Taos students tackle universal questions with Lakota cosmology and particle physics


A thick blanket of clouds hid from view the stars and waning moon as night fell over Taos Tuesday (April 11). But the story of the night sky -- the origin of the universe -- played out on the canvas of a teepee that was lit with brightly colored, dancing animations.

The animated teepee was part art installation and part culmination of "Converging Worldviews: Lakota Cosmology Meets Particle Physics," a two-day workshop for fourth- and fifth-grade students at the Taos Integrated School of the Arts.

The collaboration was all about bringing together ways of understanding the world that might seem at odds at first glance: art and science, indigenous and Western thinkings, a Switzerland-based physicist and a Sicangu Lakota cultural specialist and water protector.

But at a fundamental level, art and science in both the Western and indigenous traditions are all about "people looking at the world around them and trying to make sense of it," Steve Goldfarb, a particle physicist at the ATLAS experiment in Geneva, told The Taos News.

Students erected the teepee at the Taos Youth and Family Center under the guidance of Steve Tamayo, who was a teacher and instructor at the Standing Rock Oceti Sakowin Camp throughout much of the on-the-ground resistance in 2016 to the Dakota Access Pipeline.

While kids put poles in place and stretched the canvas of the teepee, Tamayo shared stories about his tribe's cosmology - a theory of the origin and mechanics of the universe - and how they relate to the movements, phases and patterns in the natural world.

"We've always known about the Milky Way. … It's about understanding our life in that circulation formation," Tamayo said.

At the same time, Goldfarb taught students about the basics of particle physics, a branch of science that looks at the "furthest galaxies and smallest particles." Particles -- things like electrons, quarks and the Higgs boson, which was first observed in 2012 -- are invisible to the naked eye and the smallest known building blocks of the matter and antimatter that make up the universe.

As Goldfarb explained, the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland, is a 17-mile-long, circular tunnel where scientists "zing protons around" to make collisions, creating particles that exist for only fractions of a second and give scientists from more than 100 countries a chance to look at the building blocks of the universe as they existed at the Big Bang more than 13 billion years ago.

The collaboration marries STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)-based animation technology with the goal of helping students "find their own true interbalance," Tamayo said.

As lofty as these ideas might be, students rendered them in colorful animations that told their own versions of creation stories.

Josie Leeson, a fifth-grader, shared with The Taos News her creation story, where a black hole begins to collapse, forcing people to rely on an elk and eagle for survival. Avery Bell, a fourth-grader, built his story around the fact that an explosion of matter and antimatter looks just like the inside of a teepee.

While the animated teepee was one chance to get in on the collaborative cross-pollination of worldview, the STEAM Lab@TISA is hosting public roundtable discussions in Taos, Española and Santa Fe from April 12-13.