Skip to content

Two-Eyed Seeing As a Way of Knowing

Originally appears in the Spring 2013 issue

“The future success of our society will require the combined wisdom of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal cultures.”
-Nakota Chief John Snow (1)

Two-Eyed Seeing (also known as integrative science, native science, and ecological metissage) is a term describing a way of understanding the world from two cultural perspectives – Western scientific knowledge and native science. In the foreword to Gregory Cajete’s book, Native Science, Leroy Little Bear writes: “In order to appreciate and ‘come to know’ in the Native American science way, one has to understand the culture/worldview/paradigm of Native American people.” For the past 20 years I have come to know more of how traditional Native Americans and other land based people make sense of their world through my study and participation in social events and ceremonies in some Native communities. The first lesson I learned is that aboriginals are a diverse group of people and many of their tribal customs, stories, rituals, and other cultural ways are distinctly different. I also learned that some scholars have outlined some general characteristics of the Native mind in an attempt to clarify the nature of traditional indigenous belief systems. (3)

Describing all of these characteristics of “Indian thinking” has been the topic of many books and research papers. Donald Fixico states: “’Indian Thinking’ is ‘seeing’ things from a perspective emphasizing that circles and cycles are universe”(4). Hartz (5) lists six basic concepts of Native American religions:

  1.  “A Great Power… underlies all creation… It is a universal force to which all of nature is attuned.”
  2. “All things in the universe are alive and contain spirit within them. Spirit forces actively affect human lives in ways that can be both good and bad.”
  3. “The individual is called upon… to live in balance and harmony with the universe and the spirit world. People find their own sacred way by seeking clues to the sacred in dreams and visions.”
  4. “Values, beliefs, morals, ethics, and sacred traditions are passed on through an oral tradition and through ceremonies. Cultural bonding takes place through rituals developed by each group over centuries.”
  5. “Certain people… have special ties to the higher powers. Their special calling enables them to mediate between the spirit world and the earthly world for healing, spiritual renewal, and the good of the community.”
  6. “Humor is a part of the sacred way because people need to be reminded of their foolishness.”

Although these six concepts may suggest that Native thinking about spirituality is simplistic and elementary, in fact it is much more complicated and intricate when they are expanded and explained in more detail. In order to examine indigenous or land-based cultural characteristics, I compiled a list of over 40 categories describing how Native thinking is practiced in ceremony and daily life. Words such as dance, four directions, drum, elder, fre, gifts, medicine wheel, pipe, place, prayer, purifcation, respect, shape shifting, and story help to fll in some of the details of how these basic concepts become part of the lived experience of traditional people. In an article in Pathways, Greg Lowan explains the idea of blending cultural ways to seek knowledge by coining a new term, “ecological metissage.” These words encom- pass efforts to mesh aboriginal and non-aboriginal ways of knowing and entail “a blending of two or more ecological world views in personal identity, philosophy and practice.” (6)  He demonstrates commonalities and differences between Western science and Indigenous knowledge, and mentions how some people having both European and Native ancestry may feel split between two cultures.

He also discusses an area where aboriginal and european cultures come together in a
“Third Space.” Lowan illustrates that this idea of taking the best of both cultures to seek knowledge of how the world works is becoming more accepted in anthropological and outdoor/environmental literature. He also discusses several examples of ecological metissage currently in practice in various communities.

I frst became familiar with this idea by reading the Fall 2009 (#86) issue of Green
Teacher devoted to “Two-Eyed Seeing: Integrative Science.” This issue contained
articles by educators who implemented the work of Mi’kmaq Elder Albert Marshall. (7)  The bringing together of Indigenous and Western knowledge used the principles of Two-Eyed Seeing (using the strengths of Indigenous and Western ways of knowing by using both eyes together). After reading that issue of Green Teacher, I was motivated to develop an article that provided teachers with more outdoor activities. In that article I compiled 25 outdoor activities, (8) and provided a quotation to illustrate the importance of the idea behind the activity. My goal was to provide suggestions for how teachers could help their students nurture a sense of place and awareness of their communities.

I believe that today’s children and youth need more exposure to the outdoors in rural, suburban, and urban areas. They are suffering the effects of not connecting to their communities in meaningful ways. As a result they are alienated from the natural world and separated from the cultures of their communities. Two-Eyed seeing is one way to help them become more balanced and in harmony with the natural cycles of life.

Native Science Activities: Two-Eyed Seeing Outdoors

The Spring 2010 issue (#88) of the Green Teacher includes my article, “Developing a Sense of Place Through Native Science Activities.” That article listed 25 activities designed to help students learn about a place through a “two-eyed seeing” philosophy. This way of observing involves approaching science from Western ways and indigenous ways at the same time. The following outdoor activities add to the original list.

