What role does science play in identity?

“We are defined by outsiders”

Indian maiden

I recently attended a meeting of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association—a group of scholars engaged in literature, history, politics and sovereignty issues that impact Native peoples—and learned that identity is a hot topic in publishing circles.

Chatting with an editor for one of the publishing firms that hosted a booth at the meeting, I learned that science isn’t very interesting, at least, not in American Indian studies. Seems I have been so consumed with science communication that I’d lost sight of the practical applications of my passion. The editor, who is responsible for ferreting out new authors and fresh topics, listened politely to my spiel about how Native Science is considered Little Science or pseudoscience, and is given short shrift in the discourse on issues that impact American Indians. 

The editor said I would have a suitable book if I could wrap my findings about science around Indian identity. Books on Indian identity sell. 

Although the link with science and identity is fuzzy, I began to consider what the relationships might look like. In the discourse surrounding the Kennewick Man repatriation, identity politics came to the forefront later in the dialogue. At first, the stakeholders tussled over who had the right to access the 9,000 year-old skeleton: should science prevail so that the bones could be analyzed, or should tribal rights take primacy and the bones returned to Native people? 

As the court battles unfolded over the 8 years of legal wrangling in the Kennewick Man case, Indian identity and authenticity became more salient. The popular press labeled the skeleton “Caucasoid,” calling into question the linkage to modern tribes. While anthropologists duked it out, arguing over whether it’s possible to find linkages with a 9,000 year old skeleton (there are just too many  gaps to connect the dots and too little data to draw definitive conclusions) the popular media asked the question: “Who was here first?” 

Press accounts argued that Indians would lose their political clout if they couldn’t prove they were here first. And according to the mass media, Kennewick Man was already labeled as “Caucasian.” 

Although the court ruled that the evidence was too threadbare to show an affiliation with modern tribes and Kennewick Man, it could be that the skeleton is indeed a relative, or it could be that he represents a different group of people who populated North America. But his “discovery” hardly obviates what it means to be Native American today. 

One of the most misunderstood premises is what “identity” means in Indian Country. Kevin Gover (Pawnee), Director of the National Museum of the American Indian, told an audience on July 27, 2010, that, “We are defined by outsiders, not by ourselves.” Whether the image is Hollywood’s noble savage, dime-store novels of the blood-thirsty savage, the stoic warrior, or the doe-eyed Indian princess, the creation is one from “outside.” 

Thinking about science, the stereotypes rendered by the Kennewick Man news coverage are ones of ignorant, naïve and uninformed Indians unwilling to accept the pronouncements of science. Thus, the same old stereotypes continue to unfold, and identities continue to be stitched from fantasy.


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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