The intersection of values in science and culture
I dreamt that I was at an Indian gathering and began to tell a story. The story was to be a humorous tale about one of the women in the group, someone I knew with a good sense of humor. She had long, dark hair flowing down her back and a round build. Before the story began a man brought over a gift for me and said this is for you. The gift was the size of his hand, made of leather and fur. It was like a book and like a purse, with the outer part opening as a flap. The group anxiously awaited my story, although at first they pretended to be busy with other small tasks. And when I started to speak, it became quiet and everyone listened. I began to describe the woman, whom everyone knew, as a good woman who is also stubborn. The story was going to be about something funny that happened to her because of her recalcitrance, but then the story began to shift and took on new directions. I began to weave a tale, not knowing where it would take me.
Then my dog barked. Time to get up.
I woke feeling happy: I felt part of the group. I was home.
Now that I am awake my brain is firing and wants to analyze the dream. It’s true that from time to time I dream I am surrounded by Indian people, or that I am in part of a tribal gathering. But most of the time I dream and the memories vanish a few minutes after I awake. It’s as though my dream world wants to be separate from my waking world.
In a way, this is a metaphor for Native Science. Indian people who are connected to their communities have talked about the disjuncture between their scientific work and their value-systems. Some find ways to integrate the divergent worldviews, which Keith James (Onondaga), a colleague at Portland State, gathered in a book, Science and Native American Communities: Legacies of Pain, Visions of Promise. The authors consider the intersection of Indian values and science.
James, who teaches psychology, notes: “Some argue that science is value free. The authors in this section say, nonsense…those whose values tend more toward integration and synthesis are often driven away from scientific and technical fields.” Scientists, he says, see objectivity is a worthwhile ideal. Yet “scientists and engineers often invoke this ideal as a talisman to confer a veil of sanctity on their work despite abundant evidence that the human mind, even a scientist’s, is inherently subjective in all its operations.”
Despite the struggle over integrating different sets of values, scientists are sorely needed in Indian communities. A friend of mine, who works in this arena, recently asked me how to respond to tribal members who say they don’t need more scientists: they need folks who can learn the language, learn the stories, learn the culture. But, he says, in my work with the tribes we need biologists, statisticians, chemists.
Perhaps one way to begin is to realize that, as James says, science is not value-free. And while the textbooks promote this view, most of the scientists I know would agree: its nonsense to think that any part of our existence, our ways of knowing, are free of human values.
But what Indian scientists can bring to the table is the confluence of scientific training leavened by Native values—something you’re unlikely to find from scientists unfamiliar with Indian ways of knowing.