1. Accepting Nature’s Mysteries

“An important aspect of Indian pedagogy is something that I fnd heartbreakingly beautiful – a sense of humility: a sense that the world is far bigger, more complex, and more mysterious than the human mind can ever encompass, and that to be a full human being you need to learn to live with ambiguity and a tolerance for the unknown”(9)
Observe the place and think about all that you don’t know about it. Can you think of any mysteries that this place holds?

2. Creating Art, Ritual, and Ceremony

“Indigenous practices such as creative dreaming, art, ritual, and ceremony help the students externalize inner thought and qualities for examination” Create some art, a ritual, or ceremony showing gratitude and thanks based on the natural items found in your place. How did doing this affect your feelings about this place?(10)

3. Playing

“From the earliest ages, children in Indigenous communities were introduced to a variety of games that developed physical skill, thinking, and personal character. What was learned through their participation in games prepared them for a full life in community.”(11)
Invent a game that builds a physical skill and also develops personal character by using objects from your place. Can you find games played by indigenous people that did this?

4. Studying An Animal

“Let a man decide upon his favorite animal and make a study of it—let him learn to understand its sounds and motions. The animals want to communicate with man, but Wakan-Tanka does not intend that they shall do so directly—man must do the greater part in securing an understanding” Brave Buffalo, Standing Rock lakota. (12)
Select an animal to study that you can observe for a period of time. learn as much as you can about its characteristics and then share the information with others. How long did you study this animal in its natural habitat?

5. Observing Animal Dances

“They [primal people] believe that dance can shape the circumstances of nature if it can focus its contagious powers on animals and supernaturals. . . . The imitation of an animal (essentially in movements, but also in costume) has an influence upon the animal itself.”(13)
Go outside and observe an animal. Then create a dance that imitates that animal in movements, appearance, or other characteristics.

6. Being Silent

“The American Indian world has a deep reverence for silence. Children are taught at a very early age to sit still and enjoy their solitude in the belief that from this quietude come the most elevated of creative experience.”(14)
Find a place outside where sounds of human activity are rare. Sit quietly for a period of time and listen to the sounds around you. What can you create in that place?

7. Celebrating Astonishing Things

“There is no aspect of the world that is not worthy of aston- ishment and which is not celebrated by Indians in music and rituals.” (15)
Go outside and find things that astonish you (generate feelings of wonder, surprise and amazement). How could you celebrate them through music or ritual?

8. Discovering Music

“It is therefore not surprising that among primal people music is the sound the natural world made immediate and vivid by the perceptual miracle of the ear.”
listen to the sounds of nature to discover their musical qualities. Then fnd natural things to create music and rhythm. (16)

9. Observing the Eastern and Western Skylines

“At the Hopi pueblos, the times for ceremonies and for agricultural activities are determined by watching the sun rise and set in precise relation to the mountainous skyline. each important day has a peak or a notch in the skyline named for it.” (17)

Observe the Eastern and Western skylines to find peaks, notches, or other identifiable shapes. What kinds of human activities are worthy of naming points on the skyline where the sun rises and sets?

10. Looking Twice

“First you must bring your eyes together in front so you can see each droplet of rain on the grass, so you can see the smoke rising from an anthill in the sunshine… But you must learn to look again, with your eyes at the very edge of what is visible… You must learn to look at the world twice if you wish to see all that there is to see.” (18)

Practice looking at the world twice. First look for visible details and the big picture. The second time, look for subtle things that you might have missed the first time.

11. Finding Circles and Cycles

“A ‘circular’ approach toward life is inherent in Indian cultures since time immemorial. The native world is one of cycles, and observing the cycles provides an order to life and community. Medicine makers, prophets, and wise elders studied the moving world of circularity.” (19)
Go outside and find evidence of as many circles and cycles as you can. Did you discover some circles and cycles that you didn’t know about or notice before?

12. The Power of Place

“Related to the significance of place is the ‘power’ of place. Sacred sites and places empowered significantly influence one’s understanding and process of perception… People have special places where they feel more secure and safe, and such places should not be discouraged. This aspect of life is one that indigenous people have understood for a long time…”(20)

Go outdoors and find a special place that you feel has power. When you are there, describe the kind of power you feel. The root meaning of the word “sacred” is to bless or make holy; can you find a place that is sacred to you?

13. Seen and Unseen Forces

“Traditional Indians observed and continue to believe in the seen and unseen forces of life. Nature manifested itself through concepts in the ways of native belief, becoming the precepts of many Indian philosophies and therefore unified communities.” (21)

Make two lists of natural forces you can observe outdoors. List the forces you can see and those you cannot.

14. Living Beings

“We’ve always believed we come from the stars. We have our own notions of science embedded in our beliefs and the way we live… We connect with every living creature, every blade of grass has a life. Even the rocks have a life, and the spirit of the wood that we burn represents god in itself.” (A Lakota man 22)

Go outside and observe the immediate environment. How does seeing everything around you as a living being affect how you might respond to them?

