When 1 plus 1 equals 1: rethinking mathematics for indigenous populations

In many cases math class is, or was, essentially the exact same for everybody. Counting and measuring were all integrated in a base-10 system drilled into our heads from the moment we can speak and articulate with our hands.  Mathematics is not a ‘universal’ language but rather a cultural construct used by different people over different times. Which is not to say that a base-10 structure of mathematics is wrong but it is the disposition that everyone can easily learn to use that way of thinking.

As mentioned, different cultures learn to use numbers in somewhat similar ways but with alternate foundations. Counting for the Inuit is done in a base-20 model in which 20 and 400 are very important numbers. As a way of thinking of it easier for me, a number say 30 is just 3 sets of 10 or in the Inuit system a set of 20 and a 10, which would a half set. There is still the same number but the groupings of numbers is differentiated through language.

Inuit language is not only the key to understanding the Inuit methods of math but also a indicator of time and space itself. Time is seen in a spatial sense in relation to the animals and weather/ climate around the community and the corresponding area in the year. The Western sense of years, seasons, and months are fixed and imposed on the rest of the world with the exception of some religious calendars. Unique words with the aforementioned suffixes are seen for even the perception of symbols on the landscapes of the northern Tundra.

In English, different words exist for different things but that is in stark contrast to how Inuit language is spoken. Language and addition math are used in conjunction when using simple words like ‘hole’. In Inuit, many differing objects like pineapple and lace use the original Inuit word for ‘hole’ because the language is derived by adding suffixes of words together.

Better understanding the Inuit can only ensure that they get quality education in mathematics. They seem to particularly excel in spatial awareness and deriving meaning from the environment. Tools and expressions that they, in turn, use to form their understanding of mathematical knowledge. Very interesting concepts.


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