Inuit Mathematics in Euro-Western Culture

When I think back on my experiences of teaching and learning mathematics in school, I don’t remember aspects that were particularly oppressive and/or discriminating for me. Looking back with the knowledge I know now, this was probably because I am privileged. I am a white, middle-class female living in a Euro-Western society who identifies with many of the dominant binaries that are valued and existing within my society. The questions I encountered in my experiences of learning math in school reflected these aspects that comprise my identity. The characters from my textbook math problems were usually white, male or female, middle-class, living in a Euro-Western society, and encountering problems that are typical of existing within this demographic. In addition, the types of mathematical knowledge I was taught and tested on reflected the dominant form of mathematical knowledge present within my culture and society. I did not face any contextual challenges in my mathematics learning experiences, so I never thought that some of my classmates could be potentially struggling with the type of mathematical knowledge we were learning. I had a few classmates from other cultures in my classes growing up, and I wonder now if they struggled to learn Euro-Western mathematics because their own cultures may teach mathematics differently. As mentioned in Leroy Little Bear’s article and the prompt for this journal, “One of the problems with colonialism is that it tries to maintain a singular social order by means of force and law, supressing the diversity of human worldviews” (p.77). I think the teaching of Euro-Western mathematics in non-Euro-Western societies and contexts is a prime example of this statement. By teaching Euro-Western forms of mathematics in these places, colonialism is being enacted and diverse worldviews are being silenced. Perhaps one of the most prevalent examples of this on Canadian soil is the teaching of “southern” mathematics to Inuit communities as expressed by professor Gale Russell and in Louise Poirer’s article.

After reading “Teaching Mathematics and the Inuit Community”, I was able to observe some ways in which Inuit mathematics challenge Eurocentric purposes and learning styles of mathematics. Firstly, the way counting and numbers are conceived and taught challenge Euro-Western ideology. Inuit mathematics are taught in Inuktitut, which relies heavily on oral passing down of knowledge. The Inuit have language for numbers, but not symbols. Even still, this language is complex, with different language being applied to different contexts. Inuit math also works in base 20, instead of the “southern” base 10. None of these approaches to math exist in Euro-Western mathematics. Secondly, Inuit math is based upon Inuit ways of life. Students learn by observing an elder or listening to enigmas, instead of performing pen and paper exercises. The mathematical problems Inuit students encounter relate to their daily lives, unlike that of Euro-Western mathematics. This is one explanation as to why Inuit students are particularly good with spatial relations and geometry – they encounter it in their daily lives. Lastly, units of measurement do not resemble those found and commonly used in Euro-Western societies. For example, body parts (which can have variation) are considered standard units of measurement in Inuit culture as opposed to the unchanging units found in Eurocentric mathematics. In addition, the calendar year is based on “natural independently recurring events” (p.61). This means that the length of any given month (and therefore year) can change depending on the length of these events, unlike Euro-Western months, which remain relatively the same from one year to the next. Differences such as these prove that math is not a universal language, but it does not mean that Inuit mathematics should be marginalized or ignored. Instead, we need to recognize the presence of Inuit math (and other diverse forms of mathematics) so that everyone may thrive in the subject.

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