15. Looking at the Land

“The traditional Indian understanding of land focuses on its use, and the duties people assume when they come to occupy it. When an Indian thinks about traditional lands he always talks about what the people did there, the animals who lived there and how the people related to them, the seasons of the year and how people responded to their changes, the manner in which the tribe acquired possession of the area, and the ceremonial functions it was required to perform to remain worthy of living there.” (23)

Go outside and look at the land from a traditional Native point of view. Consider what people have done there in the present and in the past, the animals living there and how people relate to them, how the land and people change throughout the seasons, how the land was acquired, and how you might celebrate the land to honor it.

16. Projecting Different Purposes for Land

“A Kwakwaka’wakw [a tribe found on Vancouver Island in the Pacific Northwest] boy raised to revere the coastal forests as the realm of the divine will be a different person from a Canadian child taught to believe that such forests are destined to be logged.” (24)

Go outside and view the environment from different perspectives that highlight the spiritual and ethical values of the land. Attempt to role play an indigenous person who lives close to the land and has deep respect for it.


  1. Lowan, G. (2011). Ecological Metissage: Exploring the third space in outdoor and environmental education. Pathways: The Ontario Journal of Outdoor Education. 23 (2) 10-­15.
  2. Cajete, G. (2000). Native Science: Natural laws of interdependence. Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light.
  3. Mander, J. (1992). In the absence of the sacred: The failure of technology and the
    survival of the Indian nations. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, pp. 211-­24.
    Deloria, Jr., V. (2006). The world we used to live in: Remembering the powers
    of the medicine men. Golden, CO: Fulcrum.
    Beck, P. V., Walters, A. L. & Francisco, N. (2001). The sacred: Ways of knowl-­
    edge, sources of life. Tsaile, AZ: Dine College.
    Davis, W. (2009). The Wayfinders: Why ancient wisdom matters in the modern world. Toronto, Canada: Anansi.
    Fixico, D. L. (2003). The American Indian mind in a linear world: American
    Indian studies and traditional knowledge. New York: Routledge, pp. 1-19.
  4. Fixico, D. L. (2003). The American Indian mind in a linear world: American Indian studies and traditional knowledge. New York: Routledge, pp. 1.
  5. Hartz, P. R. (1997). Native American religions: World religions. New York: Facts On File, Inc., pp. 12-­13.
  6. Lowan, G. (2011). Ecological Metissage: Exploring the third space in outdoor and environmental education. Pathways: The Ontario Journal of Outdoor Education. 23 (2) 10-­15.
  7. Hatcher, A., Bartlett, C., Marshall, M. & Marshall, A. (2009). Two-Eyed seeing: A cross cultural science journey. Green Teacher. 86, 3-6.
  8. Knapp, C. E. (2010). Developing a sense of place through native science activities. Green Teacher. 88, 36-­40.
  9. Margolin, M. (2005). “Indian pedagogy: A look at traditional California Indian teaching techniques” (pp. 67-79) in M. K. Stone & Z. Barlow (Eds.). Ecological literacy: Educating our children for a sustainable world. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, pp. 75.
  10. Cajete, G. (1994). Look to the mountain: An ecology of indigenous education. Durango, CO: Kivaki Press, pp. 225.
  11. Cajete, (1994)., pp. 181.
  12. Cajete, G. (2000). Native science: Natural laws of interdependence. Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light, pp. 149.
  13. Highwater, 1981, pp. 141.
  14. Highwater, 1981, pp. 164.
  15. Highwater, 1981, pp. 165.
  16. Highwater, 1981, pp. 159.
  17. Highwater, 1981, pp. 129.
  18. Highwater, 1981, pp. 75.
  19. Fixico, 2003, pp. 42.
  20. Fixico, 2003, pp. 71.
  21. Fixico, 2003, pp. 54.
  22. Ross, A., Sherman, K. P., Snodgrass, J. G., Delcore, H. D., & Sherman, R. (2011). Indigenous peoples and the collaborative stewardship of nature: Knowledge binds and institutional conflicts. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press Inc., pp. 145.
  23. Deloria, Jr. V. (1989) In Dooling, D. M. & Jordan-­Smith, P. I become part of it. New York: Parabola, pp. 261.
  24. Davis, W. (2009). The Wayfinders: Why ancient wisdom matters in the modern world. Toronto, Canada: Anansi Press, pp. 123.

Highwater, J. (1981). The primal mind: Vision and reality in Indian America. New York: Harper & Row, pp. 55-189.


To view the photo-rich magazine version, click here.


If you are not already a subscriber, please subscribe to read the full article

Clifford E. Knapp retired from the Teaching and Learning Department of Northern Illinois University in 2001. Since that time he has been consulting in place-based education, traveling, writing, reading about indigenous cultures, and participating in ceremony and celebration of the natural world.