What is science?

The thieves get the machine but not the operating instructions

Stephen Loring is talking about fish. He’s telling me about an adventure in Labrador, where a crew of indigenous women, huddled together, cook fish heads. One cook pulls out a head and begins to show Loring each bone she yanks from the skull. And then she begins naming them. One by one, bone by bone. There are a lot. 

“It’s incredible that they have a name for every bone in the fishhead. Do you know the names of the bones in a fishhead? I don’t.”

Loring spends part of each year in the Arctic and sub-Arctic, the focal point of his research on indigenous peoples. As a member of the Anthropology Department at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, he’s a great resource for Native knowledges. He’s also a heck of a story-teller with quick smile and warm handshake. He invited me into the bowels of the museum so we could talk science in his office. He knows I’m struggling with the question “What is Native science?”

We both want to know first, “What is science?”

Loring says he vividly recalls being in a science class as a kid where his teacher asked everyone to bring in a story about science from a newspaper or magazine. One of Loring’s friends, a sort of wiseacre, brought in a clipping of a story about Vincent Van Gogh and his painting. Surprised, the teacher asked the student to explain how the story was related to science. Turns out the student did his homework: he looked up the definition of science and told that class science is something like: “knowledge by study” and “mastery of learning.” And the teacher had to admit that Van Gogh’s mastery of art could be considered science.

I checked the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines science as the state of knowing, knowledge (as opposed to opinion), and “a branch of study which is concerned either with a connected body of demonstrated truths or with observed facts” (plus much more). In other words, science can be considered a sort of body of knowledge based on evidence. Native American ways-of-knowing clearly fit within this framework.

So maybe part of the dilemma with non-Indians recognizing the legitimacy of Native Science is that they lack the full expression of Native Science in context. One thing I’ve learned from experts at the National Museum of the American Indian is that indigenous knowledges are local: hewn from place. And such knowledges are not necessarily shared with outsiders. William Least Heat Moon (Osage) captured this place-hewn epistemology succinctly in the quote below from his book PrairieErth. For me the quote embodies one slice of Native Science.

Seems that during his travels through the prairies, Heat Moon heard a farmer describe the buffalo gourd as “some goddam old vine.” But for the Osages, “the vine is mon-kon-nee-ki-sin-gah, human being medicine. The seeds, flesh and pulp can be used for cleansing and healing, but the remedies are lost on non-Indians because this passing of useful botanical knowledge from red people to white is the exception not because whites often scorned such wisdom, but because medicine men and Indian women, the keepers of much of this knowledge, had little commerce with settlers; and often, surely, lore must have been deliberately withheld from a people taking away the land, so that the thieves got the big machine but not the operating instructions.”

"Some goddam vine"


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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2 Responses to What is science?

  1. Jennifer Ruth says:

    Cindy, Your writing is so beautifully lucid, it’s a joy to read you. Thanks for sending me the link.


  2. Janice Kreider says:

    I’m so glad I discovered your blog. You never cease to amaze me. I’m going to share this with a new friend who is also investigating her Native American heritage here in Northern Michigan.


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