include Look to the Mountain: An Ecology of Indigenous Education, Ignite the Sparkle: An Indigenous Science Curriculum Model, Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence and others.

He credits his self-described dedication to honoring the foundations of indigenous knowledge in education as the basis for his success. Born and raised in the Santa Clara Pueblo in northern New Mexico, he attributes this dedication and persistence to his family’s traditional Pueblo values and culture. These values sustained him when he experienced frustration with an often dismissive academy as he chose to pursue the then-unknown area of native science.

Fortunately, Cajete recalls, his work was so far out of the box that he had no illusions of mainstream conformity and success. The simple knowledge and belief that he had something important to share motivated him to gain the skills to articulate this knowledge.

“When you’re ahead of your time, you have to create your own path,” he observes.

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