Science Moab

The Colorado Plateau is home to research projects, scientific inquiries and a lot of western science, but there is also long-held Indigenous knowledge that is centered on knowing and understanding the cliffs and canyons of this place. Here, Science Moab speaks with Jim Enote about these two different knowledge systems. Enote is a Zuni writer, farmer and CEO of the Colorado Plateau Foundation. He is also a trained scientist who explains his view of the different ways that western scientists and Native people understand the world and how we can begin to speak across those understandings to make the world better for both people and the natural environment.

Science Moab: When did you first realize that there were multiple ways of understanding the world?

Enote: My great-grandparents passed away when I was 17, so for a large part of my life they raised me. Being raised by someone that was alive in the 1800s is pretty special. But even more significant is that I realized they were living a life unencumbered with the kind of knowledge that I have in my mind.

Now, I’m trained as a scientist, but they were living in a world that was not exposed to the kind of mathematics we use now, not exposed to the ideas of gravitational forces, the earth rotating on its axis. They saw the world at its face value, they saw the world in a very, very different way. And I came to realize how beautiful that is. I think that science is incredibly valuable and important. But it’s a different knowledge system that can eclipse the other knowledge systems, the other way of knowing. I think that the challenge for all of us going forward, especially in the field of cultural resource management or natural resource management, is to begin to understand, especially on the Colorado Plateau where there are so many different tribes, that there are different knowledges out there, different ontologies.

So how do we, over the next several decades, start to bring in those different knowledges? I see them as being not something that would contradict science. They enhance each other, they’re just different knowledges.

Science Moab: Can you give an example of these different knowledge systems?

Enote: At Zuni, when I was the museum director there [Enote was the executive director of the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center in Zuni, New Mexico. – ed.], we introduced this idea of map art.

The idea was that maps can be very beneficial and helpful. We knew that maps have eclipsed a lot of our knowledge of place with different names and symbols and colors and things that do not include us, as native peoples. So we put forward a different idea of mapping. We brought together people with knowledge of places with Zuni artists and they created some new kinds of maps. They were about geography and they were really about describing places, but not with a longitude and latitude. They were not topographic and they were not necessarily intended to be observed by looking straight down. They were really about vignettes of information about place. These maps were mediating the different knowledge between the ideas of cartography and geography and the ideas of Zuni knowledge of place. In the exhibit gallery, we had topographic maps of someplace like the Grand Canyon and people would look at them and say, “okay, I recognize this.” Then they will come around the corner, and they would see these hand-painted Zuni maps of the same place. The non-Native reaction is that they would struggle, not sure what they were looking at, but really, as they started to go through the exhibit, they realize that there are two ways of looking at the same thing. They were encountering different knowledges. By the time they came out of that exhibit, they were learning to appreciate that there are many ways of looking at the world, there are many ways of knowing.

Science Moab: How do you see this mediation between different knowledge systems working in public lands or natural resource policy?

Enote: It requires policy change. I have been in positions before where I was negotiating with government organizations. They just were not equipped, policy-wise, to listen, even if they wanted to. It just wasn’t in their policy to include this other kind of what they would call anecdotal information. That’s changing now. There have been some real advances compared to when I was doing things 30 years ago, but the changes require new policy. To move things forward, people need to understand and believe that it makes sense to include different kinds of knowledge and to be inclusive and seek out diversity and equity. That’s what moves humanity and community forward: to do things that make sense. We want things to make sense, and we want them to be righteous as well.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To learn more and listen to the rest of Jim Enote’s interview, visit