Art meets science

Kidnappers and scalpers

A missive from Denver , where I’m presenting a paper on the intersection of Indian science, Western science and identity. The paper examines how the definitions of indigenous, Indigeneity and Native American are fraught with problems: the origins of such definitions arise from scientists, politicians, journalists, scholars, judges, novelists and artists outside Indian Country.

Kidnapped, 1853, by John Mix Stanley

Recently I explored how painters helped frame Indian identity–capturing a milieu of the west– and how some, notably John Mix Stanley, invented scenarios that reflected the sentiments of the time. His painting titled the Osage Scalp Dance depicts a frightened mother and child threatened by a throng of warriors.

I strolled through the Denver Art Museum to view the Western and Indian art, and saw another John Mix Stanley invention. The 1853 rendering titled “Kidnapped,” shows an Indian woman on horseback holding a white child, and nearby a white man and Indian man, each astride horses, aiming their weapons at one another. The painting represents another exaggeration of white-red lore, wherein Indian people kidnapped white settlers. And while the practice most certainly occurred (and in both directions), the tales were told in an effort to frighten settlers and provide more fuel to the charge that Indians were savage.

The Museum notes that some Western painters never set foot on the plains: that their creations arose from stories, songs and news accounts. And yet their inventions gain traction among viewing publics, both historically and currently. Several such inventions hang in the Denver Art Museum.

A similar argument arises with science. Some Indians charge that mainstream scientists invent what they believe to be Indian science: a mash-up of superstition and homespun logic. To be fair, some scientists work alongside Native tribes to solve problems concerning health, repatriation and education. Such stories gain little attention in social discourse because they represent success stories rather than scandals.

One researcher at today’s conference in Denver took up the mantle of integrating science with art, or rather, scientists with artists. For example, she paired a physicist with a dancer, an entomologist with a composer, etc., to see how each pair would collaborate on a project, how they talked about art and science, and how they managed their professional and personal boundaries. The researcher, Megan K. Halpern from Cornell, concluded that the artists and scientists could successfully collaborate, which I take as a positive indication that Indians and Western scientists also can find common ground.

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About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. She is enrolled with the Osage tribe.
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