Authenticity and heuristics


The danger with heuristics

Sometimes when we’re not sure about something, we make our best guess: it’s just part of human nature.

This heuristic approach allows us to take shortcuts in our cognitive processes. Although some scientists view use of such heuristics as laziness–we’re called “cognitive misers”–I wonder if such shortcuts enable us to reduce uncertainty and bring answers to the unknown. In other words, such shortcuts are functional.

Problem is that sometimes the shortcuts are just plain wrong. And since the focus of the blog centers on American Indians, it’s worth talking about the types of shortcuts that affect perceptions of Indian Country.

The topic of Indian artifacts and bones looms in conversations I’ve had since working for the National Museum of the American Indian. Someone recently asked me about the lawsuit over the remains of Geronimo, who was buried in Oklahoma–far from his Apache home–and whose remains were said to have been plundered in 1918 by a secret club at Yale University called the Skull and Bones. Supporters of the lawsuit are quick to note that members of former president Bush’s family were allegedly members of the club.

This month a judge dismissed the lawsuit because, according to press reports, the bones are not protected by any federal laws. In other words, NAGPRA–the federal legislation signed in 1990 by President George H. W. Bush to protect Indian artifacts–doesn’t include “Native American cultural items excavated or discovered after 1990.”

In my view, NAGPRA should be interpreted to protect Indian artifacts according to the spirit of the law, not an arbitrary timeframe.

When the lawsuit was filed in 2009, The Washington Post covered the press conference that announced the suit brought by Geronimo’s great-grandson, Harlyn Geronimo. The coverage brings to mind the cognitive shortcuts suffered by journalists who resort to judgments about Indians. Reporter David Montgomery wrote that Harlyn Geronimo “projected a sort of authenticity by wearing a Vietnam Veterans ball cap, Apache medicine beads, Ray-Ban tinted glasses, a bullfighter’s belt buckle and black boots.”

Whether such descriptions bring credibility or delegitmize Geronino can only be assessed by asking readers. Still, I argue that the description brings attention to how the Indian is dressed, rather than to the quality of his argument. Moreover, the reporter raises the question of “authenticity,” and invites readers to question its currency.

Mass communication researchers have noted that when mainstream, white, male officials are described, their appearance is largely ignored. When folks outside the mainstream are described in news accounts, their clothing and countenance become part of the story.

This is particularly true for American Indians, perhaps because heuristics lead viewers and readers to look for feathers and beads, perhaps assuming that such accoutrements would make the speaker somehow more authentic.


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.
This entry was posted in authenticity, framing, Geronimo, Indian, Native Science, science, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Authenticity and heuristics

  1. And the Indian man had his sense of style while in contrast white men wear suits and repress/hide all their individuality in order to run with the HERD.

    But to the bones—what is this desire to ‘own’ the bones of another person? Is it a manifestation of a mental pathology? I do not comprehend this at all. Do you have any thoughts on it?


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