Asking the wrong question?

Repositioning Science

To frame the query as “What is Native Science?” is to separate one aspect of native knowledge from another. The more time I spend talking with experts who study Native America in Washington DC, the more clear it becomes that science isn’t separate from art, culture, language, history, astronomy and story-telling.

Kennewick Man reconstruction by National Geographic

The separation is one imposed on Indian communities from the outside. And it seems that they have been resisting this segmentation of knowledges. For example, when Pacific Northwest tribes asked for the return of the Kennewick Man skeleton, the tribes were disparaged as “anti-science.” When Wisconsin Indians resisted building a copper mine on their homeland, they were judged as “backward,” and when California Indians protested the building of a Banana Republic store on sacred burial sites in Emeryville, an archaeologist defended the action, saying, “time marches on.”

Journalism scholars have long been interested in ways in which groups are disparaged in print and broadcast. One of the more common forms of bias occurs when news sources lay claim to their own legitimacy while discrediting the opposition. Truth is that reporters believe they are accurately offering both sides of a conflict. But, according to our research, news coverage of conflict gets presented like a sports match: two sides duke it out until a winner emerges. Most conflicts, like Kennewick Man, the Wisconsin copper mine, and the Emeryville mall, are thick and gritty, with multiple stakeholders and complex narratives from myriad perspectives. Because of journalism’s structural constraints, conflicts get boiled down to simplistic bites: us versus them.

Another form of bias occurs over who gets to speak.  Folks in the uppermost echelons of social strata, government officials, well-known celebrities, doctors, lawyers, politicians and scientists typically receive much more deference than other sources. And the greater the expertise of the source, the less likely the journalist will question what she says.

So when a news story pits “scientists” against Indians, and it the story is framed as science, it is predictable which groups will gain instant legitimacy. In all the conflicts I’ve mentioned, scientists and government officials get a head start in the legitimacy race. Indians are left at the starting gate and are forced to voice their opposition within an already-established framework that journalists sanction, even if they’re unaware of their complicity.

An apt example is seen in 60 Minutes’ coverage of the Kennewick Man court battles. Veteran reporter Leslie Stahl positioned the Indian tribes as anti-science in her 2002 interview. Stahl set the stage for the story by framing the discovery of the skeleton as a “scientific treasure,” adding, “we’re talking about our history.” Therefore anyone disagreeing with the frame would be seen as anti-science. And by declaring that Kennewick Man represents “our history,” Stahl has deigned that the skeleton speaks to her history, not the local Indian tribes. Umatilla spokesman Armand Minthorn presented a different approach: not about science but about culture. “Our older people tell us that when a body goes into the ground, that’s where it’s to remain until the end of time. It’s been removed. It’s violating everything that we know.” He also noted that for 10,000 years his people have told stories about life on the Columbia River. “My teachings from my older people tell me how life was 10,000 years ago. And the scientists cannot accept the fact that just because it’s not written down in a book, it’s not fact. It’s fact to me, because I live it every day.”

I argue that Minthorn is not anti-science: that’s the feint and joust by the hands of the reporting team that made it appear Indians were opposed to science. Minthorn is taking a broader, cultural approach, telling Stahl that, in this case, the Native worldview—of holism, interrelationships and place—is jettisoned in favor of a single-minded and narrow perspective, that science conquers all.


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 Asking the wrong question?

  1. Rob Schmidt says:

    Kennewick Man doesn’t look like Captain Picard after all!


  2. Pingback: links for 2010-08-02 | Racialicious - the intersection of race and pop culture

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