A chance meeting with an Inuit in Barrow, Alaska—who spoke about his studies at Haskell Indian Nations University (Haskell) in Lawrence, Kansas—forever changed electrical engineer Dr. Paul Racette’s life. The meeting inspired Dr. Racette to seek a better understanding of the Native American philosophy and worldview. As a result, Racette opened his eyes and heart to raising consciousness by bridging the gap between the two.[image-51]
Racette began by participating in the NASA Administrator’s Fellowship Program (NAFP) from 2005—2007. The first year, Racette journeyed to Haskell, where he taught Native Americans math and a course he created called “Earth Exploration,” which examined how both scientific and traditional knowledge explain the world. “In indigenous cultures, storytelling and mythology are central to understanding the world and our origin,” says Racette. To help put space exploration in context for his Native American students, he invoked the writings of noted mythologist and author Joseph Campbell to emphasize that studying the Earth from space is a form of exploration and self-discovery.
He also studied the application of mathematical modeling he developed in radiometry, his primary field, as a means of bridging the gap between how Western and Native American cultures observe the world.
“Models or beliefs form perspective that leads to outcome. Reference values are used to assign meaning to observations. The Native American approach is based more on relationships, as opposed to, for example, reductionism. A hypothesis-based scientific study may dissect a plant, map its genome and categorize it within a family tree. Native traditional approach would seek to understand the plant in relationship to its surroundings and environment,” explains Racette.
While at Haskell, Racette also pursued consciousness studies. “I got a few raised eyebrows when my management learned that I wanted to ‘go study consciousness with the Indians,’” recalls Racette. However, management supported him. “Consciousness, including individual and collective consciousness, is the phenomenon that links life’s actions and reactions to physical reality. In its simplest sense, consciousness is what connects our lives to all other life in the universe,” explains Racette.
The second year of his fellowship, Racette worked in NASA Headquarters’ Office of Education, developing national partnerships for education. He also became a founding member of Goddard’s Native American Advisory Committee. “There remains a thriving but not widely recognized Native American presence in Maryland and Virginia,” says Racette. He has attended several powwows, which he describes as “a Native American spiritual celebration of life with lots of traditional dancing, singing, drumming, and eating.”[image-80]
In 2007, Racette co-founded www.Earthzine.org, an on-line magazine published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), as an outreach activity for the intergovernmental Group on Earth Observation. Racette uses Earthzine to educate others about the social benefits of Earth observation leading to global awareness as well as to champion indigenous perspectives.
As editor-in-chief, Racette regularly contributes to the magazine. “We protect the life of our young as well as the spirit in the fire. To protect Life is to value and care for that which warms our heart during the cold night’s torrent of rage against all life, Death…so that we may wake to a new dawn with all the splendor that Life has to offer,” writes Racette in his July 25, 2010 post called “A Letter on Earth Observation and Global Awareness.”
Racette often focuses on interrelationships giving meaning to existence. “The idea is that air is shared by all living, breathing entities and through that physical process we become related to each other. The message of indigenous cultures and traditions is you have to have reverence for that which gives you life,” wrote Racette in an April 6, 2009 interview in which he quoted author Dr. Gregoy Cajete, a Tewa native.
Racette’s life has changed greatly since that chance meeting with the Inuit from Haskell. “There are different ways of knowing and understanding the world and one’s relationship to it,” says Racette. He remains committed to raising consciousness by bridging how Native Americans and Western scientists view the world, especially in Earth observations. “My long-term aspiration is to establish a consciousness studies program within NASA,” he concludes.
Of Note: In June 2011, Racette received NASA’s Equal Employment Opportunity Medal for “exceptional commitment, advocacy, and service” to Native Americans at Goddard and Tribal Communities across the United States.
Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.